This was the second Bollywood movie I ever saw. The first was Bride and Prejudice, which I call my gateway movie; it suckered me in by my Austen addiction and then delighted me unexpectedly - India has had far, far longer to learn to incorporate (rely on!) music and dance to tell a story (rather than interrupt or stretch it) than Hollywood or Broadway. It even proved to my musical-despising husband that not all musicals are poorly-paced, irritatingly interrupted by pointless songs, and boring.
If Bride and Prejudice was the bait, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi is the hook, and it was weeks before I realized how deeply it sank. I kept watching it as a Netflix Instant Play, but by fifth time, I realized I should probably just buy it outright.
The most basic plot premise: man falls ever more deeply in love with his own wife, tries to win her love in return. Awww!
The details: Attending the wedding of his favorite teacher's daughter, the reserved, almost expressionless Surinder Sahni falls in love at first sight with the ingenuous and carefree laughter of the much younger bride, Taani. The plot takes a couple of sudden turns and she ends up marrying Surinder instead, but is so traumatized that she tells him, "I will never be able to love you. I will be a good wife to you, but my heart is dead and I cannot love again." Surinder tells her he has never known love and feels no need for it in his life. Of course, he has lied; he does know love. He fell in love with Taani the first time he saw her, of course. But, as the song "Haule, Haule" ("Slowly, Slowly") explains, he believes that love should develop "soft, sweet, slow", and is prepared to give Taani all the time and space she needs to heal and recover herself. Surinder's love begins selfless and becomes self-sacrificing, wanting only to see Taani happy and laughing again, asking nothing in return but the possible rebirth of her smile. Meanwhile, her tiniest dutiful actions (packing his lunch, making his breakfast) bring a complicated, sweet, touching smile spreading across Surinder's frequently immobile face -- in private, when nobody is around to see. Outwardly, he treats her with expressionless deference and distance, asking very little of her and sacrificing much for her comfort and happiness; he moves himself into the attic (claiming he always sleeps there) to give her the bedroom to herself.
Taani emerges from her state of shock and begins to respond to his gentle, considerate care with "dutiful" actions that make Surinder feel pampered and cared-for in return; even if she does not love him as she had her fiance, he tells her that her small actions are enough love for him, and we witness his understated, reserved glows of happiness in response. He comes home from work and the dusty, cluttered, cobwebbed attic is clean and spacious, decorated, with fresh flowers on his nightstand. This example, and several other developments, happen in a few seconds each during "Haule, Haule" -- you have to watch the action during the songs, because plot and character development happen there too, in a manner so condensed and dense with implication I can only compare it to poetry. If you get up for a snack during the song-and-dance bits because you can still *hear* from the kitchen, you will miss much of the depth of the movie. Surinder's love does develop, softly, sweetly, slowly, from crush-at-first-sight to the adoration expressed in "Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai" ("I See My God In You"). Taani's feelings remain locked away, frozen and unchanging. Everything she does, she does dutifully, mechanically, because it is what she owes her husband. (That sense of debt becomes pronounced late in the film, almost wrenching in another brief scene far too easy to miss the significance of.)
Yes, there is the surface plot - Taani joins a dance class/competition, and Surinder undergoes a radical makeover and dozens of dubious quick-changes to pose as the brash, loud, and frankly irritating Raj during the evenings, in order to attend the classes with her. "Raj" is able to flatter, flirt, and romance brazenly in a way Surinder never could without the anonymity of disguise. There are faint resonances with Cyrano de Bergerac as Raj tells Taani all the things that meek, awkward, almost shrinking Surinder could never bring himself to say. They are partnered together in their dance lessons, and gradually a ride home on "Raj's" motorcycle becomes after-lesson dinner and a birthday date. Despite spending hours every day dancing, dining, and laughing with Raj, Taani never suspects that her colorful, swaggering dance partner is actually her mousy, quiet husband. Surinder suspects that Taani is falling for Raj, becomes jealous (of himself!), and despite a friend's advice that "Either way, it's you she's loving!" decides to force the issue and find out who Taani *really* loves -- the man she laughs for, or the man she cooks and cleans for.
