“Main Viren ko paanch saal se mohabbat karti hoon.”
“Main to unhe tabse mohabbat karti hoon jab main paanch saal ki thi.”
In a confrontation vaguely similar to the Pacino-DeNiro face off in Heat (1995), released four years after Lamhe (1991), Anita (Dippy Sagoo) holds out a delicate glass of flitting moments and Pooja (Sridevi) tears into it with the sledgehammer of interminable lightyears in terms of both depth and magnitude, quite unlike Heat, where the verbal duel is far more subtle and cerebral, and far less definitive.
Yash Chopra, the romance magician of Indian film industry, tested the limits with Lamhe so courageously as to border on recklessness, and, well, did not quite get away with it because the film crashed on the box office. Movies have told us and we, for that reason, know it for a ‘fact’ that romance is the game of the youth for the young with players carefully matched in all respects, except, say, in financial standing or temperament. Any tinkering with the foundational format makes the game dirty and unconscionable, plain and simple. In other words, we like our romantic movies to observe the table manners at the romance party. Well, not Lamhe – the original bad girl of the mainstream, Indian romantic films.
If Yash Chopra is ever counted among the great Indian filmmakers, it would be on the strength of this one film because in all others, Yash Chopra has done little more than play and re-play fairy tales in myriad versions, irrespective of the enviable success of the films. To his credit, Mr. Chopra knew the pulse of his viewers and catered to their rosy dreams with unfailing flair and finesse. With Lamhe, however, he broke the mould.
Viren, a royal Rajput from Rajasthan, returns to his vast estate from London for a short period of time, and falls in love with Pallavi (Sridevi) only to find later that she loves someone else, but not before her dying father – a very close friend of Viren’s deceased father – places the responsibility of Pallavi’s well-being on Viren’s responsible shoulders.
Viren, a gentleman lover, never lets his feelings on to Pallavi and never lets them get in the way of ensuring that she gets married to the person she loves so that she could be happy forever. The love of her life, Siddharth Bhatnagar (Deepak Malhotra), loves her just as much as she loves him, but there is one thing that he gets to know almost immediately, which Pallavi never gets a wind of – that Viren loves her. He shares it with Pallavi, and also tells her to be more understanding of the fact that heart is deaf to reason or, for that matter, caution. But the two of them must be mindful and appreciative of the fact that despite his feelings for her, Viren did exactly what he should have done in the circumstances fate had placed him.
However, the happily ever after does not last long, and when Pallavi is pregnant with Siddharth’s child, a road accident kills her husband and she is left alive only long enough to bring his child into the world. Pallavi’s little girl, Pooja, is left for Viren’s Dhai Ja (Waheeda Rehman) to bring up with Viren taking care from far away in London that both are well provided for. He visits home every year on Pallavi’s death anniversary to perform the yearly barsi rites, and never fails to forget that Pooja’s birthday, for no fault of hers, happens to be the death anniversary of his beloved Pallavi, which is part of the reason why he does bring her a birthday present every year, but doesn’t meet her until they come face to face on her eighteenth birthday to Viren’s utter astonishment at her likeness with her mother. She is delighted to meet her Kunwar ji after a lifetime of desperate wait, which seemed almost everlasting despite her relentless efforts to meet him. She, of course, doesn’t know that her efforts never bore fruit primarily because Viren tried his level best to skip coming across her, and succeeded until her eighteenth birthday, when the luck moved to her side. But long before she came face to face with Viren, she had declared as a little girl in her own innocent, childish way her plans to marry Kunwar ji (Viren) and make him her own.
Soon enough both Dhai Ja and Pooja come visiting Viren in the United Kingdom, and during the stay Pooja’s feelings for Viren soar further by the day and take deeper and stronger roots, if there was any scope for them to gain any more depth or tenacity than they already had by the time she saw him in person the first time. It’s not hard to sense Pooja’s feelings for Viren for anybody around, but Viren remains oblivious to them until a short while before she declares them to him in no uncertain words after he broaches the issue of her marriage. Pooja’s admission makes him furious and he slaps her hard to make it plain to her that there was no way he could bring himself to tolerate the very idea that she looked at him romantically.
His friend and constant companion, Prem (Anupam Kher), is most understanding of Pooja’s feelings, and tries to reason with him, but Viren, having dearly loved Pooja’s mother, can’t bring himself to entertain any romantic feelings for Pooja. And the movie bombed at the box office primarily because the audience sided with Viren on the issue staunchly whereas the film chose Pooja’s side and made Viren yield to Pooja’s unwavering love. To some of the viewers Viren’s admission of love for Pooja looked sudden and forced, and also morally unacceptable because the audience were more tolerant of Pooja’s love for Viren than the other way round, for our cultural disinclination towards such a match comes with a vague hierarchy of accountabilities with mature men like Viren placed somewhere at the top on the chart and the innocent Poojas at the very bottom on account of their young age and the naturally tender feelings that come with the youth.
Yash Chopra pushes the romance envelope all the way to the boundaries of moral acceptability in the boldest film of his career. This is not to say that the ethical questions have been conveniently sidestepped. Not at all. All the ethical questions that might bother the viewer have been taken on and effectively responded to in the film, but intellectual understanding does not translate into emotional acceptance all that easily. It is quite understandably difficult for the audience to accept Viren being romantically involved with the daughter of the woman he dearly loved. The audience would rather have Viren treat Pooja as his own daughter. Pooja, on her part, answers most of the pressing questions when Anita challenges her in the over-the-coffee confrontation scene. She says that she was not Viren’s daughter or stepdaughter and had not even been brought up by Viren. She grew up in his ancestral house indeed but was raised by Dhai Ja. So, she had no reason to have any filial sentiments for Viren. Pooja’s feelings for Viren are unsoiled by regret or guilt of any kind. On the other hand, Viren does have loads of moral hang-ups owing primarily to the fact that there are nearly two decades, if not more, between him and Pooja, and that Pooja is Pallavi’s daughter. But he finally yields to her love, which is another departure from the standard format of equal and mutual love. Their relationship is powered and sustained by Pooja’s love because it is her love for Viren that wins them a life together. Viren’s feelings for Pooja remain secondary in this scheme.
With Lamhe, Yash Chopra not only pushes his audience outside the comfort zone of the familiar, formula-romance of Indian cinema, but also springs a surprise so acute that it washes over the audience like ice-cold water on a sleepy winter morning. Naturally, the film fell flat because it was too great a cultural shock for the viewers with many finding it morally revolting. And that’s because the film fails to make the audience see and feel the depth and intensity of Pooja’s feelings for Viren. Viren, we see, ends up being swayed by the sheer force of Pooja’s emotions. But how? How could someone in the position of Viren start feeling the way he starts feeling? If you want the audience to be understanding of a morally uncomfortable position, you need to bring a powerful emotional furnace along with other creative tools to re-mould the rigid mindset fixed in place by the cast-iron societal norms, which the movie fails to do. So, for the audience, Pooja’s love for Viren is understandable but unacceptable. A decade earlier, in 1981, lyricist Indivar famously wrote for Prem Geet:
Na umra ki seema ho, na janm ka ho bandhan,
Jab pyaar kare koi, to dekhe keval mann,
Nai reet chala kar tum, ye reet amar kar do.[“Be there no boundaries of age or of birth,
May, in love, one see just the heart,
Set a new trend, make it immortal.”]
A new trend on the same lines was indeed contemplated and presented by Yash Chopra, for which he richly deserves credit, but it could not be set, much less made immortal.