A potentially moving story of widow remarriage turns into a silly, chauvinistic fantasy.
DEC 10, 2006 – I’LL BEGIN THIS REVIEW WITH what I should have begun my review of Don with: a disclaimer to the effect that Baabul didn’t work for me at all, but if you’re the kind that’s looking for this sort of thing, read no further, because the film gets the job done. In other words, did you enjoy Baghban? Did it force you to filch a handkerchief from the person in the next seat? Did you rush back home and dash off fuzzy-wuzzy greeting cards to your parents, thanking them for being the bestest mommy and daddy in the whole, wide world? Yes, yes and yes? Forget this review; run to Baabul. For the rest of you, let me recall what I wrote about Baghban: It’s easy to imagine, say, AK Hangal and Durga Khote undergoing these miseries, but it’s tough to see why people as self-possessed and sophisticated as Amitabh and Hema would end up this way. And therein lies the rub in Baghban – the casting of the leads and the high-gloss setting of their lives just do not make the subsequent events convincing.
Or worth caring about. The crux of Baabul is that Balraj (Amitabh Bachchan, once again paired with Hema Malini) loses his son Avinash (Salman Khan) in an accident and then goes on to “rehabilitate” his widowed daughter-in-law Mili (a gorgeous Rani Mukerji). In the normal world – which is to say, in the world of the AK Hangals and the Durga Khotes – the immediate impact of the tragedy would gradually get blunted by the fact that life has to go on; lunches and dinners have to be prepared, children need to be sent to school, bills need to be paid, offices need to be returned to. But the folks here sit around in a mansion the size of a football stadium and they just… wallow, and after a point, you wish they’d get on with it. Yes, Karan Johar too sets his melodramas among the impossibly-rich, but then his stories are about finding love, and that’s an emotion that’s as valid in the context of Ratan Tata as the raddiwallah. In fact, you could argue that the marry-go-round contrivances of something like KANK would not have worked if played out in a Chinchpokhli chawl.
But with social issues such as the one in Baabul, the social class of the characters definitely affects our involvement, our empathy. And BR Films – the production house of BR Chopra, whose son Ravi Chopra is the director here – used to know this. When the big man himself was at the helm of affairs, he orchestrated in Naya Daur a race between a tonga and a bus – and it was about man versus machine, old versus new, rah-rah localism versus fear of the foreign. Today, in Baabul, Chopra Jr. orchestrates a car race between richie-rich Amitabh and cool-dude Salman – and the only thing it’s about is Audi versus Benz. If Baabul had simply been, say, an extension of the subplot about the father-in-law and the widowed daughter-in-law in Sholay, we’d have been moved to tears. You look at that dusty, middle-of-nowhere setting, you hear RD Burman’s sad harmonica riffs as the tiny woman in white extinguishes the flame in the lanterns on the verandah, you take in the elder man’s utter helplessness (he can’t even wring his hands; he has none)… There’s a widow who needs rehabilitation, who needs someone to stand up for her against a cruel world that can’t (or won’t) understand that she’s as entitled to happiness as anyone else.
But Mili… She plays golf, she runs around in bandannas and baubles that make her look like the world’s cutest hippie, she’s a painter (a touch meant to make us dissolve into sobs that her world of colour has now turned a gloomy black; at least we’re spared the sight of her in widow’s whites) – and for all this, she may as well have been one of the dirt-poor Vrindavan castaways we keep hearing about. No one seems to care about what she wants. Without asking her if she’s done grieving and if she’s ready to move on, Balraj goes and speaks to Rajat (John Abraham, playing Mili’s oldest pal) about marrying his daughter-in-law; the fact that Rajat says yes is apparently enough. Nobody wants to know if Mili views this best friend as a potential mate; the fact that he’s male is apparently enough. And Balraj even goes ahead and prints wedding invitations without informing his wife about this match; the fact that this patriarch of the family has deemed it so is apparently enough. This chauvinism was a lot easier to take in Prem Rog – that other, and more affecting, story of widow remarriage – because the film was set in a feudal hinterland, and not in an only-in-the-movies la-la land where the leads make love draped in satin sheets, surrounded by a few thousand candles (though the visual does add to one of the few highlights in Baabul, the Bawri piya ki number, beautifully composed by Aadesh Shrivastava and beautifully sung by Sonu Nigam).
I realise I’ve quoted three older films and essentially made one point, and that’s perhaps because I’m still trying to figure out a modern-day context in which Baabul could have worked. Or maybe I’m saying that the creakiness isn’t in the tale so much as in this particular telling. There’s a song sequence similar to the one in Henna where Ashwini Bhave dances while waiting for Rishi Kapoor to return to the family – here, the wait is for Salman Khan – and I was reminded of how stylishly Karan Johar updated the same idea for his title number in K3G. There, the spectacle was intercut with Shah Rukh Khan making his way home, and there’s a perfectly-matched dissolve from a top-angle shot of swirling dancers to the whirling blades of the helicopter Shah Rukh is in. Here, all we see is a morose Salman staring out of a taxi window. Ravi Chopra has none of those skills that can at least make for entertaining sideshows – but his sideshows are entertaining in other, unexpected ways, like the scene where Rajat marks a bindi on the bare forehead of a woman in one of Mili’s paintings, because the face is “adhuri”. (I shuddered thinking of what would result if he found himself in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa.)
Such moments work only in Sooraj Barjatya movies. So okay, they seem corny even there, but Barjatya at least appears to believe in what he is doing, and that homespun sincerity tides you through. Chopra, on the other hand, wants to discourse about bharatiya sanskar while throwing at us set pieces with leggy blondes. The only freshness in Baabul comes from the fact that the initial run-ins aren’t between boy and girl, but between boy’s father and girl – something that prefigures the dynamics of their eventual relationship. Otherwise, the staging is unbelievably flat – the conversation that introduces us to Amitabh and Hema just stops short of the actors turning to the camera and reciting, “We’re still in love… Our son is in the US…” – the product placements are ugly, and the over-articulation of the emotions is maddening. It’s not enough that we see the sadness on Balraj’s face when he stumbles upon the widowed Mili still observing karwa chauth; the next scene has him gazing at the stars – that is, at his son now in the heavens – and spouting a monologue about this sadness. Amitabh Bachchan knows a thing or two about redeeming unredeemable lines, but even he can’t do anything with a passage that says how the cloistered Mili needs the breeze and the warmth from the outside to flower again. The last time he was saddled with botanical metaphors, all those years back in Chupke Chupke, they at least had the good sense to make it an intentional comedy.
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