Bollywood, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.
Director: Rohit Shetty
Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol, Varun Dhawan, Kriti Sanon
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Starring: Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra
In Calcutta, you can tell that winter is coming from the ads they play at the cinema. Since about mid-October, the number of commercials for thermals has been on the rise, so much so that they now comprise a majority of all ads. Rupa Torrido has hired a polar bear on the melting ice cap to be its spokesmammal; it might show up in the company’s CSR budget. After years of making separate ads for either gender, Macroman and Macrowoman come together for some dirty dancing to sell their Wonder Thermals. Dollar Winter Care promises “style in, sardi out,” and Lux Inferno urges you, “sardi bhagao, modern ho jao.” Meanwhile, a poor chap tries to control his shivering long enough to slip a ring on his fiancée’s finger while all her relatives tell each other knowingly, “uske paas nahin hai,” in the Dollar Ultra Thermal ad.
It all panders to the Bengali paranoia about catching a chill—to be fair, though, a good thermal (and maybe a pair of socks) is all you need to face the worst of the Calcutta cold; you can save the mufflers and monkey caps for when you visit a place with a real winter. All these weeks, the ads have seemed incongruous, what with the mercury refusing to dip below 20 degrees.
Friday, 18 December, however, the day of the great Bollywood duel of 2015, with two of the year’s biggest releases featuring some of the film industry’s biggest stars going head to head at the box office, was the coldest day of this winter so far, a miserable morning with rain and cold winds that would fit right into Didi’s plans of turning the city into London. It was a day for the snooze button, the coffee machine and the fat novel you’ve been meaning to finish. It was not a day to sit in an air-conditioned auditorium that was somehow colder than outside, watching Bollywood’s two latest ads for True Love®.
It was a day for the snooze button, the coffee machine and the fat novel you’ve been meaning to finish. It was not a day to sit in an air-conditioned auditorium that was somehow colder than outside, watching Bollywood’s two latest ads for True Love®.
In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, True Love is sold as being powerful enough to make years of insults, assassination plots and incarceration worth the effort. In Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale, it is powerful enough for two people to refuse to move on to other people for 15 years after a misunderstanding of epic proportions. In both films, it is put to the test in much the same way it has been in fiction for centuries—through physical separation, through intrigue, through tradition, through miscommunication, through stubbornness, through time. In both cases, it prevails, in principle if not in practice.
It’s not just their celebration of True Love that is common to the two films. There is also a predilection for the colour saffron (the flag of the Marathas, and ‘Rang De Mohe Gerua’, which Shahrukh Khan has offered the BJP to use as a tagline), an almost Pavlovian association of love with wetness (almost all the romantic scenes in either film occur in, or around, water) and the fact that the two films have wafer-thin plots held together by spit, glue and the tropes of mainstream cinematic romance. And that both films have faced ridiculous protests from right-wing groups seeking their own 15 minutes of fame (though the argument that Peshwa Bajirao had better things to do than participate in Sanjay Leela Bhansali song-and-dance numbers is one of the more sensible ridiculous reasons to ban a film I’ve heard in recent times).
I started the day with Bajirao Mastani for logistical reasons; there weren’t decent seats to be had for love or money in the first three shows of Dilwale. I suspect, though, that the experience would have been harder to sit through had the order been reversed. After all, the cynicism that overpowers your senses as you watch Rohit Shetty’s magnum opus—well, the bar is set abysmally low; Golmaal was his best film before this—will render you unable to watch any love story for at least a few days.
Shahrukh Khan and Kajol were the posterpeople of romantic cinema of the era, which one internship applicant at Kindle once described as “the golden age of Indian cinema”. (He didn’t get the internship.) Their epic love stories transfixed a generation, made a bunch of movies superhits, and probably help pay off many a hafta to the underworld.
The final piece of dialogue in the film has Shahrukh Khan telling Kajol, as cinema audiences worldwide erupt in glee, “Bade-bade deshon mein aisi chhoti-chhoti baatein hoti rahti hain, señorita.” You almost expect there to be a signboard in one corner blinking “APPLAUSE”. Of course, there is no context to the line, no reason it should exist in the movie other than to pander to the nineties nostalgia that seems to be ubiquitous among the multiplex-visiting 18-49 demographic.
Shahrukh Khan and Kajol were the posterpeople of romantic cinema of the era, which one internship applicant at Kindle once described as “the golden age of Indian cinema”. (He didn’t get the internship.) Their epic love stories transfixed a generation, made a bunch of movies superhits, and probably helped pay off many a hafta to the underworld. In Dilwale, the fact that they haven’t played an onscreen couple in five years and haven’t romanced each other in 14 is used to con a bunch of people into queuing up for a Rohit Shetty film. It worked, of course; the film had made Rs 100 crore before I could finish writing this review.
