BROS AND CONS
Estranged siblings negotiate the ups and downs of blood ties in a ridiculously plotted drama.
NOV 23, 2008 – LEST WE FORGET THAT SUBHASH GHAI IS NO LONGER the gleefully demented showman he once was, and that he’s now less interested in crafting gargantuan entertainment than creating great art, the screen fades to black for an instant during the opening credits of Yuvvraaj – just before the legend, “written, produced and directed by Subhash Ghai.” It’s a solemnly pompous moment that practically prompts you to genuflect, at least to the extent possible amidst multiplex seating, and acknowledge the momentousness of the revelation, that this is indeed the filmmaker behind the film. Even AR Rahman’s score, hitherto spilling forth from speakers in all directions, fades away respectfully into silence – a far cry from the days this director would announce himself over the brassy crescendo of Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s orchestra.
And fittingly, it’s a different kind of orchestra being employed here, a different kind of sound – not the vibrantly emotional spectrum dispersed by the dholak and the sitar, but a more restrained palette, painted predominantly by a mournful cello. Class, it would appear, is the key to Ghai’s work now. The emotions he toys with are still pitched at decibel levels audible throughout the solar system (and his supporting characters are at least as loud), but where he once spread out colourful blankets on a dusty floor so we could hunker down for a nautanki, he now hands us lorgnettes for the opera.
This misguided notion of class is pursued with dogged devotion through the punishing length of Yuvvraaj. (This is one of those sloppily structured films with so much dead air in its frames that, no matter how long, it manages to appear a lot longer.) Ghai tells the story of three estranged, warring brothers – Gyanesh (Anil Kapoor), Deven (Salman Khan) and Danny (Zayed Khan) – but he doesn’t bother to root their conflict in convincing terms. (I’m guessing a sentimental flashback or two about the boys they were before they grew into the men they are would have been recklessly unrestrained. Instead, Ghai goes for class with a dry, distant voiceover.)
Deven loves Anushka (Katrina Kaif), and he enters into a contract with her disapproving father (poor Boman Irani, made to look like the love child of Groucho Marx and Albert Einstein) that if he doesn’t become a billionaire by a specified date, he’ll let go of his love. How does Anushka feel about being treated like chattel? For that matter, what does Deven go through when the date nears and he’s no closer to achieving his goal? Thanks to all the emotional restraint, we never find out. Somewhere in between, Gyanesh falls for Anushka, until informed by Deven that she’s off limits. Gyanesh’s crushing disappointment, needless to say, is callously swept aside, as if classily restrained films such as this shouldn’t bother with anything so vulgar as helping an audience empathise with the plight of a character up on screen.
Like the short-lived device of a narrator who’s apparently giving us a first-person account of the story of Deven and Anushka (she jots down points in a journal, then she transforms into a generic looker-on as the story shifts abruptly to third person), interesting developments crop up in Yuvvraaj, only to be sidelined with a horrifying lack of grace. I perked up at a scene that appeared to indicate that this was going to be some sort of twisted variation on King Lear, when the brothers gather for the reading of their father’s will and the lawyer asks them to demonstrate their love and respect for the departed soul. (Yeah, I know. Subhash Ghai and King Lear. What was I thinking?)
Instead, the film morphs into Rain Man, as the autistic Gyanesh inherits the bulk of the estate, and Deven – who needs to become a billionaire if he wants to marry Anushka – takes him on a trip in order to swindle him out of the fortune. Anil Kapoor, in these portions, is encouraged to mug so madly, it’s unclear if he thought his character was an idiot savant or merely an idiot. It doesn’t help that he has to play his biggest scene quivering between glowering portraits of Beethoven and Mozart, who, with their stillness and their silence, at least escape with their dignity intact.
For all the nods towards Western classical music, the events in Yuvvraaj could just as easily have transpired in a decrepit Mumbai suburb. Ghai sets his story in old-world music capitals like Prague and Austria, and he makes his hero a chorus singer and his heroine a cellist (when we first see her, she’s bowing her cello while bathed in soothing tones of amber, as if the cinematographer was eyeing her through a warm glass of scotch). Ghai leads us to believe that the music itself is going to be a character in his film, an elemental part of its weft and weave – but Deven and Anushka could have been circus clowns and the story wouldn’t have played out any differently.
Rahman perhaps cottoned on to this in his sittings with Ghai, for his generally underwhelming compositions (save for Tu muskura and Manmohini morey) are more free-style Bollywood than anything else, bravely cutting across influences and genres but rarely identifiable with any particular classical tradition. Listening to the audio, I was intrigued by the mini-track Main hoon Yuvvraaj, which integrates Salman Khan with the four-note fortissimo phrase that opens the Fifth of Beethoven, but watching the video left me no clearer about the necessity for union. Or did Ghai really think that, by invoking one of the most exquisitely dramatic pieces of music in the Western world, he’d impart a touch of class to a drama that otherwise has none?
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