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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (1999): Finding Love (for Aishwarya Rai) in Strange Places

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali || Produced by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Screenplay by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Kenneth Phillips || Starring: Aishwarya Rai, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, Zohra Sehgal, Vikram Gokhale

Music by: Ismail Darbar || Cinematography: Anil Mehta || Editing by: Bela Segal || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 187 minutes

My first introduction to Aishwarya Rai, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (HDDCS) excels with fantastic dance set-pieces and songs, but like most Hindi blockbusters, falters when it comes to portraying realistic characters and captivating exposition. While the story’s pacing can drag at times, most issues are saved by the Rai’s charisma, the aforementioned musical performances, and a solid ending.

Where HDDCS stumbles most is in its dialogue and the performance of its quasi-male lead, Salman Khan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bollywood actors’ tendency to overact and drown in melodrama can become distracting when the script isn’t focused on the dance-scenes. I’m not suggesting melodrama or passionate acting are inherently bad, I’m merely saying that, in this day and age, far removed from the days of theatre’s original influence on cinema, it is much harder for me to connect with characters who are verging on caricature. I had difficulty relating to much of HDDCS’s cast, at least in the film’s first half. Khan, a superstar no doubt he may be, I found annoying and self-absorbed, as opposed to charismatic. Rai does her best to counteract the irritating actions of the story’s pseudo-male lead, but much of her performance for half the movie is dependent on her ineffective chemistry with Khan.

Top: Salman Khan can look, but as per Bollywood rules, he can’t touch. Bottom: Well, I take that back; I guess you (Ajay Devgan) can touch — very seductively…

Much of what gets viewers through the first ninety minutes are the slick dance scenes that showcase Rai’s impressive dance skills. Several of them are quite long, but they never feel boring or repetitive, as the choreography and music are paced well. Watching the musical-numbers is a real treat in fact, as the glorious costume design, lovely music, and intricate dance choreography come together to make wonderful set-pieces of musical action. Bhansali knows how to best use his lead actress, as every shot with her dancing makes the sequences glow and hum with energy. There are plenty of eye-catching shots and effective camera angles in each dance-number.

The second half of HDDCS is much stronger than its first, with most of its editing and dialogue issues dissolving with Khan’ absence. The stylistic differences before and after intermission are so striking that one may even question whether they’re watching a single film and not two. Khan’s almost complete disappearance from the second half, combined with the change in location from India to Europe and the lack of elaborate dance numbers, make the last ninety minutes of this feature feel decidedly un-Sanjay Bhansali.  The narrative’s abrupt tonal shift is jarring, and it’s a shame that the marvelous songs aren’t better spaced throughout the entire feature, but the fact that Khan’s pain-inducing, wannabe playboy overacting is nowhere to be found after intermission is such a relief that the story can finally breathe. Devgan, whose role is introduced late in the first half and ends up largely replacing Khan’s caricature in part-two, is a likable, normal character that the audience can relate to and is far better suited to complement Rai’s lead.

With that on the table, it’s all the more surprising that HDDCS still works as a complete package, in large part because Rai’s arc is interesting and believable. Rai showcases depth in the story’s second half by striking out on her own without the help of elaborate dance-numbers and instead investing energy into a character that feels realistic and whose development we can understand.

Rai has widely been recognized as a superstar, touted as one of the most attractive actresses the world over and an exemplary dancer. She’s more or less the female equivalent of the prototypical male action-star, both alluring the opposite sex’s gaze with her potent sexuality and versatile wardrobe, while also dominating the screen with her alpha-female physicality and dance presence. She’s the picture-perfect definition of a movie starlet, and far and away Bollywood’s most iconic actress of the late 1990-2000s.

However, many have called into question the appropriateness of Rai’s fame by criticizing her over-dependence on physical energy and outward expression, claiming her style to be shallow and lacking substance. The naysayers say she lacks subtlety, among other things. Regardless of how you feel about Rai’s rise to fame and current filmography (as well as her more recent territoriality toward younger, up-and-coming actresses), I believe the second ninety minutes of HDDCS, which was more or less her breakout film, highlight important acting skills that extend beyond the now standard Aishwarya Rai-glamour. I wouldn’t exactly put Rai’s performance in this movie on an Oscar nominee list, but I think it’s a good example of Rai’s innate talent as a capable actress and shows how she’s a much more competent dramatic performer than she often gets credit for.

I can’t say enough about Ismail Darbar’s soundtrack. The songs are so consistently strong that, even without the potent combination of Bhansali’s choreography and Rai’s dance moves, the soundtrack is a joy to listen to. It’s so diverse and catchy that it rivals the best of A. R. Rahman’s library. HDDCS’s musical component is also worth shouting about because it feels so refreshing in light of the Indian film industry’s noticeable shift toward more Western acoustics and North American rock ‘n roll/pop music influences in recent years. Comparing a Bhansali soundtrack like HDDCS to a movie like 3 Idiots (2009) shows the immense range of Bollywood soundtracks and highlights the industry’s dramatic trending toward Westernized music and MTV-inspired song-numbers.

Khan (left) and Aishwarya Rai (right) chill in an almost classical day-for-night sequence.

In the end, HDDCS’s performances from Rai and Devgan and its mesmerizing dance scenes outshine its weaker points. HDDCS, in giving credit where credit is due, is a real treat for choreography, music, and costume design. It takes risks by removing one of the fabled King Khans from its second half and essentially reducing him to a glorified guest appearance, but this calculated gamble pays off in droves. This Bhansali classic is well worth your 3 hours and 7 minutes, all things considered.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATIONHum Dil De Chuke Sanam gets by on its extraordinary dance numbers and extravagant costume and set-design. Ismail Darbar’s soundtrack is top notch, even by Bollywood’s high standards. The story itself is rather secondary (or perhaps even tertiary) to the film’s colorful characters and musical spectacle. This is, to date, one of Salman Khan’s most irritating roles, while also one of Aishwarya Rai’s best.

—> RECOMMENDED, but the first half may test your patience if you did not grow up watching Bollywood. It is a case study of 1990s Hindi filmmaking’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.

? What percentage of Indians, or South Asians in general, have blue eyes? Is this a rare phenotype among South Asian ethnic groups, or is it descended from European ancestry?

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