There´s something about Bollywood choreographers, and their ability to make decent film directors. The late Kamal (Chahoonga Main Tujhe) and B.H. Tarun Kumar (Nayee Padosan) have already proven that a "dance master" can also direct a semi-tolerable movie. But super-successful young´un Farah Khan, with her first foray behind the megaphone, trumps both the dudes with a wallop. Her " Main Hoon Na" is like a David Dhawan and Manmohan Desai superhit, with all the drama, comedy, music, romance, panache and mind-numbing twists in the tale to match. That any person can make it all mesh together in a package this entertaining is applause worthy.
If you´re looking for any semblance of realism though, be prepared to be disappointed. (Actually, if you like realism, why are you watching commercial Hindi cinema at all?) It is geared fully at the ten-year old in you, so if you scolded him/her to a corner of your brain not seen in donkeys´ years, you will hate Main Hoon Na with a passion. The story line is so clearly the brainwave of a soul who has seen a million too many Hindi and English movies in her life. The dying wish of Major Ram Sharma´s (Shahrukh Khan) father is that he search out and reunite with his "family", a stepmother (Kirron Kher) and stepbrother (Zayed Khan). (Why do film characters only remember the important stuff when they are about to kick the bucket?) You see, over 20 years ago, Sharma Senior (Naseeruddin Shah) had committed a "Masoom" affair and Ram was the product.
At the same time, it is Ram´s duty to infiltrate the college of his commanding officer´s daughter, Sanjana (Amrita Rao), and protect her from the clutches of evil Raghavan (a masked Suneil Shetty). Raghavan is trying at all costs to destroy the Indian Army´s plans to create friendship with Pakistan, as he believes the neighboring "enemy" killed his son years earlier. Ram must enter Sanjana´s high fun, little study college incognito as an elderly student trying to complete his studies. Mohabbatein style though, he imparts the message of love to all and sundry. And with the Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge style deceit of a live-in board, he tries to win back the love of his mother and brother. Sharma "Junior Junior" (aka Lakshman) just so happens to study at the same institution as Sanjana. (It is such a SMALL world after all.) Will Ram or Raghavan succeed?
If the story appeals to you, you need to introduce yourself to the world of literature and intelligence. But on a visual level though, Farah Khan will surprise you with how interestingly and enjoyably she unfolds it all on the big screen. Ms. Khan has obviously learnt a lot of very important lessons from her years in the industry.
First, she knows the audience hates old wine in an old bottle. Familiar territory is fine, but it needs to be presented in a different fashion for us not to get annoyed. Hence, the screenplay is pretty crisp. There are no otherwise expected reuniting family sermons for forty minutes at the end of the tale. And she makes sure the Pakistan and India message is one of comraderie instead of battle. (It is a nice effort even if it is a paradox for brainless cinema such as this.) And the college sequences and characters are quite different than the ones we have witnessed before.
Second, she gives credit where it is due. The over-the-top Matrix fighting (with a hilarious bodily fluid gag), Sholay with Basanti and Dhano cycle chases, Yash Chopra style heroine look, and odes to R.D. Burman tunes are all done with respect and class. The very novel format of the credits at the end, in particular, is testament of Farah´s acknowledgement that she alone has not contributed in making the venture a success.
And finally, she keeps the pace quick enough that you have little time to question the nonsense and childishness. The violins and uncontrollable singing whenever Ram sees Chandni (Sushmita Sen), the academic failure cum "role model" of the college, Hindi teacher who spouts anything but Hindi to her students, and the clowny, forgetful principal. It may make no sense, but you cannot deny it is barrels of fun. Along with the story, where Farah fails (like many others in the past) is the self-indulgence and inordinate length. There´s no real message to justify the three plus hours with our butts glued to the seat. Clearly, Ms. Khan could have avoided some of those zillion flashback sequences and character back-stories. All the scenes are enjoyable, but come on, the audience is not so dumb that we need explanations for everything.
The cast and crew though, largely, helps the director recover. Shahrukh Khan has not given this good a performance since Dil Se (1998) or Pardes (1997). I can´t help but feel he is at his best when he is suitably restrained, because any non-actor can succeed with roles requiring monkey like behaviour (Chalte Chalte or Kal Ho Naa Ho), but few are good in roles demanding composure and histrionics with the eyes and voice. As Major Ram Sharma, I will happily concede, Shahrukh Khan proves he is an acting talent that is wasted by most other directors. It is one of his career´s best performances.
Zayed Khan is okay, and suits the weird guy in the first half of his role, but is often too awkward in his delivery. (The fact that the ladies in the audience kept screaming "ewww" every time he came on the screen also, does not bode well for his long-term career prospects. For Zayed´s sake, he better hope they were grossed out because of the greasy long hair and girly styling instead of just him.)
Amrita Rao is great as the real female lead for the movie, but don´t you get the feel that she is a copy of the more gorgeous Mahima Chaudhary in terms of personality and acting style. (Their voices, too, also match to a tee.)
With all due respects and love to my gorgeous wife, Sushmita Sen is ethereal in her all too brief role. The fact that this enormously talented and stunningly beautiful woman has never gotten her due from Bollywood will remain a mystery for centuries to come, but each time she does a movie, she delivers a performance different from the one she last gave us, and each time it´s a pleasant surprise. In the video for "Tumhe Jo Maine Dekha", Ms. Sen´s sex appeal had my jaw drop to the ground, burrow itself through the earth´s core, and shoot out the other side of the planet. I´ve got my face back together now, but the worms, dirt and molten ash are still stuck between my teeth.
The success for the songs and look for Ms. Sen, should also be given to music director Anu Malik, Farah as choreographer, cinematographer V. Manikandan, costume designer Manish Malhotra and the set designer, who deliver consistent excellence for the rest of the movie.
It was a true pleasure to watch a good masala pot-boiler after such a long time. For a while there, it seemed like Bollywood had forgotten how to make these staple brainless movies which were a dime a dozen in the seventies and eighties. Of all people, it took a woman like Farah Khan to revive the genre. Let´s just hope her talent and movies continue to get better from here.