Review: Hari Om

Posted on September 15, 2007


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A road trip across breathtaking Rajasthan is the highlight of a pleasant cross-culture romance.

SEPT 16, 2007 – DOES ANYONE KNOW how old AK Hangal really is? Ever since we started seeing him on screen, he’s been… well, not young, and when he shows up in Bharatbala’s Hari Om as a grizzled coot in a Rajasthani haveli, pink turban and all, you just stand back and gape in wonder at this Energizer bunny among actors. He just goes on and on and on (though, Amitabh Bachchan, at the rate he is going, seems to be on a mission to catch up).

Hangal is simply wonderful in his latest Old Man character, and he gets to anchor the best part of this film when he spins a story of star-crossed lovers to a Frenchwoman who pays an unannounced visit. (She’€™s Isa, and she’s played by the gorgeous Camille Natta, whose legs taper off to an unseen infinity.) “€œAll stories are sad. They must end,” Hangal sighs, “€œBut love goes on and on.” And that’s what Hari Om is about: a quest for an Energizer-bunny love that goes on and on –€“ at least through the duration of a road trip.

Hari Om is the arty, feature-length version of the Govinda subplot from Salaam-e-Ishq, where the actor played a cabbie who falls for his American passenger in the process of ferrying her to her boyfriend. Here, it’€™s an autorickshaw driver named Hari Om (a terrific Vijay Raaz), who gets simpatico with his French passenger Isa, as she traipses around Rajasthan in search of her boyfriend. (Don’€™t you get the feeling that the grand inspiration behind these films is someone’s wicked, what-if twist on Driving Miss Daisy? Namely, what would happen if Morgan Freeman’s chauffeur puckered up and planted a big, wet one on Jessica Tandy’€™s lips?)

But Hari Om — to its credit –€“ doesn’€™t go all out to make you feel good (the way Salaam-e-Ishq did, though that film, unlike this one, was a happy, all-Bollywood musical). Sure, Hari Om has a fairly conventional structure –€“ meaning that it does keep you hanging about its outcome the way 99.97% of the world’€™s romantic comedies do. (In other words, you’€™re asking: So boy meets girl, boy loses girl, but does boy get girl at the end?) But the boy here is fleeing a gambling debt and the girl is dealing with a boyfriend (Benoit, played by Jean Marie Lamour) who may not care for her the way she does for him. They’€™re both lost souls, two victims of fate. So like David Lean’€™s Summertime –€“ where an American woman went to Venice and fell for a local –€“ this is a rom-com for those who prefer their love stories with less treacle, more tartness.

And with a ton of symbolism. I doubt I’ve seen, in recent times, a scene as literal as the one where a grimy Isa strips off her figure-hugging (and delectably slitted) gown, steps under the steady trickle of water in an old tank, and –€“ now cleansed –€“ slips into a ghagra-choli. Get it? She immersing herself in the India experience. Even the character sketches are outlined with the broadest of symbolic strokes: Isa admires the turban on an attendant, ergo she loves and appreciates cultures beyond her own; her boyfriend doesn’€™t, ergo he’€™s a pig. And because he’€™s a pig, his journey to enlightenment will be filled with hardships, a.k.a. cue montage of Benoit on a tractor, Benoit on a camel (and in a turban), Benoit amidst thronging devotees at a temple, Benoit atop a crowded bus. He has to do his share of immersing too, see?

It’s times like this that you wonder if the residents of the former USSR winced at the exotification –€“ for lack of a better word –€“ of their beloved Mother Russia in Doctor Zhivago. (I don’€™t know why this movie is dredging out all these David Lean memories. A throwaway shot of Isa chancing on a pack of monkeys reminded me of Adela Quested’€™s brief encounter –€“ heh, heh –€“ with the simians in A Passage to India.)

Hari Om, similarly, exoticises –€“ for lack of a better word –€“ India. It showcases Bollywood. (Within the first two minutes, we’€™ve seen Khaike paan Banaraswala playing on TV, we’€™ve heard snatches from Hari Om Hari and Choli ke peechhe kya hai, and we’€™ve noted that Hari Om’€™s vehicle is named Madhuri.) It throws in maharajas and elephants and camels and wedding parties. And it peddles the dubious notion that Shah Rukh Khan so memorably ranted against in Swades — that Our Culture Is The Bestest. When Hari Om tells Isa, “€œI think you are Indian. You have a lot of love inside,” it’€™s as if the emotion were an unknown entity in the rest of the world.

But if you get past these constructs so clearly targeted at helping this film cross over –€“ and let’€™s be fair: Indian audiences aren’€™t exactly going to line up in droves for an offbeat Vijay Raaz starrer –€“ Hari Om is a perfectly pleasant entertainment. Bharatbala has a good ear for dialogue, and –€“ not counting an out-of-nowhere slapstick chase –€“ a genuine flair for gentle humour. (Both these gifts are on display in the scene where Hari Om asks Isa if she’€™s a Christian. She nods, and he wonders how her One God could do so much work all by Himself. When he adds that we have thousands of gods in India, I smiled at the image of the Supreme Being as CEO, delegating the task of sustaining the world to His numerous employees.)

And it helps, after a point, that the characters begin to fill in their generic outlines with interesting shades. Isa chides Hari Om about not telling her that gangsters are behind them (to collect the gambling debt), and the next instant, she wants to know what he’€™s going to do now. She’€™s simultaneously aggravated by and anxious for this strange man from a strange land. The lulling rhythms of the film reduce these emotions to flatlines that feel different from the dramatic peaks and valleys we’re used to, but this technique is very effective in giving a new spin to the oldest melodramatic tricks.

Then there’€™s Rajasthan – not the pretty riot of colours familiar to us from Paheli and Lamhe, but the harshly beautiful countryside from Reshma Aur Shera. Hari Om is, in a way, a road movie through Jaipur and Bikaner and Jaisalmer, and the easiest thing the director could have done is to cherry-pick the most photogenic locations to stage his scenes. He does a little of that, sure, but he also takes us through the mud houses and the dirt roads and the sleepy villages. The best thing about Hari Om is that it sells an India that simply is; not the India from the glossy brochures but the real India, our love affair with which goes on and on.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: English