This movie discussion should be a fascinating comparison with my re-review of KANK from yesterday. Both films are about married couples struggling with the distance between who they are as people, and what they feel their married roles should be. Only in this movie, our husband and wife really truly love each other, so they are able to fight their way back together, even when he fails as a provider and she fails as a mother/homemaker.
Chalte Chalte is one of those movies where it’s a close thing as to whether it is more known for being a popular and successful film, or for all the issues that came up during filming. I don’t want to do a post just on that (that would fit more with a Hindi Film 101 on Aishwarya Rai, or Shahrukh’s business history). But I do want to give a couple quick things before discussing the whole film because it is only that background which lead to Rani even getting the part.
Chalte Chalte was the first successful film Shahrukh produced. He made Asoka and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, and they both flopped terribly. Asoka was particularly bad, so expensive to make and so ambitious in concept, that the failure was a real embarrassment. Plus, cost a lot of money!
(The money spent on dirty-mop looking wigs alone must have been enormous!)
So for his next movie, Shahrukh really wanted to play it safe. This was his first production house which was co-founded by him, Juhi Chawla, and Aziz Mirza. Aziz had been one of their first directors, and he’s a good director, but not really imaginative. Juhi (much though I love her!) was beginning to get noticeably older in appearance and just had less time and interest in playing the fame game. So the “safe” choice for the next film was to do a buy the numbers rom-com that Aziz could easily handle, and to cast a younger and more enthusiastic actress to play the role that normally would have gone to Juhi.
Since they were playing it self, they wanted an established actress with a history of being popular opposite Shahrukh. But a hot actresses. Not “hot” like attractive, but “hot” like had a lot of heat on her from the media and the public right now, so she could help promote the movie. The first choice was Aishwarya Rai. Their Devdas and Mohabbatein pairing was still fresh in the public’s mind, and she was one of the hottest new actresses around.
But, and here’s where we get into the “someday a whole Hindi Film 101 on this” area, legend has it that Salman came to the sets early in filming to visit his then-girlfriend Aishwarya and made a huge scene. Maybe on a different film, it would have been okay, but Shahrukh really really needed the filming to go smoothly and the film to have a smooth release well. So he dropped Aish, and took Rani instead. She wasn’t as famous at the moment, they had never really been a lead pair opposite each other, but he had worked with her before and she had a reputation for professionalism and taking her work seriously.
(He had to “search for” a new actress. Ha! I crack myself up)
And thank goodness Rani got the role! In the hands of a lessor actress, her character could have been a simple spoiled rich man’s daughter. But Rani managed to make her confused and joyful and caring and a whole richly layered person. And her chemistry with Shahrukh was perfect too, two different people from different backgrounds who are both a little set in their ways but able to meet in the middle. With Juhi, or Kajol, it would have felt like they had everything in common. With Aish, it would have felt like they didn’t have enough. But Rani was just right! Except for the couple of lines that must have been left over from Aish’s casting about how her face is so beautiful he can’t look away at first sight. Rani is beautiful, but not a “at first sight” beautiful. More a “study her expressions and moods and the way she uses her eyes” kind of beautiful.
Luckily it is that kind of beautiful exactly that most of the film requires. A woman who is at first glance an angry spoiled NRI. But then turns into a joyful young woman who loves living in the moment if you give her a chance. And finally into a woman confident and happy in her life with her husband even though it doesn’t fit anyone’s vision of what her life was “supposed” to be like.
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My favorite thing about Chalte Chalte is how it builds out the world around our couple. Part of that is because it stole it’s plot from Forget Paris. But still, the choice of which movie from which to steal is important. That must have been part of what appealed to the filmmakers, the idea of this love story being told by the community around them, and then coming back to see how they are on the inside now.
The first half of the love story is cute, gives Shahrukh fans what they want. He falls in love at first sight, finds out her name, and invites her to spend the day with him. Charms her, but loses her number. Finally finds her again just as she is about to fly back home to Greece and get engaged. Follows her to Greece, and she finally decides she can’t marry anyone else, and they fly back to India together.
(Cute! And they do an equally good job with the last few seconds when it stops being cute and he has to seriously show that he is preparing himself for heartbreak, and she has to show real doubt over her choices)
But it’s the little touches that make this stand out. Right away there is a clash of personality and personal history. Rani was raised overseas by a rich man. She is about to be engaged to her childhood friend, another extremely wealthy businessman. And she is staying in India with her aunt, a socialite.
