This 2004 film was the directorial debut of Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan and featured Shahrukh Khan, not only in the lead role, but sharing credits as co-producer and stunt coordinator.
When I explain the appeal of Main Hoon Na (English: "I'm Here Now") to my friends and family, none of whom have any familiarity with the films of Bollywood, I have to refer to the old sketch from the first season of Saturday Night Live, in which Gilda Radner and Dan Ackroyd play a married couple fighting over the correct use of a new commercial product. The product's pitch man, Chevy Chase, enters to settle the argument:
"Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!"
Only then can I introduce the Indian concept of a masala film, that is, a movie that mixes in a little bit of everything. How much of everything? The trailers on the DVD shows just how much.
Trailer 1: Shots of military helicopters, tanks, POWs, soldiers in uniform. Martial music swells behind two armies, one from India, one from Pakistan, meeting on the border. Close ups of men in uniform, saluting, nodding gravely, steely eyes calculating strategic moves. One man. One chance at peace. Quick shots of gunfire, slow motion mano a mano badassery, and a fiery explosion. SRK steps out of the fog and the titles appear: Main Hoon Na.
Trailer 2: Fans of Shahrukh Khan look no further. It's all about the Badishah of Bollywood. Here's SRK, India's answer to Tom Cruise looking sharp in a military uniform. Here he is in a soccer uniform. Then in a stylish black tuxedo, then in what passes for Bollywood's approximation of hip hop bling. Close ups of King Khan's dimples, of his comedic double takes, of tears running down his face. Swirling dolly shots of his iconic three quarter profile backward lean. SRK steps out of the fog --his hair is perfect-- and the titles appear: Main Hoon Na.
Trailer 3: Cue the bouncy soulful bossa nova ripoff of Quincy Jones. Colorful titles plop into frame: "He's 31 Years Old..." Insert shot of university campus. "He's in the army...."
Cut to SRK in a goofy argyle sweater vest looking bewildered as he makes his way across a crowded campus of coeds.
"...And he's going back to college!"
Cut to scenes of exuberant twentysomethings, dressed to look like Broadway's version of 18 year olds, hanging out on picnic tables, chugging soda bottles, lugging books to class, line dancing at the prom. Cut to SRK pratfalls, spit takes, and playful best buddy punches from the younger actors.
"...And wait till he meets the teacher!"
Cut to slow mo shot of Miss Universe in a flaming red chiffon sari and SRK's jaw hitting the floor. SRK steps out of the fog and the titles appear: Main Hoon Na.
Trailer 4: SRK holding Naseeruddin Shah's hand in the back of an ambulance. Promise me you and your stepbrother will cast my ashes upon the Ganges, says the dying father. Tears roll down SRK's face. Cue the sentimental string sections. Cut to SRK meeting his estranged step mother (Kiran Kher) and stepbrother, emotion welling up but kept inside as he has to keep his identity a secret. Shots of SRK touching the feet of Shah, touching the feet of Kher, interspersed with hugs, then, of angry words from his stepmother, from his stepbrother too. Tears roll down SRK's face. SRK steps out of a circle of well-wishers, and walks, alone, to the waiting train, and the titles appear: Main Hoon Na.
Trailer 5: Whistling. Jaunty steps. Helicopter shot of college. Song changes to pop song with beat. College kids dance in a circle. Now there are clips of SRK singing to the college kids, then there he is in a pas de deux, then in the chemistry lab, students skipping, singing, dancing in unison. This is clearly a musical, as if Fame were set in Darjeeling, and the sungs all done in Hindi. Titles: Main Hoon Na.
If only The Not Ready for Prime Time Players had seen this.
Gilda: Main Hoon Na-- it's a political action thriller!
Dan: It's a star vehicle for Shah Rukh!
Chevy: Look, you two, Main Hoon Na is a back to school comedy.
Laraine: No, Main Hoon Na is a family drama!
John: You idiots, it's a musical!
Garrett: Hey, hey, hey. Calm down everyone. Main Hoon Na is all five.
Which leads us to:
Trailer 6. Intertitles: Once in a lifetime... comes a movie that has...
images, flashing by at faster-than-MTV pace--helicopters, chorus lines, Uzi
s, guys, gals, Glock
s, explosions, tears, a bicycle kick
, bullet time
, fire, rooftops, pas de deux, choruses, pratfalls, tabla
, rooftops, hideouts, classrooms, a ferris wheel
, sequins, rock bands, punches, hugs--
everything... and more!
SRK steps out of the fog and the titles appear: Main Hoon Na.
The BBC called this movie "the mutant offspring of Grease and The Matrix." I can't disagree.
Plot: the plot is flimsy, but necessarily so. If you're going to cram in all these genres into one movie, even one three hours and fifteen minutes long, you don't want your audience to think too hard.
Shah Rukh Khan plays Major Ram Prasad Sharma, dedicated to Project Milaap (Unity), the Indian military's exchange of POWs to bring about rapprochement between India and Pakistan. The movie ties together Ram's attempts to track down and foil a domestic terrorist by the name of Raghavan (Sunil Shetty), reunite with his estranged family at the request of his dying father (we learn Ram is a bastard and his stepmother and stepbrother Laxman (Zayed Khan) left because they would not accept an illegitimate child in the family), and go undercover as a college student to protect the daughter Sanjana (Amrita Rao) of the General in charge of Milaap. Oh, and it just so happends that Laxman goes to school with Sanjana. Oh, and Sanjana has a crush on Laxman. And Raghavan can apparently pass himself off as a college professor. And money is tight for Madhu Sharma (Laxman's mama) so they need a boarder-- guess who? Hijinx ensue.