Yes, it's full of holes in the description; it seems questionable that Raj spends so much time with Taani while Surinder puts in a full workday, even if the dance classes are stated to be "in the evening". It strains belief that a woman wouldn't recognize her own husband just because he shaved off his mustache and dresses differently. There's a lot to question here, if you expect the movie to force-feed you each and every explanation, Hollywood-blockbuster style, and it's then only a 2- or 3-star movie depending on how badly inconsistency and spasmodic character development grate on your nerves.
But if you're willing to watch closely, follow subtleties of expression, ask yourself how things are changing and why, and put yourself in the characters' shoes, you will see that the "Match Made By God" is in the details, and the movie flows gorgeously. The smallest things, the nuances of Shah Rukh Khan's performance as Surinder (and unguarded moments as Raj), the song sequences, show a rich, mature exploration of different kinds of love, different styles of self-expression, different ways to say "I love you", and ultimately the wealth of emotion and interdependent partnership that can grow between two very different people. Taani believes she loved her fiance so deeply, so passionately she will never feel again; Surinder's love runs so deep it hardly shows at all.
This was also the first Shah Rukh Khan performance I had ever seen; I'm now a thorough addict. His talent shines through brilliantly, even in the (intentionally) shallow characterization of the ridiculous and abrasively over-the-top Raj, and especially comparing that to the restrained, complex, nuanced expressions of Surinder. I was amazed I had never seen or heard of this actor before. I understand entirely now why Wikipedia says "Khan is today considered to be the world's most successful movie star, with a fan following numbering in the billions..." He deserves it, and I am picky about actors. He holds his facial muscles differently for each character, so that their faces have different shapes, and that makes the implausible deception easy to play along with. His dancing is excellent, but borders on divine if you notice how he manages to bring the body language of the two different characters into the dances as well -- Surinder's dancing is graceful and precise in contrast to his awkwardness, while Raj is still all broad sweeps and jerking motion -- and how it's in dance that Raj and Surinder reconcile and merge as their distinctive movements blend. Just. Seriously. Brilliant.
Or maybe I'm reading too much into it by now, having seen it so many times... no, you know what? There's no such thing. It's there to find. The first time I watched this movie, I found it sweet and touching; as I catch more details, I find it heart-wrenching and buoyant. I can no more resist tearing up at the first few notes of "Haule, Haule" or "Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai" than I can on hearing Leonard Nimoy say "...and will always be... my friend." It's far from all-tragic; I have to laugh in pure joy whenever I hear "Taani-partner!" as much as on hearing Christopher Eccleston say, "Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, EVERYBODY lives!" (No, Bollywood is not my usual fare, why would you ask?) The more I watch, the more I see, understand, and love in this movie, and that there *is* always more to find, between the sterling direction and outstanding performance, is what turns the plot into an all-time favorite must-own comfort movie instead of a paper-thin slice of Swiss cheese. And if you wish they'd followed the story a little further, make sure to watch the closing credits.
My ONLY complaint, not worth even a quarter of a star, is about the DVD rather than the movie itself: I cannot find any way to get subtitles on the end credits (though the rough meaning comes through regardless) or the special features on the second disc. (Roughly half the interview content is English, mixed into the Hindi, and the deleted scenes are completely Hindi with maybe a loan word or two, and my Hindi is so far limited to "(Ji) haan", "(Ji) nahin", "Kyaa?" and "Namaste".) Oh, well. Maybe I'll find that detail in here too, someday.
If you have any doubts, rent the movie. If a week later, the thought of a man laying a single rose next to his wife's breakfast plate, then reconsidering, deflating, and putting it back in the vase, isn't etched into your mind's eye with a poignant mingling of hope and regret... well, watch it again. Soft, sweet, slow, the implications will unfold.