Okay, pretend the mullets don’t exist. This is a really good movie! And it gives Shahrukh way more action and excitement and kind of classic “hero” stuff than any other film. All without losing his essential feminism.
This is the movie my friends refer to as “the mullet movie”. Because everyone, Amrish Puri to Jonny Lever, has a mullet. It’s very odd. I am assuming it was meant to be some sort of village look, but it just looks like this is an odd village where no one knows how to cut hair. I’m telling you that upfront, because it really is the thing that leaps out at you from the screen as soon as you watch the film.
But if you can look past the mullets (not many people can), it’s a really interesting movie. Not a perfect movie, it’s kind of confused at the end. It gives up on the romance in favor of “serious” issues and that is a problem. Not just for me and other people like me who like romance, but because the romance was the interesting bit, the different bit, the part that made the movie stand out and really sing. And then it goes back to the boring part that we had seen over and over again in other movies.
The romance is important because that’s where Madhuri is, and she is the real hero of this movie. Well, until the end when Rakesh Roshan decided he had to do a quick about face to make the man the hero. But for most of the film, it is Madhuri driving things, making decisions, standing up for what is right. Shahrukh falls in love with her because she forces him to fall in love with her, she is the persurer and he is shyly fleeing in front of her. Madhuri is the first one to stand up to the villain and declare he is wrong, Madhuri is the fearless one who believes they can win no matter what, Madhuri is the one who suffers the most and survives the most and inspires others with her suffering and survival. And then she gets sidelined in the last 20 minutes and the move goes on with the audience going “wait, where’s Madhuri???” the whole time.
Of course, this is Shahrukh month, so I also have to talk about him. It’s a very different role for him, timid and seemingly unintelligent, until he reveals his own hidden intelligence. It’s one of his more feminine roles, that is, taking the traditional female signs and places. He has no voice (literally), and he is seem as useful only for his body. His body is used for labor, and seen as a sex object, no one sees him as a real person (until Madhuri). And his power is female as well, intelligence hidden behind charm and seeming love and respect for the man with power over him. The man who is usually all about intelligence and confidence, playing an unconfident seemingly unintelligent role. And most of all, the actor who is best known for his rapid dialogue delivery and way with words, playing a man who is mute.
(Oh, and Jonny Lever is also there. But is really not worth mentioning, so this is the last time he will come up)
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We open with a typical hero flashback. When Shahrukh was a little boy, his parents (poor miners) found a diamond. They showed it to their good friend Amrish Puri. And then days later were killed, Shahrukh witnessed the murders and the two murderers, but did not see the third man who shoved burning coals down his throat so he could not cry out. Shahrukh was left a mute orphan, and his parents’ good friend Amrish Puri took pity on him. He gave him food and shelter, while he went on to become wealthier and wealthier, the top man in the area. Shahrukh, the mute, lived in the stable and was used as a dog, first introduced running with the pack of hunting dogs, strong and fast but with no education and seemingly no intelligence.
Of course, in reality Amrish Puri was the man who made Shahrukh a mute, the hidden third man, and then stole the diamond and used it to buy the mine in order to look for more diamonds. He is only keeping Shahrukh close in order to make sure he never remembers things. The whole film is waiting for Shahrukh to learn the truth and then exact his vengeance and reclaim what is his.
Or, that is what the film could have been. Shahrukh playing the mute thug, learning the truth, crafting his revenge, enacting his revenge, setback, success, and finally happy ending. But that’s not what this film turns into. Because what should have been merely the plot catalyst for all of this, Madhuri the newcomer, ends up taking charge of the film and steering it in a new direction.
Madhuri is a simple village girl, beautiful and innocent, living with relatives who don’t much care for her. Amrish Puri sees her, is attracted to her, and tricks her into marrying him. Only after she arrives in the household, she is disgusted with the man she has married and begs Shahrukh for protection.
