Three review day! I’ve totally lost track of how many movies/days I have left, but I feel like I need to increase my rate of review.
I have to admit, I had only seen this movie once a long time ago. My memory of the songs is much much better than for the movie around them (thanks to my lovely YRF songs DVDs). Watching it again I spent the first half thinking “wow, this is good! Like, really really good! Why didn’t I like it?” And then I spent the second half thinking “oh yeah, this is why.” The logic of the plot and the world that was built so carefully in the first half just completely falls apart in the second in a way that reverberates backwards and weighs down the perfection of the first half. It’s just Not Good. Again, not as bad as Jab Tak Hain Jaan, but similar issues in terms of the central reveal/twist just not holding up to logic beyond any attempt at performance or directing to get us over the logical hump and into the emotional space needed.
One thing that I appreciated a lot more on this watch is the pure quality of the film. The colors leap off the screen, the dialogue and little moments are instantly iconic and at the same time feel natural, the performances are uniformly good, and the music is lovely. Even the costuming, or once, makes some small attempt at period looks. And of course the major thesis and message of the film, “humanity over all” is timeless. In these days of jingoism and lazy thinking, in films that are all about head and spleen instead of heart, I appreciated all of this so much more. Not to mention the lovely camera work, editing, all of that. And of course the performances, I found I liked Shahrukh’s work in the older scenes more and more this time around. If any actor was a weak link, I think it was Rani, but then her role was also the worst written.
Those high quality elements were still not quite enough to carry it through to the end. As the plot began to falter and fail, especially in the last third, the excellent performances and music and all the rest just served to make it more obvious that the plot they were supporting was nothing. That the story was controlling the characters, not the other way around.
My friend Dina said something about Yash Chopra once that I think about every time I watch one of his movies, he has an “emotional chronology” that makes sense. And it’s true! In the great Yash Chopra films like Silsila, Kabhi Kabhi, Chandni, or Lamhe, you couldn’t sit down and come up with a logical timeline for events. But that doesn’t matter because the way the characters feel does follow a timeline that makes sense. The pacing of the film, the performances, even the songs, they all fit together in a way that brings the audience along with the characters so that it doesn’t matter how old Sridevi Jr. is in the second half of Lamhe, or how long after Raakhee did Amitabh marry Waheeda in Kabhi Kabhi. Time doesn’t move in days and weeks in our hearts, it moves with sudden emotional leaps forward and back. And at his best, Yashji made movies that felt like that, that drew us along inside of the characters.
This film captures that magic in fits and starts, which somehow makes it worse for me. I can sink into the emotions beautiful in certain scenes, and then will be jostled out of them by others. But it is the ending sequence that really bothers me. It feels, somehow, disloyal to the characters. Yashji created these wonderful people and made me care about them. And then their whole lives and purpose were washed away in a few lines of dialogue just so he could get to the ending he wanted. Their sacrifices were pointless. And, worst of all, they were never given the chance to acknowledge that pointlessness, to feel the emotions I was feeling in their behalf, they were turned from real living breathing characters into convenient chess pieces for the ending Yashji wanted to reach.
(This song works SO WELL!!! And then the movie kind of falls apart and even the songs can’t save it.)
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Essentially, this is a slight variation on DDLJ that takes a surprising twist at the end. Young miss-matched couple fall in love, she dreams of him after the separation, he comes for her, family objects. And then BONKERS STUFF. Preity is a young rich intelligent and educated city girl from Lahore. She loves her nanny and when she dies, Preity takes her ashes into India to be immersed. On the trip, her bus has an accident and helicopter pilot Shahrukh saves her. He is about to go on leave and offers to take her to the holy place to have the ashes immersed. Afterwards, as a return favor, he asks her to come with him to his home village for the last day of his leave. In the village they meant his elderly aunt and uncle, Amitabh and Hema Malini, who raised him and are the leading figures of the village. By the end of their time together, Shahrukh is in love and planning to propose with the encouragement of Amitabh and Hema. But then he learns Preity is engaged when they are about to say good-bye at the train station. He confesses his love anyway and tells her that if she ever needs him, he will give his life for her. Preity returns home but can’t stop thinking about Shahrukh. Her maid/best friend Divya Dutta calls Shahrukh on her behalf and asks him to come and help her run away from her wedding. Shahrukh quits his commission in the Air Force and comes to Pakistan. They meet in front of her family, Preity’s father is shamed and has a heart attack. Her mother Kirron Kher begs Shahrukh to leave and save their family honor. Shahrukh agrees, he and Preity meet one last time to say good-bye, and then he boards a bus for India. But on the bus, he is arrested under a different name. He protests his innocence until Preity’s fiance Manoj Bajpai shows up and threatens him, tells him that he must agree to the accusations and remain in jail to assuage his jealousy, that is the only way he will be willing to marry Preity and give her a good life. Meanwhile, the bus he was supposed to be riding falls off the side of a cliff, killing all the passengers, leaving his family to assume he is dead. Shahrukh agrees and is in jail for 22 years, almost never speaking. Until a young lawyer Rani Mukherjee comes and offers to take his case. He tells her this whole story and she is determined to save him, but can’t figure out how to prove it. Especially since Shahrukh forbids her to bring up Preity or her family as witnesses and reveal their secret. Finally, Rani travels to his home town in India, hoping to find family as witnesses to his real identity. But instead, she finds Preity. Preity canceled her marriage when she learned of Shahrukh’s “death”, with the approval of her parents. Both her parents died shortly after, and she moved to India to stay in Shahrukh’s village and take care of his parents and fulfill his responsibilities to his community. Rani brings Preity back as a witness to Shahrukh’s identity, she and Shahrukh are united, Shahrukh is freed, and he and Preity return to the village to live the rest of their lives together.
