Oh dear, I really wish I liked this movie. It would be so great to buck the critical trend and defend the man I love. But, I can’t. I just don’t like it that much.
As a Shahrukh fan, I am going to tell you all go to see this movie because he needs the box office hit.
As a film reviewer, I am going to tell you not to see this movie because it is bad.
You pick which Margaret to believe.
This movie has some great visuals, and two interesting characters, and is certainly ambitious. But at some point the special effects ended up substituting for the emotion.
Not the Little Person special effects. Shahrukh’s character is solidly grounded in the concept of a Little Person who feels any sin he does is justified because of his suffering since birth. The effects are mostly seamless for him and they aren’t pointless, they are a vital part of his character and the plot. No, it is all the other special effects, especially in the final 3rd of the film, that feel like they have no point beyond showing off. Spectacular and interesting visuals, for sure, but at a certain point I lose interest when there is no motivation behind them.
The best part of the film, for me, is the section with almost no special effects. When Katrina and Shahrukh interact, everything locks into place. All the chemistry that was missing between them in Jab Tak Hain Jaan is here in spades, and I am fascinated watching their characters together. I don’t necessarily want them to be together romantically, I just love watching them onscreen together. They are the two most clearly drawn characters in the film, and when they talk, the film makes sense. Really, I am looking forward to finding this film streaming just so I can rewatch that section.
Problem is, Kat is only there for a 3rd of the film, and the rest of it is with Anushka who is the least clearly drawn character in the film. Her chemistry with Shahrukh is still (always) there. And she does what she can with her performance. There just isn’t that much to work with, I am never super clear on her feelings or motivation scene to scene.
In the end, the only way Anushka makes sense is if I accept a regressive view of the Indian woman as loving her man above and beyond everything else. It’s a very strange message to put in this film, with all the special effects and everything else around the edges, this deadly old-fashioned ridiculous vision of womanhood. That alone would have made the film hard to swallow for me.
But added on is some basic narrative structure issues. The first half is tight and logical, but the second half wanders all over the map. I expect a plot shift at intermission, I don’t expect 4 more massive twists. Especially when they are ultimately all switchback twists, that is, we are zigging and zagging in order to take 4 times as long to get to where we could have gotten in a simple straight line.
So, that’s what you will see. Several weak characters around two really good ones, twists so tight and fast you will get whiplash, and a regressive version of Indian women.
But also, it’s a new Shahrukh movie and a good performance from him. And it has one really great song. And most of all, #SRK4EVER !!!!!! He is KING!!!!! Buy lots and lots of tickets and then just throw them away just so he can be back on top of the box office race!!!!!!
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Shahrukh is a middle-aged Little Person living in Meerut (mid-sized city in central India). He spends his father’s money constantly, doesn’t work, and has a crush on the actress played by Katrina Kaif. And then he is called up by a marriage broker and asked how he could break the heart of Anushka Sharma, so in flashback and voice over, Shahrukh tells his friend Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub all about how he seduced her. Anushka was an American scientist who came back to Meerut to get an award from her school. She has cerebral palsy, but is brilliant. At first, he insults her and she humiliates him. Frustrated, he decides to force her to see him and woos her assiduously, eventually seducing her. And then changing his phone number and avoiding her. It’s been a month, his friend is shocked at what he has done but Shahrukh has no regrets. And then they go home to discover she has found his address and his parents have confirmed the wedding. The day before the wedding, Katrina Kaif comes to Meerut for a mall opening, she is miserable and drunk after a broken love affair, Shahrukh and Mohammed go to see her appearance and chase down her car as she leaves, she stops the car and kisses Shahrukh on impulse. This gives him the pride and confidence the next day to go to the wedding and tell Anushka everything that is in his heart, and then he runs away from the wedding to enter a dance competition in an effort to meet Katrina again.
Shahrukh wins the dance competition and gets to meet Katrina again at a party, where all the other leading actresses of film are gathered around as well. He becomes Katrina’s confidant, and friend. Eventually Katrina helps him realize that he really does love Anushka, it just took all this time to see it. He makes a scene at her party, forcing her to throw him out so he will be free to go to Anushka, and with that confidence, she goes back in and finally breaks up with her toxic ex Abhay Deol. Shahrukh goes to America to find Anushka and makes a romantic scene, and then learns she had his baby and is now engaged to Maddy. She didn’t know at the wedding she was pregnant, she was fine without him but then his family forced the marriage on her and she got happy and excited, and he broke her heart. Shahrukh, to stay close to her, enters the training program at the Not-NASA where she works. He succeeds so well that it is suggested he replace the ape trained for the Mars mission. He challenges Anushka that she will stop him before the mission, she loves him too much, and she challenges him that he will be a coward and run away again. At the last minute, she runs from her wedding to the control room to say good-bye, and he goes to Mars. The end of the film is 15 years later, his capsule finally re-entering the atmosphere and the top popping off to reveal his hand coming up as he declares his love for Anushka again.
