An all-out ode to love is frustrating, unpredictable, messy, unwieldy, and yet finally worth the while – much like love itself.
JAN 28, 2007 – I KNOW A LOT OF PEOPLE are going to label Salaam-e-Ishq a Love Actually adaptation, given that both are Altmanesque vignettes of couples in love, couples out of love, and couples in the various stages in between, but Nikhil Advani’s film seems to owe as much to the great Jhankaar Beats. That musical showed us a teen couple falling in love, a married couple trying to sustain love, and a divorced couple about to rediscover love, and all of those love stories came under the arch of an even grander passion: the love for the music of RD Burman. Salaam-e-Ishq is something like that. It has six couples in different stages of love, experiencing different kinds of love, and all of those love stories come under the arch of an even grander passion: the love for love itself. The movie begins very shakily, takes almost the entire first half to steady itself, then gets smoother as it rolls onwards to a big finish, and the result is like listening to a moony ballad on the radio at zero volume and then turning the knob up a notch gradually until the finale of the number hits its crescendo at full blast. And that’s what makes this film so unnerving to watch at times – or even get a grip on. We’re used to seeing Bollywood love stories at full blast from scene-one-frame-one onwards, and to see something that’s on such a slow-burn for much of its running time – and a long running time it is; almost four hours – takes some getting used to. But the big, Bollywood crescendo at the end left me with a silly, satisfied smile.
Salaam-e-Ishq opens wonderfully as Tehzeeb (Vidya Balan) wakes up, turns to her still-sleeping husband Ashutosh (John Abraham) and closes his half-open mouth. I smiled at the intimacy of the gesture, and my grin became broader at his response: he mumbles “I love you‿ almost as a reflex action. Then the Dil kya kare number (beautifully sung by Adnan Sami) comes on, playing over a montage of visuals laying out the huge cast, and it leaves you with the kind of lightheaded buzz that only an all-singing, all-dancing movie can give you. So that’s what you think this is, especially as Advani is best known to us as the guy who made Kal Ho Naa Ho, never mind his protests that he had his early apprenticeship under the likes of Sudhir Mishra and Saeed Mirza. To us, he remains a graduate of the Karan Johar school. Besides, this film takes its title from a song in one of Bollywood’s most unabashed love stories. But as the first half unfolds, it’s such a mix of tones and moods and styles of performance that nothing sticks. Priyanka Chopra, as a starlet named Kamini, goes horrendously over the top – I think it’s official now after Krrish andSalaam-e-Ishq: no more comedy for her – and she’s matched in volume by a wildly gesticulating Akshaye Khanna and a terribly mannered Salman Khan. And Advani’s frequently gimmicky setups – after about the seventeenth instance of split screens, I think you’ll be ready to tear your hair out – are equally hysterical.
Yet, there are things, even in this disappointing first half, that stand out – the visualisation of Anil Kapoor’s track in depressing greys and blacks because the love has gone out of his much-married life, Vidya Balan trying to straighten a photograph of her husband that hangs crooked (she can’t, naturally, as this isn’t a picture so much as a pointer that things are going to go awry in their relationship), the astounding use of two golden oldies to define the contours of an extra-marital relationship (Aao huzoor tumko is an ode to straying; Babuji dheere chalna cautions against it)… And just before interval, we are left with a high-energy production number. (I wasn’t terribly thrilled with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s score as a standalone musical experience, but the tunes work very well alongside the colourful picturisations, which are everything you go to Hindi movies for.) I wasn’t quite sure, at this point, if this high I felt was because something was actually coming together in terms of an overall design, or if it was simply the relief upon seeing a song well shot – especially after that dawdling exposition – but the buzz lasts well enough to make you look forward to the second half, with mild curiosity if not outright anticipation.
And that, thankfully, works. (It’s a bigger problem if a film starts with a bang and ends with a whimper; if I have to live with imperfection, I’d rather have it the other way round.) The storylines that seemed odd earlier become engaging, and I rather began to enjoy the section involving cabbie Govinda – a simpleton, a fool for love in the Raj Kapoor mould, and it may not entirely be a coincidence that his character is named Raju – and his American passenger (Shanon Esra). Forget Bhagam Bhag; this is the Govinda comeback we’ve been waiting for, a performance with equal parts charm and corn. He’s a Hanuman-bhakt – strange, the reference to a bachelor God when everyone around is looking for a mate – and when he reels off the film’s best line of dialogue, “Baat apne pyaar ki nahin, apnon KE pyaar ki hai,‿ you may find it hard not to break into spontaneous applause followed by a hearty wolf-whistle. This one character encompasses all the crowdpleasing and massy aspects of our cinema, even if he’s there to make a rather classy point – like the one Colin Firth made in Love Actually, when he fell for his Portuguese maid – that he and his passenger may not understand one another but it doesn’t really matter because the language of love is universal. And yes, that’s the very definition of what they call a “touch‿, as is the surrealism that seeps into Kamini’s story (when opportunity knocks, in her case, we literally hear the knuckle-raps on the door), as is the presence of recording devices throughout – and somewhere you may begin to feel that that’s an awful lot of baggage for a film that just isn’t very deep.
But Salaam-e-Ishq is really quite deep, at least as far as the writing goes. (That a lot of this effort is undermined by the flatfooted staging in many parts is a different issue altogether.) There’s just so much to take in – like the beautiful way in which the not-quite-related stories somehow bounce off one another, like ricocheting cue balls – that I found myself whining about the length and at the same time unable to figure out what could be chopped off. (Improved, yes. Chopped, no.) The madly ambitious screenplay is the real attraction here, the way everything loops back to love – whether it’s the fact that a character gets a scholarship to study in Paris (the city of love), or that someone mends a shattered miniature model of the Taj Mahal (the symbol of love), or the so-called comedy track that has to do with newlyweds Sohail Khan and Isha Koppikar trying to find a place to do it (the “it‿, of course, referring to physical love). While something with this kind of a cast – the standouts include John Abraham, Vidya Balan, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Govinda, Tinnu Anand and Anjana Sukhani – can never entirely be a loss, I guess I was happier that mainstream Bollywood, of late, has begun to venture into love stories with some genuine complexity, where the dividing issues aren’t simply rich-versus-poor or the unyielding parents, but tragedy and commitment phobia and midlife crisis. Even some of the feel-good endings in Salaam-e-Ishq aren’t quite as feel-good as you’d expect them to be, and in this aspect, I was reminded of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. Like KANK, this isn’t a perfect movie, but its imperfections are similarly interesting. Besides, how can you not be indulgent with the lapses of a Hindi film that manages to use the dreaded yeh-shaadi-nahin-ho-sakti construct as a dramatic device and as a comedic device within the same scene?
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express