Half of Dil Chahta Hai (a speculative review)
2001, defective DVD
Starring: Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Preity Zinta, Sonali Kulkarni & Dimple Kapadia
Music by: Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy
Written & Directed by: Farhan Akhtar
Sometimes the powers of the universe conspire against you and they kick your ass.I started off this long weekend all jazzed up about reviewing an Indian film made some time WITHIN the last 10 years. You know, not necessarily something current, but something that folks still remember watching. I had two unwatched DVDs in my collection that qualified: "Yes Boss" and "Dil Chahta Hai."
First I tried "Yes Boss." Shah Rukh Khan has gotten such bad press from the folks I respect that I've been reluctant to see more of his movies. But Kashmira Shah is in it, and I felt I owed it to her to see one of her films...I got to have a very pleasant chat with her at the Gala Showing of "Kaante." And the fact that Juhi Chawla is the co-star -- she's my FAVOURITE human/chipmunk hybrid -- made it seem like a good weekend movie.
But my DVD player didn't think so. It only got as far as the opening menu before freezing up, probably because the DVD itself looks like Bob Christo might have wrestled with it (and won). So all I know about the film is that, on the cover, Juhi's unspeakable "beret and bandana" combination is an incredible piece of haberdashery that I wish I had seen in action.
So, regretfully, I put "Yes Boss" into my (growing) pile of defective Bollywood DVDs and I pulled out "Dil Chahta Hai" unstead. Several years ago a deluded young man in Toronto's Little India had INSISTED I buy this double-disc set. He said it was an absolutely first class adaptation of "American Pie." The pamphlet in the box mentions that this is part of "new India cinema" -- in other words it's more like Hollywood -- and it had the gumption to quote a reviewer who had only given it three and a half stars out of five. Those endorsements weren't exactly confidence-inspiring, but I decided to finally give it a try.
I began watching it. I started making notes. I even began to enjoy it. Then, just over 90 minutes into the movie...the universe struck me down for the second time in one night. Let me just say that my pile of defective DVDs is now slightly higher and that I will never again belittle Stephen Hawking's black hole theories in a review -- you reap what you sow when you push the wrong people around. But that didn't stop me from reviewing the movie anyway (screw you, universe!) and then SPECULATING on how it might have ended.Do we really need another "buddy-buddy" film? Do men honestly require more justification for just bumming around and doing stupid things, like sticking their yoo-hoo's in freshly-baked pies? I'm a little jaded because, as I write this, my post-frat-boy neighbours are sitting in my backyard drinking beer and singing classic rock songs, accompanied by somebody who cannot play the guitar but still insists on doing so. They are bonding in the most obnoxious way possible. Guys like that have all the justification for their activities that they need, and it helps that they aren't very bright. Do we really need another "buddy-buddy" movie to reinforce their behaviour? Isn't that like giving somebody a new car and a Hawaiian vacation to reward them for pooping their pants in public?
Fortunately, "Dil Chahta Hai" isn't like the Hollywood films that are along the same lines, and it DEFINITELY isn't "American Pie." Taking a cue from "Mohabbatein," it really DOES seem to be about making solid friendships, forming romantic relationships, and actually -- God forbid! -- growing up. Though the boys in the movie DO engage in lots of "guy shenanigans," like having mock fights and constantly trying to embarass each other, their activities are more "Leave It To Beaver" than they are "American Pie." If this DVD wasn't defective I would leave it on my neighbour's doorstep, but they'd probably try to smoke it.
I can't make an informed assessment about this movie because I've only managed to see half of it. All I can do is keep in mind what I HAVE seen, and fit it onto that well-travelled Bollywood plot graph that I've gotten to know so intimately, and to speculate about what I've missed.
Not having all the facts has never stopped me from mouthing off about a movie before.
So, in "Dil Chahta Hai" you have three buddies: Sid, Akash and Sameer. They are physically quite similar -- all of them good-looking, well-built, post-frat-boy types after all -- so I managed to tell them apart using the three ways in which they differ: their character archetypes, their hairlines, and (when all else fails) their eyebrows.Sid (Akshaye Khanna) is the Sensitive Artist. The first piece of art we see him working on is a really bad "tasteful" nude from a Holiday Inn's "Starving Artist" sale. His later works are of a more surreal nature and they look like several different art students worked on them, but they have a BIT of pizazz. Sid is the lollygagger who daydreams a lot and looks like he has been struggling to find himself since he was a child (which might explain his prematurely receding hairline).
