Monday, July 28, 2014

Maine Pyar Kiya: What ever happened to friendship?

Last weekend I re-watched Maine Pyar Kiya and I was amazed at how alive it feels, even after 25 years. The story, to refresh your memory, goes like this--Karan (Alok Nath) and Kishan (Rajeev Verma) are best friends who will do anything for one another as young men. But when they grow up, they grow apart: Kishan becomes a wealthy industrialist and Karan remains a poor country mouse. As the movie begins, Karan, now a widower, needs to go abroad to earn some money but he can’t just leave his teenaged daughter Suman (the absolutely darling Bhagyashree) on her own. Who does he turn to? His best friend Kishan! And so Suman goes to stay at Kishan’s giant mansion. Although she misses her papa dearly, she soon finds a friend of her own in Kishan’s son Prem (Salman Khan).


Suman is a kind and gentle girl, although by no means a meek one. She teases Prem just as much as he teases her. Their first meeting at Kishan’s house sets the tone for their entire relationship. Suman accidentally walks in on Prem in the bathroom as he’s peeing. Prem calls out, “Aaj kal darwaaze pe knock karke aane ka zamaana nahin raha.” (“Don’t people knock on the door before entering.”) Instead of blushing or getting embarrassed or acting coy, Suman fires back, “Aaj kal darwaaze ko lock karke rakhne ka bhi zamaana nahin raha.” (People don’t keep their doors locked these days.”) Burn! But Prem’s face reveals his delight at this girl who’s on his level. When she spots a pigeon about to get used as target practice by Kishan’s slimy business partner Ranjeet’s (the late, great Ajit Vachani) equally slimy son Jeevan (Mohnish Behl), Suman swoops in to rescue the pigeon from certain death and then turns on her heel and gives Jeevan a scolding for treating life so callously.

As for Prem, we see that he’s a bit spoiled and can be too full of jokes but he’s ultimately a good person. He doesn’t shirk his responsibilities to his father’s company, he loves his mother Kaushalya (Reema Lagoo, obviously), and he’s sensitive towards Suman’s feelings. One of the telling moments of Prem’s character is when Ranjeet’s daughter Seema (the Jennifer Grey-haired Pervin Dastur) is attempting to seduce him and instead of taking advantage or shaming her for being sexually forward, Prem just very casually extracts himself from the unwanted situation by calling in Suman and their buddy Manohar (the late Laxmikant Berde) and telling them that Seema is feeling lonely and needs some company. Prem escapes Seema’s advances but Seema only has her ego bruised, not her reputation.

It’s no wonder that Suman and Prem’s friendship gradually turns to love.

Suman and Prem want to get married but although they have the approval of Kaushalya, Kishan refuses to consent. You see, Kishan has let Ranjeet talk him into believing that Karan and Suman are only after his money. Kishan becomes so blinded by greed that he can’t see their true goodness and when Karan returns from abroad with presents for everybody, Kishan cannot look past the blinders of his greed and he sees the gesture as mercenary and manipulative rather than as the act of love and friendship that it is. He insults Karan by saying he could never be on his (Kishan’s) level because Kishan earns piles of cash and Karan only has 2000 rupees a month.

Karan and Suman return to the countryside and Prem, not on board with Kishan and Ranjeet’s plan that he marry Seema instead, chases after them. But Karan says that before Prem can marry Suman, he needs to prove that he isn’t just a spoiled rich kid and can support a family by earning 2000 rupees on his own. Not so easy, is it, Prem?

Prem works and works and eventually saves up the cash but just as he’s about to go deliver it, the majorly dickish Jeevan and some thugs intercept him and dump him in the river. But Prem manages to climb out of the river and lands up on Karan’s doorstep sopping wet, with cash still in hand. After a tense moment or two, Karan finally sees Prem’s goodness and his heart melts. The couple has one father on their side.

Meanwhile, Ranjeet has been spinning more lies to Kishan and Kishan now thinks Karan has done some harm to Prem. Kishan marches up to Karan’s house with a shotgun, ready to blast his own best friend in the face. And for what? Money? Pride? But Kishan and Karan rediscover their friendship and the two of them (plus Prem) turn on Ranjeet, Jeevan, and the thugs. And even Kaushalya gets in a genteel blow or two.

But the real hero of the piece isn’t Kishan, Karan, or Prem. It’s the beautiful white pigeon who Suman rescued from Jeevan’s shotgun earlier in the film! The pigeon returns at a crucial point to fly around in Jeevan’s face, distracting him, and causing his eventual death.

Pigeon: 1; Rapey Rich Boy: 0

Watching Maine Pyar Kiya from a distance of almost 25 years inevitably lends the film a bit of a nostalgic gloss but there is something to be said for the lack of brand names, the beautiful songs, the leisurely pacing and editing, and the way the film calls on the audience to be better people than we are. All of these elements which have slowly vanished from mainstream Hindi films, in part because of the importation of American “irony” and “realism” and in part because the way we watch films now is so distracted. Prem and Suman are too “good” for modern tastes. They don’t drink or smoke or sleep around and are respectful to their elders. How uncool! And who has time for three hours of leisurely pacing except certain luddite film bloggers who refuse to get a smartphone? A film like Maine Pyar Kiya is a time capsule from another era of media, when the morals were aspirational, not the brand names.

What struck me most, however, was the attention paid to friendship. For all my hatred of rom-coms, I don’t actually hate romance in films. I enjoy a chemistry-laden jodi as much as the next person but if we’re supposed to be cheering for the pairing in question, I prefer that it’s actually based on some sort of mutual respect and admiration and not just a lady putting up with a whiny man-boy because he hassled her until she gave in or some dude mooning over a girl he saw once because she’s pretty. Despite being an 1980s hero and all of 21-22 years old, Prem is far more adult and far more of a man than all the man-boys of all the rom-coms of the last 15 years put together. He and Suman are friends first and then fall in love. They genuinely like each other, respect each other, and enjoy spending time together. Prem isn’t some entitled asshole who bitches about getting “friendzoned” instead of sex because the “friend zone” is a great place to be! Who doesn’t want friends?! Friends are awesome!

