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Salaam Namaste, like Hum Tum before it, explores adult relationships with refreshing candour... and good doses of humour.

A still from `Salaam Namaste'
A still from `Salaam Namaste'

Shubhra Gupta

Has romance finally come of age in Bollywood? Salaam Namaste, Yashraj Films' latest, dumps the traditional ways in which `boys and girls' meet, woo, and marry. We have, instead, two people in their early 20s, who have relocated to distant Australia, because they want to live lives on their own terms. Nick and Ambar have conventional professions: he is an architect, she is studying to be a doctor, but both have unconventional daytime jobs he is a chef, she is a radio jockey, in Melbourne; he cooks Indian food, and she knits together the non-resident Indian population with chatter and song.

Both decide (he pushes for it; she's reluctant in the beginning, then an enthusiastic participant) to `live in' to see what their feelings are for each other. Could they bear to see another person on the other pillow, ten years down the line? And both face the dilemma many young people do who adopt the sex-before-marriage route: Should they keep the baby, or not?

It isn't as if Siddharth Raj Anand's debut feature pushes the envelope all the way. Nick and Ambar, played by Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta, start off in separate rooms. So hey, it's not just the bed stuff that's on their minds. It is in his, but he's a man, okay? But she needs to be in love before she succumbs: she's a good Indian girl at her core, see?

Then there's the whole pregnancy thing. He doesn't want a baby, so she fetches up at a friendly neighbourhood clinic, but can't bring herself to get rid of the baby. She decides to have the baby, all for herself, and tells him off when he refuses to have anything to do with them. But gosh, we can't have an illegitimate baby blighting a good Indian girl's life, even if she has had consensual premarital-sex, so just before she delivers twins, in probably the most hilarious half-an-hour hospital sequence in Hindi movies, Nick proposes to Ambar. Remember Nine Months, the Hugh Grant-Julia Marshal Hollywood film?

He could have refused to commit himself, and she could have gone on to have her babies, and make a go of it all by herself. But that would have been perhaps too radical (as it is, with Ms Zinta not hiding her huge belly decorously in oversize maternity gowns, flaunting it instead in T-shirts, and even singing a song with the aforementioned tummy swaying in our faces, can be discomfiting for conservative types). And that certainly wouldn't have been what Yash Chopra, the granddaddy of the Bollywood love story, would have wanted for his banner.

But there is no doubt that romantic comedies have made a foray into Hindi movies. The advent of the romantic comedy, a Hollywood staple for decades, was heralded by last year's hugely successful Hum Tum, also, fittingly a Yashraj production. By definition, a rom com is a movie in which two adults (not a boy and a girl) come together of their own accord, and start exploring what happens when they get into a relationship.

This is very far removed from the chat mangni-pat byaah (quick engagement, quick marriage) stuff that potboilers have lived off, all these years. There are no large families, no perky cousins, sisters, brothers, and parents and grandparents to either facilitate, or guide the pair, and there are certainly no larger-than-life villains in the shape of evil in-laws to drive them asunder.

It is not Cruel Fate but Quirky Tics that keep a couple together, or apart, in a true-blue rom com. Hum Tum had Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee (like good modern-day men and women, both have smart New-Age professions: she is a fashion designer, he is a cartoonist) coming together, drifting apart, and then finally coming together, in a desi version of When Harry Met Sally, one of the most winning rom coms Hollywood has spun out. In the Hollywood version, both have relationships which involve sexual congress with significant others; in the Hindi movie, Saif is shown to be so busy getting ahead that he doesn't have time to chase women; Rani's beloved husband conveniently dies, so she is free and available.

The New-Age Couple (it is now time to actually claim this grown-up term for a man and woman who choose to be a unit) bickers and argues. Both the man and woman are allowed to have points of views. Both are allowed to sizzle up the screen and indulge in passion: Salaam Namaste says it is okay for consenting adults to get up close and personal. The fact that Ambar has `done it' with her boyfriend doesn't make her bad, or a girl with `loose morals'. Heavy-handed morality and hypocrisies of the kind that layer lovers, in fact, have nothing to do with it. It is only when the question of snuffing out a life arises, that the ethical and moral issues are trotted out.

Then there's the `comedy' part of it. The script in both Hum Tum and Salaam Namaste, and other recent films, which have revolved around adult relationships, has allowed for lines and situations normally reserved for the resident joker. What these movies are saying is what young people have known all along: that it is perfectly possible to giggle and laugh while you are at it; neither love, nor what happens after, is a matter which provides space for only glycerine and tears.

Young love has moved on. It looks as if the movies are waking up to it, finally. Salaam Namaste is pure fluff and completely lightweight, but it is a film that reflects changing time and mores. Bye-bye nodding flowers, and necking swans... hello, Ambar and Nick.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 16, 2005)
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