The first half of this film, everything up to Kirron visiting Shahrukh and convincing him to leave, flows along beautifully and logically and emotionally logically too. My favorite part is when Rani in the present day asks Shahrukh if he was in love when he asked Preity to come home with him, what was his plan, and his response is that he had no plan, he just wasn’t ready to say good-bye yet. That’s what this whole romance feels like, it wasn’t fate or destiny, it was two people who really liked each other taking it day by day and moment by moment. The grand romantic elements, Preity losing her anklet and Shahrukh saving it for 22 years, they don’t feel like grand romantic moments. She trips, he helps her and grabs the anklet when it is falling and sticks it in his pocket. Their first meeting isn’t slow motion and romantic, it is a hurried rescue mission with noise and helicopters, in the middle of which he brushes hair out of her eyes. They fall in love like human young people, without noticing they are in love until it happens. And now, in the Future, they look back on it and feel it was magic. The meaning grew through memory. That’s lovely.
(There’s a nice moment when Shahrukh and Preity first arrive at the and Shahrukh says that Preity is just a girl he wanted to take home, and Hema and Amitabh immediately start treating her as a daughter. Because they know, even if Shahrukh doesn’t yet, that he is in love.)
What’s also lovely is the way the needs of their life and who they are as people inform the romance. Preity is more modern and forward thinking than the girls from Shahrukh’s village. She is framed as “innocent” in many ways, she is lead by her heart and loves her family and so on, but on the other hand she has the confidence and knowledge to travel alone to India, to talk with Shahrukh honestly, and so on. And she has a natural instinct for people, the whole reason for this trip is because she connected more in her household with her simple peasant Nanny than with anyone else. And her best friend is her maid. Shahrukh loves her because she has a big heart, and an independent mind, and no sense of pride in herself or her position. He is a modern educated man, but also one who is tied back to his village. His life partner has to be someone who can appreciate and share both parts of him.
In the same way, Shahrukh is the best partner for Preity. He has the model before him of Hema and Amitabh, equals from different backgrounds who work together to build a life. Most of all, Amitabh who is willing to sit and listen and appreciate original thinking even from a strange young woman like Preity. She loves him because he will see her as a partner, because he loves her equally to how she loves him, unlike her parents where her mother always puts her father first and he does not do the same for her.
(This traveling together is only a day and a song, but it is important. She shows her bravery and independence and he shows his ability to treat her as an equal and respect her bravery and independence.)
The emotional peak of the film is when Shahrukh decides to come to Pakistan for Preity. It is Preity choosing her own happiness over the family honor and her father’s desires, it is Shahrukh choosing to take a leap for love, to put what Preity needs over his own dreams and destiny. Each careful step along the way has been shown, we can follow their emotional journey, and the little practical things they aren’t consciously thinking of as well. Shahrukh gives up his commission, but meeting Preity had already started him thinking about how his life is back in the village. It’s an adjustment in his life plan, not an ending. Preity has seen what their life would be together, and what her life would be with her fiance. She chooses love and passion and good work together over being the silent support to someone else’s dreams. They are not selfish in their desires, they are choosing to take a leap and lead a better life because their love has inspired them.
And then that is all washed away. My problems with the film do not start when Shahrukh goes to jail for 22 years (although I don’t love that, more on that in a bit). They start when Shahrukh, after declaring he will give his life for Preity, immediately reverses himself and agrees to walk away after her mother says this is killing her father.
