Look at those two. Don’t they look perfect?
When this movie came out in 2003, I remember reading stories that said the picture had been exceedingly well received by Indian overseas audiences, especially in the U.S., whereas response was tepid, at best, in India. They went on to say that the storyline seemed to have struck a chord with NRIs and older American-born people of Indian origin.
Having seen Ravi Chopra’s movie now, if those reports were indeed accurate, I’d guess that it’s for two reasons: first, because there are fewer large joint families here than in India, and one of the main themes touched on in Baghban - abandonment of aging parents by their adult children – is a secret fear that more people would likely harbor in the U.S., and second, because it represents an idealized image of middle class Indian culture that seems locked in amber in an earlier time.
The movie begins with an idyllic set-up. Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini (as Raj and Pooja Malhotra) have it all: a flawless, happy marriage, a beautifully appointed home, and five seemingly perfect sons, some who have married and had children. Raj heads out every morning to walk the two family dogs, looking very spiffy in his designer track suit. He returns home to be greeted by his beautiful, dutiful wife who has his Tata tea waiting for him, and who ties his tie for him when he dons a sleek suit to head off to his job at ICICI Bank. (Two more big product placements coming up after the Interval.) The first song – Meri Makna, Meri Soniye – happens shortly after, for the occasion of Raj and Pooja’s wedding anniversary. It’s a lovely number, and it’s pleasing to see a long-married couple portrayed as having such an affectionate and devoted relationship, though the translation of the title, repeated often throughout the song, is hilarious: “My butterball, my beautiful lady”! (For anyone reading who may not have lived through one or more Thankgiving seasons in the USA, Butterball is a brand of frozen turkey here.)
We see Raj hit up for a Rs. 50,000 downpayment for a car by one of his sons, and we also see him take out a loan at work in order to get the money for him. Raj’s boss at the bank cautions him to take care of his financial affairs, lest he run into difficulty after retirement, and Raj gently waves him off, saying, in essence, “I have no need to worry. I’ve invested everything in my children and I know they will pay me back in kind when the time comes.”
One more happy song for Holi, and the children all receive a letter from Raj asking them to be sure to be present for Diwali. After a dinner wherein Amitabh, at the head of the table, has explained to his grandson that the family dining table is like a tree – the grandmother is the root, the grandfather is the trunk, and the grandchildren are the sweet fruit – he and Hema sit down with the children and give them the news: Raj is retiring and the couple will give up their home and go live with whichever of the four sons want them. (The fifth son, adopted, played by Salman Khan, is off earning big money in Europe somewhere and not in on the surprise.) The happy couple then excuse themselves so the children can discuss and make their decision. They imagine that the children are fighting over who gets to have them, when in reality the ungrateful offspring react as if they’ve just been handed a vial of the Ebola virus and told to drink up.
They devise a plan to split the parents up (one son and d-i-l will take the mother, the other son and d-i-l will take the father, and after 6 months each will send that parent on to the next two brothers). They are sure, knowing how attached the parents are, that they will never agree to such a plan and the kids will all be off the hook, but, to their surprise, that’s not the case. AB and Hema spend one sad final night together before a long and tearful goodbye. At this point, as I was watching the movie, I jotted down in my notebook: “What a ridiculous premise!”
It’s outrageous to believe that four adult children (with no prior hint of this earlier in the movie) would turn on their parents and behave this way, and it’s even more preposterous to believe that a couple who love each other as much as Raj and Pooja do, would agree to leave each other. I know that each movie requires some degree of letting go and saying “Ok, this is unlikely, but it might happen”, but this plot point is just beyond any filmi suspension of disbelief.
Did I stop the DVD player, remove the disc and put it back in its case? No.
Partially because I was curious to see how the story had been written to be resolved, and partially because the fantasyland that Raj and Pooja live in so lulls you into believing that this sort of love between a man and his wife is actually possible (as much as you really suspect it’s not).
