There came a time in the late 90s when Shahrukh hit this string of light comedies that had a lot of darkness at the center. Odd films that flopped when they released but are fascinating rewatches.
This is a movie that is all about class and gender, as was the original. A beautiful love story wrapped up in a nasty world. It’s generally remembered as one of Shahrukh’s lighter films, because the songs are light, and there are a lot of comic moments, and it’s Juhi and Shahrukh and they are always fun. But if you break it down to its essentials, this is a dark dark story. Told in a fun way.
That’s part of what makes Shahrukh such a perfect lead, like Jack Lemmon before him. Because he has a lightness and kind of every man charm, but he is also capable of showing the acid underneath, a very particular bitter every man kind of acid. Not the glamorous dramatic pain of a hero, but the slow burning daily inconveniences and lost dreams of the every man who dreams of being a hero.
And on top of it, the hopefulness of holding on to those dreams. This is in some ways the classic Shahrukh 90s hero, ambitious and forward looking and sure of himself. And romantic and cheerful and all the rest of it. Only, his poor innocent dreams have been tricked and twisted by those above him until his good instincts are thought of as bad, and his bad as good.
It’s an interesting pairing to consider this film as a trilogy with Pardes and Dil Se. In all 3, he is taught what society says is the “good” way to be, but then he falls in love and finds himself doing the “bad” things against his will. And in each case, the woman he falls in love with represents something different as well. In the first, the pure spirit of traditional Indian womanhood. In the second, the battered and broken real woman of India. And in this film, the modern urban woman trying to make a life for herself despite myriad pitfalls.
Juhi does a wonderful job as Shahrukh’s partner in this film, managing the difficult task of getting the audience to fall in love with her as much as Shahrukh does without really knowing her. It is that lack of knowledge which makes Shahrukh’s character barely forgivable. He does terrible things, but he doesn’t know, for sure, how terrible they are because he doesn’t know how Juhi feels about things. And we can sympathize, because we aren’t sure ourselves.
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Let me start with The Apartment, the American classic that created a plot which has almost nothing in common with this film, but did grasp the mood of it. In 1950s-60s America, there was much talk about “the man in the grey-flannel suit”, meaning the interchangeable office workers who worked for the major corporations born by WWII and were desperate for the small symbols of advancement such as a key to the executive washroom. Our hero is one of those men, and in a bid for job security and potential advancement, he let’s his boss’s use his apartment for their affairs, sadly staying away from home until they tell him it is all right. He knows it isn’t noble or good, but it is selling a little bit of his soul so that he can advance at work, eventually be one of those men who abuse him now. But then he comes home one night to find a woman who tried to kill herself in his apartment. He saves her life, and at the orders of his boss/her married boyfriend, he keeps her at his apartment while she recovers. Slowly he falls in love with her, against his will and feeling like he is betraying his boss and the corporate structure the whole time. And he also starts to realize his own guilt and smallness, in allowing these men to take advantage of him in order to further take advantage of innocent young women. Of course, there is a happy ending, they both walk out on the boss and start life free and clear of the toxic power structures, but it is still a tad bittersweet, seeing how nearly they were captured, and thinking back on all the terrible things they did and felt in the past.
Now, this film! Shahrukh is the assistant to Aditya Pancholi, he does all the little clean up tasks, like finding a last minute present when Aditya forgets his wife’s birthday. And in return, Aditya promises that “someday” he will give Shahrukh the money to start his own advertising firm and free him. Shahrukh lives in hopes of this, even has a model built of his dream office, and tells his mother constantly that someday things will be better.
And one day, Shahrukh meets a pretty girl at a traffic stop, Juhi. They hit it off right away, and he is in love, but she is hard to read. Friendly, certainly, but in love? Not sure. And then the next day she shows up at a model casting call at Shahrukh’s office and Aditya falls in love with her. Shahrukh stifles his recently born feelings and helps Aditya run the usual scam on her. But there is something a little different, unlike the other eager young models, Juhi isn’t sure she wants to have an affair with a married man. So Aditya gets Shahrukh’s help to convince Juhi that he is planning to leave his wife and is really in love with her. And he leaves it at least a little open for Shahrukh to believe that too.
So here is Shahrukh, hopefully dreaming his own little dreams and so close to accomplishing them, with a young woman that he isn’t sure how she feels about him, and a boss who probably is going to do right by her and then will fulfill his dreams as well. Should he do the sensible thing, the thing all the business society is telling him to do, and kill his own love out of loyalty and common sense, stay quiet about the things he doesn’t really know for just a little longer? Or should he do the nonsensical thing and declare his own love for this woman who might very easily end up turning him down and at the same time kill any chance he has of getting ahead in the world?
And, as the film goes on, rather than make a decision, he tries to have it both ways. At first he kills his love and spends time with Juhi on behalf of Aditya, doing the sensible thing since it is up to Juhi to make her own decisions and he to make his. And then he begins to be asked by Aditya to do more than just arrange surprise birthday parties, to do things that help excuse him from being married, from lying to Juhi at first. Aditya claims that he loves Juhi and will do the right thing eventually, but Shahrukh must know him well enough to know he is lying. And Juhi begins to reveal her own doubts about what she is doing. If Shahrukh talked to her, revealed Aditya’s full history of cheating, that he was lying to his wife as well, then perhaps she would have left Aditya. And so instead he tries partial measures, gently interferes with Aditya’s plans, tries to get Juhi to himself, is agonized with guilt for doing too much and not enough at the same time.
