प्रेम रतन धन पायो
Dir. Sooraj Barjatya
Some of the most awkward moments of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo come when it tries to be progressive and modern while still hewing to its regressive Rajshri roots. When our hero Prem (Salman Khan, of course) learns that the princess Maithili (Sonam Kapoor) has slept with her royal fiancé before the marriage was solemnized, he tries to look shocked, then tries to shrug his shoulders in acceptance. The whole scene falls flat; it's not cute or hip, it's just uncomfortable for both Khan and audience. Later, when Maithili makes it clear to Prem that she wants to have sex with him (he's a doppelganger stand-in for the real fiancé-prince, incapacitated by an assassination attempt), Prem just looks stern and pained. Is he wrestling with his own desire for Maithili, a temptation to take advantage of his resemblance to the prince, and of her? Is he a little repulsed that the woman he idealizes and adores is so ready to succumb to an immoral desire? The scene doesn't make it clear, and that inscrutability may be a bit of sleight of hand by director Sooraj Barjatya - you, dear viewer, may supply whatever interpretation best suits your worldview.
Points to Barjatya, anyway, for daring to acknowledge (under the Rajshri banner no less) that an adult woman in 2015 might have sexual desires and be bold and aggressive about acting on them. And then some points docked, at the end, for having the royal family - including the recovered prince - offer Maithili to Prem as their gift to him. What could better underscore that women are mere property to be negotiated for and transferred as their families see fit? Maithili gets her happy ending, but only because her fiancé and her grandmother are willing to hand her over to another man.
Admittedly, life is different for royal scions, even in the 21st century when their regality is only a matter of tradition, not a matter of power and military allegiance. Maithili has been raised to value such traditions and know her role in them, and promised to Prince Vijay under that same set of values. But Maithili's submission to them, as cinematic message-delivery, is really no different from a spirited village girl submitting to her family's expectations in a movie of 30 years ago. Though Barjatya's worlds are always scaled by enormous sprawling mansions and populated with the most extreme members of the leisure classes, the people they portray are stand-ins for an aam aadmi audience. Viewers are meant to identify with them, as a means of escape - imagine yourself, for three hours, a part of this world where everyone is beautiful, where people gift exotic sports cars to one another on whim, where even the crummy substandard home occupied by cast-off royal bastards is twice as big as anything you've ever lived in. And if you want to be like them, you also of course must also act like them. So the packaging and sale of Maithili is not just a matter of royal obligation; it's a model for young women, even sexually forward young women, to follow. Kings and princesses, as Shakespeare had Henry V point out, are the makers of fashion.
And what about that Barjatya world - is it still entertaining, 20 years after Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, to be whisked away into a sparkling kind of Maine-Pyar-Kiya-meets-Mughal-e-Azam fairy tale world where princes ride in horse-drawn carriages while taking calls on their iPhone 6es and kings build crystal palaces on the precipices of waterfalls? Well, yes - most of the time, it is. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is pretty to look at and loaded with good-enough songs and picturizations, and even a few excellent ones - a picturization that is a battle-of-the-sexes football match is especially fun, as is a song that breaks out when Prem and his buddy are left to cool their heels on top of a desert fort, and somehow find a set of giant drums to bang on. Indeed, except for some melodramatic indulgence in the last third - including interminable fight scenes cleverly staged in a mirrored maze - its nearly-three-hour running time doesn't really feel that long. It's a very simple story, with its mixture of Prince-and-Pauper tropes with classic Barjatya themes that elevate family above all other concerns. But the grand visuals are appealing, and throwbacky melodrama can be unchallenging fun on its own terms.
Salman Khan is not quite in his finest form; this incarnation of Prem doesn't match the sweet innocence of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. He is too beatific, almost sanctimonious in his confidence that love can fix all that is wrong in the royal family. He takes on a smarminess that Barjatya's Prems of 20 or 25 years ago never had. That means that if you already don't like Sallu, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is not the film that will change your mind. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to good enough to elevate the material they have to work with. Sonam Kapoor gives a mostly adequate performance; I am not convinced she has rajkumari-level gravitas in her, but she is not distractingly bad. The show stealers are the same folks who almost ran off with Tanu Weds Manu - Deepak Dobriyal as goofy Prem's manic sidekick, and Swara Bhaskar as the prince's estranged, illegitimate half-sister. The latter so capably shoulders her melodramatic role and so expertly carries its heightened emotions that perhaps Barjatya should make her his lucky charm from now on, and finally put Prem out to pasture.