You see what I mean about too much plot? Really, this is about a man who seduced a woman out of spite and the sense that she was vulnerable, then felt forced to marry her, and ran away at the last minute to pursue something better. Only to discover he loved her after all, and desperately try to win her back. To turn his back on the amazing fantasy woman, or rather to be taught by the amazing fantasy woman that women are people too and not fantasies, and what he had was true love, but without the filmi trimmings.
That scene between them before the wedding is a marvel. We can sense that Shahrukh wants to run away, is planning to run away, and I was expecting him to run without talking to her. But instead, he tries to be as honest as he possibly can to her and she is honest in return. It is the kind of confrontation we never get in Indian films, an honest and messy discussion of what this relationship is from both sides. Shahrukh acknowledges he didn’t want this, he isn’t meant for marriage, he doesn’t want to settle down. And Anushka argues back that they are perfect for each other, equals, because they are both flawed. Essentially Anushka is saying they should settle for each other and be happy, and he is saying that he would rather remain unmarried than settle. These are valid arguments from both sides, and honestly, Shahrukh was right to run away from the wedding if that is how he felt in that moment. And that is also a really interesting movie I would love to see, both learning the flaws in their arguments, Anushka to learn she didn’t have to settle (since Maddy offers to marry her) but she still wants Shahrukh, and Shahrukh to learn that there is nothing better out there than Anushka, she is what he wants. But, it’s not the movie we see. That’s kind of the end of any logical emotional journey for Anushka, and Shahrukh’s journey is interesting for a while and then takes a turn.
(This and the wedding conversation are the high points for Anushka’s character)
There’s something really interesting in there about filminess in Shahrukh’s story, he seduces Anushka by setting up an elaborate song number for her (which he describes including how much it all cost for his friend), just like a producer would for his star. There’s a thrown away line from his father about how Shahrukh doesn’t really love his mother, he just thinks he should because Amitabh in Deewar loved his mother. And his love for Katrina is pure filmi, a magical first meeting, an epic quest, and so on and so forth. Having that film party and making Kat into a film goddess must be on purpose, and is really the best part of the movie, seeing her life and how her fame both destroys and strengthens her (she finally breaks up with Abhay remembering that Shahrukh had told her how Meerut thinks she is an angel, that she can grow wings and fly if she wants). It’s the filminess that blinded him to what he had with Anushka, and blinded her to the reality of what he was. She fell for the fantasy with him and then demanded something real later. And he fell for the real but didn’t realize it because it was too real.
If only it weren’t buried in the space INSANITY!!!!!!! And the baby insanity. Honestly, that baby is just thrown in for no reason at all!!!! We learn that Anushka didn’t even know she was pregnant when she married him, and Shahrukh wanted to get back together with her without knowing about the baby, and then it never comes up again as any part of their motivation! Anushka is going to marry Madhavan, the baby isn’t even at the wedding let alone mentioned as part of their future plans, like “I want to marry him so my baby will have a father”. Shahrukh is ready to go off to space to prove his love to Anushka, never considers that being a present and loving father to their child might be a better thing to do. And Anushka never considers stopping him so her daughter can know her father! There is no plot purpose to the baby whatsoever, it is just thrown in because it makes one scene more dramatic (the moment when Shahrukh learns it is his baby) and then forgotten. Oh, but the space stuff is much much worse.
We spend an hour on space training, and it is suuuuuuuper boring. All that needs to happen is Anushka sets Shahrukh an impossible task and he fulfills it and proves his love. Most movies, they knock that kind of thing out in ten minutes. Remember Tezaab? Madhuri didn’t believe Anil was sorry for tricking her and told him to jump off a building? And then he did? And recovered and they were in love? And that was all done in, what, 30 seconds? It’s not even the real plot of the movie, you probably don’t even remember it. In terms of plot and narrative necessity, Shahrukh has to earn back Anushka’s love once he realizes he is truly in love with her, and any task would do to make that happen. Making it this space mission takes me way out of the film because I just can’t suspend disbelief to the point of believing the chief scientist would be allowed to send the father of her baby on her mission. Or that there is truly no one else who can do it. Or, most of all, that her love challenge is to stop the mission to prove her love. You can’t STOP A SPACE MISSION as part of a romantic game of chicken! She doesn’t have that authority, NO ONE has that authority!!!
