I’ve now seen this movie twice, with a nice long gap between viewings, which kind of lets me shake things out in my head in a better order. And I have watched the slightly clearer Netflix edit along with the theatrical edit. So I think it is time for me to consider what the film was supposed to be about.
This is supposed to be a movie of doubling. Anushka and Shahrukh play two halves of the same person. Each fills what the other lacks. Anushka is American with education and privilege and success. Shahrukh is Indian with almost no education. Anushka dreams of the stars in the sky, Shahrukh dreams of the stars on the movie screens. Anushka wants to send a rocket shooting off of the earth, Shahrukh pulls the stars from the sky. And most importantly, Anushka reacted to her disability by refusing to acknowledge it, by hiding her feelings about it deep inside. And Shahrukh on the outside had no faith or interest in accomplishing anything, used his disability as an excuse, but deep inside was fighting against it.
The pairing is built deep into the structure. Shahrukh makes a fool of himself when his usual trick fails in front of an audience, Anushka makes a fool of herself when her usual trick fails in front of an audience. Shahrukh can’t leave his logical reasonable perfect “true love” until she forces him to go, Anushka can’t leave her logical reasonable perfect “true love” until he forces her to go. And in the end, at the same moment, they both take a great leap of faith, Anushka swearing to wait for him and Shahrukh swearing leave for her.
It doesn’t work of course. For many reasons. The plot around the doubling just has too much spectacle to it, everything NASA to Sridevi which distracts from the real story that is supposed to be about those two people. And the central complications between the two of them get far too deep and confused, the real issues are lost.
The real issues come out in a few scenes between them which stand out from the rest of the film because of the honesty there. The first long conversation when they are both drunk. The conversation before the wedding. The conversation in the anti-gravity chamber. The conversation the night the stars fall. And the final conversation between them. Those are real, those are deep, those are the conflict of the film.
This film has a lot of similarities with Shahrukh and Anushka’s last film Jab Harry Met Sejal. Both of them are character studies wrapped in a romance. But while JHMS decided to have almost nothing happen, let the character interactions be in a vacuum, this film had far too much happen and the character interactions were almost lost in the plot. These important conversations that are supposed to be the whole point of the film somehow disappear into special effects and plot twists.
During their first long conversation, Anushka starts to brag, constantly. Shahrukh finally gets sick of it and asks why she always talks about herself, he never does. That’s the central conflict between the two characters in that moment. Anushka is proud of herself and what she has accomplished, overly proud although she is seemingly humble. Shahrukh is the reverse, appears to be proud of himself but in fact has a deep sense of humiliaty and inferiority. Both attitudes are in response to their life long disabilities. Shahrukh was taught by his mother’s pity and his father’s hatred to see himself as worthless, to accept his place as less than others and not try to be more. Anushka, on the other hand, was taught to be proud of her strength in overcoming everything. And now she is overly proud, afraid to show any hint of weakness. That’s what Shahrukh craves from her, a sign that she feels weak, that she acknowledges her disability, that she is the same as he is.
The conversation before the wedding is when, finally, they both reveal their true selves to each other. Shahrukh reveals both his hidden shame and his hidden hope. He doesn’t believe he is meant for marriage, doesn’t believe he fits into normal life. He points out that Anushka is settling for him, they aren’t meant to be together anyway, how can they overcome their differences? And Anushka reveals what she truly thinks, down deep. That Shahrukh is the best she can do. That they are equals, they can look each other in the eye. Underneath all her confidence and bravado, Anushka is terrified she will never truly be loved. And Shahrukh, underneath all his acceptance of abuse of his family and attitude of being less than others, truly believes he deserves more than this, more than being the kept husband who is good enough for the disabled woman.
After the wedding, Shahrukh finds his strength and pride and freedom, escapes from his destructive family and reaches the stars (metaphorically). And Anushka retreats to her family, and struggles to reach the stars and succeed. It’s only when they come together again in the anti-gravity scene that their lives find balance. Anushka explains that it was her hurt pride that she holds against him, she didn’t want to marry him, she was fine and strong on her own, and then he won her over. And Shahrukh takes it, does not defend himself. Anushka has gone from the woman who was always in control and laughed at his petty frustrations in their first scene to the opposite, the frustrated angry one while Shahrukh is in control and knows who he is and what he wants.
The conversation the night the stars fall is another pairing, this time with the conversation before the wedding. Then, Shahrukh was begging for permission to go and Anushka would not let him. This time, she is asking him to leave, and he won’t go. Anushka wanted him to be her equal and stay with her because they are both disabled in the first scene. In the second, Shahrukh wants to stay and become her equal by rising up in life and society. The first time, it ends with Anushka alone in an empty wedding room, the second time (in the original edit) it ends with her alone under a sky of falling stars. Anushka closed herself off to love and Shahrukh ran from it after the first conversation. After the second, Anushka starts to open up to love again and Shahrukh is running towards it.
And then we have the last conversation, as Shahrukh is in the rocket about to leave. Anushka asks if he would have stayed if she had asked, and the beauty is, we don’t know which time she means. Was it at the wedding? Was it that first night when she could have asked him to stay in her room? Was it the fight in the anti-gravity chamber when she could have asked him to start a new life with her and their daughter? Or is it just now, leaving on the rocket? There isn’t necessarily an answer, their whole relationship has been Anushka digging herself in and afraid to reach for happiness, while Shahrukh is constantly running after different happiness.
Along with the two central characters, there is a nice arrangement of supporting characters to help tell their story. Zeeshan Ayyub is supposed to be the one person who loves and supports Shahrukh. While Anushka is seen always surrounded by people who love her, Shahrukh has one humble friend. Katrina is Shahrukh’s mirror, the person who can give him a new way to see himself just as he gives her a new way to see herself. Madhavan is Anushka’s ideal self, intelligent and calm and kind and without emotion, what she aspires towards but cannot manage.
This is the story we were supposed to get. Two people who are a little bit incomplete, a little bit broken, and keep avoiding the one person who can make them whole. But the film was flawed, we could all see it was flawed, because there was just too much on top of this nice settled human love story.
But this, what we ultimately got, is just sort of messy. The lovely little parallel moments are lost, instead of realizing that Anushka and Shahrukh’s humiliation is paired, we are distracted by wondering how and why she has a gun at her speech. Instead of focusing on their conversation, we are looking at the anti-gravity chamber. And instead of grasping the wonder of the leap into love that they take in that final moment, we are thinking about the oddity of Shahrukh being sent to Mars.