Reading obituaries after Yash Chopra's unexpected death last weekend, I was surprised to realize how many of his movies I counted among my absolute favorites - movies like Deewaar, Kaala Patthar, and Waqt. These films were groundbreaking, trendsetting, with an intensity and attention to moviemaking craft that makes them stand up, even decades later, as classics.
Other Yash Chopra movies that I have seen do not rise as loftily. Silsila is thoughtful and mature in its exploration of extramarital passion, but somewhat flawed in its resolution. Kabhi kabhie is mopey, dull, and downright stupid at times (although I admit that a recent conversation with a friend gave me some new perspectives on it, that may demand a rewatch). And Dil to pagal hai is nearly forgettable, save Madhuri's mesmerizing smile.
So it was with some tempered expectations that I turned to Lamhe ("moments") to commemorate Yash Chopra's career on the day of h is death. In recent reviews (Satte pe satta, English Vinglish), I have given thought to the power of nostalgia, and the special appeal that films cherished by desis as childhood favorites have for me, as an outsider and a student of modern Indian cultures. Lamhe is one such beloved film - as with Satte pe satta, when I tweeted about watching it, I received many comments from desi women of roughly my age who hold it close to their hearts. But I was prepared, from other commentary I had read (such as Beth's hilarious response) to not relate that well to the movie myself.
As it happens, I do not hate Lamhe. But I do not particularly like it, either. I suppose that in its time - coming as it did in such a dire and violent era for Hindi films - it was refreshing, different, exciting. For me, though, without that perspective, it's just puzzling and lackluster. It falls very close to Kabhi kabhie on my Yash Chopra spectrum - a dull film with a few nice songs and a great deal of moping by people whose decisions and dilemmas are not terribly relatable. Lamhe is remembered as one of Hindi film's great romances. But it is a romance that I find it hard to get behind, because neither of principals' great lifelong loves does anything much to move me.
As a young man, Viren (Anil Kapoor) falls in love with Pallavi (Sridevi), the daughter of a family friend who lives in the next palace over from Viren in Rajasthan. It's not hard to see what Viren loves about Pallavi - she is beautiful, sassy, bold, and a whole lot of fun. After Pallavi's death, though, Viren clings desperately to her memory for nearly two decades. Rather than coming across as romantic, Viren's obsession rings to me joyless, self-indulgent, and tiresome. It's terribly depressing, and it's difficult to imagine the spirited Pallavi would have been much impressed by Viren squandering his life in such incessant, intolerable moping.
This, I suppose, is an example of theme I don't quite get because I did not grow up immersed in desi culture. The notion that each of us is allotted only one great love, and that our joy is finished when that love is gone, is seen often in Hindi movies - at least as a source of dramatic tension, if not the ultimate message of most movies. But the theme has little resonance for me, being as I am a person who falls in love early and often. I just cannot relate to a character who refuses to see beauty in anyone other than the frozen memories of a long-dead girl.
And then there is Pallavi's orphaned daughter Pooja (also Sridevi). Raised in apparent isolation by Dai Jaa (Waheeda Rehman), Viren's own surrogate mother, Pooja is bound to be more than slightly dysfunctional. But her lifelong love for Viren is not just unmotivated - it's anti-motivated. As far as the movie shows us, Pooja never even meets Viren until she is 18; he worked assiduously to avoid her throughout her life. Despite this, she is convinced she loves him, enough to tolerate his gloominess, his ongoing neglect, and the particularly appalling slap across the face that he delivers to her when she confesses her love. This is more the girlish fantasies of a maladjusted young woman than a deep, substantial love.
I have been told that part of what makes Lamhe shocking and significant is the notion of romance between a guardian and his ward, a man in loco parentis to the woman he pairs with by the end of the movie. But of all the aspects of Lamhe that set wrong with me, this is the least. Viren is not Pooja's guardian in any substantive sense. He provides for her financially but has no relationship with her whatsoever. And so there is as little substance to their parent-child relationship as there is to their romantic relationship. Viren's about-face in the movie's end, his sudden love for Pooja, is just as unmotivated as her lifelong passion for him. This is passion by fiat, love that exists merely because the script says there should be love. Romance movies always have a disadvantage - we know how they are going to end. A movie that makes us wait a couple of hours for that inevitable result had better back it up, and make the couple's trajectory to togetherness interesting and compelling. Lamhe doesn't manage this. Viren's sulking and Pooja's girlish squealing - punctuated by the forced comedy of Viren's friend Prem (Anupam Kher) - make for a long, dull slog. Yash Chopra may be the king of romance, but Lamhe just plods.
If Lamhe has a redeeming feature, it is of course the marvelous Sridevi herself. Amrita said of her in this moive, "Sridevi was just this magical creature to us who could do no wrong." This goes a long way to explain why this dull movie with its bizarro story is so fondly remembered by desi women my age. Supriya Nair, in her wonderful article about Sridevi (which I referenced in my review of English Vinglish) talked about the resonant appeal to contemporaneous young girls of Sridevi's woman-child characters like Pooja. But for me, Pooja is strange, puzzling, even unappealing. As charming and gifted as Sridevi obviously is, Pooja's terminal ingenuousness is a turnoff, as is the notion of her paired with the middle-aged, gloomy Viren. Sridevi is far more appealing as the bright, clever Pallavi - I would have thoroughly enjoyed a movie about that character.
There are a few nice songs in Lamhe - the best of these is Sridevi's gorgeous rain song, "Megha re megha," which I had to back up and watch several times over before I could continue the movie.
Another sure crowd-pleaser is the medley of old songs that Pooja, Prem, and Dai Jaa perform in an attempt to get a smile out of the perpetually pouting Viren. This is interminable, and eventually nearly insufferable, but Waheeda Rehman dancing to "Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai" is such a deliciously pleasurable filmi in-joke as to make it all worthwhile.
But the movie as a whole? I'm afraid I have to say I miss the appeal. As much as I respect Yash Chopra's contributions and the groundbreaking classics he created, the specialness of Lamhe is lost on me, with my outsider's perspective on its themes. There is always more for me to learn.