Silsila (The Affair, 1981) and Lamhe (Moments, 1991) are Yash Chopra films about thwarted love. Both were box-office failures when first released--the first for seeming to condone adultery, and the second for its incestuous undertones. While I didn't have moral objections to either film (although the thought of a middle-aged Viren being romanced by an 18-year-old Pooja in Lamhe is a bit creepy), I find their classic status to be somewhat puzzling.
Warning: spoilers follow.
In Silsila, the writer Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) has just met and fallen in love with Chandni (Rekha); his brother Shankar (Shashi Kapoor), a fighter pilot, has been betrothed to Shobha (Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan) for some time. Knowing little about the film, I still realized immediately that Shankar was doomed, and sure enough, fifteen minutes into the film he's killed in action. When Amit learns that Shobha is pregnant, he decides to save her honor and that of his brother's child by marrying her, and writes a bitter letter to Chandni telling her to forget him--but without telling her why (shades of Devdas).
Amit later meets Chandni again; in one of several unlikely coincidences in this film, she's become the wife of Dr. Anand (Sanjeev Kumar), who saves Shobha's life (but who can't save the baby) after a car accident. Amit and Chandni begin an ill-concealed affair--especially ill-concealed when they all but declare it to their appalled spouses during a Holi celebration. There's a particularly heart-breaking scene where Dr. Anand pleads with his wife for a loving embrace as a sign of her affection; her reluctance tells him all he needs to know. Out of his love for Chandni, though, Dr. Anand goes on a business trip whose thinly disguised purpose is to give her the opportunity to run off with Amit; in one of the most emotionally telling scenes in the film, at the airport Dr. Anand gives Chandni a last look full of sadness before boarding the plane. Shobha, too, realizes what's going on, and discovers that she has grown to love Amit (although, given his coldness towards her throughout the movie, you have to wonder why).
Despite feeling overlong, the film does have some compelling moments. The song "Peheli Peheli Baar Dekha," in which Chandni playfully warns Amit not to get burned by her flame, is a (too short, alas) classic:
And there's a confrontation scene between Shobha and Chandni whose emotional impact is heightened if you believe the rumors that Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha had an affair in real life. But there are yet more incredible coincidences, a totally ludicrous climax (I'll just say it involves a plane crash and the highly improbable rescue of a single passenger, while everyone else on the plane dies) and what feels like a tacked-on resolution.
The film works neither as a latter-day Krishna-Radha fantasy (Amit and Chandni's behavior towards their kind and loving spouses is too self-involved and cruel for that) nor as a tawdry slice of realism (those coincidences, and the plane-crash of an ending). I find that I'm not the only skeptic about Silsila; you can read a kindred (but funnier) review at The Post-Punk Cinema Club.
Lamhe is the story of Viren (Anil Kapoor), who on his return as a young man from England to his family estate in Rajasthan falls in love with his neighbor Pallavi (Sridevi), whom he spots dancing ecstatically in the rain with the other village girls in "Megha Re Megha" (the excellent music by Shiv-Hari, who also did the music for Silsila, is one of the chief strengths of the film). Pallavi is incredibly vivacious, as she loses no time in demonstrating again in the song "Morni Bagaan Maa." It's performed with the great Ila Arun; Pallavi compares herself to a peahen awaiting the call of the peacock, while swivelling her hips suggestively in Viren's direction:
Seeing this from his perspective, we're to be forgiven if we conclude (as he does) that she returns his feelings. Watching a second time, you can also see what's less apparent on a first viewing (and which is entirely invisible to Viren): Pallavi's wistfulness as she thinks of her absent lover, Siddarth (Deepak Malhotra). When Siddarth returns and marries Pallavi, the brokenhearted Viren returns to England. After the couple are killed in an accident, though, Viren has their daughter Pooja raised by his amah (the great Waheeda Rehman) at his estate. Viren only visits briefly each year on the anniversary of Pallavi's death.
Eighteen years later, Pooja (Sridevi in a double role) is a young woman, and she's fallen in love with this remote, emotionally withholding father-figure (c'mon--that never happens in real life!). Viren, though, is highly disturbed by her resemblence to Pallavi. And for some odd reason he thinks that his role as her surrogate father and the 25-year difference in their ages present problems--I can't think why. (Of course, in real life Anil Kapoor was only a few years older than Sridevi.) But despite Viren's repeated rebuffs and his sudden determination to marry his long-suffering Westernized girlfriend Anita, Pooja is undeterred. Yes, it's the classic battle between the woman who is the symbol of the West vs. the woman who is the symbol of India--I wonder who wins?
Since the film involves a double helping of Sridevi, your feelings about it will probably depend on whether you find her irresistibly charming or highly annoying. This is my first Sridevi film, and I have to confess that she won me over as thoroughly as she does Viren. Sridevi's irrepressiblility and the terrific dance numbers (including one in which songs from earlier Bollywood movies are parodied), the striking landscape of Rajasthan and the beautiful Rajasthani costumes (particularly the adornment of the women), make up in part for a film that spins its wheels for most of the second half and whose happy ending may leave you instead feeling somewhat queasy.
Update 23 October 2012: On Sunday, October 21, Yash Chopra passed away in a Mumbai hospital. Our thoughts are with his family at this sad and difficult time.
Update 12 November 2012: In memory of this legendary figure, I've written a post on Six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films.