Friday, December 08, 2006


Ravi Chopra’s Baghbaan had dealt with the still contentious matter of care for the aged, and despite its blatant melodrama had struck some chords; Baabul is not just dated, but also so flat you actually wish there was some melodrama to liven it up.

Which is not to say that the issue of widow remarriage is no longer valid, but in the time and social milieu Chopra’s film is set, it’s not such an overriding concern. In his father BR Chopra’s 1956 film Ek Hi Raasta, for instance, the man was forced to marry the widow because the neighbours accuse her of being a slut. In 1956 a man could not be ‘friends’ with a woman, more so a widow and the neighbours could be nasty and interfering. In 2006, upper class Mumbai, where a woman can have a male “best friend”, and a son can address his father as “buddy” and “dude”, it would be considered strange if a widow were forced to live in the orthodox way—wear white, eat bland food, sleep on the floor and never be part of any celebrations. In Baabul, society does not come into the picture at all, it concentrates on the wealthy Kapoor family, headed by Balraj (Amitabh Bachchan).

After a tediously stretched romance, his son Avinash (Salman Khan) marries artist Mili (Rani Mukerji). It seems odd that Mili gives up her art and becomes a traditional stay-at-home wife and mother, when there is nothing to suggest that her in-laws are conservative.

A few years later, Avinash dies in an accident. Balraj’s old-fashioned older brother (Om Puri) is convinced that this happened because his widowed sister-in-law (Sarika) was invited to the wedding. Balraj looks angry and says, “Don’t insult my son’s death.”

The best part of the film is that the tragedy is faced by the parents with great dignity and restraint. They don’t force Mili to wear white or live like a widow, it is she who almost revels in grief – in two scenes, she is seen breaking down, under the shower and in the rain, clutching Avinash’s sweater. Balraj sees her endless sorrow and decides that he must get her married.

What follows in the name of progressiveness is a bit disconcerting. Balraj seeks out Mili’s best friend Rajat (John Abraham), in Europe where he is a singer, conveniently single and still in love with Mili. Balraj forces Mili to agree to marry Rajat, when she clearly doesn’t want to. If she had met someone and wanted to remarry, and Balraj had stood by her decision against the family’s opposition, it would have been commendable. But here, it’s the family patriarch deciding that the woman’s life is not worth living without a man (“like sea water cannot be drunk”) and whether she wants to or not, she must marry again.

This attitude is only a little less patriarchal that the older brother’s casual neglect of the widow in his family. Balraj’s wife (Hema Malini) opposes the remarriage on the grounds that she does not want to give up her grandson. A couple of other tracks are hinted at—like a jealous cousin, and a relative (Aman Verma) who is always in the background-- as if these bits were edited out to keep the film within a watchable running time. Quite a few of the romantic scenes could have been cut to make place for a complete and well-rounded look at issue of the treatment of widows in a traditionalist society.

But Baabul is simplistic and pro-patriarchy, despite attempting to be the opposite. Chopra relies heavily on the performances of his two lead stars and both Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji deliver the good, although their roles did not push them to heights greater than what they have already achieved in other films.

At any rate, one cannot but appreciate Ravi Chopra’s desire to make a family film with a cause, if only he’d step out of his ivory tower and notice that the world has changed in the last half century since his father made Ek Hi Raasta. In fact, the senior Chopra’s films like Sadhna and Nikaah, were genuinely progressive.


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