Can a mediocre movie also be brilliant? After seeing Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart is Yours, 2002), I'm compelled to say "yes."
For the first 90 minutes or so, this film's stock characters and formulaic situations provide at best a pleasant time-pass if you happen to be in a particularly indulgent and non-critical frame of mind, or happen to be (as I am) a big Preity Zinta fan. DHT is the story of the loving sisters Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) and Shalu (Preity, looking too adorable for words). Although neither sister knows it, Shalu is actually Nimmi's half-sister: she was born to their father's mistress, while Nimmi was born to his wife Sarita (Rekha). When the father and mistress are mortally injured in a car accident, Sarita unwillingly agrees to raise the infant Shalu as her own. But Sarita can't look at Shalu without reliving the bitterness of her betrayal by her husband, and so Shalu grows up and blossoms into Preity Zinta without ever experiencing maternal love. Instead, it's her sister Nimmi who comforts Shalu when she is sad or hurt or feeling alone, and so a fierce emotional bond has developed over the years between the two sisters:
Shalu's only other friend in the world besides Nimmi is Sameer (Jimmy Shergill), a puppeteer, who has been madly in love with her since childhood but has never revealed his feelings.
Enter Dev Khanna (Arjun Rampal), the tall, handsome son of a fabulously wealthy industrialist (Alok Nath). Dev has come to town with his father at Shalu's urging to investigate the exploitation of local farmers. The cause is factory managers Roopchand and Khoobchand, two brothers who are not only driving the farmers into bankruptcy but are stealing from the firm, and whose toupees ludicrously evoke a certain Bollywood superstar:
Dev and Shalu meet cute, and Dev begins to be consumed by thoughts hitherto alien to him.
(That's Dev's fantasy Shalu in the silver lamé--the real Shalu favors jeans and t-shirts. One of the fun things about DHT is how many of the songs--this still is from "Chayya Hai Jo Dil"--become vehicles for fantasies, often of multiple characters.)
Shalu comes to return his feelings, but Nimmi also falls for Dev. And this is where the film takes a turn and starts to rework its formula in interesting ways. Warning: spoilers follow.
In the number "Mohabbat Dil Ka Sakoon" ("Love") Shalu, Nimmi, Dev and Sameer sing and dance of love; each thinks their love is being reciprocated, but both women are thinking about Dev, while both men are thinking about Shalu. (The love-song-with-mismatched-objects was also used effectively the following year in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), coincidentally starring Preity.) The gap between Sameer's perception and the reality of Shalu's feelings becomes painfully clear in the next song, "Dil Hai Tumhaara." While Sameer sings "My heart is yours" to his fantasy Shalu (fetchingly dressed once again in silver lamé),
the real Shalu is singing the same words to Dev. (This song also features an amazing, 2-minute continuous take as the camera follows Dev and Shalu around the factory offices.)
The misunderstandings multiply when Dev sends a huge floral arrangement to Shalu's home, and Nimmi thinks it's for her. As Nimmi twirls in ecstasy, the camera focuses on Shalu's misery:
Shalu decides to give up Dev for her sister's happiness. Meanwhile, Sarita goes to Mr. Khanna to arrange Nimmi's marriage to Dev. Khanna-ji--who is fully aware of Dev and Shalu's growing love--is a bit surprised when he hears which daughter Sarita is speaking for:
But as she's leaving the Khanna's house, Sarita overhears Shalu and Dev in intimate conversation. She realizes that there's something between them, and later at home furiously spits out the truth of Shalu's parentage and her own undiminished bitterness. Sarita also angrily accuses Shalu of trying to seduce Dev away from Nimmi. (Rekha is amazing throughout this scene.) Once again, it's Nimmi who comforts Shalu:
Both Nimmi and Shalu are devastated by the evening's revelations. Later, alone in their bedroom, Nimmi asks Shalu if she's in love with Dev. Shalu, unable to bear hurting her sister, claims instead to be in love with Sameer. The next day, Sameer comes by the house with his ever-present puppet Rangeela, and Nimmi congratulates him on his good luck:
Sameer instantly makes plans to propose to Shalu. Meanwhile, Shalu has gone to Dev to urge him, for her sake (!), to marry Nimmi. She then visits Sameer and asks him to participate in the deception:
The situation is now so perverse that it's meta-perverse. Out of love for Nimmi, Shalu is sacrificing her love for Dev; and out of love for her, both Dev and Sameer agree to go along with her plan. Dev will pretend not to love Shalu so that he can pretend to love Nimmi, and Sameer will pretend not to love her so that he can pretend to love her. Sheer genius. The song that immediately follows, "O Sahiba" ("Oh my beloved") encapsulates the situation perfectly: Sameer, Shalu, and Dev sing the title phrase with anguish, while the heedless Nimmi sings it joyously.
Even Dev's father comes to understand what's happening: when he asks Shalu point-blank if she has ever loved Dev, she denies it. He isn't fooled for an instant:
and neither is the eavesdropping Sarita.
Everything comes to a head at the engagement of Dev and Nimmi in the song "Dil Laga Liya" ("I've given you my heart"), spectacularly choreographed (by Jojo and Raju Khan) and filmed (by director Kundan Shah). Throughout the movie, Sameer's puppet Rangeela--like all fools and clowns--has spoken the uncomfortable truth; now Shalu dances in the role of a puppet controlled by Sameer, and in the guise of performing a love song for the engaged couple sings achingly of the truth of her love for Dev. Of course Sameer, Dev, Mr. Khanna, and Sarita all understand the true import of her words; and Nimmi, noticing their reactions, begins to feel a bit uneasy...
"Dil Laga Liya" (music by Nadeem-Shravan; lyrics by Sameer; sung by Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan) is an instant classic, ranking in my estimation with some of the greatest picturizations I've seen. (Note how Shalu-the-puppet magically "comes to life" when she emerges from the center of the Rajasthani dancers like a blossoming flower.) And in fact in last half of DHT, every element of the film--the script, the performances, the songs, the choreography, and Kundan Shah's fluid direction--builds inexorably towards that meaning-packed final song. Wah!
A final word in praise of Preity Zinta. Although she's gorgeous, she's not just another pretty face: she's a skillful, affecting, and adventurous actress who throughout her career has sought out unusual roles. In this film, she's the willful and rebellious (but good-hearted) illegitimate daughter Shalu. In Kya Kehna (1998/2000), also directed by Kundan Shah, and Salaam Namaste (2005), she plays women who become pregnant out of wedlock. In Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), she plays the daughter of a suicide, and in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), a divorcée. Her latest role is that of an immigrant bride who becomes a victim of domestic violence in the fourth film in Deepa Mehta's ground-breaking Elements tetralogy, Videsh: Heaven on Earth (2008). I think she's been underestimated as an actress; her powerful performance is certainly the main reason to watch Dil Hai Tumhaara.