The general public was expecting a DDLJ, SRK fans were just praying really really hard that they not get another Mohabbatein (the others can fill in the blanks for what they were hoping for). So after an 8-year hiatus what exactly did SRK and Aditya Chopra deliver? As the film began with shots of streets and surrounds in Amritsar I saw Akki Narula’s name flash by as costume designer and I began to get anxious. What on earth would Akki be designing in a supposedly down-to-earth film? But then a train chugged into a station and we saw a pair of sneakers on trousered legs and I relaxed a bit. The opening scene instantly set the stage for a not quite right marriage – and also a deconstruction of DDLJ where Raj holds out his hand and Simran runs and grabs it as he pulls her onto a train. Here a gauche and awkward man holds out his hand and she ignores it as she steps off the train! (and a child asks – papa yeh kaun hai, Papa replies – Shahrukh, and kid says nahin Papa!)
Surinder Suri is a painfully ordinary man – so ordinary no one would look at him twice on a street. Add to that his lonely state and his introverted geeky nature and you have a truly common man who blends in and no one sees him – least of all his wife, Taani, who is immersed in her own sorrows of having lost a love and a parent, and being married to a man she just does not see, cohabit with, or interact with at all. She ignores Suri and he carries on with his job at Punjab Power, lighting up people’s lives! He is ecstatic at the tiffin she packs for him, this is closest he has come to any woman caring for him. But when she vows to change for him he is forced to take the help of Bobby Khalsa (Vinay Pathak in a fluorescent clothed, spiky haired hairdresser avatar), and endless movies he has watched, to keep her just the way he fell in love with her. Thus is born the Raj alter ego, a small town hick trying to be chic with an outrageous “Jaat” accent. His clothes are loud, his hair spiked, his uncool coolness calling out for attention. I read elsewhere that to make Taani not recognizing her husband in Raj believable, Adi should have given Suri a sardar getup or some other cover-up. But to do that would take away completely from the way Suri was portrayed, as an almost non-existent person, with his introversion apparent in his held in body language, making it almost difficult to look at him. In contrast Raj screams out for attention and draws all eyes instantly. He is the uncool or small town version of every Raj or Rahul SRK has played and indeed the actor can be recognized in this persona instantly. I could sense the comfort level grow in the audience in the presence of the familiar. But nowhere was this seen in Suri and this is what makes the twin personalities believable. SRK mentioned in an interview that as Suri no one would recognize him on the sets of RNBDJ! In fact that persona is the biggest cloak for hiding the star – somehow even the trademark dimples were subdued. So I had no issues with the twin personalities and why Taani never saw them as one – they were like chalk and cheese. Taani was too wrapped up in herself to even notice who this mousy man was – no one noticed him, in fact it was a bit painful to look at him. Giving Suri a beard and turban would actually take away from the pitch perfect way in which the role was essayed. Anyone can hide behind a beard and turban – try doing it without that!
And all this happens in the streets of Aamritsar, inside an old and somewhat derelict haveli, a barber shop, and an auto body shop! Not a single scantily clad woman was in view including the Dancers from Mumbai. Nary a chiffon saree or a sarson ka khet was seen. The clothing was gauche or down market loud for the guys, and ordinary for the girl. The hero washed his own plates and heroine washed her own clothes and even mopped floors. What a distance for Yash Raj Films to have traveled!
What was the point of the movie? I guess it was three fold the way I see it. One was to show that in a hastily arranged marriage achieving some comfort level may need a lot of room. The second was to show that such a woman could and should have freedom to come and go and do what she wants in her day-to-day affairs. The third was to show that the ordinary man with a golden heart, a complete underdog, can and once in a while should, triumph. Was Suri testing Taani by playing Raj and was this duping her regressive? I see a shy man trying to firstly amuse and entertain his wife, and secondly to figure out if his wife, who claims she never can love anyone any more, can have any feelings for him or anyone else. In fact when he thinks she can but not for him, he is willing to step aside so she can move beyond that marriage to be happy. I saw a distinct forward movement from past regressiveness in films and a new direction. So why does Taani then end up with Suri, and what is the whole Rab business? I think the point is that or if you believe in God (or any such entity) it is not because of some physical aspect but something intangible – not unlike the inner self (good heart/soul, what have you) of a person, and way beyond their physical manifestation. That is moving love to a kind of sublime level. So much for trying to get inside Adi’s head! And yes, I do think that this went beyond where DDLJ was in what it was trying to attempt. This film had a soul and if there were any faults they were in the execution.
So how well did it all work? The dialogs got corny, and I wish the dance competition was not the device to set things in motion – although Dance pe Chance rocked on screen. Yes Adi could and should have used a scriptwriter and maybe even a dialog writer – although IMO he did not do too badly with the latter – even with all the ji’s and Rab’s thrown about. The other songs were very well picturized and worked well, including Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte. This one was the tribute song and it had Kajol in a divine Nargis avatar (she drew the most oohs and aahs in the theater), Bipasha as Hema, Preity as Mumtaz (and with a overfluffed soufflé hairdo she was most awkward looking), Lara was luscious as Helen, and Rani rocking as Neetu Singh. Tujh mein rab dikhta was quite beautiful and moving in both versions. The earthy and normal settings and the camerawork were superb.
It would be unfair to say that SRK totally owned the film, performance wise. Anushka Sharma – ooof! She did not have a shielded star debut like Deepika Padukone did in OSO – she had to deliver the goods, without any baring of the goods, and she did an excellent job. I think we are seeing a future star. And she has the most infectious smile and an innocence and a maturity that somehow co-exist. Vinay Pathak was funny as Bobby Khalsa and had an important role in the film that he did in his usual excellent way. SRK played Surinder Suri in a way that will be remembered for years. It was his most endearing performance and he got the body language and expressions pitch perfect. Raj was played as a funny combination of unsure hick/brat/goofball generated out of imagination and that character worked too – although it had none of the uniqueness and vulnerability of Suri. In fact here Adi/SRK do derive a lot from Hrishi Da’s Golmaal where a cool guy is forced to become a geek and goes endearingly over the top with his shudh Hindi, kurta pajamas and oily hair.
The film was full of memorable scenes that stayed with me with long past the three hours in the theater. Suri putting a rose on his note, the putting it back in the vase, eating golgappas to bursting point and then eating a full plate of chicken Biryani cooked by Taani (A1 hai ji!), Raj talking to the Suri mannequin, Taani in Dhoom 3 mode, the USB drive stuck in the laptop, the end credits! I give this film a solid 8/10 for heart and a brave effort to try something different and about common people in a real town.
This review first appeared here.