Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made in Heaven, 2008) is a film that divides people. At least it divides me from most other people, who hated it. Here are some sample responses:
"...a disappointingly ordinary and sloppy script that is not at all engaging beyond the first few minutes..." (theBollywoodFan)In fact, PPCC's savaging dissuaded us from trying to see the movie in our regional Hindi cinema. We bought the DVD, of course, being the helpless Shah Rukh Khan fans that we are, but it was with some trepidation that we popped it into the machine.
"...nothing but mediocre fluff..." (Bitten By Bollywood)
"...it's not bad - it's terrible." (The Post-Punk Cinema Club)
And while RNBDJ isn't a timeless masterpiece of cinematic art, it isn't terrible. Despite its occasional weaknesses, implausibilities, and (as Beth points out in her mixed review) somewhat heavy-handed religiosity, we actually found it to be highly enjoyable.
As the film opens, Surinder Sahni (Shah Rukh Khan)--a quiet, ordinary office worker--is bringing home his new bride Taani (newcomer Anushka Sharma). It's a shock to see SRK so radically deglamorized as Suri:
We sense that something is wrong, and soon discover that Suri and Taani's marriage has been hastily arranged. Suri had been attending Taani's wedding as a guest of her father when the news came that on the way to the wedding the groom and his family had been killed in a horrific bus accident. Taani's father collapses, and on his deathbed begs her to marry Suri so that he can die in peace. Completely numbed by the loss of her fiance and the impending death of her father, Taani agrees.
So not only do Suri and Taani barely know one another, Taani is in deep mourning for her fiance, her father, and for her former life:
Suri is older, and a painfully shy man. He's fallen instantly and hopelessly in love with the vivacious Taani, and expresses his wish for a "soft, sweet, slow" blossoming of affection in the delightful fantasy song "Haule Haule" (sung by Sukhwinder Singh; soundtrack composed by Salim-Sulaiman). But Suri realizes that a declaration of his feelings would be horrendously inappropriate. Not only that--Taani tells him straight out that love is out of the question:
So they sleep separately and eat meals in uncomfortable silence. Taani's one pleasure is going to the movies; there Suri sees her laugh for the first time since their marriage. When Taani starts attending dance classes, it gives Suri a (bad) idea: having his salon-owner buddy Bobby (Vinay Pathak) give him a makeover in the style of Taani's filmi heroes. In his new guise--torn T-shirts, tight jeans, gelled hair, and sans moustache--Suri goes to the dance class and by unlikely coincidence gets paired with Taani. Suri calls it the hand of God (we know better: it's the hand of screenwriter-director Aditya Chopra). Suri introduces himself to Taani with the generic filmi name "Raj Kapoor"; and it's not just Raj's clothes and hair that are different from Suri's, but his personality. Suri may be introverted, but Raj is brash and outspoken to the point of obnoxiousness.
Initially it's going to be a one-time thing, but as it turns out Suri actually enjoys being Raj and sharing the dance classes with Taani. Raj clearly has a freedom that Suri has never allowed himself; and he can express feelings that Suri could never utter:
Taani is at first angered by Raj's outrageous flirting and his clueless incompetence on the dance floor, but soon comes to realize that under all his flash he's really a decent guy. In "Dance Pe Chance" (sung by Sunidhi Chauhan and Labh Janjua) we're treated to the amusing spectacle of Taani (Bollywood novice Sharma) schooling the awkward Raj (in reality the graceful and athletic superstar SRK) in Bollydance moves.
Suri also comes to realize that Raj isn't just liberating for him, but for Taani as well: she can dance, laugh, and recover something of her former high-spirited self in Raj's company. And here is where the flaws in Suri's plan become apparent. Taani enjoys herself so much with Raj that Suri starts to become jealous--of himself! He reads her newfound happiness with Raj as a sign of her dissatisfaction with Suri, and decides to force her to choose between them. As Bobby points out, this false choice is highly perverse:
And this is where my logical brain centers, disarmed for most of the film, started to make their presence known again--but not before the gut-wrenching scene where Taani makes her choice.
Memsaab, in her insightful review, draws parallels between RNBDJ and a Barbara Cartland novel, Desire of the Heart. And she's exactly right: RNBDJ is a male romance, in which the characters of Suri and Raj represent the split in the male psyche: the geeky, quiet, considerate Suri, and the would-be hero Raj. Of course, Raj (being Suri) is fairly inept at playing the hero; and Suri (being Raj) eventually rises to the occasion and reveals the truth of his feelings to Taani.
All the principles give excellent performances in RNBDJ. It would have been easy for Shah Rukh to make Suri and Raj two entirely distinct characters, but SRK does something subtler: he lets us see the Suri inside Raj, and the Raj inside Suri. (His drunken conversation with himself just before the interval gets an instant nomination for my all-time SRK highlights disc.) Anushka Sharma believably negotiates Taani's rollercoaster of emotions; she's utterly charming in the role of an ordinary woman who finds herself in unexpectedly deep emotional waters. And Vinay Pathak does a great job as the volatile Bobby--if only all of us had friends so loyal. (Amazingly enough, we'd seen Vinay in Fire (1996), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1998), Water (2005), and Aaja Nachle (2007), and didn't recognize him.)
The film is beautifully shot, and (a few lapses such as a magically vanishing scratch on Suri's forehead aside) well written. The Bollywood references are mind-bogglingly dense. As one example, when Raj takes his leave of Taani after the first dance class, he says, "Kabhi alvida naa kehna...hum hain rahi pyar ke...phir milenge....chalte chalte" (Never say goodbye...We are travellers on the path of love; we'll meet again as time goes by). This utterance includes references to no fewer than 8 films. Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna is the title of a 2005 film starring SRK, and a phrase from the title song of the 1976 film Chalte Chalte. "Hum hain rahi pyar ke" is a song from the 1957 film Nau do Gyrah starring Dev Anand; it is also the title of a 1993 film starring Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla. Phir Milenge is the title of a 2004 film starring Salman Khan and Shilpa Shetty. Chalte Chalte is the title of no less than three films, from 1947, 1976, and 2003 (the last starring SRK and Rani Mukherji); it's also a classic song from the film Pakeezah (1972). So one line has invoked all three superstar Khans, plus at least five vintage Bollywood films.
The references only get denser in the number "Phir milenge...chalte chalte" (sung by Sonu Nigam), which pays tribute to five Golden and Silver Age actors--Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, and Rishi Kapoor--and their leading ladies. During a dull movie Taani dozes off and suddenly imagines Raj hijacking the onscreen action (with help from Kajol, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta, Preity Zinta and Rani):
Despite the inevitable echoes of its hilarious predecessors "Dhoom Taana" from Om Shanti Om (2007) and "Wod Ladki Hai Kahan" from Dil Chahta Hai (2001), this number works brilliantly on its own terms. theBollywoodFan has detailed 28 specific references in this song in a highly enjoyable YouTube playlist; the main ones seem to be Shree 420 (1955), Johnny Mere Nam (1970), Teesri Manzil (1966), Aap Ki Kasam (1974), and Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (1977).
So, as must be apparent, I join with Memsaab in disagreeing with the negative consensus on the film. I've already watched it three times, and I'm sure we'll return to it again in the future. Or as the film has it, phir milenge chalte chalte...