After I put aside my stereotype about Sensitive Artists being insecure people who just use their sensitive natures (and receding hairlines) as an excuse to be moody and self-absorbed...well, I started to LIKE Sid. You would not find a character like Sid in a Western film, probably because you would not have sufficient time to develop his complexities. And while 90% of "Dil Chahta Hai" comes across as horribly contrived and fake -- sort of what a "Romantic Comedy Theme Park" would be like, from the way-too-clever dialogue to the colour-coded and spotless sets -- that other 10% is powerful stuff.Sid meets up with Tara, an older woman with a critical weakness: she drinks. She drinks like a fish (assuming that fish drink rum). Despite the fact that she always has booze in her hand, Sid manages to be shocked that her slimy ex-husband got her branded as an alcoholic, thus gaining sole custody of their child. To her credit Tara might have been actually DRIVEN to drink by the loss of her child...but since she ends up in the hospital with cirrhosis of the liver I think we can assume that she has a bit of a drinking problem, and that it goes back pretty far. If the tramps I know can drink three bottles of rubbing alcohol a day and still have healthy livers, I don't see how Tara could succumb without at least one decade of decadence under her belt.
Don't worry, readers, I didn't give anything away by mentioning her cirrhosis. The hospital scene is the first one in the movie and the bulk of the film seems to be loosely-connected episodes from the happier days. This is a pretty cute conceit that works well.While he paints Tara, Sid is teleported to a magical fantasy land thanks to the power of song. In this special place -- sometimes known as the "World Of Computer Generated Images," also known as "Photoshop Filter Hell" -- all the colours are digitally enhanced and Sid gets to frolic with butterflies, bubbles and dolphins. All that's missing are the unicorns. As a matter of fact this song is very sweet and touching, and the picturization is surprisingly relevant (since Sid is, after all, a painter). But you have to wonder how he can concentrate on his work with all that stuff going on in his head. Just one computer generated butterfly is enough to distract me.
On the opposite end of the "sensitivity spectrum" we have Akash (Aamir Khan). He is the Funny Rich Kid Who Doesn't Take Things Seriously But Manages To Hide A Great Wisdom From All But His Closest Friends, Probably In Order To Protect Himself From the Hurt He Suffered Due To Some Sad Event In His Childhood Which I Suspect Will Be Introduced In The Second Half Of The Film. For convenience let's just focus on his most obvoius character trait and call him "The Prankster." If you're having difficulty distinguishing him from the rest of his buddies, just remember that his hair ISN'T receding (much) and that he's got bat-like eyebrows. And he's Aamir Khan, like I said.
Akash provides much of the humour in this movie, and most of it is pretty bad. A common schtick in the film is a variation on a particular comedy prototype, presented here in a distilled form:
AKASH: Hey guys, I have something serious to say. The people watching this film know I am actually going to make a bad joke (because I've done this many times before), but the two of you don't, so listen to my serious statement.
SID & SAMEER: Uh-oh. We're concerned by your somber attitude and will listen to your statement with due gravity, because you are NEVER serious unless something really important is on your mind, except for all those times in the past when you weren't.
AKASH: As a matter of fact I am now telling a funny joke that was obvious to everybody but you, and I am telling it in a deadpan manner. I am doing this to further confuse you as to my intentions, even though it's a joke that even a small child could have seen from a mile away.
SID & SAMEER: We must be silent for a moment and pretend that we still think your joke was supposed to be serious. We are deeply confused by your clever ruse. Oh, wait! Ha ha ha! I get it! Jeez, Akash, you fool us every time!
AKASH: Got you, you morons!
SID & SAMEER: Why do we hang out with you? You're annoying.
Well, they never say that final statement but the rest of the exchange is dead on.One of the few songs I managed to see was one where Akash -- in order to impress Shalini (Preity Zinta), a spunky girl who is, naturally, engaged to a jealous bodybuilder whom Akash hasn't yet seen -- sings a song about what a free spirit he is. It's a really catchy song which doesn't feature a unicorn. During the instrumental portions everybody needs to jump up and down while holding their arms rigidly in the air. Try doing this at home, right now, and you'll understand why most of the dancers don't look happy, and why you only see people doing it about three times before the camera angle changes. Don't let the Bush administration hear about this or they'll have another approved method of information gathering to try out at Abu Ghraib.