Raj and Pooja drive off in different directions and it just gets worse from there. At his new home, no one helps Raj carry his luggage up, he is chased away from the seat at the head of the dining table by his bahu, and when his eyeglasses break, the son makes him wait ’til the next payday to have them repaired. Pooja fares no better: her teenage granddaughter refuses to share her bedroom, so she is placed in the maid’s room, causing the maid to promptly quit. Raj and Pooja write letters back and forth, expressing how much they miss each other, and soon, we the audience have to sit through a toe-curlingly dweeby picturization of the song Main Yahan Tu Wahan with AB crooning into a phone in a telephone booth. (By the way, have a dekko at this picture: is he actually wearing four rings??)
The only bit of consolation for Raj (and us) during this period is when Raj meets Hemantbhai (Paresh Rawal) and his wife Shanti (Lilette Dubey), who own and run an Archies card shop and cafe. At the urging of the kids hanging out at the caf, who appreciate him more than his own, Raj starts typing his memoirs. For the celebration of Valentine’s Day, a party at Archies gives way to the song Chali Chali. Again, it’s lovely to see that the second of the big numbers from this film are acted out by two people both past age 50. My only complaint is the lame dialogue leading up to it. Raj arrives at Archies and sees the kids with the red, heart-shaped balloons, exchanging cards and terms of endearment, and when told what the occasion is, he asks “Valentine’s Day? What’s that?”
At that point, I think I actually shouted “Oh, come on! What nonsense!” at the TV. I mean, really, here we have this urbane gentleman who has been out and about, worked in a bank in a big metropolis, and he’s never heard of Valentines Day? Even if, as Shiv Sena maintains, the holiday is a Vestern one and foreign to Indian culture, in any big city a gent like AB would know what the day is about, just as surely as he’d know that Cafe Coffee Day and Barista are in competition with each other.
Raj and Pooja meet up at the time of the six-month switch (where else but at a train station ) where they’re supposed to transfer to their next destinations, when Raj decides they should make a break for it and run off together, like two teens eloping. During their escapade, at a moment when Raj is being abused by a car salesman after a test drive, Salman the adopted son (called Alok), materializes, with his shaadi shuda wife (Mahima Chaudhry) in tow, and brings the parents home to live with them, where they can bask in the glow of his adoration. Yes, really. He recites lines like “You are God who has come into my life as a father” and falls asleep on the floor at the side of the parents’ bed, like a puppy dog. (You’d think after six months apart, Mum and Dad might want some alone time, if you know what I mean. Hai hai! Becharam! Who would suggest such a thing?)
In the meantime, Hemantbhai gets Raj’s memoirs turned into a book, which becomes a huge hit, has to be reprinted and wins – ahem – the Booker. At a ceremony to celebrate the author, the four bad children show up, the money-grubbing little brats. But don’t worry, Amitabh delivers a powerful speech about parents and children
“… our drooping shoulders on which our children once sat to see the world…..our trembling hands which held our childrens’ for them to see the world….our parched lips that once sang lullabyes…”
and gives them what for.
I love the fact that Raj and Pooja sleep in the same bed, embracing each other, that they are shown – tastefully – actually being physical with each other. But the atmosphere of the movie, the sets, are too perfect. The home that Raj and Pooja live in is gorgeous, but it looks like a movie set home, an oversized chalet, like something for sale in Aamby Valley. It detracts from the possible emotional impact of the film, because it lessens how believable we find it.
The troop of actors playing the various children were all forgettable. The movie could have benefitted from better writing and better actors to play the sons, so they might have been halfway convincing rather than cardboard.
See it or skip it?
If you’re excited at the prospect of Amitabh and Hema together again on screen, or the idea of a mushy love story between two attractive, older people appeals to you, go for it. Everyone else, walk on by.
I don’t regret having seen it. I love Amitabh Bachchan, especially in this phase of his career, plus he and Hema played their roles so gracefully and beautifully, in a far-from-perfect film, but this movie is definitely not everyone’s cup of chai. Tata, or otherwise.