A lot of these movies, I’ve seen maybe twice, most recently 2 years ago. This one, I’ve only seen once, 15 years ago. That is how bad it is. And also, how bad this review will be since I can barely remember it.
I’ve never been curious enough to look up more info on the makers of English Babu Desi Mem until just now. And they are about what I would expect, having seen the final product. Successful TV producer of semi-high brow adaptations of Bengali novels tries mainstream film for the very first time. That fits, at this point in Shahrukh’s career I would expect the producer to have some kind of credential to attract him. And the savvy to avoid a poor director/producer if at all possible. This guy had no film credit to discredit him, as it were, and a really solid TV resume. Therefore, taking an old Rishi Kapoor movie (Zamane Ko Dikhane Hai) and remaking it with some nice empowering messages about how there is no “bad” or “good” woman, plus a little bit of east versus west, sounded like a promising project. And then it turned out terrible. Oh well.
The best part of this movie is the songs. And not just in a “good songs” kind of way, but in a “the narrative of the film is strongest when conveyed through song rather than dialogue and acting” kind of way. I saw the song videos many times since seeing the movie, and they have ended up sticking in my head way more than the film has. In fact, much of this review will be based on my memories of the songs rather than the whole film.
Part of why the songs are so much shiny and happy is because the chemistry between Shahrukh and heroine Sonali is off the charts! I wish they had co-starred again for real, because her kind of cheerful earthy sexiness with a touch of class mixes delightfully with his fussy charming sexiness. If only they had a better written romance.
The romance is so close to being good! Sonali’s character is really complex, one of those heroines who is strong and independent and complex but with clear hurts in her life that could be healed by having someone who loves her. And Shahrukh is close to being charmingly flawed, until he crosses the line to being way too flawed to be still sympathetic. It’s not one of those “so bad it’s fun” movies like Guddu, it’s one of those “so close to being good but then bad that you just feel depressed” movies.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The plot, as I remember it which might be missing pieces. In the past, a young nice rich man is in an accident in a small Indian town. He is nursed back to life by a sweet young woman and falls in love and marries her, and she becomes pregnant. And then he rushes into a burning building to save her and they both die. Their little baby survives, and is raised by the young woman’s little sister, truly a child at the time of their death, but determined to be a mother to her nephew no matter the cost to herself. Years later, she is a successful dancer/performer at the local hotel and struggling to make sure her nephew/son has everything he needs, even if it means she gets groped and watched and disrespected all day. Meanwhile, back in London, the young nice rich man’s family learns he married and had a son. His young not very nice rich brother, Shahrukh, is sent to the village to track down the son and take him back to London. He learns Sonali is raising him, and is a bar dancer, and starts trying to convince her to give up the boy. She refuses, so he decides to pretend to be in love with her and trick her, including arranging a fake rape that he can “save” her from. It works, surprisingly, she falls in love with him. But then learns the truth and is heartbroken. But also increasingly realizes that there is no hope of a future in this town for her and her nephew/son, he would be better off with a respectable well-off family than a struggling dancer single mother. She pretends to hate both her son/nephew and Shahrukh in order to convince them to leave her, including demanding an enormous pay off from Shahrukh. He is ready to leave, with the son/nephew, when the son/nephew’s suitcase falls open and reveals all the cash that she sent away with him. Shahrukh rushes to find her, learns she has sold herself to a rich man and is planning to kill herself, and saves her at the last minute.
I remember the good bits. The good bits are all Sonali, her character is AMAZING. There’s a bit bending over backward to make her a single mother, but still be young and virtuous. Setting that aside, what we have is a single mother who is working as a stripper to support her son, who can’t qualify for any better job because she had the son so young, who is always sexy and happy and easy seeming at work but at home is wise and hard working and loving. This is great! Especially when we add on the outside coming in and initially seeing her as sexy and fun and easy, then slowly respecting her strength as a mother and a woman, then finally understanding the real dangers she lives under every day and rescuing her.
Problem is, Shahrukh as the hero kind of spoils the whole thing. If he came in as a slightly spoiled slightly outsider type, maybe like he is visiting the poor neighborhood in K3G, sincerely believed that Sonali was too young and defenseless and struggling to be a good parent, and then decided to befriend her (not romance her, just befriend her) so he could convince her that he is a good guy and better for the son, if they sincerely fell in love and they knew it and audience knew it, and then Sonali decided she had to break up with him and so on for the good of her son, that would be an interesting movie! Especially if there was some good scene of Shahrukh beginning to understand how Sonali has to face being the disrespected “bad” woman of the town every day, and does it with dignity and a smile.
Wouldn’t that be great? Outsider from a place of more fluid morals understands and appreciates and sincerely befriends the “bad” woman? But we don’t get that. Instead Shahrukh is just terrible! He looks down on Sonali as much as the locals, if not more so, and ruthlessly plans to trick her just to get the boy. Woman as disposable plot obstacle would be bad anyway, but in this case Sonali is so charming and her character is so well-written that you really REALLY can’t like Shahrukh after what he does to her.
Oh well, they can’t all be winners.