[Major spoilers ahead. I'll warn you again closer to their appearance.]
Thumbs up for Dahek: A Burning Passion? I don't know, Akshaye. Even the title is awfully dramatic.
Your friend here is right: it's incredibly filmi, and not always in the best way. Here's the story: Neelu (Sonali Bendre) and Sameer (or "Prince," as he is annoyingly called throughout the movie) (Akshaye Khanna) meet cute while mailing their medical school applications. "Cute" is about all there is to their romance, as far as I can tell, but Sonali and Akshaye sold it well enough, so I was on board. Neelu lives with her uncle (whom we'll call Sensible Uncle, for reasons I'll explain in a minute) and grandmother, as well as her parents and a cousin. The whole clan is nosy about her social calendar, and her father is also a smidge on the conservative and rigid side. For example, he's furious when she's out late one night because she might have been off doing something embarrassing to the family.
You said it, dadima!
He lays down the law, and Neelu resorts to the sort of sneaky boyfriend-hiding behavior you've seen in a zillion sitcoms and films.
If you take the phone under the table, your family members will never be able to overhear your conversation with your secret sweet baboo!
Prince is game for the sneaking - and honestly I don't have any idea why he feels the need to hide what he's up to, because he has the sort of doting mother and firm but loving father (Dalip Tahil in an enjoyably avuncular and non-henchman role for once) a movie hero dreams of.
"Tea and puffs!" with a celebratory jab of the fist. This is exactly what Wally Cleaver would do when June told him about the afternoon snack.
Sometimes it's hard to make fun of late 90s clothing, because I remember those years so well, but surely "don't tuck your sweater into your pants" is timeless advice.
Even when Prince gets accepted to medical school and Neelu doesn't [insert grumbling about stupid sexist writing here], their love remains strong and true.
They are a handsome couple, no?
And I thought I was the only person to have imaginary Akshayes!
But OH NO after a few months of cuteness they discover that they're of different religions!
The film itself cracks in two with this divisive reveal!
This is a really big deal, because Neelu has another uncle (Danny Denzongpa) (henceforth known as Intolerant Uncle) who has just come home from prison for murdering someone who dared defy the family! Years ago, his sister (who happens to look just like
Sonali Bendre in gigantic 80s glasses Neelu) eloped with a lower-class boy the family didn't approve of, and Intolerant Uncle was filled with rage at the dishonor to the family, stormed into their apartment, and ran through his brother-in-law with a gigantic sword. His sister, distraught, then stabbed herself. This is all explained in a sepia-ish flashback that made me wonder if somehow it had happened in 1890. Anyway, Intolerant Uncle's two younger brothers Sensible Uncle and Neelu's dad remained in the house with their mother, who is furious at her oldest son. When Intolerant Uncle is released from prison, the household is nervous about how everyone will get along living together again. He is far more conservative than Neelu's dad, and life in the house gets more restrictive, angry, and suspicious. [The spoilers are coming right now and continue for many sentences. If you want to skip them, do a find on the page for the phrase "spoilers over" to jump right to the spot where I continue with the actual review.] When people find out Neelu is dating a Hindu, they flip out, beat up Prince (who then accidentally sets fire to their house, which is why you should never smoke near a haystack), and try to marry her off to a boy of their choosing. Neelu is devastated and takes extreme measures.
Prince is not one to be trifled with, in manner of all good heroes, and absconds with Neelu.
They disappear out of town and get a few more scenes of cutey-pie cohabitation and a song with gypsies. While they're gone, however, things at home continue to tank, as the fathers argue and old wounds are reopened. Soon Mumbai is rocked by communal violence.
Prince eventually picks up a newspaper and is horrified by what's happening. He insists they return to the city and try to sort things out, but before they can leave, the families track them down where they're hiding. Sensible Uncle reaches them first and tries to warn them, but Intolerant Uncle is hot on his heels with his trusty sword drawn. This does not go well, but the police show up and get the couple home, and things seem to simmer down a bit. [A further significant spoiler is immediately ahead.] But alas! Alack! Not everyone in the city is ready to heal, and our protagonists are gunned down by unknown, unseen assailants as they try to have a rendezvous on the beach! The fathers, now faced with the gut-wrenching effects of hatred, weep together at the gravesite, and Shabana Azmi provides a voiceover lecture on the importance of tolerance and respect.
How they got Shabana Azmi involved in this movie, I'll never know. Maybe Filmi Geek can ferret that out for us.
Here are some pretty, palette-cleansing pictures of happier times. And buffers for the spoiler-avoiders.
