Okay, who are my She’s the Man trufans? You know, the Amanda Bynes movie based on Twelfth Night that featured a pre-fame Channing Tatum and then was remade as this movie with Shahid Kapoor and Rani Mukherjee? Anyone? Well, if you are like me, you watch this movie and think “Shahid is good, but is he Channing Tatum good?”
This is a very fun movie that, unfortunately, fails as an adaptation of Twelfth Night. I say “unfortunately” because Shakespeare in his Shakespeare way took a basic situation and found the very meat. If you aren’t doing it like Shakespeare did it, you aren’t doing it the best possible way. Although this is still a generally GOOD way, just not the best possible way.
The core of Twelfth Night is who we think we should love versus who we really love. That’s why our heroine dresses as a man. She and the hero have real true love scenes between them, love scenes that lead to internal conflict for both of them as her gender disguise means they can’t/shouldn’t be together. And on the other hand, the heroine has real true scenes with another woman that, because of her masquerade, make it feel like they belong together even though in reality that connection is an illusion. And the comedy sequence flips it around, a character who is foolish enough to believe that a deep connection can overcome all barriers without need for second thought.
The core of this movie is Rani Mukherjee having a wonderful time playing in drag, with a slight feminist message. That’s not bad. Rani is amazing in drag, it does just what it is supposed to do for a performer, makes her suddenly free to create a new kind of character and performance onscreen, endlessly entertaining. And the general plot message of “girls should be allowed to do anything boys can do” is fine. But the romance is where they miss the boat, I think.
The problem is perhaps cowardice. The filmmakers just couldn’t have Rani play a boy the whole time. Or maybe it was vanity? Rani had just gone through one of those dramatic weight losses and make-over periods and rumor has it she leaned on YRF to let her show off her new body. Either way, what makes the story special is gone, it’s not a romance in drag, it’s just a regular romance plus Rani playing her own brother for a bit.
Since it is just a regular romance, they have to pull conflict from somewhere and throw it onto Shahid’s character, and it just doesn’t work. The problem is, Shahid is too good for this role. It’s Rani’s movie, Shahid’s character is supposed to be “just” the love interest. And yet in his scenes with other characters, I found myself caring more about his journey and his life than hers. It’s all unbalanced and wrong that way, not helped that Rani plays her two characters (who have in reality far more layers and tragedy than Shahid’s) as almost completely comic while he is going almost completely dramatic.
Which isn’t to say this is not a good movie! It’s got that YRF gloss, good songs, good character actors, strong script, and decent chemistry between the lead pair. I just wish it had leaned in a slightly more controversial direction, somehow.
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Let me start with Twelfth Night. Our heroine and her twin brother are in a shipwreck, each believing the other to be dead. Our heroine, as a tribute to her twin and for her own safety, starts dressing as a man and going by his name. She is hired as a companion for a wealthy young man who is in love with a young woman. The young woman is not interested because she is herself grieving her own brother. Our heroine is drawn to the young woman and vice versa because their shared grief. But between her and the young man she works for springs up a surprising and powerful bond, one that neither of them can fully name because it is not the way a young man is supposed to feel towards his young servant.
The “twin” part of this is not inconsequential. Dressing as a man is part of her grieving, and in some ways our heroine is a “man” thanks to her closeness with her twin. She retreats to that identity as a place of safety (in many ways), but is hunted out of it by the love she feels for her new employer which threatens her position and her happiness.
Also not inconsequential is the bond between the two women. From the start, our heroine is attracted to the idea of another woman mourning her brother, this is a particular kind of shared grief that only woman would understand. And later the woman falls in love with our heroine because our heroine understands the kind of love that another woman would want, devoted and humble and sacrificing. It’s a plot of missed connections, but also of surprising connections, woman to woman, twin to twin, and man to woman-dressed-as-man.
And this movie does NONE of that!!!! It just sticks to “girl dresses as boy, stuff happens”. The most egregious change (to me) is that there is no connection between Shahid’s relationship with girl-Rani and boy-Rani. Boy-Rani he doesn’t even like, Girl-Rani he falls in love with. Part of this is because of how Rani plays the two roles, as two completely disconnected and dissimilar people. It’s a stunning performance, but even more stunning would be to weave in the connections that let us see how the two personas are related inside of her. And a better script would have let us see how Shahid can feel the connection between the two as well.
In this version of the story, Rani is an orphan raised by a theater company and a fabulous Cricket player. Wealthy Anupam Kher is putting together a cricket team for a test match and Rani isn’t allowed to try out because she is a girl, so she dresses as a boy and makes the team. Meanwhile Shahid Kapoor is Anupam’s British raised son, a cricket star in Europe who returns home to coach the team thanks to guilt from his father. On the one hand, Rani is a fiery village belle who challenges Shahid’s prejudiced assumptions about India. On the other hand, she is an irritating selfish talkative cocky member of his Cricket team who he can’t stand. Shahid believes the two Rani’s to be twins of each other and that he is courting the pretty sister of his least favorite player. He only discovers the truth in the middle of the final cricket match. As soon as Rani is revealed as a girl, she starts acting all “girly” and can hardly play the game because Shahid broke her heart. She wins in order to please him, and in the last few minutes of the film he forgives her for pretending to be a boy because he understands there was no other way for her to play the game.
So we have the modest feminist message of “it’s not fair that girls can’t play”. But the larger gender bending message is gone, when Shahid learns the truth we don’t have that locking into place of “oh wow, all those feelings and closeness I had for my male friend are not combined with attraction for the female version”. And the other female lead character is gone entirely, with that delightful shifting between women who understand women, and being in love.
All of that is removed in service of making the film simpler and more comic, and I think that is a mistake. Rani’s character is entirely comic, until Shahid breaks her heart. But she is an orphan living in a theater troupe and dying to play cricket but not allowed. There is a lot of pathos and depth there that I would have liked to see explored, instead of just feeling like a plot device so there will be no one to object or notice when she starts dressing like a boy, and to give a legitimate excuse to dress like a boy. On the other hand, Shahid can’t stand boy-Rani so we get their comic interactions (instead of actual friendship and bonding), and falls in love with girl-Rani ridiculously fast (instead of having any sort of real internal conflict about falling for this extremely inappropriate woman).
It’s a perfectly pleasant movie still, comic and happy and all of that. I just watch it sometimes and think what could have been, and what a pity it is that two great actors worked together just this once and created such an empty product.