After the designer disaster that was ‘Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon’, Sooraj Barjatya returns with a pleasant take on arranged marriage. Plus, a comedy with exactly three jokes.
NOV 12, 2006 – HAS THERE BEEN A NICER FILMMAKER in the history of our cinema than Sooraj Barjatya? I’m not talking about talent or technique or way with actors; I’m just talking about basic, milk-of-human-kindness niceness. That’s the one quality that spills over in his films, and that’s the one quality your judgment of his films is doubtless based on – you can either handle that kind of uncynical, rose-tinted worldview, or you can’t. And if you can’t, there’s nothing else to fall back on – no breathtaking photography, no stunning performances, no Manish Malhotra costumes, no artful sets or staging, nothing. The utter absence of all these other things that today’s audiences take for granted in their cinema is probably why those who hated Hum Aapke Hain Koun or Maine Pyar Kiya dismiss these films as old-fashioned. But these films aren’t old-fashioned because they don’t want to be modern; they’re old-fashioned because they want to be old-fashioned. They want to be a return to the values that we no longer have or hold dear in our society. It’s not as if there’s no one else who makes similarly old-fashioned films – there’s Karan Johar, there’s Aditya Chopra, but then Johar and Chopra are much more press savvy and much more multiplex savvy. Their movies may be as traditional as Barjatya’s in a sense – what was K3G if not a teary ode to the great Indian joint family? – but because of the packaging and the stars, these movies don’t look old-fashioned, so they are treated as multiplex movies, while poor, old Sooraj Barjatya’s output gets categorised as old-fashioned in the worst sense, the kind meant for the lumpen masses in the hinterlands who hail one another with a Jai Ramji ki and who prostrate before Santoshi Maa.
I can’t think of another reason we still keep hearing about DDLJ – an old-fashioned movie if there ever was one; the leads may have been NRIs, but sex before marriage was still a no-no – and how it marked the arrival of the “modern” romantic hero who wouldn’t run away with the heroine and would instead wait till her family came around, while no one talks about Maine Pyar Kiya, which, several years before DDLJ, had Salman Khan as the romantic hero who wouldn’t run away with the heroine and would instead wait till her father came around. There have been books published about DDLJ and there are articles still written about how it’s going strong even in its 47,649th week (or whatever), while Barjatya himself hasn’t bothered to point out how his first film predates Aditya Chopra’s first film in more aspects than just the date of its release. And that’s why there’s been all this talk about why Vivah, Barjatya’s latest film, will have a soft start – that is, it’s not going to make a killing in its first weekend, but they hope that people will come see it and like it enough so the word-of-mouth can get going. I mean, the way the business works today, if you can’t sell yourself, how are you going to sell your film? Look at the television promos for Vivah – they were blander than bland! Where was the hype? Where was the flooding the newspapers with strategically-placed puff pieces? How can a filmmaker – however big his reputation – hope to lure audiences today by just making a nice movie?
All this ranting is a result of the frustration of having watched the wretched comedy Apna Sapna Money Money in a near-full theatre – more about that later – and following it up with Vivah in a half-empty one. Vivah is not a great movie, I don’t even know if it’s a good one – but it made me feel… nice inside. Don’t audiences want to be made to feel nice anymore? Don’t they want to surrender to Indian fairy tales about idealised people in idyllic places anymore? Don’t they feel good that someone, today, is still interested in exploring a universal Indian condition like the arranged marriage – the film is billed as “a journey from engagement to marriage” – and is able to sustain his vision to a large extent? When we talk of vision among filmmakers, we refer typically to grand conceits, like Shirish Kunder’s reimagining of the love triangle in terms of a stage musical in Jaan-e-Mann, but – make no mistake – Vivah is a work of vision too, a personal vision, and I didn’t quite realise it almost till well into the second half. (Spoiler ahead!) Till then, we’ve seen Prem (Shahid Kapoor) and Poonam (Amrita Rao) get engaged and getting ready for their marriage, and the whole series of events is so uneventful – which isn’t the same as uninteresting – that when a fire broke out late in the film and engulfed Poonam, I groaned at what appeared to be a cheap, cheap device to inject some drama into the placid proceedings. But soon it becomes clear that this fire is as much metaphorical as it is literal. It’s a trial by fire – an agnipariksha for Prem who must decide if he will honour his commitment to Poonam who’s suffered looks-altering burns.