(This is how you do “struggling and earning back her love”! Jump off a building, 15 seconds of recovery, love song)
In my head, this is the movie we should have had: Anushka is a brilliant scientist, but not for not-NASA, for the Indian Civil engineering department. Everything else happens exactly the same. Only instead of this space stupidity, Shahrukh’s challenge at the end is to fit into a small space and fix a leak in a dam or something like that. It’s not global, it’s not billions of dollars and thousands of people, it’s local and thousands of rupees and thousands of lives that could be saved. And most of all, it doesn’t take 45 minutes of training montages to get to that point.
My head-movie makes more sense largely because it removes the totally unrealistic view of space travel, unrealistic to the point of making the film un-enjoyable. But it also makes sense because the whole middle section with Kat (which is, again, the best part of the film and the strongest part of the film) is about understanding the reality of love and life. Shahrukh should run from reality and flaws in the first half, learn to appreciate that the real can be fantastical through his time with Kat (she can be an amazing woman that all of Meerut believes is an angel, and also throw up into a toilet), and then run back to reality. But instead the film takes him off to another fantasy, to a vision of America which is itself fantastical (including a ridiculous view of our red light districts), and then the not-NASA and Mars mission which is far more of a fantasy than anything Katrina was selling him. The message is gone.
They try to bring it back at the end. Anushka has a voice over tying it all together, saying the miracle was Shahrukh coming back after running from the wedding, the miracle was her forgiving him, and so on and so forth. Essentially, we should celebrate the moments when life is hard and we survive, when our better angels prevail, rather than dwelling on the bigger moments. But how can I believe in that message when the last third of the film is telling me to celebrate an over the top heroic mission to Mars which finally redeems Shahrukh in the eyes of his family?
Oh, one other thing, that Shahrukh redemption. Blurgh. The Shahrukh and Anushka relationship in this film is EXACTLY what I feared when I learned Aanand L Rai was making a movie with Shahrukh. Anushka is weirdly almost inhumanly heartless. Shahrukh has to “teach” her to love their baby (one of the few times the baby comes up again). And she is ready to send him to Mars to die because she hates him so much (not because she is a scientist, but because she hates him). Shahrukh of course tricks her and destroys her and so on, but then he feels really bad about it, so the film forgives him and makes him the wise and perfect character that has to “teach” Anushka a lesson. And finally, of course, Anushka turns her back on her much more compatible and kind and reliable and attractive romantic option to go running to the flawed hero who took her virginity. BLECH.
But Katrina’s character is great, gets to be kind and smart and destroyed by love, and then get over it and realize how awesome she is and throw Abhay out of her life and her heart. It’s just poor Anushka that gets shoved into the “An Indian Woman Loves Only Once” box.
(She is awesome. Broken and drunk and sad and messy, and then getting back her own strength and throwing out her toxic man and getting on with her life. If only Anushka was allowed to do that!)
That’s my review and description of the theatrical version. But Zero is special, because there was a second version released on Netflix.
Big picture, I think this is a far better version of the film than the theatrical version. Anushka’s character is softened at certain key moments. One of my biggest problems with the theatrical version is that Anushka was so opaque. It messed with the other characters because they had nothing to act against, and it made the film hard to watch because we didn’t sympathize with her or want good things for her. And it also made the ending voice over very strange, to have her be the character that gives the little sum up after she was so empty and unknown before then.
This version has a few small changes, almost all of which can be tied back to deepening Anushka’s character. And a couple others which I can’t find a reason for. Overall, this feels more like a “director’s cut” than a recut to me. Like the version we saw in theaters was the one edited to give Shahrukh more of a hero’s story and without bits that might be “extraneous” to the plot even if they are artistically more satisfying. I wonder (and actually sent a message to Netflix asking, always a slight chance they will respond) if this truly is the director’s cut. If the Indian distributors and theaters put pressure on Red Chillies to release a more “popular” version, but their deal with Netflix let them put out the original real version.