There's enough plot here that you don't need Sushmita Sen to show up as the smokin' hot chemistry teacher... but hey, the public is putting down their hard earned rupees to watch King Khan croon and dance, why not give him a love interest, say, India's first Miss Universe?
If you're looking for a first rate piece of international cinema, one that they went gaga for at Cannes... skip this one. Main Hoon Na is a romp. You're meant to have a good time. You could roll your eyes at the slow motion action scenes cribbed directly from The Matrix, or the chase sequences with the action hero pedaling a flaming pedicab, and the wildy improbably martial arts showdown between hero and villain, but the Khans want you to roll your eyes. As much as Bollywood steals from Western movies in an effort to look cool, here Farah winks knowingly at her expatriate audiences living in the UK and US. She's walking the same line as Steven Soderbergh with his Ocean's Eleven remakes: showing off devastatingly handsome actors having a helluva good time doing what they do best: appearing in movies. Farah Khan is not trying to be Satjayit Ray, and she's not trying to embarass the national image of India globally (Although some costuming choices may leave you to doubt this last statement. While SRK and the leads always look good, even in their comedic outfits, the clothes that appear on the dozens of college undergrads in the background are just bizarre: either Indian youth are fifteen years behind the US in terms of fashion or else the creation of what nineteen year olds actually wear is just beyond the ken of designer Sanjeev Mulchandani, so she called up some West End theatres in London and borrowed whatever was leftover from recent productions of Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hair).
I'm not qualified to review the music of the movie. Lyricist Javed Akhtar and composer Anu Malik wrote the songs, and like any Bollywood movie, they were written with radio airplay in mind. The main theme is pretty, tuneful, and memorable, but what really makes all the music shine is Farah Khan doing what she does best: staging dance numbers for film. Not for MTV, not to sell records, but in the tradition of the great film musicals, simply bringing to life the words and music of song as the camera captures spectacle, rhythm, and movement.
The "opening" song, "Chale Jaise Hawaien," which comes just after the action packed bloodbath of the opening scene, takes its cue from Julien Temple's 1986 Absolute Beginners with two long tracking shots catching the vitality and exuberance of the young leads dancing around and across their college campus. The camera captures the dancing for a full two minutes at a time, making an impression quite distinct from a music video, and more akin to an opening number in a Broadway show. Here, Khan redeems herself for similar dance numbers in Karan Johar's 1998 Kuch Kuch Hota Hai featuring exuberant undergraduates (or thirty year olds playing undergraduates) that came off looking like soft drink commercials. And yes, the resemblance to Michael Jackson's Thriller video is intentional (it was his music video that inspired Khan to take up choreography for the screen).
It was actually a clip of "Gori Gori" on YouTube that led me to this movie in the first place. A wild mix of formal colors (everyone in black tuxes or red evening wear), 50's rock and roll (complete with "A-Wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boom"), and boy vs. girl line dancing, this song uses the dance choruses to maximum effect, for an infectiously fun dance number that wouldn't look out of place in a Disney picture. This song actually allows Sushmita Sen a chance to actually dance (instead of just posing through her other numbers... granted, she usually poses in midriff-baring saris with plunging necklines, occasionally also soaking wet emerging from a waterfall, so I'm not complaining).
Check out "Tumse Milke Dilka Jo Haal," when SRK and Zayed sing out about how the leading ladies have just swept them off their respective feet. Reviews of the film's soundtrack call this song boring... but onscreen, you can't take your eyes off of it. Here Khan pulls out the stops, emulating the grand tradition of Flo Ziegfeld's Follies and the great MGM film musicals of years past (even a direct tribute to Esther Williams) and possibly even cribbing from her own work on Bollywood Dreams. Flashy costumes, colored lights, multi-level sets, moving cameras, beautiful gals, and dozens of dancers looking like thousands. Traditionalists may complain that Khan's overuse of Western dance moves takes the India-ness out of Bollywood... and I'm not familiar enough with the classical or folk dances of India to judge... but I recognize brilliant filmmaking when I see it. Khan, more than any other choreographer in Bollywood, knows how to fill the screen with dance... using medium and longshots to show the entire body (unless, of course, you need to edit around your leading lady's lack of dance ability-- but there's so much else going on that you don't even notice until the third viewing).
You'll probably get more out of this film if you've seen other films from Bollywood, and know its conventions. You might even recognize dance moves and songs from other movies. A familiarity with the Ramayana might also be warranted, since the male leads all take their names from that story. But these aren't required. I had a blast watching this without catching all the references to Indian culture. If you're looking for a typical Bollywood film, this isn't it. Not every Bollywood film is a masala picture. But if you want a (subtitled) evening of pure pop confection, check out Main Hoon Na.
M. Ali Ikram. Review of "Main Hoon Na." Planet Bollywood. May 4, 2004. <http://www.planetbollywood.com/Film/MainHoonNa/> (May 25, 2007)
Gowri Ramnarayan. "Into a Feel Good World." The Hindu. April 23, 2004. <http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/fr/2004/04/23/stories/2004042301470100.htm> (May 24, 2007)
Jamie Russell. Review of "Main Hoon Na (2004)" BBC Film Reviews. April 28, 2004. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2004/04/28/main_hoon_na_2004_review.shtml> (May 24, 2007)
Amardeep Singh. "Package Deal: 'Main Hoon Na,' Hindi blockbuster" Personal web site. May 9, 2004. <http://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2004/05/package-deal-main-hoon-na-hindi.html> (May 24, 2007)