Apparently Dahek hasn't made much of an impact - there were very few reviews of it online when I went searching to see what other people had to say about it. There's general consensus among the few articles I did find that it's not as good as Bombay, it's redundant and tiresome, and the music is forgettable. (Disclaimers: 1) I have not seen Bombay so cannot speak to that point and 2) my downloaded [legally! see below] file of Dahek had debilitating subtitle lag throughout the central 50 minutes or so, with text coming several minutes after it was spoken, so I missed a lot of the groundwork for the very dramatic final third of the film.) That's a little harsh in my opinion - but just a little. Let's start with the easiest of the criticisms, the music. I agree that the actual songs are a blank; when I went online to listen to them while writing this, I could hardly remember hearing them less than a week ago. They're also full of chintzy orchestration that sounds like bad synthesizer effects. On the other hand, three picturizations are really charming. "Jab Se Tumhe Maine Dekha Sanam" teleports the couple to Rajasthan (I think - I forgot to check the location credits) and is very pretty, with requisite bright colors and nifty architecture. It also has a nighttime pond lit by lanterns and fairy lights, and honestly, who doesn't love that?
"Sawan Barse" follows the pair getting ready for a date, each imagining the other's opinion of their preparations, drenched in the monsoon as they take every form of road transport imaginable throug flooded streets to reach their meeting place.
The other song I liked involves gypsies who give Neelu and Prince snazzy outfits and cajole them into dancing.
The film's first song, a standard heroine-in-sheer/hero-in-suit/standing-in-breathtaking-nature thing, is noteworthy only because any of us could have created it in our sleep
- though perhaps we might not have dreamt up the sweater vest.
As for the rest of it.... I would not be at all surprised to find out that the makers of Dahek hoped their film would Achieve Something Noble - you can feel the capital letters as you watch. And for people like me who don't know much about the Mumbai riots of 1992-3 and who haven't been clobbered over the head with cheesily-phrased lessons derived from them and/or preachy reflections on why they occurred, Dahek might actually have a few good ideas to think about - in a "Bombay Riots for Dummies" sort of way. I bristled at insulting oversimplification of complex history in Amu, and I can't explain why it didn't bother me more here other than that my expectations for Amu were a lot higher than for a random Akshaye Khanna movie I'd never heard of. What I appreciated most here was the emphasis on politicians and other leaders using religious differences as a cover for their power-grabbing. I give the movie no points for elegance, though; on each side a leader actually flat-out says they're using the family/localized turmoil over the couple as an opportunity to smear the other side, planning to murder of one of the pair and them blame the death of "their" member on their enemies. But it never hurts to get a reminder that people love to find reasons to hate each other and that if we'd just stop and think for a minute life would be much more pleasant. Much more links us as humans than separates us. Blah blah blah. Sensible Uncle also gets in some good lines: in trying to calm down Intolerant Uncle's outrage over Neelu's romance, he says "Our religion isn't so fragile that a girl's mistakes will break it." Right on, Sensible Uncle!
By no means am I saying this is groundbreaking work. I'm sure it's trite if you've got a richer knowledge of Indian history and current events than I do. And because there's nothing like a little bloodshed to make your romance seem more special, all the violence and anger really amp up the movie's trauma-drama-o-rama quotient, no doubt. There's a lot of dialogue about love being pure and keeping it free of taint of hatred, that kind of thing. I must have been in the right mood for it, because doomed love, courageous sacrifices, moralizing, and stabbing aren't usually my kind of thing.
One benefit of Intolerant Uncle's outbursts is that Danny Denzongpa got to do most of the scenery chewing, leaving Sonali and Akshaye free to just be a cute young couple and not flail about too much. Apart from her suicide threat and his few lines of confrontation with Intolerant Uncle, they really don't overdo their roles, which is a welcome break from the intensity the filmmakers try to create around them. The first chunk of the movie, focusing on the development of their romance, is very nice, especially for its everyday details about young love that made me go "awwww." I think the film would have worked better if the story had progressed around their families and immediate communities rather than spilled over into the whole city - it's almost as though the filmmakers didn't trust their audience to understand that the families were examples of larger problems and instead decided to just torch everything and be done with it. It would have been more effective if it had been more contained. But isn't that so often the way?
I think the review by Sapna Chhaya on idlebrain.com says it best: "On the whole it is not a very good movie, but I liked it. What can I say? I *love* emotional romances." I don't necessarily *love* emotional romances of the trauma-drama variety, but I enjoyed this one, maybe powered by my attachment to the movie generated by the charming first hour...oh, alright, fine, and a soft spot for Akshaye Khanna when he isn't yelling.
Note to the Internet Movie Database: you're correct in thinking I often look up information about Doctor Who, and "Exterminate! Exterminate!" is actually suitable dialogue for this movie, but this time I was searching for Dahek, not Dalek. Thanks for the suggestion, though.
Note to self for later: rewrite this movie, swapping out Hindu/Muslim communal violence for Christopher Eccleston and a Dalek invasion of Mumbai.
Dahek is available at Jaman.com.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
[Major spoilers ahead. I'll warn you again closer to their appearance.]