The biggest change was the opening. The new opening is Anushka giving a voice over as we see her in the center of a crowd rushing around backstage. She gives us the setting, that she is about to go speak to a symposium. And that she is upset and has a gun. But far more important than that is what she says about herself, and what the choice to use this opening tells us about this film. Anushka explains that her voice doesn’t normally sound like this, but she wants us to hear it this way first. The film wants us to hear her voice this way too, to get inside of her head, to have this moment in our minds and wait for it to come for the rest of the film. It is now definitively Anushka’s story, not Shahrukh’s.
It is also a story of disability. Anushka introduces herself by telling us not to laugh at her, by saying she wants us to hear her real voice, and then by talking about how her family loved and supported her, gave her an education, and she succeeded in life. This is why this voice over was supposed to come right before Shahrukh’s intro, we have to understand that their circumstances made them into what they are, gave them their own weaknesses and strengths, both created through their disabilities and how their families and situations reacted to them.
And the message of the film is Anushka’s too, in a nice little bookend of this scene and the final voice over. She starts out explaining that this story is to warn us not to trust cute charming little men. But by the end of the story we will have the moral of trust and faith over all, look to the good and not the bad.
And then we come to the theatrical opening, a fantasy of an old west town with Shahrukh as a cowboy saving the damsel in distress. Which goes into his real life and his family who treat him with a mixture of contempt and pity. We have the direct contrast of Anushka, far more disabled than he is (wheelchair, difficulty speaking) who is loved and surrounded by family with Shahrukh, left in his room to talk to the maid, hated by his father and pitied by his mother. That is what makes them match.
And then I think there is a very small change with Shahrukh’s first real scene, but I’m not sure if it is a real change or if I just didn’t remember it correctly. He comes out on the balcony and Zeeshan Ayyub is below, telling him about Katrina’s latest romance breaking up. And then he asks Shahrukh to throw down money in order to help them celebrate Eid. The money throwing is generosity, fellow feeling, in response to a special occasion. As I remember the theatrical version, Shahrukh throws the money down in response to the Katrina news, making it all about himself, and seeming a needless waste of his father’s money. In a similar fashion, after he has the confrontation with his father, his father takes away his car keys. Which is why they have to take the rickshaw to the theater. Those two little changes (if they were changes) combined with Anushka’s opening voice over changes my whole first impression. He is not egotistical and spoiled, he is struggling because his family never believed in him and therefore he never believed in himself. He rebelled by making friends among the Muslim lower classes, and when his car is taken away, he is willing to ride a rickshaw and not feel embarrassed.
And then no changes in the next part, so far as I can tell. They go to the movie, Shahrukh gets a phone call from the marriage broker, Zeeshan asks what that was about, Shahrukh explains how he saw Anushka’s photo, tracked her down, was turned off by her disability while she was turned off by his class and lack of education and general demeanor. Again, opening with Anushka and having the contrast in how they are treated by the people around them changes this. Anushka is a snob, looks down on Shahrukh for his personality, not seeing that it is a defense mechanism he learned to handle his disability, a defense mechanism she was lucky enough not to need. And Shahrukh is clinging to the small confidence he has in himself, by looking down on Anushka for her much greater disability. Their back and forth becomes explicitly about class and privilege more than anything else.
Blah-blah, Shahrukh successfully seduces her, she lands up at his family house and his father encourages the marriage. There’s a little moment when his father talks to hers and encourages them to take Shahrukh to America and put him on display, sell tickets to see the freak. Having in our head that Anushka’s parents were loving and supportive of her from that first voice over makes this moment have extra resonance, the father who sees his daughter as a blessing, doesn’t want her to settle in marriage, versus the father who sees his son as a literal freakshow.
(No changes to this sequence, thank goodness, because it is kind of perfect.)
Shahrukh and Anushka have their painful conversation, Shahrukh runs off and joins the dance contest, wins, goes to the party, sees all the famous actresses, meets Katrina, becomes her best friend, keeps thinking about Anushka, calls her as Madhavan is proposing to her, has a fight with Katrina, calls up Zeeshan and tells him they are going to America. They arrive, go through security, and then NEW SCENE!!!
We go from security to the beginning of Anushka’s speech. The sound is way off in this part, her lips don’t match up at all. It doesn’t really give new information, but it works as an editing choice because we need that moment of recognizing her outfit and the location and realizing that it is the moment from the opening.
