Man, it's been a good while since I've seen a good Bollywood film, and not for lack of watching. So I'm glad I saw this film. JAAN-E-MANN, released in 2006, qualifies as a good Bollywood film. Plus, it's got one of my favorite Bollywood actresses in it (that would be Preity Zinta).
Here's the plot: The charming but irresponsible and ever struggling actor Suhaan Kapoor (Salman Khan) has been very negligent with his alimony payments and now finds himself being forced to pay one huge lump sum. With his dwarven co-conspirator Bonny, Suhaan concocts a plan wherein his ex-wife Piya's awkward old college classmate - whose name is Agastya Rao(Akshay Kumar), and now a NASA astronaut - would end up marrying Piya, thus ridding Suhaan of all financial obligations to his ex-wife. You see, Agastya (or Champu, as Piya used to derisively call him in campus) has always been in love with Piya, and now looks to catch up on old times. To ensure that everything goes well, Suhaan accompanies Agastya to New York, where Piya currently dwells.
Turns out, though, Agastya requires more hands-on help than first thought, as he becomes absurdly clumsy and goofy in Piya's pesence. So Suhaan begins communicating with him via an earpieced radio device, instructing Agastya in what to say and do in his outings with Piya. It works, and Piya and Agastya become good chums.
"Are you ready to fall in love...again?" is this film's tagline. This question seems to apply most to Suhaan, who, in the midst of mentoring Agastya, begins to fall anew for his ex-wife. Then, even as Piya and Agastya continue to get closer, the inevitable Bollywood twist surfaces, which pretty much shatters Suhaan's original scheme to smittereens.
I probably say this each time I comment on a Bollywood film, but newcomers should know that these suckers are fairly long viewing experiences. For instance, JAAN-E-MANN's running time is just about 3 hours. It's hard to steer clear of the inane daffiness which is such a staple of Bollywood. So, be aware, that, often, the first half is devoted to silly, lame-humored goings-on, while the post-intermission stuff tends to go the soap-opera route. JAAN-E-MANN runs true to form, with much of the first half invested in a busload of reminiscing (and scenes with a dwarf, which is supposed to be funny) and the second half indulging in unabashed sentimentality and over-the-top dramatics (not so many sightings of the dwarf, post-intermission). I've gotta confess that I enjoyed Suhaan's various masquerades in the first half, whether it's as Elvis or Zorro or a massively-thewed club girl. And it's a kick seeing him getting a modeling gig promoting Booboo Diapers.
But, listen, it's not really so much about the plot, which is tired and one whose resolution you could see forty-two miles away. No, what makes JAAN-E-MANN (meaning, "Beloved") such a surprise treat is the level of visual creativy, vibrancy, and liveliness injected onto the screen. Technically, JAAN-E-MANN is irrepresible and irresistible. It's also just a bit off-center. JAAN-E-MANN puts you on notice with its opening, improbable scene of Akshay Kumar in outer space. From there on, the movie becomes one huge flashback story as Kumar's character begins to speak of his good friend Suhaan. And let's not forget the flashbacks within this flashback, some of which are colorfully narrated thru the vehicle of a musical number. Characters from the "present" aren't chained to their reality as they're free to walk around (and even interact) with characters from the past. One amusing example is the present-day Agastya telling an extra to "Please clear the frame" so the camera can focus on the flashback Agastya version. Also rather inventive are the intros to these flashback scenes and to the musical numbers (and, as mentioned, sometimes they're the same thing).
And, yes, the film does benefit from the presence of big name Bollywood actors. Akshay Kumar's roles are usually of the cool, flashy variety. Here, he plays against type as a nerd (which is pretty much what "Champu" means) and successfully pulls it off. Even when he becomes "hip" under Suhaan's tutelage, Akshay retains a good modicum of dork. And, while his goofy laugh did grate on my last nerve, there's no denying that, when the time came for his dramatic moments, Akshay was very effective. On the other hand, the muscle-bound "star" of the show, Salman Khan, doesn't stray too far from his standard part, that of a cocksure and callous jerk. Except, as Suhaan, he's actually likable by the end, managing to exude something that resembles sincerity. Meanwhile, the gorgeously cute Preity Zinta (the main reason I got this movie) turns in yet another rock solid performance, even if her character is underdeveloped and she sees lesser screen time than Kumar and Khan. But at least she's spiffily wardrobed.
JAAN-E-MANN is also lifted by the evocative score and the great soundtrack. The six musical numbers are wonderful and perfectly convey the mood and, a bit shockingly, they even propel the narrative forward. So, all praise to composer Anu Malik. The elegant, achy-romantic "Ajnabi Shehar," especially, is a song I've been replaying for the past few days.
In watching this film, you could sense the ghosts of Cyrano de Bergerac and Roxanne. But that's okay, it's simply too good a premise to not borrow. But while JAAN-E-MANN might owe a nod of thanks to those two films, it needn't take a back seat to anyone in the way of cleverness or imagination. The story is predictable, but the way it's presented isn't. The images onscreen are frequently vivid and stunning. While I wouldn't go as far as to call it a visual masterpiece, I will say that I think it's simply awesome cinematography. And, with the stars making the most of their roles in a hackneyed romance, JAAN-E-MANN ends up being a film worth watching.
Huh. One thing, though. There's a key subplot involving a stack of letters. What I'm wondering is why calling on the phone or messaging thru the Internet weren't used as alternatives?