(How does it make emotional sense to go from this to “well, if it will your embarrass your family, of course I will walk away”?)
So, ultimately, a woman’s desires and life do not belong to herself at all. Kirron has to give up her own happiness and the happiness of her child for the dreams of the father. And Shahrukh, the man who claims to love Preity, agrees to this idea. Of course Preity should lead half a life if it will give her father a little bit of happiness. We had all of this in DDLJ already, only in that movie the mother acknowledges the unfairness of the world and what she is asking, we see the price. And we are relieved when, later, that idea is reversed and the mother says “no, make my daughter happy, her happiness is worth more than her father’s wishes”. But this movie, and these characters, never go through that journey.
Shahrukh’s sacrifice is lovely and poignant and beautiful. But what bothers me is that he is also sacrificing Preity, has decided for her that this is what is best. And Kirron is letting her husband’s ambition eat her daughter’s happiness, and again has not consulted with Preity as to whether she is okay with this. The film goes from telling us that you can choose your own life, you can move the world forward, so long as your desires do not harm the greater good, they should be fulfilled, to saying “woops, no, let yourself be dragged ever backwards to the dark ages because Mommy and Daddy say so”. And it goes from two characters who are believably trying to balance tradition with modernity to two characters who almost seem to embrace the tragedy joyfully, welcome the idea of sacrificing their happiness for a few moments of joy for their parents. At least the motivations of Kirron and Boman make sense, the first thing we learn about this household is that Preity is closer to the servants than her own parents. She was raised with a lot of freedom partly because they just didn’t care that much, didn’t necessarily spend the time to know her as a person, and the warmth and care for her individual happiness always came from her nanny and Divya Dutta. What DOESN’T make sense is why Shahrukh, knowing all of this, would go along with what Kirron thinks would make Preity happy instead of at least running to by Divya who is standing RIGHT THERE.
(Alternative against the grain reading: Preity and Divya are passionately in love and using Shahrukh in order to delay her wedding. They had 22 happy years together, paying for their sin of tricking Shahrukh by serving his parents and his village, and now they have to find a way to welcome tired jailbird SRK into a throuple.)
It irritates me and is out of character for Shahrukh to switch from giving respect to Preity’s wishes, but what takes me totally out of the film is that we don’t ever really get an explanation for how Preity changed her mind. She went from being so in love with Shahrukh it was literally driving her crazy, and at the same time having had a clear intellectual realization that marriage with Shahrukh would give her the life of independence and purpose she craved, to giving up her happiness without hesitation in order to please her father and his vague political ambitions. That’s the other thing, we had this nice build of how part of Shahrukh and Preity falling in love was their similar values and concern with doing good in a public way. And then out of nowhere we have Preity’s father wanting to succeed in politics for no particular reason. If there had AT LEAST been some indication of the good her father would accomplish if he was elected, then Preity could have had some justification for giving up her life for his dreams.
And now you can say “ah, but in Indian culture we revere our parents, children are trained to sacrifice, it is the best way” and blah blah blah. Yes, I know all of that. This isn’t Indian culture, this is these two particular characters who have been built up over the film until now, and also this particular film which has a clearly described value system up to this moment. And to have them sacrifice their lives at the alter of the Patriarchy goes against everything the film has said to this moment. I go from liking the film to hating it, and I kind of think the filmmakers did too. Everything after that scene just doesn’t have the juice, the flavor of what came before. There is no more emotional honesty to be found.
(How do we go from horribly terribly killingly sexy songs to “oh dear, Papa is upset, welp off to a loveless marriage for me!”)
And then it just gets worse when Shahrukh is arrested and agrees to prison in order to ensure Preity’s happiness. This time he REALLY didn’t consult her in what she wants, and he is making a terrible choice for her, to be married to a man who secretly hates her, a man who is gleeful over throwing Shahrukh in jail for decades for no reason. Why should Shahrukh believe his word that he will be a good husband to Preity? Why should he believe that he even knows what “good husband” looks like? Why isn’t his response “I’m doing whatever it takes to get out of here and make sure she doesn’t marry you, such is my love”?
And that’s where poor Rani’s character suffers. She is meant to be a bit of an audience stand in, admiring this great love story and sacrifice. And she is also meant to be a stand in for the noble honorable people of society who want justice over all. Only, she isn’t allowed to get angry. The audience is angry at this point, and society should be angry too, that an innocent man was imprisoned, that a woman was forced into a marriage, that power was abused and justice derailed. Without those honest emotional notes to play, Rani is left to flounder, to cry, to turn strangely unsure and soft and weak, and her whole character kind of falls apart.