And because this is a film from before the great stratification of film audiences, the oldies get plenty of screentime, too. Kishan and Karan’s friendship is a wonderful parallel to Prem and Suman’s. The subtlety in character, for Kishan, especially, is fantastic. I appreciated that Ranjeet wasn’t just an evil villain but that Kishan was complicit in all of Ranjeet’s lies. Kishan wanted to believe that he was better because he was wealthy. He wanted to believe that his old friend was jealous. He wanted to believe it all, so he did.

For Kishan, under the influence of his money, the ehasan, which I understood as an obligation, the give-and-take of friendship, is reduced to a transaction. I do something for you so you must to do something for me as payment. He has forgotten that we can do things for people because we want to, because we love them just for being themselves. With money as his motivating factor, he has become blind to the deeper and stronger obligations that tie us together as friends and as a society. Nothing shows this more than Kishan deciding to match Prem up with the wealthy Seema, despite all the evidence that the Seema’s family is lacking in the morals department, instead of the good-hearted daughter of his old friend.

This matter of ehasan comes up again and again throughout the film. Prem rescues Suman from a sexual assault by Jeevan without expecting or demanding anything (i.e. sex or love) in return but because they are friends and that is enough. Karan brings gifts from abroad because they are all friends. And the most trivial act of kindness turns out to be the most consequential: Suman rescues the pigeon because she has a kind heart and sympathized with it. The pigeon becomes her friend, too, and does things like delivering love letters to Prem via song and, eventually, fulfills its own debt to Jeevan. One of the advantages of the leisurely pacing of the film is that the characters and story have time to breath and develop, letting us enjoy small character moments that don’t directly influence the narrative. Two moments towards the end of the film stand out for me, minor scenes from minor characters that would have been cut from a film looking for a “tight” narrative, and much to the detriment of the film. The first involves Seema. As her father and Jeevan are whipping themselves up into a frenzy over the supposed insult to Seema when Prem hares off after Suman, Seema just quietly says something like, “But I didn’t really love him, Papa.” Ranjeet says, “That’s not the point.” Seema is willing to let Prem go and, in that one exchange, is revealed to have a good heart after all. Ranjeet and Jeevan don’t care about her real feelings; the film, and by extension the audience, does.

The second moment comes, again, after Prem has left his family home. Kishan and Ranjeet are at a board meeting and Jeevan is revealed to not only be a terrible manager but he doesn’t care about the workers at the factory he was put in charge of. This is in direct contrast to Prem who is, at that very moment, doing manual labor alongside men and women like the very men and women Jeevan couldn’t care less about. There’s no point to the scene except to highlight the differences between Jeevan and Prem, how Prem respects the bonds of labor that have earned his father a fortune while Jeevan--and Kishan for putting him charge--do not. Who “deserves” wealth? Who “deserves” loyalty? Who would you be glad to work for? It’s an ugly facet of Jeevan’s character and not at all necessary to advance the narrative, since at that point the attempted assault of Suman plus general dickish behavior would have the audience on Prem--and the pigeon’s--side, but that fact of Jeevan being an awful manager enriches not just Jeevan’s character but the entire world of the film.

And the world of Maine Pyar Kiya is really quite deep. The side characters--like Manohar, Prem’s best friend, and the sassy milkmaid (Huma Khan)--all have a life of their own, rather than existing to prop up the hero. And everything felt so open and breezy and clearly not meant to be boxed up inside a claustrophobic TV or mobile screen. Close-ups were reserved for really intense and intimate moments, like when Prem is applying some ointment to Suman’s leg and we get a point-of-view shot of her staring at Salman’s magnificent chest to illustrate her attraction to him at that moment.

But the filmi world of Maine Pyar Kiya no longer exists.

But it is wonderful to visit from time to time.

And if you haven’t see it yet, set aside some time, shut off your mobile phone, and prepare to cheer on the pluckiest little pigeon to ever grace a cinema screen.

3 comments:

Moimeme said...

Marvelous!

I was really looking forward to read your take on MPK, FG, and you delivered with a bang. You got everything that makes this such a wonderful film, including the significance of the pigeon. The fact that you understood its importance to the overall theme and philosophy of the film, and did not laugh it off as being cheesy or naive, tells me how well you understood this film, and its world.

Really, I can't say any more than a heartfelt THANK YOU! Thank you for taking the time to watch it, thank you for taking the effort to put aside any cultural conditioning/blinders you might have had, and thank you, thank you for trying to understand the film in terms of what it's trying to communicate, and not try to fit it into a framework designed for some other type of film.

This is why I keep reading you, and this is what makes you unique. May you long continue to enrich us all with your wisdom and insight.

Divya said...

Hey Filmigirl ..good to see you back with a great post like this. I generally like the direction Hindi films are taking these days with the better writing, shorter lengths and better female characters, but I also hate , hate, hate the rom-com movies coming out these days. Basically the template is to have a manchild, an mpdg or serious nerd girl and the obligatory sex scene.. even where its not wanted and completely breaks immersion since it does not suit the setting (Lootera anyone). Could you also write a post on the music of Maine Pyar kiya or just what you like about Indian film music in general including SI film music of course. Its always interesting to read your perspective on these things.

alekya rao said...

bhagashree must have done films instead of getting married.i really felt very bad that she gave up her career despite getting so many big offers.if she had persued her career, she would have reached heights.

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