A LOVE LESS ORDINARY
The director and star of DDLJ reunite in a romance that’s disappointing, yet hardly dismissible.
DEC 14, 2008 – THE PLIGHT OF A WOMAN MARRYING FOR A CONVENIENCE and subsequently discovering love in the husband she wouldn’t have otherwise picked out for herself isn’t new to our cinema. In Woh Saat Din (Andha 7 Naatkal) and Mouna Raagam and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the disengaged wife was tempted, at several points, to snap free of matrimony, but what held her back, eventually, was the innate decency of the man she married (not to mention the innate decorum of the institution of marriage itself). Then there was Pandiyarajan’s Manaivi Ready, where the patently undesirable hero married the heroine in a last-minute rescue act (thanks to a missing fiancé), and that too finds an echo in Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. (This title isn’t exactly new either, familiar to us from the Laxmikant-Pyarelal chartbuster in Suhaag).
The reason these old stories are endlessly recycled is that they work so well – their essence just needs to be distilled into a new bottle – and, for a while, it appears that Surinder, the mousy non-hero that Shah Rukh Khan plays here (like the mousy non-hero he played in Paheli), is going to be the lens through which this old story will acquire a new form. Surinder is as anonymous a resident of Amritsar as the people we see in the film’s opening – the vendor of fruit, the sweeper of streets, the seller of milk – and nothing about him stands out, except perhaps the sneakers that clash hilariously with his tailored trousers. Naturally, he knows nothing about women, and you sense his nervousness in their presence when he’s introduced to Taani (Anushka Sharma) and he begins to tug at his tucked-in shirt, adjusting a line that needs no adjustment.
Shah Rukh brings a real sweetness to Surinder. The fussy fidgeting is all there, but couched in an inordinate amount of self-effacement, it comes across less the actor’s quirks than the character’s. There’s a lovely scene where Surinder is about to leave his new bride and set off for work. (She’s still asleep; or so he thinks, as they do not yet share a bedroom.) He writes out his full name and telephone number, in case of an emergency, and leaves the piece of paper on the dining table. Then, after this most practical of actions, he’s stricken by a romantic fancy, and he lays a long-stemmed rose beside the note. He smiles, and you smile with him – but only for that instant, for soon after, he puts the rose back in its vase.
Not for him these overt declarations of passion – despite his undeniable passion for his wife. (When he first laid eyes on her, he felt both pleasure and pain, “Achcha bhi lag raha tha, aur dard bhi ho raha tha.” Several of Chopra’s lines cut straight to the bone, with minimal fuss.) Love, for Surinder, is simply the fact that Taani stopped sulking and made a cheerful appearance when his office colleagues dropped in for drinks and dinner, to celebrate his marriage. As he movingly confesses later, she didn’t embarrass him in front of them – and a love that encompasses more than this, he doesn’t know and he doesn’t need. Surinder, at this moment, could be speaking for millions of men in arranged marriages, to whom the concept of love isn’t so much an intoxicating drug as a comfortable armchair by the fireplace to return to at the end of the day.
Taani, however, wants more. (Anushka Sharma makes an impressive debut, investing the corniest of lines with sparks of genuine emotion.) When she reaches Amritsar, Surinder holds out a hand as she’s about to get off the train, but she ignores the gesture. She appears, at first, stubborn in her determination to feel sorry for herself. But very soon, she pulls herself together and decides to make the most of the situation. (In another beautiful line from Chopra, she reasons that it isn’t fair to direct her anger against God, or Rab in this case, towards poor Surinder.) All she wants is some time to kill her old self – the self that believed in love as an intoxicating drug – and become a new person. These early scenes are remarkably unhurried depictions of the adjustments people need to make when they get married – and not just with respect to the other person.
And then I don’t quite know what happened. It’s as if Chopra realised the movie he’s making isn’t quite the Shah Rukh Khan starrer the public wants to see – and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi takes a sharp turn and heads rapidly south. Surinder doesn’t want Taani to become a new person, because he’s fallen for her older self. He wants the old Taani to love him back – and so he decides to become a new person. If this all sounds insanely convoluted, you have to see how it plays out. Out of nowhere, we’re deposited in Navrang territory, where Mahipal made the best of a perpetually unavailable wife by reimagining her as his terpsichorean muse (which, of course, is just another way of pointing out how love can sometimes make us look at people differently, not as how they are but how we want them to be).