This dance number made me realize what I desperately miss in modern Bollywood: the fabulous outfits! In the 60's and the 70's, the dancers -- and especially the singers -- wore outrageous clothes that you would NEVER see on the street. They wore outfits from a drag queen's most opulent fantasies! But nowadays everybody in Bollywood is decked out in bland Gap crud...they look like anybody else you'd see on the street, only paler. What I wouldn't give to see a few of Helen's feathers again!The third buddy in the trio is Sameer (Saif Ali Khan), whose hair is only slightly receding and who looks perpetually anxious. They refer to him on the back of the DVD box as "a believer," but I disagree...he's actually a Desperate Loser. After getting dumped by his horrible girlfriend Priya, he travels to Goa and falls in love with a hippy con-artist named Kristine who never speaks on screen for some reason (a bad lisp? A rivarly with Preity?). After Kristine ties him up and steals all of his money in a scene which contains a shocking piece of sexual innuendo, he falls in love with a woman named Pooja who doesn't think his (admittedly) funny jokes are even remotely funny. His obsession with her develops after only about thirty seconds in her decidedly unpleasant presence. Sameer is a bit of a cipher to me...either the writers didn't know what to do with him or his character gained some depth -- and hopefully lost his childishly ugly "sneaker shirt" -- later in the film.
Which brings us to the moment when the DVD suddenly froze, right in the middle of Tara's horrific birthday party. I screamed. I threw the sleeping cat off my lap. I beat my brow, pounded on the computer, and cursed Stephen Hawking. Then I put on a dress of margosa leaves and performed some mortification rituals to appease Stephen Hawking, all to no avail. "Dil Chahta Hai" was over for me. I could either write my own ending or spend the rest of the evening listening to my neighbours sing "Lola" outside my bathroom window.
I know what I'd LIKE to see happen in the second half of the film -- Hema Malini showing up at Akash's house and doing a crazy bird dance with surprise guest artiste Rambha, -- but I think we should place our bets with the laws of probability as outlined on the Well-Established Bollywood Plot Chart. Let me polish my crystal balls...Sid will continue to be in love with Tara, partly because of the secret shame he shares with Jimmy from "Disco Dancer": he craves being hand-fed by older women. His love for her will be complicated because she is a cirrhotic alcoholic who's twice his age, and no doubt his (otherwise kindly) mother will object.
Meanwhile Tara is probably ACTUALLY falling in love with Akash, and I bet that Akash will find himself falling in love right back...it will be the beginning of his maturation -- the first woman he has ever loved -- but he won't be able to share this monumental milestone with Sid because Sid will hate him because of it. After a vicious fight where Tara is forced to let Sid down gently he will go off to painting school and Akash will go to Australia to oversee his parent's business...there he will run into Shalini again, and now she will fall in love with him too. This will create additional growth opportunities for Akash, who will find himself rejecting this fleeting love affair that he once strived for, while at the same time deciding to reject Tara out of a sense of loyalty for Sid (who he hasn't spoken to for years due to their grudge...a grudge they both wish would end, but which neither has the fortitude to do anything about). This will be one of those "isn't it surprising that the IRRESPONSIBLE character is acting with more maturity than the RESPONSIBLE one" twists.
Then, the distraught Tara -- rejected now by two men, since Sid will no doubt refuse to speak to her after she fell for Akash -- will drink herself into the hospital, which will prompt all three friends to finally reunite to see her. In a touching deathbed scene Tara will reveal to all of them that Akash refused to marry her because of his loyalty to Sid, and Sid will feel horribly guilty for rejecting and underestimating Akash, and Sid and Akash will put aside their differences once and for all and have another "Leave It To Beaver" style fight, probably involving pillows. Hopefully this won't happen in the hospital...I bet it will happen in Akash's apartment which -- from the sounds of it -- is always being circled by crows.
And Sameer...?Well, I don't know about Sameer. Maybe he'll fall in love with Deepa, the quirky girl who is always following Akash around and is obviously based on the "band camp" girl from "American Pie" (though she's much cooler...I thought Deepa was the best character in the film and I wish we'd seen more of her). My crystal ball is cloudy about Sameer's future, I need SOME insight into his personality in order to know what will happen. I'd ask him for a lock of his hair -- to use it as part of my witchy fortune-telling magic -- but I doubt he can spare it.
I can't tell you know disappointing it was to be suddenly jerked away from the Romantic Comedy Theme Park that is "Dil Chahta Hai." It was like getting to the top of the rollercoaster -- where you know things will just start getting good -- and then having to evacuate it due to a politically-timed Yellow Terror Alert. Sure, I was getting really damn sick of the colour blue -- the apartments were blue, the clothes were often blue, the hospital was blue...even the darn GARBAGE TRUCK was blue -- but I was genuinely beginning to enjoy the movie, and I was gearing up for some pretty heavy tears near the end. I didn't care much about Sameer and Akash, but...what happened to Sid and Tara? How would they grow apart, and how would they reconcile? Most importantly, HOW MANY PEOPLE WOULD END UP DYING?
I suppose I'll never know. I am left with nothing but my bittersweet imaginings and the sound of one of my neighbours yelling "HEY, DUDE, BRING DOWN THE BEER! AND MORE HASH! YO, DUDE, HURRY UP!"
Life is not Bollywood. Sometimes that's too bad.