What a happy movie! What a fun happy movie! I had forgotten how good it was until I rewatched it, and it is really really good. One of those movies that had modest ambitions and accomplished them.
This is a movie that set out to make a small sincere statement wrapped up in a lot of entertainment. And it did that. There’s a cute romance, there’s a lot of comedy, and there’s a tragic story to give it all meaning. And then a happy triumphal ending. Everything is a little bit silly and a little bit heightened, without sacrificing the heart of it all. And Shahrukh’s performance guides that, a lot of silly entertaining over the top comedy, a slight sudden drop into serious romance, and then a convincing portrayal of a shallow man suddenly caring about something real for the first time in his life. If you enjoy watching Shahrukh do stuff, any stuff, this is a good movie for you to see. If you are neutral on Shahrukh, might not work for you.
That “shallow man suddenly caring” storyline is important. In Indian drama, our hero is usually born perfect. At least, in a drama. In a romance, the whole thing is a coming of age story culminating in a wedding, so our hero starts youthful and flawed. But in a drama, our hero is wise and noble and can do anything and everything right from the start. At the most it might be a matter of picking up some fighting skills along the way, or being more hardened to the evil of the world.
The movie I find myself thinking of related to this film is the Tamil movie Indian. In that one, our hero starts out corrupt and flawed. He does what he needs to do for money, lots of petty fraud and corruption. And then he is brought into something truly dark. And I was ready for the film to show his reaction of horror, to show that he can change and improve, that there is a place where he draws the line. But instead, it leaped forward, said that those who will commit petty crimes will also commit serious ones. The world is entirely black and white. And that’s, well, stupid! It’s a superficial way of looking at the world and at people and situations. If no one is allowed to be less than perfect, than everyone is bad.
If most Indian films are black and white in morality, than this film is in blazing shades of color. The people are bright and individual and varied, and so are their lives, and so are their decisions. By the end of the film, the ones who are “bad” are just as comic and flawed as the ones who are “good”. The only difference in where they draw the line.
Even more refreshing, this film uses capitalism as the line. It’s old-fashioned and timely at the same time. An old-fashioned throwback to Nehruvian values, a vision of India unitied, ready to rise up and defend each other, a march on the streets and moral pressure that makes the right thing happen. But at the same time, the perfect message for the late 90s when it released. The rise of satellite TV, commercials, consumerism, capitalism in all its glory. While everyone else was embracing it as a sign of India being a “real” country now, leaping into the modern world, this film says “wait wait wait, maybe what makes us special is that we aren’t part of that world”.
All of that is great, but I was always going to like this movie anyway because it picks up the feel and flavor of one of my all time favorite Hollywood films, His Girl Friday. As described in the Shahrukh Khan book King of Bollywood, that was the direct intention. They looked at His Girl Friday and thought “how can we do this, but Indian?” It wasn’t that hard. Kept the corrupt funny politicians, keep the bantering reporter romance, only instead of the reporters only caring about selling papers by feeding the base instinct of the public and thus acting as a corrective to the political powers, now it is about the average man himself (and herself) being directly responsible because the media is controlled by the capitalists who are working with the politicians. Oh, and the tragic story at the center is given a bit more tragedy and sympathy.
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I’m gonna start with His Girl Friday, just because it makes me happy to talk about it. And because it makes me really really happy to talk about it, I’m gonna start with Charlie MacArthur and Helen Hayes. Charlie was a struggling former reporter trying to make it as a playwrite who saw Helen Hayes,the top young actress in New York, at a party. He walked across the room, poured the handful of peanuts he was holding into her hand and said “I wish they were emeralds”. They were in love, but Charlie was proud, he wasn’t going to marry her until he could stand on his own two feet as something close to her equal. And that’s when successful playwrite Ben Hecht asked him to collaberate, and they wrote the play The Front Page about fast talking corrupt Chicago reporters. It was a massive hit, Charlie and Helen got married, Hollywood bought the screenrights, and then years later at a party they were doing a reading of the script for fun and had a woman read the part of the younger male lead. And suddenly the comedy of mentor and protegee turned into a romance. Which is kind of coming back around to the beginning, since the play was original written since Charlie fell in love with Helen and wanted to marry her. Oh, and years later, after they had been married for decades, Charlie surprised Helen by pouring a handful of loose emeralds into her hands and saying “I wish they were peanuts”. And now the little divergence into American pop culture history is over, and I am returning to our regularly scheduled film discussion.
Right, His Girl Friday! Our hero is a newspaper editor who will lie cheat and steal in order to get the story. But he won’t actually lie in the story. And our heroine is his star reporter and ex-wife who has returned, post-divorce, to tell him she is remarrying. He draws her in for one last interview with a man on death row that his newspaper has been crusading to support. He killed a cop but is clearly disturbed and sad, deserves mercy, and the city is rushing the execution for political reasons. Over the course of one crazy day, our hero and heroine manage to get the poor man pardoned, and the hero and heroine fall back in love through fighting with each other.
