There are films with eye candy. And then there are the Dharma films that deposit the eye at the confectionary store. Katrina Kaif is only the third most beautiful thing in Baar Baar Dekho, after her lavish Delhi home, whose lawns appear manicured by Toni & Guy, and Sidharth Malhotra. If I looked like him, I wouldn’t have the time to bother with the emotional upheavals in my life. I’d be too busy beating off to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Which is not to say that people who belong in the pages of Architectural Digest and Vogue shouldn’t have problems. Imitaz Ali’s dramas consistently employ the prettiest of actors, whose lives (and loves) turn increasingly ugly. That doesn’t happen here. The plot points sound drastic. A marriage you’re not prepared for! An extramarital affair! Divorce! Death! And most hideous of all, your wife leaving you for a far-less-attractive man! But the screenplay is the equivalent of a perfume saleswoman who waves a fragrance strip in front of your face for a few seconds before presenting the next one. Nothing lingers long enough to make you buy it.
For instance, the fact that the Sidharth Malhotra character, named Jai Varma, is a mathematics professor. We buy that the girls in his class can’t get enough of him. But we don’t buy the parabolas he’s drawing on the board. The mathematics is completely redundant to the time-travel storyline. It’s not as if Jai, when trapped in a sci-fi future filled with holographic gadgets, is chalking out equations to get back to the past. It’s just a thing, a character quirk that turns Diya (Kaif) on. Before their engagement, she asks him, “What is 56 multiplied by 93?” When he replies instantly, she begins to breathe heavily and eats up his lips. On their honeymoon, she asks, “3,40,000 ka square root kya hai?” Listen, I don’t grudge people their fetishes. Had Jai been an English teacher, we may have had a bedroom scene with Diya screaming for the spellings of “logorrhoea” and “xanthosis.” Whatever works for you, right? But it’s a cheat when you make the male lead a mathematician and don’t do much with it but get the female lead into the mood. It just makes your film look smarter than it really is.
I didn’t even buy that Jai and Diya would get married, which is where the story takes off – though it’s easy enough to see why the topic comes up. They’re friends from childhood. She says they’re like an old married couple. She says they should get married. He’s stunned. He gapes like a goldfish. But he gives in, despite the offer of a lifetime to do research in Cambridge (under a Professor Ramamurthy, because, of course, all math geniuses are Tam-Brahms). Talking doesn’t come naturally to Jai. He has to be pushed to the wall before he tells people things. He needs to feel suffocated by the happy crowds dancing around him (there are some good songs) on the day before the wedding. He needs to see that Diya expects them to move into the big, fat flat her Hanuman-worshipping father (Ram Kapoor) has bought them, with a big, fat Hanuman idol displayed prominently in the living room. We need to recall Jai’s earlier discomfort with the disparity in wealth. We see him walking up to her house on her birthday. She’s on the porch, squealing excitedly at the big, fat car her father has gifted her, with a big, fat red bow. Jai’s bought her a book. He hides it behind him and just mouths “Happy birthday!”
This is a tasteful scene, and Baar Baar Dekho is a tastefully made movie – if it were a person, you’d want it to do up your flat. Nothing is hammered home, not even the reason for the time travel. It could have something to do with the electrical malfunction at Diya’s home. It could have been the pandit’s (Rajit Kapoor) mischief. Or maybe it was just too much champagne. But restraint alone cannot make you buy into Jai’s acceptance of Diya’s proposal. It doesn’t look like love. It looks like one of those Hollywood contrivances where a boy and girl say let’s get married if we’re thirty and still single. So let’s say she’s bullied him into this. (He calls her bossy. We get the sense that she wears the hot pants in this relationship.) But when Diya learns about the Cambridge offer, on the eve of their wedding, wouldn’t she want him to go? Or at least, wouldn’t she understand why it’s so important to him, more important at this point in his life than settling down? And is he really going to be happy living in that flat?
But then, Baar Baar Dekho isn’t really about falling in love. It’s about falling into responsibility. It’s about making the man understand – through his many, many jumps in time – that being head of the mathematics department at Harvard (this offer comes later) isn’t as important as being with your wife and children. The film’s most telling scene comes when Jai performs a mock-striptease for Diya, and you think she’s already thinking up quadratic equations for him to solve in bed, but they end up on the couch, on either side of their sleeping children. The film makes a big deal about the notion of balance – and indeed everything is balanced in a sense. Jai and Diya have a girl, a boy. Her work involves modern art and traditional imagery. His work involves Vedic mathematics and space travel. The film says work and life need to be balanced too, but it never tells us why Jai can’t move his family to Harvard, why it’s an either-or.
