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February 16, 2000


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It's a film about hope

Pritish Nandy

Shah Rukh Khan in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani What are movies all about? Reality? No, we see too much of it every day. It is dreary, boring, predictable. Heroism? Sometimes. But not exactly what we go to a hall to see on a large, cinemascope screen and cheer. No wonder the art films did not work.

So what do we go to see a film for? Five things, I would say.

One: Enjoyment. I watch a film to be entertained. Though my intellectual friends scoff at the idea. Even when it is occasionally mindless, as, say, the Bond films, if it's smartly made and keeps me in good humour, I consider it time well spent.

Two: Performances. You do not expect everyone to be a great actor, but if there's one or two well-scripted, well-acted roles, the film is usually worth watching. The performances need not be grim or serious. Even Jim Carey is fun when he is goofy and not trying too hard to make you laugh.

Three: Technical gloss. I like films where directors take a lot of pain over details. Whether it is Bicycle Thief or Kaagaz Ke Phool, God lies in the details. The lights, the colours, the props, the background score, the script. In the context of today's films, you can say the songs, the choreography, the action sequences, the camera work, the general mood. We have got so used to technical gloss since Dil To Paagal Hai and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai that nothing puts me off more than a badly made film.

Four: Emotions. I love the huge groundswell of emotions that films can evoke. Spiritual, if you are watching The Ten Commandments. Romantic, if you are seeing The Titanic. Passionate, if you are watching Gone With The Wind. Tenderness, if you are seeing Pyaasa. Fun, if you are watching Dr No. Sorrow, if you are seeing The English Patient. Patriotism, if you are watching Mother India. Sheer horror, if you are watching Schindler's List. Whatever is the emotion that appeals to you, there must be some film you can associate with it.

Five: The Message. Films leave you with a message. A message that makes you think. The message can be as simple as love-is-waiting-for-you-around-the-next-corner as in You've Got Mail. Or Fascist-are-actually-a-bunch-of-pig-headed-louts as in The Great Dictator. Or look-how-charming-decadence-actually-is as in Jalsaghar. Or don't-over-react-to-adultery as in Charulata. Or war-is-not-such-a-great-idea-after-all as in Saving Private Ryan. Or why-am-I-doing-this-to-myself if you are cracked enough to be watching a Manoj Kumar film.

One of the reasons why TV in India has never been able to catch up with the mystique of cinema, even though it's far more widely watched, is because it fails on some of these counts. The gloss is never quite the same and TV, however emotion-charged, rarely evokes that huge groundswell of feelings. Also, the message, even if it exists, is drawn out over so many episodes that you miss the point.

Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani Why am I saying all this? Simple, I want to talk to you about Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani or PBDHH, as it's best known. A film everyone I know has slammed. A film I had avoided seeing for so long simply because of its huge information overdrive.

For the past month, in fact, I have not been able to escape Shah Rukh Khan. I cannot touch my remote without having him leap out at me from different channels, in different bright colours, different disguises (his Killer Loop on, even at the dead of night) declaiming he's the best. His high voltage energy that I always found so admirable has begun to pall. Simply because there's much too much of him everywhere. On TV; in newspaper ads; on hoardings if you happen to drive down Marine Drive; on magazine covers; in the colour supplement; even, horror of horrors, on the Net.

Add to this the savage reviews in the media and you can imagine why I sidestepped PBDHH. Almost every newspaper and magazine has slammed the film. So has every comment on TV, every phone-in on FM. My favourite commentators have said the most horrible things about it. Trade guides have written it off. The crowds, I heard, have fled the theatres. The sheer hostility of the media coverage astonished me. As did Aziz Mirza's contention that the media murdered PBDHH.

How can the media murder a film? I wondered. Maybe that's why I eventually went to see PBDHH last Saturday and came away astonished by my own reaction to it. To understand why, I asked myself the simple question with which I started this column: What are movies all about? Why do we go to watch them?

On each of the five points, this film is a clear yes-yes. Is it enjoyable? Yes, certainly. It's enjoyable because there is this built-in spoof. Shah Rukh is not just spoofing journalists. He's also spoofing himself. He's spoofing the medium he is exploiting. He's spoofing our attitudes, our values, the way we tend to look at things. He's putting a sharp pin to our hypocrisies. He could have done it with a heavy hand, a la the art films, but instead he chose to do it with burlesque. Sending up every aspect of our life. Through this, the film posts some critical messages. Messages we can only ignore at our own risk.

As performances go, Shah Rukh is his usual self. Charmingly over-the-top. The reason is, I guess, Shah Rukh tends to parody himself. Particularly in comedies. He plays it at multiple levels and, if you are ready to be amused, you'll find him not just amazingly versatile but incredibly entertaining. Here he is not just playing Ajay Bakshi, the journalist. He is also playing Shah Rukh Khan, the movie star, playing Ajay Bakshi, the journalist. The entire thing is wild, whacky, wickedly tongue-in-cheek and only an actor as amazing as he could have got the nuances so entirely right.

Juhi is her usual charming self while Paresh Rawal, in a bit role, is stunning. Satish S and Dalip T, as greedy, grabby media maliks are not exactly unlike some people I have met and known in the business. Govind N and Shakti as two feuding netas are certainly caricatures but, again, pretty close to the bone. To write them off as spoofs is easy, but to recognise the deadly evil behind the caricatures is important. Only then will we realise how low politicians can stoop to score brownie points off each other in their efforts to grab pelf and power.

I disagree with all those who blame Aziz Mirza for what they call a clanger. Mirza has done a fine job in terms of the multiple levels at which he has tried to make the film work. It is, above all, a brilliant parody and he has managed to get the mood, the colours, the spoof, the humour just right and risked Shah Rukh's over-the-top performance.

The sponsorship scenes are clever. They capture, in the most telling terms, the greed and grab that many media owners are not exactly averse to, particularly in television. The aggro of today's newscasters is as brilliantly captured. The journalist is both hero and villain in Mirza's lexicon.

As for the emotions of the film, they are strong and complex. Since parodies are rare, the media missed the point entirely. It is a tribute to Mirza's genius that he has actually stuck to a commercial film format and yet managed to say so many things at so many levels so successfully. This is where the message scores. By its sheer simplicity. What were the messages I was left with?

One: Never trust politicians. They will do anything, even set off the most horrible riots, just to stay in power. Two: The journalist may be a hero but, in his conceit, he's as vulnerable as anyone else. Three: Never trust what you read or watch. Someone is always manipulating you. Four: Never underestimate the amazing power of public outrage.

I loved PBDHH not only because it was so cleverly and stylishly made, operating at so many levels. I loved it because, as its title proclaims, it made me feel proud as an Indian. It is a film about political corruption, media manipulation, the power of public opinion. But, above all, it's a film about hope. About winning against all odds. About refusing to compromise.

After all, isn't that what we are best known for?

The Juhi Chawla interview
Dream Theme: Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani...A Real Video exclusive
The Shah Rukh Khan interview
Pyaar aur patriotism: The slide show
'We want to make nice films'
The Juhi Chawla chat
The Shah Rukh Khan chat

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