(Do you think of Shahrukh does a cameo in Krrish 4, Rakesh might let him have the rights to his Roshan film movies? Might be worth it. Shahrukh! Consider this! I am sick of using bootleg videos!)
That’s the broad outlines, and in another movie it would have been covered in a few quick scenes, just enough to set the stage for Shahrukh to start fighting back against Amrish and eventually come into his own power. But it is Madhuri, and so they have to give her a little more than that. And then more and more and more until she takes over the whole film.
Madhuri isn’t your usual simple village girl, she steals bong and gets drunk with the other kids, and it is her drunken self that Amrish sees and desires. Explicitly desires, Amrish is tormented by impotence and Madhuri is the only woman who can make him perform, unlike his mistress that he is tired of. This isn’t the usual old man wanting a young wife, this is Madhuri and therefore the desire is purely sexual. Which also changes what their marriage will mean later.
Madhuri refuses to marry him, because it is Madhuri and she will not play the simple shrinking obedient one. So Amrish secretly takes a photo of Shahrukh and sends it to Madhuri pretending it is of him. This allows Shahrukh and Madhuri to have a love song which is of course important. And it gives Madhuri choice and agency in her decision to marry.
At the wedding, Madhuri faints, and then later Shahrukh sees her in her room attempting suicide and saves her. Most other actresses, this scene would be played as a damsel in distress turning to suicide in depressed misery. But somehow Madhuri makes it feel triumphal and rebellious. And meanwhile Shahrukh downstairs is the passive one. He has been called on to dance for the newlyweds, but while dancing he manages to sneak a glimpse of the bride, using his charm and seeming innocence to gain information (very female). He knows it is not Madhuri, and he also manages to catch a glimpse of her in her room, crying. He already knows something is wrong, which is why he is watching Madhuri and able to save her from suicide.
Shahrukh has already been established as a friend to women, he saved the mistress from being attacked, and later gently rebuffed her advances when she came to him wanting to use his body. He isn’t a gentleman, not exactly, it is that he is at the same level as them, or lower. He has sympathy, because he is one of them, oppressed by Amrish Puri and the patriarchal structures. It’s not even sympathy, it is understanding. That is why he alone, of all the wedding guests, noticed the bride switch. And suspected something was wrong.
When he saves Madhuri, his life changes. In another movie, Madhuri would sob on his shoulder and he would feel pity and responsibility. But in this film, she stands up to him and angrily chastises him, declares he has tricked her, blames him for her state because it was his picture she agreed to marry. Shahrukh stands silent, and only later does she learn that he is mute and powerless and had no ability to prevent anything that happened. Only, she does not accept this. Madhuri decides to make him into someone who can take responsibility, she gives it to him whether he will accept it or not.
That is what I love about this movie, Madhuri has decided Shahrukh is her husband and does not care to hear his opinion on the matter. Or the opinion of wider society. So far as she is concerned, she agreed to marry his picture and went through the ceremony thinking he was behind the groom’s veil, and so he is the one she has married. She shows how the traditional structure of husband-wife can, in fact, give all the power to the wife. She may touch his feet and worship his image, but it is he who is expected to save her, to always come for her, to do whatever is needed to protect her virtue.
And he does! The most interesting and unusual part of this film is while Madhuri is still married to Amrish in the eyes of the public, but to Shahrukh in her own mind, while Shahrukh is torn over what to do and how to handle this woman who is telling him that he is wonderful and noble and good, the first person in his life to really believe in him. Like a hero redeeming the fallen woman, in this case she is redeeming the fallen man, the man who believes he is just a body and can never be honorable or good again.