When Salaam Namaste came out, I wondered about its Taming of the Roué scenario. A man who just wants a casual relationship is made to realise that fatherhood isn’t all that bad, and indeed, may make life complete. Now, a decade later, Baar Baar Dekho gives us the scene where Jai has the option to escape after his son is born, but changes his mind the second the infant is placed in his hands. I’m not questioning what are undoubtedly very personal choices. But I’m surprised that these films – for all the surface hipness, for all the sense we get of watching a brave new generation up there on screen, and with the knowledge that these stories aren’t going to find takers in the markets that prefer Bhai films to boy-meet-girl films – consistently end up espousing traditional Indian values. Why doesn’t the couple talk things out, the way normal people do? “So I want X. You want Y. How do we balance this equation?” But no. Jai has to give up Harvard if he’s to be truly happy. The only truly subversive mainstream romance of the last decade may be Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, which said that the heart wants what it wants, even if it means screwing over perfectly decent people.
Then again, maybe these traditional Indian values are due to the fact that these films are essentially reworkings of the traditional Hindi film. These filmmakers (the director, here, is Nitya Mehra, but I also include the Akhtar siblings, among others) want to be like the twentieth-century writers who recast the nineteenth-century novel. They want to be like Godard, who left his auteurist signature over Hollywood genre product. But unlike, say, Anurag Kashyap (I’m thinking of his Gangs of Wasseypur sagas), they don’t have a feel for masala tropes and their films end up looking like a high-minded thesis proposal: “Sagaai, Judaai and Everything In-between – A Postmodern Perspective.” Baar Baar Dekho gives us a scene with saat pheras (and the meaning behind the ritual), the declaration that a couple is destined to spend saat janams together, a scene around the mother’s funeral pyre, a “Congratulations, beta hua hai” scene, and even the plotline about a neglected wife ending up with a more understanding and supportive husband, which is at least four decades old, if we recall Aap Ki Kasam. These films end up chasing a unicorn named Tasteful Melodrama. They’re Bollywood films for those embarrassed to watch Bollywood films. Even the violins walk around on tiptoe. It’s Indian cuisine for those who don’t want to sit down for aloo parathas at a dhaba and lick the ghee off their fingers, preferring, instead, to book a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves potato pancakes infused with artisanal butter. The form raises a middle finger to the content. The content sniggers right back.
Diya doesn’t get her fingers dirty either. She may be the only artist whose paintings emerge fully formed – there’s not a scene where we see her in front of an easel, her printed halter neck tunic from Zara (thank you, Elle) smudged with oils. But even with a paintbrush tattooed on her forehead, Katrina would not have been any more convincing. Cinematographer Ravi K Chandran, as always, infuses the frames with air and light – he dissolves the distance between actors and audience. (When the blue seas of Thailand rippled on screen, I felt I could reach out and touch the water.) But his greatest achievement may be that he did not end up ROFL-ing, clutching his stomach, while watching his heroine shed tears and issue this ultimatum: “Main yahaan se gayi to kabhi vapas nahin aaoongi.” Sidharth Malhotra fares slightly better. In most scenes, his brief is: “Look dazed.” It’s a cinch. He’s had about four years of practice looking dazed now. The film’s best relationship moment occurs between Jai’s friends, played by Rohan Joshi and Sayani Gupta. We see what actors with rhythm, comic timing and the ability to laugh through tears can do with a scene that lasts barely a minute. Still, Baar Baar Dekho isn’t bad. Just bland. And pretty. Very, very pretty.
- Salaam Namaste = see here
- Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna = see here
- sagaai = engagement
- judaai = estrangement
- saat pheras = see here
- saat janams = seven births
- beta hua hai = It’s a boy.
- Aap Ki Kasam = see here
- Gangs of Wasseypur sagas = see here and here
- “Main yahaan se gayi to kabhi vapas nahin aaoongi.” = If I leave, I’m never coming back.
- Elle = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.