Shahrukh is from the Punjab, he came to Bombay with nothing, and built up a trucking business all on his own, and still drives his own trucks when he needs to. He has no one who belongs to him beyond his friends and neighbors. In fact, it is this process of falling in love and courting Rani which gives him more people in his life, meeting the grocer and the corner police officer while searching for her, and keeping them as his friends.
They seem like completely different people, but then as they spend the day together, it turns out that they are much more similar than they appear. Rani enjoys India, not just as India, but as a new place where she can be free and start her own life. The same urge that brought Shahrukh’s character to Bombay. Rani also wants to start her own business, she could be just a rich man’s wife or a rich man’s daughter, but she is a fashion designer instead. And Shahrukh loves that about her, he is unreservedly proud and delighted when he hears of her successes.
But just because they have things in common and are in love doesn’t make those differences go away. That’s where the brilliance of the second half comes in. Yes, they are married. Yes, he convinced her to leave her fiance and pick him. The poor boy won the rich girl. But, what next?
It’s mostly okay. We see a regular routine to their marriage. They fight, they make-up, and they are closer than ever. They are working out their issues through the fights, it’s healthy. Mostly.
The big underlying issue is the difference between knowing you have a soft cushion to fall on if you fail, and feeling like there is nothing underneath to catch you. Shahrukh works all the time. He puts it above friendship, above family, above his wife. Not because he is mad for money or a workaholic or anything like that. But because he knows that if he fails, they will be out on the street. We have Jonny Lever’s character there to remind us of this, of his fear.
But Rani, she grew up with a life of privilege. Sure, she wants to work and is proud of her successes. But she doesn’t have that panic inside her about earning money, that sense that only a thin line separates them from street living. If things go wrong, you can always fall back on family and it will all work out.
And so Shahrukh misses an important family prayer meeting for a business meeting not realizing that Rani and her family won’t understand why he did it. And Rani takes money from her family to pay for a vacation and doesn’t see why Shahrukh has a problem with that. But they are working it out, they have only been married a little while, they are talking and fighting and finding each other’s boundaries. It’s healthy, a lot healthier than if Rani has just been a perfect little wife and accepted everything, or if Shahrukh hadn’t even cared that she was upset.
Until the world comes crashing down on them and suddenly the big underlying issues of their marriage come steaming to the surface. The last third of Chalte Chalte is so hard to watch, because it is so real! This isn’t gangsters chasing them or crazed authoritarian fathers or magical destiny bringing them together, this is exactly the kind of thing that happens in real life and tears marriages apart. Money, of course.
And it’s really well done! I know it is because about 50% of the people I know side with Rani and 50% with Shahrukh. It’s that even handed.
Shahrukh’s business fails. Through no fault of his own, their chief client declares bankruptcy rather than paying them. Shahrukh has the option of declaring bankruptcy himself, but instead chooses to sell all their assets and everything else and try to pay back his debtors.
This is exactly the kind of thing that can tear a person down to the ground. And they do a great job of showing it, Shahrukh being strong during the day while he does what has to be done, but then sobbing his heart out to Rani at night, lying sleeplessly in bed, clearly questioning his whole identity with this business loss.
Not everyone is like this, some people can keep their business and personal identities separate and shrug off losses like this. But the movie has so clearly built Shahrukh up to this point as someone who feels he has nothing to offer if he can’t offer what he has built up. On their very first date he took her on a trucking job. Because he is sincerely proud of what he has accomplished with his business. And now if that is gone, he feels he has and is nothing.
I am also realizing just now as I am writing it that Shahrukh could really relate to this because it is exactly what was happening to him prior to Chalte Chalte! And why this film was so important to him and he gave Rani a chance in it if he thought she would be reliable and save his business.
From the Shahrukh side of the situation, it is all about losing the work of his hands and his business and his pride. But from the Rani side of the situation, it is just about her broken hearted husband and needing to do anything she can to make things better. She sees both more and less than him. For her, it is just money, money broke him, more money will fix him. She doesn’t see that it isn’t just money, it’s money that he earned and that he had to offer to her, and to justify his place in the world. It can’t be replaced that easily. But on the other hand, Shahrukh is so focused on his business and getting through the next few weeks, he doesn’t see that Rani isn’t worried about the business, she is worried about her husband. If he is happy again, she will be happy again. That’s all she needs.