It’s a story with cultural grounding, the Subhadra story in which Krishna’s sister falls in love with stories and images of Arjun and insists on marrying him, taking the first step in secret, convincing Arjun that he is the man she has chosen and he has a responsibility to her because of that, and finally Krishna (her brother) standing against the rest of the family and helping them to elope. Madhuri falls in love with Shahrukh’s image and picks him as her husband. Her family (the unloving aunt and uncle she is living with) pick another man for her. But her brother stands against them and gives his blessing to her and Shahrukh. Mohnish Bahl appears as her brother who went to the city for work, returned and shocked at who she has married, he gives Shahrukh and Madhuri his blessing and fights off Amrish’s men so then can escape together.
Subhadra’s story suggests how a woman can find choices within the restrictions of traditional gender roles. Yes, she must marry and worship her husband as a God. But she can pick a husband who she feels is worthy of such worship, and she has the right to demand him to follow her wishes once she has named him as her husband. She needs the blessings of her family on her marriage, but she has many family members and she can choose which one to listen to and whose blessings to try to acquire. It is this pattern that Madhuri follows in this film. She is a devoted respectful wife, but only the man SHE has chosen, she rejects the concept that she is married to a man she did not choose. And she looks for the blessings of her loving and understanding brother, but rejects the concept that she should care what her unloving aunt and uncle want for her.
And so, with the blessings of her family acquired, Shahrukh and Madhuri go on the run together. In another film, this would involve Shahrukh killing tigers with his bare hands and hunting down food and so on. In this film, it is Shahrukh giving her clothes, braiding her hair, entertaining her with his flute playing. It is not the macho patriarchal husband, but the soft understanding supportive man, the one who has lived his life serving others, not ordering them around.
They are separated, their happy idyll interrupted by men with guns as Shahrukh is injured and thrown over a waterfall and Madhuri is taken off and sold to a brothel. The film begins to fight it’s way back to the destined track at this point, remembers that Shahrukh is supposed to be the hero who will come back for vengeance and all that. Madhuri still gets to be interesting and heroic in her part by herself, unlike other heroines she is not merely forgotten while we follow the hero. At the brothel she is reunited with Amrish’s mistress, who protects her as much as she can. But even there, it is Shahrukh who was kind to her that inspires those actions, Madhuri is not appreciated for herself, but merely as an extension of Shahrukh. And meanwhile Shahrukh is dying to be reborn, found by one of those handy gypsy bands that are always looking for people to save, and made stronger than ever including regaining his voice.
And that’s it, that’s the death of Shahrukh as the strangely weak hero. With his voice restored, he is no longer the “voiceless” feminine figure. The rest of the film is a predictable slide into vengeance. He returns to track down Madhuri and discovers her being taken away by the two men who killed his parents. He kills them, realizes Amrish was the mastermind, and returns with Madhuri to his hometown to defeat Amrish. It’s all very action-y and bloody and well-directed (Rakesh Roshan is generally good with action). And of course it includes the famous fight scene in which Shahrukh’s knee dislocated and he borrowed Madhuri’s dupatta to tie around it and kept filming.
And Madhuri is side-lined completely. He goes from trying to heal himself in order to save her, to meeting the men who killed his parents and forgetting about her. And so does the film, they have one scene together post rescue and then it is all about the elaborate vengeance, she only gets to show up again at the very end for the happy ending embrace.
It’s not just a less interesting film this way, it’s a film that doesn’t quite hold together. There is this big build to Shahrukh and Madhuri being united again, Madhuri promising he will come, getting in more and more danger, and then a fabulous dramatic moment when the necklace he made her which she wears as a mangalsutra is torn off and thrown into the crowd, only for Shahrukh’s hand to reach up and catch it. It’s fate, it’s destiny, it’s powerful and exciting and meaningful, their “marriage” is the most important thing in the world. Until suddenly, it isn’t.
But that doesn’t ruin what came before! Or what comes after, not completely. It’s a great unusual role for Shahrukh, it’s a great role right in the middle of her range for Madhuri, and it’s a great unusual romance. And on either end, the opening and closing, it’s a fun little vengeance tale complete with explosions and threats and returning heroes and all of that.
The mullets though, the mullets may be enough to ruin the whole thing.