Here, in a gender-bender twist, Surinder decides to double as (oh, you’ll never guess the name he adopts!) Raj, an obnoxious punk in tight jeans and tighter tees. Surinder may not be the man Taani wants, so instead of doing what a normal person would do – that is, either wait for Taani to make good on her decision to change, or change himself in little ways that will gradually endear him to her – he decides to pose as someone else altogether. Raj is Surinder’s Tyler Durden, a creature erupted from a wacked-out id, tapping all of Surinder’s coiled energy and unleashing it with near-nuclear intensity. At least, that appears to be Chopra’s conceit – and had his execution matched this conception, we might have had a memorably surreal love story.
Unfortunately, Raj is little more than a standard-issue Shah Rukh Khan character, and it’s awfully hard to see why Taani would begin to fall for this annoying man-brat instead of the sweet, patient adult back at home. (Raj is Taani’s partner in a dance competition – don’t ask! – and she conveniently omits to mention she’s married.) It isn’t often that a film hands over, on a platter, the essence of what’s going wrong with it, but Surinder’s BFF Bobby (Vinay Pathak, whose clothes possess more colour than his character) actually voices our concerns, wondering how Surinder could expect Taani to fall for him when he refuses to demonstrate his love, and when Raj does nothing but demonstrate his love.
There’s a very twisted kind of masochism at work here (or perhaps it’s sadism, viewed from the other end), and at times, Surinder appears a benign version of the aggressively psychotic lovers that were once Shah Rukh’s specialty. (It’s just that, here, instead of doggedly pursuing someone he loves and who doesn’t love him back, he invents a new persona to achieve these ends.) Raj begins to hog huge chunks of screen space, and by the time we return to Surinder, we’ve completely lost track of why we were rooting for him in the first place. Chopra hinted to us – via Salim-Sulaiman’s foot-tapping track, Haule haule – that Taani’s change of heart would occur slowly, but this development is pulled off so suddenly and with such a graceless invocation of the titular being that you wonder why Raj was brought into the picture at all.
It’s one thing to point to God – as Surinder does – just as we’re beginning to roll our eyes, when Taani doesn’t see that Raj is actually her uncool husband trying very hard be cool. The One Up There is scripting this story, we’re told, and we run along with this conceit. (If He wants Taani to see Surinder as Raj, who are we to argue?) But by the end, this higher power is (quite literally) reduced to a deux ex machina, a fatuous device brought in so we can finally haul our cramped butts off the seats and head home. It doesn’t help that, by this time, there’s very little energy in the film (yes, despite Surinder’s job at a power company), and even the final dance competition is as dull as something put up by a second-rate duo on Nach Baliye. (Perhaps Chopra spent all his resources staging the showstopper that doffs a loving hat to older generations of Hindi cinema.)
A bigger problem, though, is that we slowly begin to feel that neither Surinder nor Raj deserves Taani. In the film’s best scene – which, ironically, occurs just after the film’s worst, involving a bout of Sumo wresting – Taani tends to Surinder, who’s injured himself while attempting to do something nice for her. She pleads with him to stop trying so hard to make her happy, because she is happy, even if she isn’t always grinning like a maniac – and you can sense what a horrible situation she’s in. It would have made her decision easier if her husband had simply forced himself on her, but against such superhuman decency, she’s helpless – and you see how she’s struggling with a deadly cocktail of guilt and gratitude and fear (that she may never be able to return his favours and his kindnesses).
The scene should have rightfully ended there, but because this is a Shah Rukh Khan movie, he gets a nonsensical coda about his love for her, which is both redundant (because he’s already told us about his feelings, oh, about a few hundred times) and (in light of what’s just transpired) downright insensitive. This is her scene, her point of view, and we’re still being manipulated around to absorb his viewpoint. And you begin to wonder if Chopra is any different from the makers of olden-day love triangles, to whom heroines were simply ping-pong balls to be shuttled back and forth between the heroes. There’s a stretch where Taani turns into a domestic dervish – washing clothes, rinsing dishes, scrubbing floors – and you completely empathise with her, because if she didn’t find some way to work off her frustrations, she’d go mad, considering she isn’t getting an iota of assistance from the screenplay.
What keeps us watching, eventually, is the anticipation of the occasional moment of charm (watch out, especially, for the end credits, where Shah Rukh is delightful), and I must say I continue to be intrigued by what appears to be Yash Raj’s ongoing mission to neuter the Hindi film hero. When Surinder and Taani go to the movies, he’s the one who sobs through the typically teary dramas, while she prefers the full-on masala entertainers where one he-man can apparently take on an entire village. And speaking of action, this film’s equivalent of a fight sequence occurs when Taani is insulted – but instead of Raj galloping to her rescue, she hops on a motorbike and avenges herself. (He sits behind her, petrified, holding her purse.) In a subsequent scene, Bobby explains to a bewildered Surinder the meaning of the word “macho.” The only cut more unkind may be that, even without heels, the heroine towers over the hero.
Copyright ©2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.