Woo, first Shahrukh-Juhi movie! And first Shahrukh Aziz Mirza movie! They got along okay but didn’t really really like each other in this film. It was one of those friendships that built slowly, not almost instantly like Shahrukh-Kajol.
Well, now I know why I always have such a hard time remembering this movie! It’s actually many movies smushed together in a confusing way. The best of them being the SRK-Juhi romance movie, which is what I remember, but I can’t remember how it ends, because by the time it ends, it has somehow become a social drama.
This movie released one month before the start of the Bombay riots, after years of communal tensions in the country growing and growing. In a way it’s a little time capsule of that moment, when the city was still happily united across religious lines, but fault lines were already beginning to grow. Bombay was a place of young people falling in love, opportunities everywhere, and a community that grew up on the sidewalks. But also a place of casual heartless death and blame being placed on the lowest and most fragile of the community.
But then there’s Juhi and Shahrukh! And Shahrukh and Amrita too. It’s a funny love triangle in terms of casting, on the one hand you have Juhi and Shahrukh who will end up being close friends and business partners in later years. And on the other hand you have Amrita and Shahrukh who grew up together, his only and oldest friend in Bombay. The end result is a triangle where you can see real chemistry with both woman, but at the same time only true love with one of them. Shahrukh and Juhi in this are the perfect couple, the young fragile almost holy version of young love which forces all who see it to bless it. It is a love that Amrita, or anything or anyone else, cannot really harm.
That’s what makes this film so delightful and so memorable. The little moments of waiting outside the office for a “casual” meeting, having a date with no money, hiding by the sea like all the other young couples, being embarrassed to be caught holding hands in the street. It’s the sort of magical-but-real romance we hardly ever see on film. Showing us how all young love and all love is magical, just because it is love, even without the big song numbers and fantasies and all the rest of it.
Shahrukh and Juhi are so young, and so fragile looking. His face as a sort of half-grown intensity to it, especially when he looks at her. And she is so uncertain of her feelings, so sure she shouldn’t be feeling them but at the same time unable to stop herself. They both give remarkable performances, Juhi taking her young innocent and making it something a little more, and Shahrukh taking a role that could have been just a watered down Raj Kapoor and making it his own.
That’s the other influence on this of course, Shree 420. Plotwise it is barely connected, but what matters is the feel of it. Shree 420‘s most memorable moment is the song in the rain, a young couple in love in Bombay with no money and no prospects, huddled together under the same umbrella, but in love and happy despite it all. That’s what the whole Juhi-Shahrukh track of this movie is about, being so young and so in love that it makes you stupid happy, so happy you don’t even see the world clearly any more, you think anything can happen and will happen.
One more thing before I move on. Amrita’s character, perhaps truly unique. She should be the “evil” woman, but she really isn’t. She is as sincere and good and straightforward and fragile as Juhi. It’s a wonderful performance from her, in a more complex role than the one Juhi plays, and a reminder (if I needed one) that Amrita was always one of the best and most interesting actresses.
It is the situation around her that becomes evil, becomes toxic for Shahrukh. And, I think, this is more accurate to how this story would play out in real life. Would a woman fall in love with a man without any reason or encouragement and then destroy him simply because he does not return her feelings? Seems unlikely. But would a woman have other people in her life who resent her choice for a variety of reasons and try to stop her from getting what she wants? Seems far more likely.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I’ll start with the elements taken from Shree 420. A poor boy comes to Bombay with an education and no money. He falls in with a gang of pavement dwellers who adopt him and fights with and eventually falls in love with a young woman who lives in the neighborhood. He struggles to make his way in the city with the hope of getting established enough so that he can marry the woman he loves. Along the way, he falls in with a wealthy crowd who use his pure face and innocence as a front for their schemes. He loses the woman he loves when she is disgusted by his pursuit of money, but it still does not stop him. Only when he discovers how he has let down the community of pavement dwellers who first adopted him does he repent. He risks himself to give a passionate public statement against his co-conspirators and then leaves the city with even less than he had when he arrived. At the last minute, the girl he loves chases after him, the two of them starting their lives together with nothing but dreams.
