Monday, November 16, 2015

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo a deceptively complex film -- an uncanny mix of allegory and even pastiche

The intelligent critics are naturally disgusted with Sooraj Barjatya's Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. In 1970, when Merna Naam Joker was released, there was a similar response of fatigued irritation. But Prem Ratan Dhan Payo seems to have irritated the ordinary viewer as well, who is willing to enjoy the Barjatya extravaganza of family drama. The film does not have a discernible story-line. The twists in the plot are too vague to evoke interest. And the cast of characters seem pale, bloodless. Salman Khan seems plain uninterested. Sonam Kapoor brings to the role her charm which gets frittered away because the stage on which she is walking her part is all lights and nothing else. Mobile phones and overdressed feudals of unknown vintage get on to the viewer's nerves. The songs of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo fail to enchant. The songs are as nondescript as the other aspects of the film. The film perhaps will make enough money because people are desperately looking for some entertainment, even of the bad and insipid kind. But Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is not going to be part of the gallery of memorable films like Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun of recent Rajshri vintage.

Let the moment of embarrassment pass and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo will remain an interesting movie as is Mera Naam Joker. There is enough complexity -- one can hear the derisive laughter of the critics in the empty movie halls -- to make the film withstand the ravages of time. The critics who have mocked it will pass on, and critics of a future generation -- sometime in 2030 -- will get back to Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and they will discover in it artistic and narrative virtues which were overlooked by those watching the film in 2015.

The allegorical narrative gets going from the very first frame -- the performance of the wedding of Ram and Sita, the swayamvar that precedes it, and the breaking of the bow of Shiva. What we see in this first scene are the real faces of people playing Ram, Sita and Ravan. And also the 'sutradhar' or the one-man chorus played by Salman Khan. One of the basic facts that emerges is that it is a man who plays Sita. What is the significance of this theatrical wedding of Ram and Sita? It is quite clearly established that people are playing their roles, and the world and life as such is indeed a stage where people Make their entry, play their assigned roles and then exit.

The transition from this point to the make-believe feudal set up becomes easier. We are told in so many words that we are moving from one make-believe world to another. As a matter of fact, the family drama in the feudal set-up is a pantomime. You do not have to believe in the reality of the laughable palace intrigues, which are really in the nature of a family contretemps anywhere. The 'sutradhar'/ chorus Salman Khan literally dons the role of the prince who has to set right the family whose joints are out of place. It is a role that is being played.

The heart of an allegory is that what is seen is less real, and what is seen need not be real. What is real is the message. The message here is the simple Barjatya message of a happy family, sorting out of family quarrels.This time it is told obliquely through the story of a petty feudal family -- the regular stuff of storytelling in mainstream Hindi cinema and elsewhere.

The film ends again at the Ram Lila venue. Salman Khan returns to his first job. And it is in the end that the players from the feudal world come to theatre venue of Ram Lila.

The romantic strand is firmly in place. Salman Khan, the commoner/pauper fancies the princess, Sonam Kapoor. And the princess is brought to commoner's doorstep at the end of all the play-acting. It is a fairy-tale where there is less of emotion and less of blood-and-flesh feeling. Bhagyashri in Maine Pyar Kiya and Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun were ethereal and sensuous in their own way. In Pyar Ratan Dhan Payo, Sonam Kapoor remains ethereal, to the extent of being unreal.

Salman Khan and Sonam Kapoor played this unreal romantic/symbolic bonding in the last scene of the most neglected film of the decade, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Saanwariya, which marked the debut of Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor.

This new more symbolic, less real, romance has now become part of the Salman Khan persona. You can see it in the Salman Khan-Kareena Kapoor bonding in Bodyguard and in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Salman Khan, the older man, cannot get out of the romantic mode, but at this stage it has to be unreal and ethereal to make it credible.Sooraj Barjatya accepts this new persona of Salman Khan and works on the same symbolic and ethereal lines in Pyar Ratan Dhan Payo. Barjatya is also making the transition into the symbolic/ethereal world of romanticism because neither Salman Khan nor Sooraj Barjatya know anything else then romanticism and family harmonies.

The songs are wonderfully charming though there is nothing extraordinary about them. They are part of the film's symbolic/unreal/ethereal tenor. They do not stand alone. Many of the most delightful old Hindi film songs belong to less-than-impressive films of their times. In the case of the songs of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the songs are part of the weave of the allegory. When you hear them, the story comes to mind.

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