I put up the fancy grad school version earlier, now (thank goodness) we get to have the “real” review, where I am all chummy and casual like usual.
This is one of those movies that should be your 3rd or 4th Indian film. Not your first, the plot about arranged marriages and all of that is too hard to get your head around if you are new to the films. But it can be pretty early on, because the characters and the story are just so darn endearing you can’t help but love them. You don’t have to love Shahrukh Khan, or get all the references, or anything like that. The movie will make you fall in love with the characters, no additional knowledge necessary.
It will make you fall in love with the whole thing. Not just our central couple, but the warm community in Amritsar, the barbershop with your best friend who is happy to drink with you all night, the garage that lets you use their space to rehearse your dance routine, the workers at Punjab Power who will turn off the lights for the whole city just so you can do something nice for your wife, even the dance teachers who come in from the big city to spread around a little glamour and excitement without ever talking down to or disrespecting their students. This is the best part of India, and Indian film. A place where connections keep you strong and safe and happy and helped, not trapped and strangled.
(He is seeing God not just in her, but in everything that is around them)
It’s not just the connections between the characters, it’s the way these characters relate to the movies themselves. Film, in this, is something that strengthens your ability to face the world, enriches your real life. It’s not an escape, it’s an addition. It brings out something that was there already, makes it brighter and more solid and more believable. Love is real, bravery is real, all of that is real, you just need to have faith, and look for it.
That’s what brings our hero and heroine together. Each of them, in their own way, has lost the faith to even look. They have to play a game, pretend to be someone else. Shahrukh does it in an obvious way, but Anushka is doing it as well. This is how they can find their way back to hope, to “fake it ’til you make it” in other words. They pretend to be people who can love, romance, make huge leaps and impulsive decisions, and eventually they become those people. Those people, and other people as well. That crazy romantic love is integrated into the rest of what they are. Just as this crazy romantic love story is integrated into all the other things happening around them. That’s what the title means, it’s not just that there is an extraordinary love story in every ordinary jodi, it’s that there is an extraordinary love story in the middle of every ordinary place, every ordinary flow of life. These stories are little jewels in the middle of society, and every ordinary person has a role to play in them. All of society is enriched by them, and ordinary society becomes something magical and extraordinary as well.
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There is so much hinted at in the opening moments of this film, our lead character introductions, this is the stuff that makes it need to be the 3rd or 4th or 5th film you watch. But it doesn’t have to wait until your 20th film. Because our characters here have no social hangups, no pressures unique to Indian society exactly. To understand them, all you need is to be human. It’s just the clues about how they got there that are important and not obvious if it is your first film.
Shahrukh is lonely. We see him in his big house, alone. Making his little breakfast, alone. Bathing, going to work, all alone. Loneliness, we can understand that. That is just human.
What you get a little more of, if you have seen a few more films, is that this house would not normally be empty. Shahrukh being alone means something has gone wrong in his life somehow. Not necessarily drastically wrong, but this isn’t how life is supposed to be. Big houses are supposed to have family popping in and out of every nook and cranny, middle-aged men are supposed to be married with kids. A man like this and a household like this tells us that he has missed his chance. Or given up his chance. Marriage is definitively out of the question for him, somehow.
And it doesn’t have to have been a big tragedy that made it out of the question. Family responsibilities that made him miss the correct age for marriage, maybe aging parents he had to care for who died and left him this big empty house. But by the rules of Indian society, he has no family left to help him get married, he is past a good marriageable age, it’s not like an office romance is suddenly going to happen and fill the house with children. He has to make his peace with never marrying.
And then we are introduced to Anushka through her father’s few remarks at her wedding. She never paid attention in school, she fell in love, and is happily rushing in to marriage. And she has no mother or other relatives besides her father. And her father is a teacher. We can understand being young and in love and joyfully planning a new life. That is just human.
But what is there in the background is that, in Indian society, a woman could truly be fitted only for marriage, and Anushka sounds like such a woman. I don’t think I know a woman in America who has truly never had a job of any kind, and never would be able to get a job. But it’s not unheard of in India, and Anushka is apparently such a woman. Educated in a respectable way, but never focused on it, always planning a “career” as a wife and fitted for nothing else. And with no fallback plan if that fails.
There’s a few other parts to it too. A teacher wouldn’t make much money in India, and most likely all of that money would die with him. A pension would stop, even housing might be taken away if the school provided it. And so when Anushka’s father dies, the answer isn’t “well, she can live on the life insurance for a while and figure out her next steps, while she packs up the house and puts it on the market”. More likely the answer is “there is no money left, and no house left, and she has no marketable skills that will let her go out in the world and get a job, get her own house, do anything to survive this tragedy”.
(She’s a decent dance teacher, but I doubt she could make a paying job of it)
And the final part, Anushka’s marriage falls apart when her fiance and his family die in a bus accident on the way to the wedding. Very sad, right? Any human person can understand that. But there is also the part that is a little more specific. That a dramatic failure of a marriage in this way is going to make Anushka unmarriagable in future. She will get a reputation as “unlucky”, no one else will be willing to take her.