And at that point, the entirety of Sooraj Barjatya’s vision clicked into place. Each and every incident in his film is a solemn evaluation of the steps and the decisions and the reasonings and the feelings that make up an arranged marriage. The scenes play out in a deceptively breezy manner, but there’s something serious underneath it all – and that’s probably why the title is the formal Vivah, and not a more casual Shaadi! Early on, when the topic of marriage comes up, Prem feels he’s too young for it, but Barjatya devotes a series of scenes – in a series of settings that gets progressively more casual; from the office to the car to a coffee shop – to show how Prem warms up to the idea. Prem’s father (Anupam Kher, and how nice to see him play a dignified character after so long!) reveals that he’s learnt about the younger generation’s music and fashions through his son, and now maybe it’s time Prem learnt something from him. This isn’t some stick-in-the-mud father hectoring his son to get married or else. He’s someone like Barjatya, a man of today who values the way things have been done down the ages, and who feels it’s his duty to convince his son about the rightness of these traditions, the way Barjatya probably feels it’s his duty to convince his audiences about the rightness of these traditions. There’s a later moment that feels like a throwaway, when Poonam is serving dinner to Prem’s family. She has a dish in hand and she goes around to everyone, and when she comes to Prem, he says, “No, thanks,” but she ladles out the stuff regardless. It’s a small pointer to how, after marriage, things aren’t always going to go Prem’s way. Even the way the music is used makes you sense Barjatya’s vision. Ravindra Jain’s songs are a pleasant throwback to the work he did for the Barjatyas in the seventies, but they aren’t great – and as lip-sync numbers for song-and-dance, they’d have been a thudding bore – but they’re present mostly in the background as some sort of commentary on the action, and utilised in this manner the words and the music come together very nicely; for instance, as Do anjaane ajnabi comes on, we see Prem and Poonam meet for the first time, and they, of course, are the do anjaane ajnabi.
This is a relentlessly sweet film, set in a relentlessly sweet world – the town that Poonam is from, it’s even named Madhupur; the place of honey, if you will. The inhabitants of this town use a big, black telephone with a rotary dial, they wear their hair in plaits that are looped around and tied with ribbons, they travel in rickshaws, they dance to Dekha na hai re-era songs that play on a radio-transistor (not a music system), and when the power goes off, they bring out the lanterns. The setting is so idyllic, it’s near-mythical, and when a lyric contends that “mile honge Radha Krishna yahan kisi van mein,” you don’t doubt it for a second. Time seems to have indeed stood still from the days of Radha and Krishna. And the reason Barjatya makes his town so, well, old-fashioned, is that he has a few points to make about modernity. When Prem’s brother – Prem’s family is from big, bad Delhi – steps into Madhupur, he rediscovers the simple pleasures of life, like taking his face out of the business section of the newspaper and resting it on his wife’s shoulder. Yes, this is a cliché – but not everything is. When Prem and Poonam have their first conversation, he asks the typical question about her hobbies, and she replies that she likes to read. He asks what her favourite books are and she names Parineeta and Swami and something by Tagore, and when he comments – somewhat condescendingly, though not in an offensive way – that these are nice “Hindi” books, she retorts, “Inke English translations bhi achche hain.” Touché! She doesn’t raise her voice, yet her rebuke gets across – and I can’t recall the last time a film addressed this Hindi-English divide without resorting to corny comedy. Usually, the native-language speaker is an object of ridicule – like the priest who mumbles in Sanskrit – but Barjatya will have none of that.
But he does have fun at his own expense. When the music of Vivah came out, a lot of reviews laughed at the archaic lyrics – peppered with phrases like “prem madhuri” and “divya vatavaran” – but Barjatya laughs at this himself, by creating a running gag about the inability of the Delhi folks to speak shuddh Hindi the way the people in Madhupur do. When they try to say “vartalap” instead of “baatcheet”, they laugh at their struggle with the word, and you laugh along with them. (Speaking of Hindi, there’s a lovely reminder about how accommodating the language is of words from other languages.) Barjatya also realises that we’re going to snigger at the formal, frozen-in-time rituals like that of the boy and girl meeting coy for the first time in this age of speed dating, so as Prem’s bhabhi leads him and Poonam away from the others and leaves them alone, she wishes them, “All the best,” and her child pipes up, “Inka exam hai?” Again we laugh, but with them, not at them. Barjatya is so at home in this world that when he makes a sudden allusion to the weight-loss obsession that seizes women during the days before marriage, it’s jarring. You feel he’s bunged that bit in just as a sop to modern audiences. But he didn’t really need this. I think modern audiences are going to be far more pleased that he’s gotten rid of the cosmetic excesses of Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Hum Saath Saath Hain, along with his obsession with pets and bhabhi–devar–samdhan songs.