What The Apartment and Yes Boss are both getting at is that the “other woman” and the peon at the office are ultimately in the same position. Both of them are being jerked around by false promises and false dreams provided by the same selfish man. And both of them are doing it for some strange version of love mixed with fear mixed with envy.
And so Shahrukh feels more and more guilt, coming from his heart and his head, and in conflict. As Aditya asks him to do more extreme acts in service of his charade, Shahrukh protests, and then is won over as Aditya declares his true love, his heartbreak, and so on. And then he spends more and more time with Juhi and finds himself falling more and more in love with her, which his head tells him is wrong since Juhi is surely in love with Aditya by now and there is no reason for him to upset both their futures by pursuing her.
What the film does through the construction is show us how, ultimately, Juhi and Shahrukh are the matched set, even while Juhi believes herself in love with Aditya. Aditya overwhelms her, charms her, brings her into a fantasy world of romance and extreme gestures. Shahrukh talks to her. And Juhi talks to him, all the “real” self that she is too overwhelmed to reveal to Aditya, she cheerfully brings out for Shahrukh. She laughs at him, and with him. She enjoys a walk through the streets. She doesn’t need the wealth and the romance to be happy.
By half way through the movie, when Shahrukh and Juhi have to pretend to be married in order to trick Aditya’s wife, it is obvious that this is the couple that belongs together. Juhi likes his simple home, his simple mother, his simple cooking. And he loves seeing her there, wearing traditional clothing and being sweet and simple, not the glamorous beautiful model Aditya sees her as. The only question is, will the characters realize what the audience knows in time?
And that is where the ending is somewhat perfect. Shahrukh has gone from helping Aditya, to subtly sabotaging him. And Aditya has gone from semi-harmless tricks in order to spend time with Juhi because he is in love with her (as Shahrukh thinks) to directly desiring her body. No more pretense of “love”. This, by the way, is what I suspect happens in real life. The predator uses not just the woman, but the other people in his power. Scared underlings and others who are forced to look the other way, leaned on, tricked just like she is. And at the same time, kept away from the reality of the situation, lied to that it is just a romance, just a flirtation, just nothing.
But the reality is that Aditya is a manipulator and a user who has brought Shahrukh so far under his power that he can’t get out again, not until he sees something that makes right and wrong suddenly clear, wipes out all the mind games and gaslighting and reveals the truth. Which is what happens at the end of the film when Aditya goes so far as to drug Juhi.
Shahrukh knows this is wrong, and also knows that he can’t attack it directly, Juhi is too drugged to understand an explanation, and Aditya will block him at every turn. So instead, in a last ditch attempt, Shahrukh uses all his tricks to try to save her, convincing party goers and dancers to help in a mad dance as he tries to separate Aditya and Juhi. It fails, which leaves Shahrukh to try one last mad gamble, sincerity. He simply puts his heart into his voice and sings to her, begs her not to leave him. And it works, somehow his truth, the first real truth he has risked in the film, reaches out to her and saves her. Aditya’s reveal of his true evil is matched by a reveal of Shahrukh’s true good, the two men who have worked together more or less for the rest of the film are finally separated.
And again, the key is that Shahrukh (and the audience) do not know really how Juhi feels at this point. He is making an entirely selfless sacrifice, which may end up meaningless in the end. He is killing his own dreams and career in order to save Juhi in this moment, and it is entirely possible that a week later in her love for Aditya, she will throw her neck right into the same noose. That’s the real culmination of the film, when Shahrukh decides in his own heart what is right and follows through, in complete selflessness.
Okay, stick with me while I make a bit of an odd connection. This ending is the same as the ending of Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn is arguably the greatest American novel. A lowclass worthless boy runs away from the spinster women who are fostering him and ends up sharing a raft and a friendship with a male slave who is also running away, in fear of being sold. They travel together, they have adventures, they form a bond that isn’t quite father and son but is more than just friendship. And then the slave, Jim, is captured. All of society, even the ministers from the pulpit, tell our boy hero that to help a slave escape from captivity is wrong, just a terrible wrong. So he agonizes over and over again in his heart, and finally decides “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”. And he commits the ultimate sin, standing by his friend and freeing him from slavery.
That is the culmination of the whole book, showing us how a boy who has spent his whole life being told one thing can look deep into his heart and know there is something else he should do, even if he thinks he will go to hell for it. And then the rest of the novel is, frankly, a bit of a let down. It builds and builds to Huck’s revelation, and then Tom Sawyer shows up again and it all kinds of dribbles out before getting to an unbelievable happy ending. Which is the same thing that happens in this movie, the culmination of it is Shahrukh setting aside money and ambition and all those things he thinks of as virtues in order to give in to the sin of falling in love and openly trying to save Juhi.
And then we have the happy ending, the delightful surprise. Shahrukh rushes to rescue Juhi again when he hears she has been tricked into going to Aditya’s love nest. There is a fight, in the midst of which he confesses his love, and Juhi joyfully reciprocates. Reciprocates in a way that tells us she has loved him all along and thought he did not feel the same way, that Aditya was her second choice. The moral being, if Shahrukh had followed his heart from the beginning, his happy ending was always waiting for him.