Now, what is DIFFERENT in Raju Ban Gaye Gentleman? First, our hero arrives in Bombay with a specific goal that is actually achievable. He has a degree in Civil Engineering and is smart and good at it. He gets a good job on his own merit. He could marry the girl he loves without needing to resort to crooked schemes. This is Bombay in the 90s, anything and everything is in fact possible. The key is to know when to stop, to know when to be satisfied.
Second, the heroine is very different. Nargis in Shree 420 is strong and independent. She teaches the slum children and has her own morality and sense of right and wrong. She picks out and pursues Raj. Juhi, in this, is not independent. She is a young girl who is completely overcome by Shahrukh’s pursuit of and love for her. Late in the film she tells him that she has nothing but her love for him and we believe her. She is that kind of a person, very young and very in love and with tiny little dreams that revolve fully around being in love. Not weak, she is capable of taking her own stand, but not independent and adult like Nargis. Even though she has her own job at Shahrukh and Amrita’s company, somehow she doesn’t feel like someone who is able to stand on her own.
Third, the “evil woman” is complete different. In Shree 420, Cuckoo is the set up woman for a gang of conman. She barely has a character beyond that, certainly her relationship with Raj is very shallow. Not so with Amrita in this film. Amrita is perhaps the most complex and developed character. She is successful in her own right, intelligent and experienced. She first notices Shahrukh because she is the only person in the board room smart enough to appreciate what he is saying. And she falls in love with him slowly, through real interactions, appreciating his fast talk and funny unique style. She stands up to her father and the world, ready to defend her love. Only to be heartbroken when she learns he is in love with someone else. But she does not take petty revenge, she hardens and hides her broken heart, withdrawing from him but not trying to harm him. When he comes to her, she is delighted and quick to smile and enjoy it, she is still human, not a saint enough to send him back to the other woman. But in the end she is a good woman, the reason she loved Shahrukh was because his honesty and intelligence and decency called out to an essential honesty and intelligence and decency within her. And so she stands by him to call out those around them who were evil for their own ends. She is even more heroic than he, standing against her own father.
(In real life, their mother’s were friends back in Delhi and Amrita and Shahrukh used to play together. She is 6 years older than him, so they weren’t super close, but he’s known her most of his life)
And fourth, most important, the social message is very different. Back in the 1950s, Raj Kapoor was concerned with the growing power of the wealthy elites, the way the desperate poor were beginning to stream into the city and the rich were not willing to give them a chance, give them space to grow. The evil scheme his character proposed was a promise of affordable housing, a chit fund subscribed by the poor and homeless that was never going to turn into the houses they were promised. It is strict social theory, class and money based alone.
In the 1990s, money is good. Ambition is good. A smart young man can come to Bombay and make a place for himself. It may not be as fast as he wishes, but he can do it. There is still that heartbreak of a young romance desperate for fruition held back by the economy, but it is a young heartbreak, a heartbreak confident of eventually things working out.
What has turned soar is the people. The rich aren’t just cold and greedy and uncaring, they are vicious and animalistic. Jealousy over Amrita’s love for Shahrukh causes her father and a fellow businessman to join hands an make sure that Shahrukh’s bridge collapses due to shoddy concrete. The public is calling for blood, and suddenly the film takes a turn.
We have already had two films, but at least they were loosely connected. Shahrukh and Juhi fell in love, Shahrukh got his job on merit and rapidly was promoted and promoted, all seemed well. But at the same time a danger to their love started with Shahrukh’s boss Amrita falling in love with them. That’s film 1.
Film 2 starts when Juhi fights with Shahrukh over him turning different by spending too much time with rich people at work and they break up. Shahrukh, now alone, begins to cut corners at work, drink, go to the race track, and spend more and more time with Amrita. Shahrukh is being corrupted by the rich, it is now a character study of him alone and not a romance. But that’s still connected to the first half, he was young and innocent in his love for Juhi and that started him on this path, now his relationship with Amrita is turning him evil and so on and so forth.