Other new part, a quick conversation outside the building between Shahrukh and Zeeshan where he uses eye drops to make fake tears. And then we are back to the part in the theatrical version. Anushka talking and Shahrukh and Zeeshan walking in from the back. This whole thing ties back to the opening scene, with us in the audience knowing that Anushka is angry and waiting for him and has a gun, the tension is building and building as we see her talk and Shahrukh arrive outside.
And then the tension releases with the scenes we already got in the theatrical version, him arriving and Anushka shooting at him, and then the reveal that she had his baby. The baby reveal works as a “you thought you knew everything, but wait there is another surprise!” moment. Works better than in the theatrical version where it is two total surprises on top of each other (gun, and then baby).
Blah-blah, no changes, Shahrukh applies to the astronaut program, has an angry conversation with Anushka, stays in the program, does well. And then, in the theatrical version we had a weird bad sequence of events. Anushka notices that her chimp doesn’t want to show off his skills in front of strangers, then sees him with his family, then tells Madhavan that the chimp is failing because he doesn’t want to leave his family and they talk about possibly Shahrukh going instead, Anushka is against it because she doesn’t trust him.
But this version cuts all that! We don’t have to wonder when Anushka became an animal trainer instead of a mathematician, and we don’t have the implication that she is wildly sending her ex-boyfriend to space out of petty spite. No, instead we go from Anushka saying good-bye to the monkey to having a totally different conversation with Maddy.
This time, it is a calm discussion of SRK’s worth as an astronaut by Maddy, and Anushka being upset as he talks. Anushka isn’t sending him to space, Maddy is suggesting it and she is against it. Instead of it being proof of Anushka’s hate and bitterness, filtered through a plot illogic, it becomes foreshadowing of how she still loves Shahrukh. The peak of her emotions was when she confronted him, the bit from the opening, and now she is coming down and making sense of how she really feels. Like a person, instead of a plot device.
And along those same lines, the conversation with Shahrukh about NOT going to Mars feels completely different. Anushka pulls him aside and tells him to run, that she knows he is a coward and won’t go through with it and should just leave. With the original cut, where she was part of the decision to use him, the whole thing feels like a strange test, she is setting him up to fail and doesn’t even know what she wants. And then he makes his star trick work and all the stars fall out of the sky and Anushka drives home torn up inside over what she is doing to him as the stars themselves tell her it is true love and she is wrong.
But in this version! We go from the conversation where Anushka tries to object to Shahrukh going to Mars but can’t come up with a logical reason to her talking to him and trying to convince him to run. Instead of a test, it feels like she is sincerely trying to save him. In a twisted way of course, but still trying to save him. And it’s an important contrast, her conversation with Maddy was calm and reasonable but he didn’t really understand her. With Shahrukh, he knows exactly what she is saying even if she doesn’t say it.
And then it ends with all the scientists coming out to watch the stars falling in awe (not Anushka driving away). And Zeeshan comes out too and talks to one of them and learns that Shahrukh will be going to Mars. Instead of the sequence being about Anushka being petty and Shahrukh loving her, it is about all these small people who are part of a much larger story, Anushka may want Shahrukh to run but he can’t because it is his fate. The stars aren’t a sign of love, they are about a greater destiny than that.
And we go from there to another new scene! I think. Zeeshan and Anushka talking about the mission, Anushka wants him to sign papers as Shahrukh’s next of kin. Zeeshan begs her to ask Shahrukh not to go, she pretends not to care. But with the way the previous scenes were structured we (the audience) know that in her own way she has been trying to stop the mission. This scene adds a little extra layer of depth to the Zeeshan-Shahrukh relationship too. Zeeshan is who started the movie with Shahrukh, Muslim and poor and low calls, but his true friend who follows him everywhere even when his family forgets him. Zeeshan truly is Shahrukh’s family, the only one who cares whether he lives or dies, and signs the papers to prove it in this scene.
The echoes of this scene come into the next one with Anushka when Maddy asks Anushka to sign off on the mission, and Shahrukh watches as she does. The two people who care about him (Zeeshan and Anushka) both signing off and sending him away. Without it (if I am remembering correctly that it wasn’t in the original), we don’t have that feeling.
And then the ending is just a little party of alterations. Anushka’s wedding sequence is very quick, they sit down, Maddy gets a call, tells her the launch is happening, she looks doubtful, he says “how long does it take to travel 1.2 miles at 5.8 miles per hour?” She understands what he is saying and gives the answer then says “Only right that I say good-bye” and leaves. My memory of the theatrical version is that this part is dragged out a bit longer, and I don’t remember the cute math joke at all.