Shahrukh and Preity are able to hold on to their characters by the skin of their teeth. After all, their main motivation is supposed to be love, so long as Shahrukh keeps dreaming of Preity in the courtroom, and Preity is reunited with Shahrukh so quickly that we can just assume the scenes of her yelling at fate and the criminal justice system and her jerky fiance are cut. And we can assume the scenes of her yelling at her parents for deciding her life already happened in the past. Their scenes together still mostly work, two older people who still love each other and just want to be together and forget the past.
(I kind of like this character touch, that Shahrukh just zones out in the courtroom and retreats to his love fantasy. It feels like a legitimate coping mechanism his character would use. But it also keeps us from hearing the court case, because that would bring up emotions that the film does not want to deal with.)
But the rest of it is just trash. Why does no one ever ask about the massive injustice done by Manoj Bajpai? Or suggest arresting him for his highly illegal actions back then? Or even find out where he is? Why wasn’t it Rani’s first move to find out what happened to Zaara just for her own satisfaction? Heck, why didn’t she already know? The whole point was supposed to be that her family was so powerful and important she couldn’t shame them, why didn’t Rani respond as soon as Shahrukh said her name “Oh, that family? They died out and her father never ran for office.” Or why wasn’t Shahrukh suspicious when he said these names and Rani DIDN’T respond “oh them? Sure, he went on to be Mayor of Lahore.” Didn’t he realize the world was not what he imagined it to be?
The central problem with the film is the motivation for all this senselessness. Shahrukh and Preity were in love against the wishes of her parents, therefore they must be (narratively) punished. The beauty of their love is in the sacrifice and misery of it. No sacrifice, no love. This is the same thing that infuriated me about 96, and about Indian society in general. The double mistake that true passionate love is never fated to be fulfilled and so we should all just sit here and accept our misery, and that non-true passionate love can never be satisfying, must always be slightly broken. This isn’t fiction for people, this is reality. You have an arranged marriage and are never really happy or satisfied in your marriage, but that’s okay, marriages are always a duty and you should expect nothing more. You fall in love and want to be together and plan a life and then your parents force you apart and you are never really at peace again, and that’s okay, because no one gets “true love”. At least, no one gets it without terrible suffering. The natural state of people is slight depression and if you complain about it, that just means you are weak.
Why must Preity and Shahrukh be punished for falling in love? Why must we believe that they will calmly accept their fate and move on with life? Why can’t the film show Shahrukh agree in the moment in order to keep Preity alive right then, and then desperately trying to speak to a lawyer so he can free himself and save her from a terrible marriage? Why can’t the film show Preity refusing her marriage instead of just telling us about it? Why can’t it show her confront and destroy her parents who chose their own petty goals over her lifetime of happiness? Why can’t the film show Shahrukh talking to Kirron respectfully but telling her he isn’t just going to go away because she asks him to, that Preity and he are in love and have a right to be happy? Why can’t the film show Kirron and Boman supporting Preity just as Amitabh and Hema do Shahrukh but it is the fiance who goes broken arrow on them all? Why were these characters forced to be separate and miserable for 22 years? And why were they shown accepting that calmly?
By the end of the film, I was hoping for a tragic ending. For a discovery that Preity was murdered by her husband, that Shahrukh had doomed her when he thought he was saving her. Or for a different happy ending, for a discovery that Manoj had died and Preity had remarried and was now happy with her new husband, Shahrukh had no right or need to interfere in her life with his selfish sacrifice. But instead, we learn this was all pointless. The only result of those 22 years in jail was 22 years in jail. Shahrukh could have objected and been freed, Preity would have ended her marriage, her parents would have come around, and they could have been together. The only point of this suffering was suffering.
None of this makes sense! It doesn’t make sense for the characters, or the film as we have seen it, or even for Yashji’s career. He spent 30 years telling people to be brave in love, to take leaps, that their happy ending will happen. And then at the end of his life at the end of this film, he says “no, be careful. Be cautious. Put others above yourself. Love is sacrifice, love is misery and yearning, love is a sin and you should accept your punishment for it and humbly hope someday to be redeemed.”
(And then he doubled down in his final movie, an even more pointless sacrifice for a far less meaningful love story. And he included this song which says the exact opposite! Which cries out “don’t make me the passive Heer who accepts her fate, make me the active Sahiban and come and ride away with me!” That’s probably why I like this song so much, because it was the moment in the film that felt true to the way Yashji had lived his life up to now.)