My column for Mumbai Mirror last Sunday:
Sooraj Barjatya's ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ gives us all the things Hindi movies have always wanted from a true blue double role. And from a Salman Khan film.
A couple of days before I watched Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the flipping of channels landed me in the middle of a 1972 hit called Raja Jani. In it, Dharmendra is an alcoholic called Raja who is pretending to be a rajkumar, partly so that he can convince the ageing rajmata (Durga Khote) that Hema Malini, a girl called Shanno, whom he picked up from the street, is actually her long-lost granddaughter, the princess Ratna. Since Shanno – unbeknownst even to herself – actually is Ratna, there is no double role here. But much of the fun of Raja Jani lies in watching Hema Malini go from being a feisty, foul-mouthed street performer with a dagger ever at the ready, to the self-possessed Rajkumari Ratna, of bejewelled robes and regal bearing.
The double role in Hindi cinema invariably involves two very different personality types – Ram Aur Shyam, Seeta Aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz – allowing the hero or heroine to exhibit their acting chops. But adding an imposter angle to the double role usually allows for another kind of viewing pleasure – the masquerade of class. It isn't only Hindi films that revel in such transformations, of course. Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper, published in 1881, was about just such a temporary switch, and Audrey Hepburn wooed her way into hearts by playing this double act one at a time – in Roman Holiday (1953), she was a princess disguised as a commoner, and in My Fair Lady (1964), she was a Cockney flower girl schooled into poise.
But Hindi films have a particular set of tropes in this regard. The person being replaced is always powerful – a member of royalty or a mafia don – and usually a taciturn, distant type, while the person stepping in is always moonphat and slightly stupid, with a golden heart. We also like to make the masquerading imposter an actual performer: Shanno in Raja Jani was a street dancer; Amitabh in the original Don sang for his supper; even Ranvir Shorey in Mithya (Rajat Kapur's savvy spin on Don) was a struggling actor.
Prem Ratan gives us all of these – there's a solid double role (with two Salmans, no less), a solid imposter narrative (with a kingdom and a rajkumari at stake), and a solid class angle, with the rich Salman a prince and the poor Salman a Ramlila performer from Ayodhya. Sooraj Barjatya is of course keen to play on all things Salman. So the film is crafted to fit his ‘Prem’ persona, that particular combination of heart and brawn with not too much brain that dates back as far as Barjatya's own Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), and which was crucial to other huge Salman-Sooraj hits like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Hum Saath Saath Hain. It is also helpfully up-to-date with his more recent hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan – if he played a Hanuman bhakt in that, he is a Ram bhakt here. The wonderfully subversive nalli-nihari song of Kabir Khan's film is here replaced by a song in praise of barfi and sundry other mithai. Barjatya's vegetarianism runs so deep that even when the impostor Salman fries up some real food on the sly, what his “secret dhaba” serves up is Veg Korma, Tandoori Chhola and Butter Bhindi.
Salman, I must grant, is supremely entertaining – both as the new-age yuvraj who plugs his headphones in and falls asleep in his horse-drawn carriage so as to be catapulted off a cliff and out of the movie for the most part, and as the actor-imposter who takes it upon himself to woo back everyone the real yuvraj has managed to alienate over the years, including the tragically mistreated half-sisters (Swara Bhaskar and Aashika Bhatia), the misguided younger brother (Neil Nitin Mukesh), and even the miffed fiance (Sonam Kapoor).
As for the film, it is exactly what you expect from Sooraj Barjatya – a generously weepy dose of family love, combined with natkhat-Naarad style humour (think jokes about the yuvraj skinny-dipping as a child) and a super-coy heroine. The chemistry is what can be expected under the circumstances, suffice it to say that Barjatya trots out again the old MPK trope of the short dress worn in secret for the lover, and he murders Mughal-e-Azam by having Sonam lay herself down on a bed of flowers and demand that Salman write on her back with a feather.
The raajkumari is a spectacularly fluffy creature, but with a heart of gold, as Barjatya heroines are wont to be. The fact that this heart of gold consists in her descending – literally from a helicopter – to dole out relief supplies to ‘her’ people, is something I can barely describe with a straight face, but then this is clearly how the noble rich behave. There are moments of stunning misogyny, as when the philandering late maharaja is cast as a victim of his squabbling wives: “Auraton ke jhagdon ne jaise maharaj ka dil hi tod diya”. But from an actor-filmmaker team whose interviews are all about every family needing a patriarch, I expected nothing more. So in fact, I ended up being surprised when the swabhimani step-sisters are offered their share of the kingdom (of course, they do not accept), and even more surprised by the final scene, when the heroine isn’t packed off with the wrong Salman. But replay that scene in your head again, and you will hear the word ‘gift’ very loudly indeed.
But all this somehow seemed quite by the way while I was watching the film. I watched Prem Ratan for the crazed camera angles, the secret fort passages with flickering flames, the fencing maharajas and collapsing sheesh mahals. Barjatya's dialogue makes heavy weather of childhood, but he does manage to provide something like a return to it.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 Nov 2015