I wrote up Kal Ho Na Ho, that guaranteed sob fest, and now it’s time for the guaranteed laugh fest, Main Hoon Na!
When this was made, Farah Khan was the top choreographer in Indian film. She wasn’t known for her brilliant intricate dance moves, but instead for her brilliant intricate concepts. Her first break out song was “Pehla Nasha” from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. It wasn’t noticed for anything special in the dancing, it was the way it was filmed. To get the dreamy feel of first love, she played the song and had them perform to it at double time, and then slowed it all down to halfspeed. It was cheap and clever and very effective. That was Farah’s trademark, cheap and clever and effective. And this movie was just an extension of one of her songs, the plot was a mash-up of stories that had been done before, but mashed together in a clever effective way. And of course what really makes it soar, the clever cheap effective original way it was filmed, Farah got every idea that had been noodling around in her brilliant brain which no director had let her use and just left it all on the floor.
This is a movie that is not going to be on a “greatest films” list. Or be one of those classics you find yourself tearing up as you remember. But it is going to have a long long life as a movie you just enjoy watching.
That’s what Farah wanted to make, a small fun movie of the kind she used to love when she was a little girl. Unlike Om Shanti Om, it’s not a conscious homage, you don’t have inside jokes and dozens of cameos or anything like that. It just feels the right way, that fun happy feeling.
The characters are right too. Back in the 60s and 70s, the “mature” romance and the “teenage” romance was the standard part of most films. But now, somehow, that has fallen away. Even in films like Hum Saath Saath Hain there isn’t the glaring difference between the brothers and their love interests that you saw in, for instance, Shashi and Neetu versus Amitabh and Parveen Babi in Deewar. But in Main Hoon Na the 4 leads and the two couples are distinctly appropriately different. Shahrukh and Sushmita are allowed to be clearly obviously mature and experienced and calm in their relationship, and Amrita and Zayed are obviously clearly young and impulsive. To put it bluntly, Sushmita and Shahrukh are allowed to have sex like grown-ups do and Amrita and Zayed are allowed to be just kids in love without getting married. Instead of the odd combination of the two that you get stuck with now, people who are old enough to get married but too young to have sex, or old enough to plan their own marriages but still not have sex. Shahid and Amrita in Vivah versus Shahrukh and Rani in Chalte Chalte.
The romances are right, and there is still time for all the other relationships too! I just watched Thugs of Hindostan which was so frustrating for how it felt like none of the relationships had time to breathe. But in this movie, there’s Shahrukh and Sushmita, Shahrukh and Zayed, Shahrukh and Kirron Kher, even Shahrukh and Boman Irani (in his first movie!). And it’s not just Shahrukh, Zayed and Kirron, Zayed and Amrita. Boman and Bindu, Shahrukh and Suniel Shetty, even Percy (PERCY!) the random character who wasn’t supposed to have such a large role has a special relationship to Shahrukh, to Amrita, to Zayed.
(See? Everybody gets their moment)
Maybe the reason it all feels so right and fun and different is because it was so improvised. Farah conveyed to her cast the mood she wanted and they just went from there. Percy got to take center stage and even got his own little background romance, Shahrukh got to throw in all the fun little action moves he wanted in his first action movie in a long time, Amrita’s costumes got radically changed last minute, Tabu stopped by the set just to chat and was thrown in the background of a scene, whatever seemed fun and right and good, they just did it. Nothing locked in and nothing that can’t get be made better if someone has an idea for it.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
It starts with Mausam. Mausam, the classic film of the 1980s, has a revelation that Naseeruddin Shah, loving father and head of household, has an illegitimate son who is now orphaned after the death of his mother. This movie starts in the same place, but brings it to a rapid conclusion with Naseerji’s wife Kirron taking their own small son away with her, leaving Naseerji and Shahrukh to make do on their own. A heartbreaking opening, a family torn apart with no clear right or wrong to it, Naseerji has to take responsibility for Shahrukh now that he has no one else, and Kirron is well within her rights to say she cannot live with this.
And then we are in the present day. Well actually we started in the present day, Shahrukh’s father the important army officer is on a talk show while Shahrukh does security, as a group of armed terrorists break in and Shahrukh impressively kills them all, except of course the one that shoots Naseerji, leading to a dying confession of the whole Mausam backstory and asking Shahrukh to find his brother and stepmother.
Right in that first series of scenes, the perfect tone is struck. Yes, the action sequence is ridiculous, complete with jumping through ceilings and all that. But the death of Naseerji is real and truly felt, his death scene is not played for laughs or whistles, but for sincere emotions and tears. And yet, not too many tears. We don’t linger on Shahrukh’s grief, we don’t have a sense that this is something he will never get over. No, we are sad for a bit and then happy again. The perfect Masala.
Which brings us to Amrita and Zayed, our Young couple. Going to college together, Zayed is Shahrukh’s naughty younger brother, Amrita is the General’s rebellious daughter. Shahrukh is charged with protecting Amrita, and finding his brother, simultaneously. A simple clear plot situation with various emotional complications, and humorous situations, built right into it. Again, the perfect Masala, you can bring up multiple emotions without needing to break the plot to do it.
(See the way Farah puts in that bit of black screen to bring us into the riotous different feel of the campus silliness after the serious army action drama?)