The good-bye scene between Anushka and Shahrukh is unchanged, but right after that there are reports around the world of his launch and we see Katrina again, looking light and happy. In the theatrical version, she says “I kissed him once” which is a lovely tying together of their story. That is missing in this version. Such a small change, but it does serve to make the Katrina and Shahrukh relationship feel slightly less meaningful, and therefore give even more weight to the Anushka-Shahrukh relationship.
And then the ending was changed, but not in a way that makes any sense at all! Anushka’s voice over is the same, explaining that Shahrukh was lost in space but she chose to cling to the good things. That is what I would have changed if I had the power to change things, not the voice over, but that it just keeps going as he is lost for 15 years and so on and so forth. But instead, what they changed was adding a Shahrukh voice over about his dimples after Anushka’s speech (I think that was an add at least) and cut his calling of her name, “Aafia!” right before the end credits. I truly have no logical explanation for this change. Do you?
Overall, with these small changes and with just seeing the film a second time, I had a slightly more favorable impression. But I still think it is deeply deeply flawed. The space plot just does not work, the baby still feels like a surprise twist more than a person they want to deal with, and I still don’t like the way Shahrukh is set up as the bad guy for running out on a wedding he didn’t want after honestly talking about how he didn’t want it.
But there is some slight improvement in clarity as to the relationship between Shahrukh’s bad behavior and the way his parents’ treated him, and a great deal of improvement in Anushka’s characturization. We can see a line now from the confident cheerful woman who meets Shahrukh and is won by him, to the angry crazed woman who shoots at him, to the one who chooses hope and faith at the end. That’s a good movie, that’s a good through line. Just dump the baby and the spaceships.
This is supposed to be a movie of doubling. Anushka and Shahrukh play two halves of the same person. Each fills what the other lacks. Anushka is American with education and privilege and success. Shahrukh is Indian with almost no education. Anushka dreams of the stars in the sky, Shahrukh dreams of the stars on the movie screens. Anushka wants to send a rocket shooting off of the earth, Shahrukh pulls the stars from the sky. And most importantly, Anushka reacted to her disability by refusing to acknowledge it, by hiding her feelings about it deep inside. And Shahrukh on the outside had no faith or interest in accomplishing anything, used his disability as an excuse, but deep inside was fighting against it.
(Part of the joy of this song is that Shahrukh is trying his hardest, no excuses and no asking for pity, for the first time.)
The pairing is built deep into the structure. Shahrukh makes a fool of himself when his usual trick fails in front of an audience, Anushka makes a fool of herself when her usual trick fails in front of an audience. Shahrukh can’t leave his logical reasonable perfect “true love” until she forces him to go, Anushka can’t leave her logical reasonable perfect “true love” until he forces her to go. And in the end, at the same moment, they both take a great leap of faith, Anushka swearing to wait for him and Shahrukh swearing leave for her.
It doesn’t work of course. For many reasons. The plot around the doubling just has too much spectacle to it, everything NASA to Sridevi which distracts from the real story that is supposed to be about those two people. And the central complications between the two of them get far too deep and confused, the real issues are lost.
The real issues come out in a few scenes between them which stand out from the rest of the film because of the honesty there. The first long conversation when they are both drunk. The conversation before the wedding. The conversation in the anti-gravity chamber. The conversation the night the stars fall. And the final conversation between them. Those are real, those are deep, those are the conflict of the film.
This film has a lot of similarities with Shahrukh and Anushka’s last film Jab Harry Met Sejal. Both of them are character studies wrapped in a romance. But while JHMS decided to have almost nothing happen, let the character interactions be in a vacuum, this film had far too much happen and the character interactions were almost lost in the plot. These important conversations that are supposed to be the whole point of the film somehow disappear into special effects and plot twists.
(This song has a special magic to it because it is Anushka and Shahrukh together, the only song in which they are together. This whole movie should be about the two of them, not just this bit.)
