Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bollywood Rewatch 1: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Every new love affair passes through a heady period of infatuation. You want to spend all your time with your beloved, you obsess about them when you're apart, and even their flaws and idiosyncrasies are endearing. As time passes, that early whirlwind of passion can settle into a more sober, clear-sighted, but perhaps longer-lasting admiration and affection. Sometimes, of course, seeing your love through new and perhaps more judicious eyes can prove fatal to the relationship.

So it was with some trepidation that we went back to rewatch some of the films that we first saw early on in our Bollywood viewing, including English Babu Desi Mem (1996), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Hum Tum (2004), Bunty aur Babli (2005), and Vivah (2006). These are all films that we had liked very much on a first viewing, but for some reason had only watched once. Would these early favorites remain so after a rewatch? Not always, as it turned out.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To You, 1999)
Original rating: ★★★ (strongly recommended)
Rewatch rating: ★★ (recommended with reservations)

In my first post on HDDCS in "Bollywood for the curious," I said that the movie "combines the attractions of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's gorgeous settings, the young Aishwarya Rai's astonishing dancing (and astonishing beauty), and Ajay Devgan's understated and affecting performance as the husband." All of those virtues, along with Ismail Darbar's excellent music, are vividly exemplified in the song "Nimbooda." Vanraj (Ajay) sees Nandini (Aishwarya) for the first time as she performs at a wedding, and (as we do) finds her electrifying:


But HDDCS also, to an extent that I must have blocked out, features Salman Khan in a role that I think is meant to be carefree, playful, and flirtatious, but is mainly irritating. Salman plays Sameer, a free-spirited Italo-Indian musician who comes to study at the house of Pandit Darbar (played by Vikram Gokhale; the Pandit's name, we realized on our rewatch, is likely a tribute to the film's composer). Nandini is Pandit Darbar's daughter, and after an initial antagonism Nandini and Sameer fall in love.

In the song "Aankhon Ki Gustakhiyan," Nandini and Sameer flirt with and play lover's pranks on one another during a wedding. Bhansali imperceptibly segues into Sameer's and then Nandini's fantasies, and back to reality. (Sameer's fantasy begins about 2:10 when Nandini leaves the circle of dancers and ends at 2:40, when he burns his hand on the flames of the lamps that his fantasy Nandini had blown out; Nandini's fantasy begins about 3:20 when she is caught in the wrapping of Sameer's turban, and ends around 3:55, when she opens her eyes to see his turban being finished.) The whole sequence, with its swirling movement and color, and its depiction of story and character in song, shows that at his best Bhansali can be brilliant:


When Nandini's father finds out about this budding love affair, though, he banishes Sameer from his house, and arranges Nandini's marriage to the wealthy Vanraj. After the wedding, Vanraj quickly realizes that his wife loves another man, and—despite the profound pain it causes him—takes her to Italy to try to find Sameer.

—Spoiler alert!—

HDDCS was probably the third or fourth Bollywood movie we saw, and I was completely unprepared both for Vanraj's response to the unwelcome knowledge that Nandini loves Sameer, and for Nandini's final choice between the two men (which is utterly unlike the way an American version of the same plot would be resolved).

On a rewatch it's clear that Nandini's connection to Sameer was one of youthful infatuation, and that she has grown and changed over the intervening time. It's not just for reasons of wifely duty that she chooses Vanraj; she has come to recognize that his deep love and devotion, which she has begun to return, are a better basis for a lifelong relationship than Sameer's boyish excitability.

—End of spoiler—

Bhansali makes some major missteps, including having Sameer repeatedly talk to a rumble of thunder that is supposed to be his father in heaven. (His mother in Italy, I appreciated on our rewatch, is played by Salman's real-life mother stepmother Helen.*) To have the thunder respond to Sameer once would be an ambiguous and mildly amusing joke; to have it happen a half-dozen times or more is just silly.

So I'm sorry to say that, while we still enjoyed HDDCS the second time around, its flaws—primarily in Bhansali's conception of the role of Sameer and in Salman's hyperkinetic and over-enthusiastic performance—were much more apparent. Still, what Bhansali does well, he does really well, as in "Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje":


A word should be said here in praise of Bhansali's collaborators Shabina Khan and Neeta Lulla (costumes), Saroj Khan, Natbar Maharana and Vaibhavi Merchant (choreography), and the great playback singers such as Kavita Krishnamurthy ("Nimbooda" and "Aankhon Ki Gustakhiyan"), Karsan Sagathia ("Nimbooda"), and Kumar Sanu ("Aankhon Ki Gustakhiyan"), among others.

More Bollywood Rewatch posts to follow.

Update 10 July 2011: The Bollywood Rewatch post on Vivah is now available.

Update 3 September 2013: For the third post in this series, see Bollywood Rewatch 3: Kandukondain Kandukondain.

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* See FilmiGirl's comment below.

5 comments:

  1. Not to be pedantic but Helen is Salman's father's second wife, not Salman's mother. :)

    I totally agree with your take on Salman's character, although for me I really hated him on first watch and found him more appealing (if still really childish) on later watchings... perhaps because I knew Nandini wasn't going to end up with him in the end.

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  2. Many thanks for the correction about Helen's relationship to Salman, Filmi Girl.

    Re: Sameer, in my memory of the film from our first viewing he was virtually absent from the second half, which probably made him more tolerable. So I was dismayed to discover on a second viewing that my memory had played me false: Sameer is all too prevalent in the second half. That's a major reason we were less impressed with the film the second time than we were on our first viewing.

    Thanks for your comment!

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  3. I like this movie for the music, dance, cinematography, locales (Rajasthan), Ajay and Ash in that order. I must confess that the movie worked for me on a rewatch too ie I saw it again recently nearly after a decade. I think this is one of the best performances from Ajay.

    Good to read posts on bollywood on your blog again!

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  4. Filmbuff, I agree with your list of HDDCS's many virtues. Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies are almost always gorgeous to look at (and listen to), and he integrates the songs into the story with great care: Nandini's playful and vivacious character, especially, is expressed so vividly through her dancing. This was also the first movie of Ajay's we ever saw, and I too think that it's one of his best performances (and most interesting characters).

    But it seems (as Bollyviewer once commented about Yash Chopra) that every Sanjay Leela Bhansali film has a fatal flaw. In HDDCS Salman and his conversations with the thunder were, for me, just too jarring. The tone of those scenes matches nothing else in the movie. And they're unnecessary: the second half would work better, I think, if all of the Salman scenes were cut, and Sameer's life were as unknown to us as it is to Vanraj and Nandini.

    So I'll continue to recommend HDDCS to friends, but after our rewatch I'll have to mentally slap a big Salman warning sticker on the cover.

    Thanks for your comment!

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  5. Hi Pessimisissimo,
    And thanks, for this (still) enthusiastic rewatch! Thanks to you, I enjoyed plunging back into this Bhansali extravaganza. The flaws for me were apparent from the start (Salman...), save on miss Aishwarya's face. But she would make me see almost anything at the time. As a result now, I don't see anything with her.
    cheers, yves

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