What the Phir Bhi remake took more than anything was a feeling. Well, two feelings. First, the feeling of the romance, two people who fall in love because they are so similar, they are the only ones who can understand and appreciate each other. But second, the feeling of being a witness to a cruel human tragedy that you then have to somehow write about and convey to others. His Girl Friday is not a heartless film. We truly care about poor wrongfully sentenced John Qualen and his sweet girlfriend Helen Mack. And the characters care about them too, more than the politicians and the public. Sure they write ridiculous stories in order to sell newspapers, but they are also the ones right there making connections with the people in their stories. That’s what Phir Bhi wants to convey, that the reporters have a unique connection, both with the subject of their stories and with the people who trust them to tell the truth. And the capitalism addition fits perfectly, drawing a line between the reporters and their bosses who aren’t out there seeing what they see, or in front of the cameras talking directly to the people.
The actual plot is a slow burn. Shahrukh is a risk taking shallow reporter. He takes risks because he is too shallow to think about it, like interrupting a bomb squad defuser while he’s working for an interview. His boss Satish Shah loves him for bringing in the ratings. But the rival channel boss Dalip Tahil is desperate to compete. So he picks out Juhi Chawla to be the face of his channel. She is just as risk taking and shallow as Shahrukh. She loves the game and the chase, including being willing to use Shahrukh’s crush-at-first-sight for her against him, tricking him out of the information for an exclusive interview he set up. But it all drops away when a politicians brother-in-law is shot by an assassin and the politicians use it for an excuse for rioting. While the politicians and the station owners work together to drive up the unrest in the city, it is Juhi and Shahrukh who are on the front lines witnessing what is happening and trying to convey it to their audience. They start to come together in a deeper understanding of each other. And then the assassin escapes and hides in the back of their car, and then tells them his story. His daughter was raped by the brother-in-law and then died. No one was willing to give him justice. So he shot the brother-in-law. Shahrukh and Juhi are horrified and touched by his story, determined to get him justice. They go to their funny network bosses Dalip and Satish and convince them to work together and break the story. But they don’t realize how money driven the world is, Dalip and Satish are bought out by the politicians, by being offered an exclusive live broadcast of the execution. Shahrukh and Juhi manage to steal back the tape with the help of humorous gangster Jonny Lever, and then in desperation Shahrukh hijacks the broadcast to play the tape and beg the people to take to the streets in protest of this unfair killing of the common man.
So we spend the first half with humor and over the top comedy, slide into a romance that starts out ridiculous and ends up sincere, and then land on a passionate patriotic call for loving one another as the essential humans we are. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does. Mostly because it is such a slow steady deepening. Like, the romance. It starts with Shahrukh being over the top flirtatious and Juhi being over the top insulting. Then she secretly photographs his book of phone numbers and sets him up to have all his girlfriends show up at the same restaurant. And steals his big story at the same time. They would be true enemies at this point except that the assassination happens and shocks them both. In the moment of shock, Shahrukh offers to drive her home from the hospital where they both went following the victim. Juhi resists, but he insists on at least walking her home. And then breaks her umbrella and offers her his jacket instead, and half a banana. It’s still the same boyish goof, but a little more sincere. Yes, he breaks her umbrella, and he flirts with her. But he also adds a touch of real feeling when he insists that he can’t let her go home alone at this time of night. And his banana snack is less of the usual flirting and more of a glimpse into the rumpled average man behind the facade. We can believe that these are two people getting to know each other and care more deeply as they go along. After that turning point, they survive the riots together and are bonded by the terrible things they saw. Further bonded by their joint desire to do right by a wrongfully accused man. They have one love song in this section, when the assassin they are helping forces them to sit down and look into each other’s eyes. Beyond that, the romance fades into the background. The film successfully has taken us from a shallow comic romance to a sweet romance to a romance so certain that we only need to see them exchange glances.
The whole movie is like that. We go from comic reporting sequences with corrupt politicians paying off the media to an assassination to riots to a rape and a wrongfully accused man. To go from the opening to the closing would be shocking, but put in all the steps along the way, and somehow it works.
And the closing is just brilliant. Not the part with Shahrukh’s speech and the march through the streets, although that is a very nice sentiment. No, the part where we see the poor assassin’s face in ridiculous advertisements lining the walls as he is lead to the scaffold. The interview with the hangman complete with fun trivia questions (shout out to Sheebha Chabbha in one of her first roles!), the glee with which Dalip and Satish consider the ratings and money from this execution. This is the message Aziz Mirza and Shahrukh wanted to get to, the way the media and the politicians and consumerism are all connected to each other, the way our rush for money and products makes us forget humanity.