During their first long conversation, Anushka starts to brag, constantly. Shahrukh finally gets sick of it and asks why she always talks about herself, he never does. That’s the central conflict between the two characters in that moment. Anushka is proud of herself and what she has accomplished, overly proud although she is seemingly humble. Shahrukh is the reverse, appears to be proud of himself but in fact has a deep sense of humiliaty and inferiority. Both attitudes are in response to their life long disabilities. Shahrukh was taught by his mother’s pity and his father’s hatred to see himself as worthless, to accept his place as less than others and not try to be more. Anushka, on the other hand, was taught to be proud of her strength in overcoming everything. And now she is overly proud, afraid to show any hint of weakness. That’s what Shahrukh craves from her, a sign that she feels weak, that she acknowledges her disability, that she is the same as he is.
The conversation before the wedding is when, finally, they both reveal their true selves to each other. Shahrukh reveals both his hidden shame and his hidden hope. He doesn’t believe he is meant for marriage, doesn’t believe he fits into normal life. He points out that Anushka is settling for him, they aren’t meant to be together anyway, how can they overcome their differences? And Anushka reveals what she truly thinks, down deep. That Shahrukh is the best she can do. That they are equals, they can look each other in the eye. Underneath all her confidence and bravado, Anushka is terrified she will never truly be loved. And Shahrukh, underneath all his acceptance of abuse of his family and attitude of being less than others, truly believes he deserves more than this, more than being the kept husband who is good enough for the disabled woman.
After the wedding, Shahrukh finds his strength and pride and freedom, escapes from his destructive family and reaches the stars (metaphorically). And Anushka retreats to her family, and struggles to reach the stars and succeed. It’s only when they come together again in the anti-gravity scene that their lives find balance. Anushka explains that it was her hurt pride that she holds against him, she didn’t want to marry him, she was fine and strong on her own, and then he won her over. And Shahrukh takes it, does not defend himself. Anushka has gone from the woman who was always in control and laughed at his petty frustrations in their first scene to the opposite, the frustrated angry one while Shahrukh is in control and knows who he is and what he wants.
(Another flaw in the film structure, this song is important for Shahrukh’s character process and decisions, we need a similar song for Anushka’s character to make the pairing balance.)
The conversation the night the stars fall is another pairing, this time with the conversation before the wedding. Then, Shahrukh was begging for permission to go and Anushka would not let him. This time, she is asking him to leave, and he won’t go. Anushka wanted him to be her equal and stay with her because they are both disabled in the first scene. In the second, Shahrukh wants to stay and become her equal by rising up in life and society. The first time, it ends with Anushka alone in an empty wedding room, the second time (in the original edit) it ends with her alone under a sky of falling stars. Anushka closed herself off to love and Shahrukh ran from it after the first conversation. After the second, Anushka starts to open up to love again and Shahrukh is running towards it.
And then we have the last conversation, as Shahrukh is in the rocket about to leave. Anushka asks if he would have stayed if she had asked, and the beauty is, we don’t know which time she means. Was it at the wedding? Was it that first night when she could have asked him to stay in her room? Was it the fight in the anti-gravity chamber when she could have asked him to start a new life with her and their daughter? Or is it just now, leaving on the rocket? There isn’t necessarily an answer, their whole relationship has been Anushka digging herself in and afraid to reach for happiness, while Shahrukh is constantly running after different happiness.
Along with the two central characters, there is a nice arrangement of supporting characters to help tell their story. Zeeshan Ayyub is supposed to be the one person who loves and supports Shahrukh. While Anushka is seen always surrounded by people who love her, Shahrukh has one humble friend. Katrina is Shahrukh’s mirror, the person who can give him a new way to see himself just as he gives her a new way to see herself. Madhavan is Anushka’s ideal self, intelligent and calm and kind and without emotion, what she aspires towards but cannot manage.
(First meeting, Katrina kisses Shahrukh to turn him into her, another broken hearted one. Second meeting, Katrina comes up behind Shahrukh and uses his phone as a mirror. Literally Mirroring each other! I see what you did their Aanand!)
This is the story we were supposed to get. Two people who are a little bit incomplete, a little bit broken, and keep avoiding the one person who can make them whole. But the film was flawed, we could all see it was flawed, because there was just too much on top of this nice settled human love story.
But this, what we ultimately got, is just sort of messy. The lovely little parallel moments are lost, instead of realizing that Anushka and Shahrukh’s humiliation is paired, we are distracted by wondering how and why she has a gun at her speech. Instead of focusing on their conversation, we are looking at the anti-gravity chamber. And instead of grasping the wonder of the leap into love that they take in that final moment, we are thinking about the oddity of Shahrukh being sent to Mars.