And again, kudos to Rani for her acting ability! The plot of this movie, start to finish, could have easily turned into Shahrukh acting and his heroine re-acting. But Rani was in their fighting, building up her own person. We saw that it’s not just that she loved Shahrukh for himself, she loved who she was when she was with him. Happy and free and confident. Running through fields and chatting with the milkman and being part of a whole world that Shahrukh had opened up to her. And that was what she had to offer him, not just her beauty and her money, but being a partner, a joyful partner, in his whole way of life.
(See how happy she is in this new world he’s showing her!)
Which is why when she offers him money that she herself has earned to help with his business, he has no hesitation in taking it. Her money is his money is their shared money. It’s a solution to all their problems, as she knew it would be.
Now, here’s the part where people disagree. Rani borrowed the money from her ex-fiance. It was an advance, he would be paying her for her work eventually. And she borrowed it as part of their business relationship, not on their friendship. And she told Shahrukh where the money came from. Only she didn’t tell him it was a loan against a payment, she told him it was the payment itself.
Now, I am on the side of “if you were lying to your husband, you know you are wrong”. But I’ve heard the other argument of “he is so sad and it will solve all their problems, if she loved him she had to do it.” No one is saying that Rani was actually wrong for taking a loan, the film itself doesn’t imply for a moment that it is anything more than business, that she has any lingering feelings for her ex-fiance, that she would borrow money from him if it wasn’t part of an advance. But should she have gone behind the back of her husband and done something she knew would make him uncomfortable and then conspired with someone else to keep it from him?
(See how Shahrukh’s little micro muscle tightening in his chin is matched by Rani’s slight visible effort to catch her breath as she leaves the apartment? Both equally skilled and subtle actors!)
It also goes back to the essential misunderstanding of their marriage. Rani never quite saw that the real devastation of Shahrukh’s business loss is that it made him feel like a failure. And because of that, borrowing money from his wife’s ex is just going to exacerbate the feeling. Especially since he has always felt uncomfortable with how he can’t give her as much as her family can. But see, that’s also the thing Shahrukh never fully saw. How Rani is so much happier in their small life in India than she ever could have been with someone else. She chose him, and he still can’t quite believe it.
Going back a moment, that’s one of my favorite parts of this movie. And a scene only Rani could play. Shahrukh brings her to her family’s home for her engagement. And there is a silent scene as we watch through the glass her arriving for the engagement, and then stopping, talking to her father, her aunt, her fiance. And just with Rani’s face, we can see her realizing that she doesn’t want to be here, that she misses Shahrukh, trying to explain that to her relatives, apologizing to her fiance, this whole scene just in her face! And then the kicker, when she rushes out to the terrace, knowing that Shahrukh will still be there below waiting, just in face, and silently gesturing for him to come in, and him throwing his coat in the air in joy because he knows what it means. It’s a great scene in how it plays out, but it’s also really unusual for a romance film. Rani isn’t picking Shahrukh because her fiance is terrible, or because she fell in love with Shahrukh in one big thunderbolt moment. She spent a lot of time with him, and now she is thinking seriously about what she wants, and talking it over with her family, and finally choosing him. And that’s what Shahrukh still can’t understand, that she picked him, not because he would be a good provider or because he proved his love, but just because he was the one she wanted.
I’ve read complaints about this movie that the ending is too abrupt. But the ending isn’t abrupt at all. They’ve been working towards this their whole relationship. Shahrukh needed to realize that his identity as “husband” was more important than anything else, including his identity as provider. And Rani needed to realize that she couldn’t be happy apart from Shahrukh.
Maybe it just feels abrupt because the fight that started the separation was so well done? It’s a scarily good scene. Shahrukh acting happy, but then surprising Rani with his knowledge of what she has done. And finally going so far as to blaspheme the words of their marriage ceremony, quoting them for Rani and another man when they should only be used for the two of them. Even if you side with Shahrukh in the original argument, you don’t blame Rani for leaving him at that moment, because he has clearly lost all sense of what a marriage is and needs to be alone for a while.
But the separation serves a purpose beyond that, beyond just giving them time in their own corners to work through their feelings. It let Shahrukh hit rock bottom, but more important than that was for him to see that even at his lowest point, Rani wouldn’t turn away from him. He comes to her fancy high rise apartment, drunk and raving, and she still comes down to talk to him and clearly loves him, even if it is breaking her heart to see him like this. Yet another scene that only Rani could play with the right amount of love and regret! And Shahrukh finally gives her what she really wants, a piece of himself, not the security of his financial support, when she leaves the country and he sends her off with his locket that he is never without.
(Also, shout out to Jonny Lever! This and Ishq, of all things, are the two movies where he has sincerely made me cry. I wish they would give him more real acting roles more often!)