But now at the last minute with have a Film 3 which is SUPER DIFFERENT. Shahrukh is turning evil and ambitious and willing to do anything, blah blah, makes sense. But then his bridge falls and he goes on TV and says it was done by “Terrorists”, the partyline that his boss is ordering him to follow. And later his car is stopped by Nana Patakar (the spirit of Bombay who befriended him and has been occasionally narrating to the crowd like a Greek chorus of what is happening), who drags him back to the old neighborhood to force him to watch the funeral of the three workers killed, his old friends who he hired on to the job as a favor and who are now not just dead, but dead with their names dragged through the mud as “terrorists”.
This part was very hard to watch. Because I could feel the real anger coming through from Aziz Mirza and everyone else involved who was telling this part of the story. Real anger at the innocents whose deaths are written off as “terrorists”. At the way those in power go on TV and lie, and convince others to lie, and eventually convince them that there is no real harm in those lies. That the bodies laying in the streets are somehow turned into un-humans, sins aren’t really sins, murder isn’t really murder, it’s all about the narrative you are selling to save your own skins. And a month later, 900 people would be laying dead in the streets of Bombay with no justice ever coming for them and no one to speak for them-“terrorists”.
For me, the film never really recovers from that peak moment. Shahrukh decides to do the right thing, threatens and beats his boss into a confession, goes to the courts, fights off terrifying armed men to testify, and so on and so on. But I was still stuck in the anger of that previous moment and couldn’t quite get past it to pay attention to the rest.
Do you know the movie The Sky’s the Limit? It’s a WWII film from 1943. I don’t know what was going on in the world of the filmmakers at that moment, but I am guessing nothing good. Fred Astaire plays a war hero with PTSD (they didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was) who is sent home on leave and just wants to forget everything. He tries to fall in love, to be happy, to be “normal”, but he can’t. Towards the end of the film he bursts out in this terrifying powerful song number that starts light and then descends into violence. And the film never really comes back from that, you can’t go that deep and that dark and that real and then expect us to care about anything else that happens.
(I could also have mentioned the yatra scene from Raees, but I wanted to show you this song. Isn’t it good?)
That’s my problem with the end of this film. I sort of get the bends, I can’t go all the way down to the anger and darkness of that one scene when Nana confronts Shahrukh with what he has become and what he has done, and then come back up again for the romance. Wonderful though the ending of the romance is.
Both romances really, we also have Amrita working through her emotions and testifying in support of Shahrukh because it is the right thing to do and she owes it to him for how she (unwittingly) played with his life. And we have Juhi showing up at court to support Shahrukh and forgive him for what he has become. Until the final moment of the film, Shahrukh walking away from her, from Bombay, until he looks back and meets her eyes and rushes into her arms, love triumphing. A very different ending from Shree 420 for a different kind of India. The “real” India lives in the city as well as the country now, rather than Nargis abandoning Bombay to following Raj to the country, Juhi is keeping Shahrukh with her in Bombay to try to serve the people there.
I should say, part of the reason it is hard for me to put this movie together in mind is all the many parts it has, but it’s also because there are so many strong moments that stand out from their context. The way Juhi smiles and softly says “okay” when Shahrukh pressures her to put on the sexy dress he has bought her. The way Amrita smiles and joyfully sucks on her fingers when Shahrukh teaches her how to clean her hands with no napkins. Juhi’s dignity as she confronts Amrita in her office and tells her of her little dreams for her life without shame, and gives in her resignation letter before she can be fired. And of course, the car salesman scene. Which goes from sweet to sexy to romantic and brave all at once. Shahrukh badgering Juhi into visiting a car showroom, the two of them cutely pretending to be a married couple shopping for a car and enjoying the fantasy. Then Shahrukh badgering Juhi to sit in the car and taking the opportunity for a little private romance in this one small private space they can borrow in Bombay, desperately begging for just a kiss or a look. And then once they are out of the car, Shahrukh taking a moment to turn back and admit that they cannot afford a car now, but that he makes a promise to the salesman and Juhi, one day he will come back and buy a car for her. It’s just everything that is wonderful about young love, the innocence combined with passion, and the crazed confidence in the future. That alone makes this whole film something special.