It’s the little Farah touches that make it so wonderful. Shahrukh being seen as boring and uncool and old by the students, Zayed being the “cool dude” on campus but also a bit of a coward (flirting with the hot girl but afraid of her boyfriend). Bindu as the flirty older English teacher, Boman Irani as the sincere principal who has a terrible time remembering that Shahrukh is supposed to be under cover, Satish Shah as the silly ascot wearing professor, everything is fun and funny and happy and original at the same time.
But what really makes it work is the sincere emotion underpinning it all. The title song is the perfect balance, Shahrukh has saved Zayed’s life in the middle of another campus prank, and now is part of the group of friends. And in a variety of ways, they all sing about how they are “here” for each other, sincerely and kindly and with love. Shahrukh is here for his little brother, his lost family, ready to spoil him and care for him and keep him always safe and happy. Zayed is here for Amrita, his best friend, he may not be in love with her but he does love her and wants her to be happy. Shahrukh is here for Amrita, who he can tell is heartbroken because she is in love with Zayed and he doesn’t see her that way. And even Percy gets a chorus, here for Amrita because he is in love with her already. It’s not tongue in cheek or ironic or kitschy or anything else, it’s Farah and the actors really truly putting their heart into these feelings.
(Percy! As my friends and I agree every time we watch this movie, it’s really Percy’s film. Oh, also, isn’t it sweet seeing how Shahrukh the wise elder throws himself into helping the “kids”? there’s a little message there about the value he gets from having this time as a civilian making human connections)
It really shouldn’t work, the way the real emotions keep dancing through the silliness in this film, and yet it does. Shahrukh and Sushmita’s love story, for instance. It starts very silly, Shahrukh can’t stop singing when he sees her and even has fantasy violinists that appear. But by the end, when he is going to her after being injured and she is tending to him and then they laugh and embrace, it feels more mature and realistic than almost any other romance he has been in. Kirron and Shahrukh and Zayed’s little family, after Shahrukh starts renting a room in their house, that feels sincere too. Shahrukh is a lonely little boy who always wanted a mother, Kirron is a natural mother who can sense his loneliness, and Zayed (without knowing why) starts to look up to Shahrukh and follow his guidance in how to be a better son and a better person.
This is a film that feels casual and fun but only feels that way because of a lot of work that went into it. The plot conflicts were thought out carefully, nothing just happens because people are stupid. Kirron knew about Shahrukh but Zayed did not, just knew that his father had left them. Kirron had years of guilt and confusion over this innocent little boy that all came out when she learned the truth. Sushmita resisted Shahrukh’s advances not because she wasn’t interested but because he was a student, once the truth was revealed their romance reached a natural conclusion. Amrita was conflicted about her feelings for Zayed and not sure how to express them because of her messed up feelings around her father, the same reason Shahrukh had to be sent in undercover to protect her.
Even Amrita’s make-over was carefully thought out. She is truly more sexual looking pre-makeover than after. But before the make-over she is missing the common signs of femininity. It’s not that she wasn’t attractive before, it’s that she didn’t look “like a girl” before. How can I say this right? Zayed wasn’t attracted to her because there wasn’t a thing in his head that triggered “girl” when he saw her. Once she wore modest feminine clothing one time, it all fell into place. And then she went back to something more like what she use to wear in every other scene. In the director’s commentary, Farah walked us through this whole thought process, how in most movies it goes from modest to sexy in the makeover, she wanted to go the other way around.
(Zayed’s shirt is hideous)
And then, my favorite, the “bad guys”. They aren’t your standard issue “Muslim Terrorists” that I HATE. They are bad guys with actual motivation (which just makes for a better movie, giving them motivation instead of making them bad for no reason). And they are not religious. The leader is Hindu, his second in command (who eventually turns on him and decides he is immoral) is Muslim. They are former army, who want to keep the war going because only that will justify their sacrifices. We never have bad guys like this!!!! This plot alone makes this film special, and it is definitely not something that happened by accident, you have to think hard to come up with this kind of a motive and this kind of a team.
All of this comes together in the finale. The kids at the college are being held hostage, and all those little emotions under the comedy come up. Sushmita isn’t just a “sexy teacher”, she is a sincere teacher trying to help and comfort them. Boman isn’t just a “funny principal”, he really does want to take care of his kids. Zayed and Amrita are holding each other, so are the other kids whose little lives we saw int he background, the comedy is (mostly) stripped away. If the movie had been less carefully built, this section would feel like a shock. But instead it feels like bringing out a background flavor that had always been there and just taking it to the surface.
One of the best (although slightly) frustrating parts of the film is that after the fighting is over, the romances don’t really get a conclusion. Instead, it is the two brothers who embrace. But then, the romances don’t NEED a conclusion. They aren’t that kind of romances, the usually filmi kind. Amrita and Zayed, they are college sweethearts now, we see them together enough to know that, and that’s enough for now. Sushmita and Shahrukh, they are “grown-ups” and grown-ups don’t need to agonize over their feelings like that. Once Sush learns he isn’t her student, they are together. Maybe he has to leave and go on another mission, but she’ll be waiting when he comes back. You don’t have to rush into marriage when you are only in college, and you don’t have to rush to get married if you both have demanding challenging jobs either. You can just be happy, together, and see how things go.
So, that’s our happy ending. Zayed and Kirron and Shahrukh have resolved their issues and are happy together, Zayed and Amrita are in love and happy together, Shahrukh and Sushmita are in love and happy together, even Percy is happy. That’s why this movie is such a beloved favorite, and always will be: it’s just HAPPY.