And so her father’s insistence on his deathbed, in the immediate marriage of Shahrukh and Anushka is truly the only solution for her. She is not prepared to do anything but be a wife. Her father’s death is cutting of the possibility of her having time to learn a new skill and prepare to be something besides a wife, because she needs safety and security now. She cannot count on another man stepping up to care for her, not with the reputation she now has. Her father, in desperation, sees only one solution: to marry her, now, immediately, to the one man who is kind enough to take her in, who he can trust to get her through at least the next few months, to help her literally survive.
Oh, and one other thing. Another solution might have been for Shahrukh (Nicest Man Alive) to offer to simply take Anushka into his house, support her and give her shelter and advice, and help her get training, and then get a job, and eventually be able to take care of herself. But that wouldn’t work in the Indian context, not really. First, an unmarried man and woman living alone together just would not fly (and remember, Shahrukh has no family to chaperone). And for another a woman getting a job and living on her own with no official family anywhere would not be considered a “happy” ending. Not in a regressive way, just that it would be lonely. What could be worse than not to have anyone to call your own?
Which is what Anushka saves Shahrukh from. He is happy in his marriage not because he expects sex and babies and a docile devoted wife (his gentle clearing of his bedroom to leave it free for her is enough to tell her that). But he is happy just to have someone who cares whether or not he comes home at night. That is enough for him, that is more than he ever hoped for.
And, in her own way, Anushka is happy to have someone to come home to her as well. She draws the line that first night, she will never love again, but she will be his wife. And they both understand what she means. “Wife” is a job, and a relationship, that can exist without romantic love. She will take care of his house and make it beautiful and homelike. She will befriend his friends and keep his respect in the community. She will even worry about him a little, make him healthy lunches and enjoy when he appreciates her cooking. That is the career she planned for herself, that is what she wanted to do and what she is good at. And it is a position that was open in his household and he is very appreciative that it is now filled. But all of that is without romantic love.
This is a truth in most societies. Relationships come with expectations. Duties, responsibilities, the “proper” way to do things. In most films, we see the love happen first. And from that love comes the desire to fill the role. Look at Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for instance. Madhuri and Salman flirt and flirt and flirt. And fall in love. And only then does he start working late at the office, while she stays up to serve him food she has made with her own hands. They want to be a “wife” and a “husband” as a way of expressing their love for each other. The same is true anywhere, there are certain social models we learn from media, from society, from watching our own parents. And that is how we learn to express emotions ourselves. Things as simple as kissing your wife good-bye before you leave for work. Is that because you saw it in a movie, or saw your parents do it, or just came up with it yourself? Does it really matter? You both understand that it means you love each other, and that’s the important part.
So Anushka and Shahrukh don’t really have to talk through what is happening. The understand that Anushka is grateful to him for taking her in, and he is grateful to her for all she does around the home. And she shows her feelings through buying him new sheets and making him nice meals, and he shows his feelings by taking her to the movies and buying a new car that will be more comfortable than his scooter.
And they could have lead a small not-unhappy life in this way. They wouldn’t have even known they were unhappy, Anushka would have gone on thinking her heart was dead, and Shahrukh would have gone on thinking that he was a man who didn’t know how to love. But then something magic entered their world.
This is what art is supposed to do, to awaken dormant parts of your soul, inspire you to grow to new heights of humanity. And that is the proof of its success, if it has the ability to do that for the audience. And so when Shahrukh and Anushka go to see a stupid movie and she laughs and smiles and turns back into a happy young woman, that’s art. That’s powerful and worthwhile and even noble. And when a dance class, a silly little dance class with fast talking cool dude teachers and students who take it all a little too seriously, teaches Shahrukh to be proud of himself and be himself, that’s powerful and worthwhile and even noble too. It is the art of it all that brings them together, that serves as the hand of God in making them a couple.
It sounds like such a silly little plot, a man gives himself a make over and his wife doesn’t recognize him. How is this even possible? Well, it’s because she didn’t want to recognize him, not this part of himself. It was easy to see him as just “husband”, not a person, but a dull simple thing like a hatrack or a chair or a table. The “Raj” character, post makeover, this isn’t a real person either. This is a combination of all the shallow silly lovers in all the movies in the world. This is the kind of love that doesn’t scare her, the silly fake love, not the real painful kind.
And this is the love that does scare Shahrukh, the real Shahrukh. He falls in love in just a moment. And he knows the pain of love, and the sacrifice of it, that is easy for him. It’s the shallow surface part that is hard, expressing it in a way that someone else can see, rather than holding it carefully in his heart. The filmi lover style, that lets him express it, he can just imitate what they do and pretend it isn’t really himself, it doesn’t really count.
(that real love, that’s what Anushka finally sees and acknowledges here, that it was there all along but he didn’t want to force her to see it)
And Anushka, briefly, is tempted by just escaping into the filmi world. Taking a love that is all grand gestures and drama, instead of the hardworking sorrow of day to day life. Escaping in a different way, just as when she tried to tell Shahrukh on their wedding night that she had no more love to give, she just wanted a new life with none of the old self there.
And what changes her mind is nothing. Because her mind was never fully settled in the first place, it was all a fantasy, she just needed to wake up from it. Wake up from all of it, her grief over her fiance and her father, her conviction that she could never love again and should cut love from her life, her escape into the fantasy of a perfect love story, she wakes up from all of it and sees Shahrukh, really sees him, for the very first time. And falls in love at first sight, just as he did with her. That’s all it is, love at first sight, just like in any other movie. But it happens at the end instead of the beginning.
(Makes me cry every time)