If there’s one obstacle you’ve got to work hard to surmount in Vivah – other than the overall niceness, but then, why would you even consider watching this film if that was a problem? – it’s that there’s nothing that grabs you by the collar and leads you from scene to scene. That’s partly because of the bland leads, who think that being nice is the same as being near-catatonic. They have zero personality. Shahid’s idea of underplaying is to utter every sentence in hushed-reverent tones that you sometimes have to strain to hear, and Amrita’s coy glances become awfully tiresome after a while. And the other thing is that Barjatya sidesteps the potential for emotional confrontations as much as possible – and while you may feel like patting him on the back for this restraint, you also wish he’d have given in just a wee bit and made the first half feel a little less uneventful. The film’s first major showdown occurs after the interval mark, between Poonam’s chacha (Alok Nath, who never fails to bring a lump or two in your throat whenever he’s in a Barjatya movie) and chachi (Seema Biswas, who manages to make her cold indifference to her niece seem less a character flaw than a result of insecurity; she feels her husband prefers Poonam to their own, less-pretty daughter). Any other director would have staged this at the end of the first half, and we’d have closed in on intermission just as the camera closed in on Poonam’s anguished face as she overhears it all. That would have given us something to hold on to before entering the second half. But, as I said, the point of Barjatya’s cinema isn’t much else other than to cocoon you in a time-warp of niceness, and he must have figured that delaying the nastiness to the last possible extent would give us a film that’s just that much more pleasant. Is that a failing? I don’t know. But I do know he’s incapable of anything else. And sometimes, the fact that a director stays true to his beliefs, his values – regarding filmmaking as much as family – is all you need to hang in there. You go in expecting a certain kind of film, and you walk out having experienced exactly that kind of film. And that’s… nice.
THE POSTERS OUTSIDE THE THEATRE for Apna Sapna Money Money showcase the stars, and inform you that it’s been directed by Sangeeth Sivan, that it has music by Pritam and lyrics by Shabbir Ahmed, and that it’s been produced by Raju Farooqui. Notice anyone missing? Yes, just the… writer! It’s a telling reflection on a comedy when its publicity highlights the lyricist – because that’s what we walk into comedies for, you see… great lyrics! – and not the person responsible for the all-important structure and the gags. And the writer returns the favour with material that plays as if an out-of-form Priyadarshan remade Victoria No. 203, with a bigger cast (including a fun Ritesh Deshmukh, Shreyas Talpade, Koena Mitra, Riya Sen, plus a dog) in search of hidden diamonds and true love. It’s tough to say what’s more painful, listening to a model-perfect Koena Mitra try her hand at tapori-speak, or the shameless attempts to jerk tears through a little girl with a hole in the heart. But there are three good gags, and if you still want to watch the movie, stop reading right now. One’s when a goon threatens a girl, “Mujhse takrayegi to nau maheene pachtayegi.” (Yes, yes, it’s horribly misogynistic, but some of the best comedy is the really offensive kind.) The second is a truly terrible PJ, when cops go in search of drugs and discover instead a crate containing undergarments and a sweetener. (Bra ‘n’ sugar. Get it?) And the last one’s an absolute howler, when someone’s being tortured with ice and claims he felt nothing because, “Mard ko sard bhi nahin hota.” What a great play on that iconic Bachchan line! Don’t you wonder sometimes how dull life would be without pop culture?
PS: And here’s my review of Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, written for a different newspaper – one with far stricter word limits. So those days, I used the MS Word “Word Count” facility a lot more, and I used to sift through all the points I had in my head and jot down only those ones that were most relevant for a review! (And I’m sure there are those who wish I still did that. Well…) Looking back, though, I wonder why it took me so long to see that I could write all that I felt about a movie and put it on the blog, and then simply edit it down for the paper. Sometimes, the most obvious things are not the things you do.
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