What could explain my affection for Sooraj Barjatya’s work? My sweet tooth, definitely. But also his rootedness in an ethos that we think of – maybe “imagine” is a better word – as “Indian.” We may not be that “Indian” anymore, and we may squirm, sometimes, at his insistence on serving us orange juice when we’ve graduated to Patiala pegs – but once we hop on board, it’s like a vacation to someplace where the sun is always shining, where everyone’s so bloody nice. An India far removed from today’s newspaper headlines. You’d have to invent a genre to define Barjatya’s cinema: it’s the attending-a-family-function genre. It’s lovely to meet everyone, all dressed up. We discover a surprising tolerance for certain traditions. And after a while, we start looking at the watch. But as Barjatya’s films don’t come along all that often, we don’t mind.
Even the films he references – or at least reminds us of – are refreshingly Indian. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is about a commoner (Salman Khan’s Prem) who takes the place of a royal (Salman Khan’s Vijay Singh) – but instead of The Prince and the Pauper or The Corsican Brothers, we think Raja Aur Runk and Ram Aur Shyam. There’s a hall-of-mirrors climax – but instead of Orson Welles and The Lady from Shanghai, we think of Mughal-e-Azam and its sheesh mahal. All departments of filmmaking unite in preserving that orange-juice innocence – from the choreography that resuscitates the puppet dance from Chori Chori to the production design that references Madhubani art. And at least for a while, we think of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s innocent cinema, with genial, play-acting outsiders fixing up broken families. Prem, who’s really a stage actor, transforms a bunch of scowling palace dwellers to kids who giggle and hide under tables. He gives them, as the title suggests, the gift of love. Prem even cooks – he’s a bawarchi.
But there’s more. The film opens in Ayodhya (that’s where Prem is from), with images of Ram temples and the Hanuman Chaleesa, and it frequently frames its leading man against the sun, as if hinting at a suryavanshi – when the villain (Neil Nitin Mukesh) makes his move, clouds gather and block out the light. The heroine is called Maithili, which is another name for Sita. (With her swanlike neck, her ability to race through corridors in high heels, and her general air of princessy entitlement, Sonam Kapoor is well cast as Vijay Singh’s fiancée.) And we realise that, after Hum Saath Saath Hain, Barjatya has once again turned to the Ramayana – but in a more glancing fashion. Where that film retold a very similar story of banishment and return, this one merely makes its hero an embodiment of the avatar. Hence the irresistibly catchy opening number (from Himesh Reshammiya) that unfolds during Ram Leela – only, it goes Prem leela. The film is about Prem’s leela.
The traditional Barjatya preoccupation with… tradition is intact, but the royal setting makes it more relevant. After all, these people are even more tradition-bound than the average Indian, their lives governed by unsmiling protocol. (“You think traditions are funny?” Vijay Singh scowls, when asked about the exotic rituals that surround him. That could be Barjatya talking.) And Vijay Singh’s impending coronation lends itself to Barjatya’s penchant for setting his films in the midst of ceremonial bustle. (If you recall, Hum Saath Saath Hain dealt with 25th-wedding-anniversary festivities, and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! was labelled a wedding video.) Other Barjatya staples are visible too –the way he lets his scripts breathe, or the way entire chunks of narrative play out through song. There’s a football match here (it was cricket in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!) that packs in battle-of-the-sexes comedy, song and dance, as well as drama involving an estranged sibling. (Most filmmakers have trouble just finding a place for their songs.)
And yet, he’s not the man who made Maine Pyar Kiya – and it’s not just because, with Vivah, he’s become a better filmmaker. (The cinematography is no longer just about colour and bling, but also space and air and light.) At that point, he liked charged conflict. Alok Nath’s refusal to accept Salman Khan’s hard-earned money, the “rupyon ka mol” scene, is one of the great sinus-clearing dramatic scenes of the 1980s. And let’s not forget that Barjatya introduced the trope of the boy determined not to elope but ask the girl’s father for her hand, something Aditya Chopra reused to great effect many years later, in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. But the history-making success of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! made Barjatya a safer filmmaker – he’s more timid now, he follows a formula. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo reintroduces Maine Pyar Kiya’s Mohnish Bahl-like villain and action climax (the film features the first instance of murder in the Barjatya oeuvre), but the rest of the film follows the format established by Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! All conflict is relegated to the last half-hour, and whatever’s there earlier is underplayed, without the elemental magnitude we usually find in melodramas with these plot points. The mantra is: Never let things get too unpleasant, ugly. Never let audiences forget they’re having a good time, that they’re… attending a family function.
While this may make for great box-office, it’s not consistently arresting cinema. We look at the actors – indie names like Deepak Dobriyal (in the Laxmikant Berde part), Sanjay Mishra, Swara Bhaskar – and think they’ve been cast for a reason. But they’re just filling out chalk-outline parts. It’s like hiring Arnold Schwarzenegger to lift your laptop bag. Only Anupam Kher, as the faithful family retainer, gets something to do. And of course, Salman Khan. If nothing else, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo makes a compelling case for his stardom. The post-Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! Barjatya hero is so virtuous, he’s a saint – you need star charisma to poke a few holes in that halo. (When Shahid Kapoor played the protagonist in Vivah, he was a snooze.) Salman is still smiling that Barjatya smile, that half-smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes, the smile of restraint and benevolent goodness as opposed to the hearty smile of someone who really enjoys living – but he goes past the saintliness and keeps us watching. (He infuses both characters with bits of personality – they do seem different.) And like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, this film leaves us with extra-textual notes about the actor. Prem is repeatedly called “Dilwale,” which is the oddest coincidence of an actor’s film referencing an upcoming film of his rival’s since Vijay’s Puli kept name-dropping Ajith’s Vedalam. Two, Armaan Kohli, who plays one of the bad guys here, was involved in a hit-and-run case the same year as Salman Khan was. Imagine a family-friendly film managing to accommodate both of them. Suddenly, the Barjatya universe seems to have darkened a bit, no?
- Prem Ratan Dhan Payo = the treasure of love; a spin on this bhajan
- Patiala pegs = see here
- Raja Aur Runk = see here
- Ram Aur Shyam = see here
- The Lady from Shanghai = see clip here
- Mughal-e-Azam = see here
- sheesh mahal = glass palace
- the puppet dance from Chori Chori = see here
- Madhubani art = see here
- bawarchi = cook; also, this movie
- Hanuman Chaleesa = see here
- suryavanshi = see here
- Hum Saath Saath Hain = see here
- Ramayana = see here
- Ram Leela = see here
- Prem leela = see here
- leela = [a god’s] play; see here
- Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! = see here
- Maine Pyar Kiya = see here
- Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge = see here
- Bajrangi Bhaijaan = see here
- Puli = see here
- Vedalam = see here
- hit-and-run case = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.