Sunday, December 15, 2013

The 90s Canon: D…D…D… Darr

Twenty years later Darr (Yash Raj Films, 1993) holds up surprisingly well as a thriller and as a film. The visual aesthetic is very much of its era--hair everywhere, chiffon saris--but unlike other films from the early 1990s, the difficulty in watching Darr with a fresh eye is not just a matter of looking past dated hairstyles. Darr is not just a film, it lingers on in the Bollywood mythos as both a campy punchline and a cultural signifier. Darr may have been one of the final films directed by the legendary Yash Chopra, but rather than looking backward, it signaled a changing of the guard. The response to the film, to Shahrukh Khan, the charismatic new actor hired on as the villain, could not have been predicted and once unleashed, it could not be put back in the bottle.

Darr is as taut a thriller as a mainstream masala film can be. Kiran (Juhi Chawla), a spunky girl just out of college, lives with her bhabhi (Tanvi Azmi) and cricket-crazy brother (Anupam Kher) in one of those giant mansions Yash Raj families always seem to live in. Kiran gets engaged and then married to her long time beau, the doltish naval officer Sunil (Sunny Deol). Everything is perfect in Kiran’s life except for one small thing: she’s being stalked.

Enter Rahul (Shahrukh Khan), Kiran’s former college classmate and current stalker. See, Rahul thinks he’s in love with Kiran but rather than talking to Kiran directly and getting to know her, Rahul does things like surreptitiously taking photos of her that he then turns into slides and projects on screens all over his bedroom. But Rahul’s fantasy cannot hold forever and after 2 hours of obsessing over her, the finale comes when Rahul decides that he needs to kill her husband so that they can be together, just like it’s meant to be. So, Rahul stalks the couple to Switzerland and traps Kiran on a boat in the middle of a lake but, alas for poor Rahul, the script cannot allow the plan to succeed and he ends up dead, beaten to a bloody pulp by Sunil.

According to Anupama Chopra’s book “King of Bollywood: Shahrukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema,” the idea for Darrcame from director Yash Chorpa’s son Aditya Chopra. Aditya had seen the 1989 film Dead Calm, which starred Billy Zane as a charismatic mass murder who traps Nicole Kidman on a boat, and wanted to remake it in Hindi as a low budget thriller with no songs. Considering that Aditya Chopra’s previous attempt at making a film, Parampara, flopped badly, Yash Chopra wisely gave over the story to screenwriter Honey Irani to work her magic. In the end, the only connection between the psychopath of Dead Calm and the delusional Rahul is that the denouement ends with a faceful of lead.

Rahul has been reduced to a stuttering caricature in popular memory but the actual character in Darr is far from a ham act. Shahrukh goes big in his performance but he does so to make a point, to contrast the “private” crazy Rahul with the buttoned up persona that he puts on for the world. Shahurkh understands that Rahul is dangerous because he fools everybody into thinking that he’s tame. Shahrukh plays Rahul like one of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers, tame until he claws your face off.

Unlike stereotypical filmi villains, we come to understand Rahul as a man suffering from some sort of mental illness or possibly even a psychotic break from reality. He seems to have never recovered from losing his mother at a young age and we often see him “talking” to her on the telephone. When we meet one of Rahul’s friends from his college days later in the film, there are hints that Rahul wasn’t always crazy and before his unrequited crush began to play an outsized role in his delusions, perhaps he was just a normal, shy boy.

And yet, even as Rahul plots and schemes to murder, he keeps the audience on his side. Some of this is due to Shahrukh’s charisma but, quite frankly, I suspect Rahul and Shahrukh only shined so brightly because they were played in contrast to one of the biggest jerks I’ve come across in my film watching career: Sunny Deol as Sunil. He bullies, blusters, and strides across the film screen with his chest puffed out, like a preppie fraternity douche in a 1980s college film.

Sunil is one of those men with no tolerance or understanding of weakness. In one of the most tense scenes in the entire film, Kiran is swimming laps in the pool when somebody grabs her foot. Considering the fear and pressure she has been under from being stalked and harassed, she panics and struggles and keeps getting pulled under the water. Is it Rahul?! No, it’s her jerk boyfriend, who thinks the whole thing is hilarious.

In the end, there are no winners in Darr. Kiran remains trapped, even after she gets off that boat in the middle of the lake. Every single male character is horrible, including the Kiran’s dopey cricket-crazed brother who gives a lot of grief to her sister-in-law. In retrospect, that’s the real horror here. Kiran--and the rest of us--can never escape. At least not until another romantic template takes over. Because Darr didn’t just launch Shahrukh, it launched the 1990s-2000s Yash Raj Romance, the difference between those films and Darr is only in how the lady love accepts the advances of her stalker.

Fantasy is ultimately more appealing than reality, which is why we all go to see films in the first place. And Rahul’s imagination is explicitly filmi. For example, the picturization for “Tu Mere Saamne,” which is Rahul’s fantasy, borrows imagery from director Raj Kapoor and puts Juhi Chawla in a vintage wet, white sari. Rahul’s Kiran is a fantasy dream woman, no more and no less real than Mandakini in Ram Teri Gana Maili. Rahul’s filmi imagination can never cross over into real life: the closer he gets to Kiran, the more pixelated and far away she seems. That’s the reality and tragedy of Darr.

At the base of Rahul’s delusion is that Kiran loves him but is simply unable to take action. And Honey Irani’s script understands the appeal of this fantasy while also showing how dangerous it really is. For women who live in a society that shames them for having romantic or sexual desires, there is something very powerful about this fantasy. It allows women to project their desires outward, they become the object of intense passion without having to ask for it. But it’s not just a female fantasy, men continue to get off on the idea that women are all just hiding their true feelings, as a news story proved yet again this week.

So even if we do genuinely feel Rahul’s pain when his fantasy is burst, we also know that even if he somehow managed to win Kiran over, they could never be happy. Rahul is not only a very ill man but he has no idea what kind of person Kiran is. What does she like? What does she hate? What makes her laugh? But it’s all moot because Kiran doesn’t love him and she is not swayed by his declarations of love. And she does say what she wants, inexplicable though it is, what she wants is that jerk Sunil.

Yet it’s Rahul’s delusion, drained of nuance and pathos, that became the foundation of a slew of romance films that followed in the wake of Darr, including (and I know I’m going to get in trouble for this) Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Following right on the heels of Darr, it’s a film that’s always made me uncomfortable because, in the end, the major difference between Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’s Raj (also played by Shahrukh) and Darr’s Rahul is that in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, all the other characters are in on Raj’s delusions of love. This certainly isn’t the first time nor the last time a nuanced theme has been flattened and warped in the retelling--witness a slew of “Wake Up” Sids who never have to wake up--but it is fascinating to see it play out in retrospect.

And so the dark, bloody romance of Darr lives on as a campy punchline, with Shahrukh Khan’s adorably stuttered “K-K-K-Kiran” eclipsing his blazing performance as a disturbed young man who mistakes obsession for love.

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