One crucial difference between the Big Fat Love Stories of the ’90s and Dilwale is the absence of cockblocking parents; in a rare cinematic acknowledgement of the passage of time, Shahrukh Khan and Kajol are the elder statespersons of the film, who’ve tragically lost their (single, presumably widowed) fathers in a shootout and had to raise a sibling each from childhood. Said siblings fall in love, but the only obstacle to their happily-ever-after is the fact that their elder bro and sis, who fell in love during the flashback when they met as rival gangsters in Bulgaria (don’t ask) but fell out following the aforementioned misunderstanding, haven’t had their happily-ever-after.
This is mindless entertainment at its most inane. I guess you could call it comfort cinema.
Instead of resolving the issue in five minutes, the protagonists (Varun Dhawan and Kriti Sanon) and the brain trusts that are their best friends resort to all sorts of shenanigans that lead to further misunderstandings and rona-dhona, punctuated by some utterly unnecessary comedic interludes and a heartfelt speech about how expensive it is to patao a girl these days, and after every effort has been made to infuse as much tension as humanly possible in such a situation, they resolve the issue in five minutes and live happily ever after.
This is mindless entertainment at its most inane. I guess you could call it comfort cinema—a simple story which demands very little from its audience, easy to chew on (if not digest), without any unpleasantness to speak of (despite there being multiple gangsters in the film), a progression of events that neither leaves you in any doubt about what is to come nor asks you to question any of your preconceptions about life and love, which touches familiar emotions and whose entire appeal stems from feelings of nostalgia among its consumers.
Bajirao Mastani almost seems adult in comparison, even though it is almost as paint-by-numbers as its rival. The epic love story of Peshwa Bajirao I and Mastani, the daughter of the maharaja of Bundelkhand, it has all the ingredients of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali production: too much investment in scenery and costumes and too little in competent actors or scriptwriters, an emotional register that ranges from angsty to overwrought, elaborate song-and-dance sequences that serve no narrative purpose whatsoever.
Bajirao Mastani has all the ingredients of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali production: too much investment in scenery and costumes and too little in competent actors or scriptwriters, an emotional register that ranges from angsty to overwrought, elaborate song-and-dance sequences that serve no narrative purpose whatsoever.
It is a period film, and a love triangle starring the three biggest stars of the current generation of Bollywood. For the most part, it follows the template of both. There are (underwhelming attempts at creating) epic battle scenes—the Marathas seem to have either immortal horses or an infinite supply of mortal ones to make the peshwa’s penchant for lightning marches feasible—sequences and slogans to demonstrate the superior swag quotient of our hero, much chatter to place events in historical context, talk of Delhi not being too doorast. There’s the fatal attraction between Bajirao and Mastani, established through the latter demonstrating considerable spunk and non-traditional behaviour to distinguish her from his sanskari wife Kashibai, and the immovable forces of tradition that come in the way of their immortal love, and the intractable conflict between the two.
What keeps the whole thing from going off the rails is an excellent performance by Ranveer Singh, who thoroughly inhabits his role, getting both the arrogance and the passion just right. He somehow manages to simultaneously be larger-than-life and understated, knowing when to chew the scenery and when a simple look is enough. His clashes with his mother and the Brahmins of Pune over Mastani’s place in the royal household are deftly pulled off—here, he’s huffing and puffing about the latest restriction put up by them, telling them that nothing can stop True Love; there, he is trying to put on a brave face on a compromise, having climbed down from his previously intractable position at the threat of a social boycott.
As Kashibai, the good wife who must endure her husband’s public dalliance, Priyanka Chopra has more emotional ground to mine than Deepika Padukone’s one-note Mastani, and turns in a far superior performance. Two scenes featuring her are among the film’s best: in one, she is talking to her mother-in-law about the nature of love, in another, she tells Mastani exactly what she thinks of her, calls her the choicest names, but then accepts her as part of the family.
What keeps the whole thing from going off the rails is an excellent performance by Ranveer Singh, who thoroughly inhabits his role, getting both the arrogance and the passion just right.
Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between in this film that seems like it is a failed attempt at creating Baahubali-meets-Mughal-e-Azam. However hard it tries, though, it never transcends the boundaries of conventional cinema, never challenges the roles that the dynamics of a love triangle assign its participants. The weepy, over-the-top ending epitomises all that is wrong with the film—far too often do you feel that the filmmakers are trying to push your buttons, to bully you into feeling a certain way.