Update (November 16, 2007): Post-Punk Cinema Club has written exactly what I what I wish I had. In retrospect I really chickened out with what I wrote, and while I still find this movie very frustrating, I keep coming back to what PPCC said: "They always said the devil would be like this."
I am, that is, not the movie. There's a lot I dislike about this movie, but before you yell at me, understand that I realize that I'm not the audience it was made for. The intended setting, I assume, is India in 1965, not the US in 2007. (What sectors of the Indian film audience it was aimed at, I'd love to know.) I don't mean to use the differences in setting as an excuse for not trying to understand the movie on its own terms - but that's a different thing from me in my own context liking the message it holds in its own context.
Some background, in case you haven't seen the original (or its retelling, Raja Hindustani): rich, modern girl Rita (Nanda) arrives by plane back in Mumbai from America. Finding city life a bit too much, she takes a vacation to Kashmir, where she rents a houseboat from Raja (Shashi Kapoor). Raja instantly takes a fancy to Rita, and their affection blossoms over sight-seeing, boat-rowing, songs, him gazing at her while she dances, and her teaching him how to read Hindi.
On her next visit the following year, she arrives with suitor Kishore, who is much more keen on her than she is on him. Raja and Rita admit their feelings (and in a much funnier, livelier way than the sap-tastic method you might guess), and he follows her back to Mumbai. There he makes some changes to fit in with her world - new ways of dressing, eating, speaking, and dancing. And if the picture below is anything to go on, probably some new ways of flirting, too (though I think they're in essence engaged at this point, if not formally.)
However, there's one thing Raja won't do. When Rita teaches him how to dance some sort of box step but gets tired, trying to give him another partner, he says (read left to right, top to bottom):
Her reply is the last box there, acquiescing to his sense of propriety (and I think it's interesting that we never see her face in this exchange - just his, expressing concern and then happiness). The culture clash continues until a very fancy party and a very sad song, "Yahan Main Ajnabi Hoon." Feeling that the differences between their worlds will sink their love, Raja leaves for home. Rita, overhearing her father rejoicing over Raja's departure with Kishore, runs after him.
So what's my problem? My problem is that it's the educated woman who makes all the sacrifices. She leaves home. She says she's wrong, not "we'll need to make compromises together." She takes on a name he picked out for her (Rajju). Admittedly until this point she's done very little to adjust to his concerns or worldviews while he tried to make some changes for her. It's also a little troubling to me that Raja sometimes seems to like her modern, educated ways - like when he asks her to teach him to read (something that will make him fit into her world more but will also serve him well in general) (and if you click on the top collage and get a bigger version, you'll see that she's actually reading Lolita when he comes to ask her for help - she's that unconventional) or dances around outside in her nightie - and to support their class difference - like calling her "memsaab" all the time or sitting at her feet for reading lessons despite her inviting him to a chair. Heck, he's smitten the first time he sees her, when she shows up looking like this:
(On the subject of her clothing, it's very interesting that we never see her in traditional clothing. I thought for sure this movie would have the "sari switching point," when she ditches her sleeveless mod tops and short skirts either right before or right after they admit their love.) The movie ends with Rita no longer jet-set but train-tracked, on the ground with a man who will probably treat her very well and love her truly but by default keep her in a life less open than the one she has known. (His life isn't less open because it's rural and northern - it's less open because he's uneducated.) At least in this case she chooses it, I guess. And despite my griping, I do wish these fictional people from forty-two years ago the very best; I hope they both learn to compromise and that their life together comprises the values and experiences that are important for both of them. I don't think their odds are good, though, and the relationship seems to me to be unequal, inequitable, already.
I'm sure the message is more complex than "women should give up their lives in order to get married." I'm sure there are layers I didn't pick up on. I'm further frustrated by the characters in general: Rita is a whiny, fairly spoiled, silly person, while Raja comes off as having more depth and more heart. Raja also has time - or takes time? - to think through the implications of giving up (part of?) his culture, and decides it's a sacrifice he won't/can't make, but Rita just rushes off and hops on a train. I'm very curious which of these two worlds the filmmakers' own lives resembled. If they were mod Mumbai city-slickers, does that make the story hypocritical? "Do as we say, not as we do?" Or a cautionary tale: "We've learned that the modern life sucks your soul! Go back to the village!"
Or am I over-thinking it and it's just a movie?
There were many things I enjoyed. The songs are excellent, especially the lovely "Humko Tum Pe Pyar Aaya," with Raja frolicking in the mountains rejoicing in love, and the fun "Na Na Karke Pyar Tumhi Se Kar Baithe," in which Rita teaches Raja how to shimmy around the city (and it didn't look like he needed much instruction, if you know what I mean). The scenery is gorgeous, some exchanges early in their romance are very cute, and Shashi's performance is nuanced and sweet. (Nanda's is good, except it's hard to tell if she's following scripted whiny pouting or if she's doing that on her own. Also, like her later counterpart Karisma Kapoor, she's got a terribly grating, fake-sounding laugh that drove me bonkers.)
I have to warn against the version of the DVD I rented - Indo American Video Corporation Classic Collector's Series, with no subtitles in the songs and some pretty sparse ones elsewhere. Avoid, yaar!
In closing, a teaser: I watched this movie with Filmi Geek, and she and I read some parts of this movie differently. I'm looking forward to what she has to say, and you should too. (She also made a very good joke about one of Nanda's outfits, which I do hope she'll post. Hint hint.)