SO LONG, FARES WELL
Yes, it overstays its welcome, but the ‘other’ Diwali release is the year’s most imaginative romance.
OCT 29, 2006 – RIGHT FROM THE START, you know Jaan-e-Mann’s not going to be your regular Hindi movie. Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz plays on the soundtrack as the images on screen seem to be set in – wait for this! – the far reaches of outer space; it’s all very 2001. The last thing you’d associate with our cinema is a nod to either Kubrick or cosmology – never mind that an intrepid lyricist once roped in the moon and the stars to acknowledge the incomparable beauty of, gulp, Zarina Wahab; Chand jaise mukhde pe bindiya sitara… – but first-time director Shirish Kunder does reach for the moon and the stars, literally and otherwise. In a way, he’s fashioned an entire script that seemingly takes off from an offhand conversation between the just-fallen-in-love Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval in Chashme Buddoor, where they laugh about the fact that if this were a movie, they’d suddenly be bursting into song, with rhyming lyrics and music and chorus dancers and all. (The irony, of course, is that they already are in a movie!) That sly self-awareness (and self-referencing) of genre conventions is what made Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na so much fun, and now we see that her husband, Kunder, appears equally in love with the Bollywood of old. (There’s an affectionate, black-and-white docu-homage to a Filmfare Awards ceremony from the 1970s.) His Jaan-e-Mann is a musical in the best sense of the word – not just because it has songs and dances, but because these songs and dances often take the place of dialogue and become inseparable from the narrative. Loo and ciggie breaks, in other words, these are not.
Much is being made of the fact that Jaan-e-Mann has been fashioned along the lines of a Broadway musical, but this isn’t really anything new. Amol Palekar and Vidhu Vinod Chopra have been there earlier – the former with his exquisite little Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen and the latter most recently with the Samjho ho hi gaya number in Lage Raho Munnabhai, where drunken tapori musings coexisted with eye-popping production pieces that mirrored these musings. (You could add to this not insignificant list story-within-a-song items like Sachi yeh kahani hai from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa or Aaj ki raat from Anamika.) But I don’t think anyone before Kunder has crafted such a gargantuan production entirely in this style. (Even the way the title appears at the beginning is very Broadwayesque, bright bulbs outlining the shapes of the bold letters.) Anu Malik’s drop-dead gorgeous tunes are the soaring frameworks on which Kunder mounts his scenes, and when Suhaan (Salman Khan) recounts the events that led to his divorce from Piya (Preity Zinta), the room darkens, as if getting ready for a show. And indeed, it is a show that follows – with roving spotlights, billowing red curtains and moving sets – as the flashback unfolds. The theatrical artifice of the scenario literally makes you the fourth wall, as if you’re completing the three-dimensionality of the setting in front of you. Kunder stages song sequences so dazzlingly, even the much-maligned engagement ceremony number – the mere mention of which sends shudders up my spine – is a rousing winner. Usually, this sort of thing is just the hero and the heroine executing me-too choreography with a bunch of scarily in-shape extras, but here there’s a plot in motion: Agastya (Akshay Kumar) has just proposed to Piya, and her entire extended family pleads with her to say yes (or, in the words of the song, Kubool kar le).
As you may have guessed by now, Jaan-e-Mann is built around a love triangle where Piya is desired by a stud (Salman Khan) and a nerd (Akshay Kumar, who wrings major laughs out of his nerdiness; asked where he’s from, this astronaut replies in the most deadpan manner, “NASA, Houston, Texas, USA, United States of America”). There’s nothing new in the tale, but the telling is what matters here, and though some of Kunder’s conceits – like Anupam Kher playing a dwarf, for apparently no other reason than the fact that this would be yet another visual gimmick in a movie already overflowing with visual gimmicks – don’t quite pan out, the ones that do work wonderfully. I loved the effect that shows the screen turning a golden yellow when Suhaan experiences an emotional connection, as if the sunny warmth he is feeling is spilling out to the spaces around him. This effect we saw earlier in Kareeb, where a glow spreads through Neha when she thinks of Bobby Deol. But in Kareeb, an otherwise realistic film – at least to the extent that our films can be termed realistic – this effect came off a tad too showy, while there’s no such thing as “too showy” in Jaan-e-Mann; the whole thing is one big, crazy, outrageous spectacle.
Like Kareeb, you can single out a few dozen other films whose influences show up – the Gotta dance sequence from Singin’ in the Rain; the plot mechanics of Cyrano de Bergerac – and Kunder’s biggest achievement is in uniting these various sources into a cohesive, surreal fever-dream of colour and music and imagery. We sit there helpless, as if hypnotised, just as Agastya is in the Jaane ke jaane na song sequence. The staging for this number includes, among other things, dancing Disney dwarves, and you may ask the question: Why dancing Disney dwarves? But the more valid question is: Why not? Musical interludes are unreal in any case, so what does it matter if the backup dancers are damsels or dwarves? (The sense of fun is so giddily infectious, even Gulzar gets into the act, rhyming “diary” with “shayari”. The last instance of such creative rhyming for such an essentially un-rhymable word was probably when Mark Knopfler followed “diary” with “inquiry” in Private Investigations.) Inevitably, three-odd hours of look-what-goodies-I-have-for-you filmmaking can get a bit exhausting, and by the time Kunder underlines a broken heart with a visual of window panes shattering to pieces, you may be ready to yell, “Enough already!” But a bigger problem is when the characters stop singing and start speaking. Till a certain stage, all the heavy drama is encapsulated in the musical numbers – or at least in sequences structured like musical numbers – so we’ve gotten used to a style where Suhaan’s heartbreak is outlined through the song Humko maloom hai and Piya’s heartbreak is outlined through the same song, staged later (and from her point of view). And when this style gives way to standard-issue dramatics where the characters burst into teary speeches, it’s tough to take. The contrast is jarring, especially with the actors all being far more comfortable with the lighter bits than the heavier ones. (A long close-up of Akshay delivering a sentimental monologue is a particular low point.)
It’s not that Kunder is incapable of straight-up emotion. One of the film’s loveliest scenes has an unemployed Suhaan knock down a spoon from a table, and as he kneels to pick it up, he clutches the legs of a man who can help him get a job. He hates the fact that he’s having to beg, but he won’t do it without this bit of drama; he needs the crutch of that spoon to hang on to whatever little dignity he has left. But as well as Kunder pulls off these occasional non-musical interludes – and even the cheap gags; just wait for the end credits and check out the surname of the character played by Aman Varma – I think his heart is really in the musical format, which is why his film isn’t nearly as interesting when the people in it aren’t singing or dancing. For all the over-the-topness in Jaan-e-Mann, what I remembered most after the movie is a rather inconsequential shot where Piya climbs the stairs that lead to her apartment building, and in the adjacent set of stairs, we see a man playing a saxophone. Would this itty-bitty shot have worked without this man and his saxophone? Sure. Would it have worked if the same saxophone riffs had appeared in the form of an “invisible” background score? Absolutely. But then, we wouldn’t have seen the music as being part of the scenario. That, essentially, is Kunder’s way of working – and what he’s shown us with his impressive debut is that there’s no moment in life that’s so insignificant that it can’t use a little music.