Judge Brett Cullum starts singing "Hooray for Bollywood!" while hundreds of women in sarongs dance around him!
Vanraj: Can I say something?
Bollywood musicals are definitely something unique to behold. Straight From the Heart (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) is one of the best to get you into a genre that feels completely familiar and foreign simultaneously. It offers the grandeur of lavish old school Hollywood musicals married with a very uniquely Indian music style and culture. The film is epic, spectacular, heartbreaking, fun, beautiful, and uncompromising. You won't believe your eyes.
Facts of the Case
Nandini (Aishwarya Rai, Bride and Prejudice) is the daughter of a famous singer, Pandit Danbar (Vikram Gokhale). Danbar has taken on a new student, the half-Italian, half-Indian, suave Sameer (Salman Khan). While studying with the maestro the young aspiring singing star falls in love with his beautiful daughter. The two begin an innocent yet passionate affair without anyone knowing. Soon Nandini's parents decide it is time for her to marry, and their most promising prospect comes in the handsome visage of Vanraj (Ajay Devgan). Nandini's hand is promised to the young attorney, but the girl is terribly unhappy, since she has her heart set on the singing Sameer. The father sends Sameer away and makes him promise not to see Nandini again. Vanraj and Nandini are married, but he senses his new bride is hiding something, since she seems so cold and remote. He learns of her love for Sameer, and against all tradition vows he will find her true love and allow her to be with him. Together they set off to Italy to find him. During a long, seemingly pointless search Nandini is accidentally shot by thieves. Vanraj makes amazing sacrifices to help her, and even pawns his jewelry to make sure she is taken care of medically. He does succeed in finding the man whom his wife loves, and arranges for them to meet at Sameer's opera debut. But at the moment of truth Nandini finds herself torn between the man who was her first love and the man who has proven he is willing to sacrifice everything for her happiness. Who will she chose in the end, the man she loves or the one she respects?
Wow! Straight From the Heart is movie magic that could only be produced in Bollywood. It won several awards when it was released in 1999 in India, including their equivalent of the Academy Awards for "Best Picture," "Best Director," "Best Actress," "Best Music" and "Best Cinematography." Everything about the film is wonderful, from the beautiful cast to the gorgeous scenery. The project enlists three of India's brightest stars all playing to their strengths—Aishwarya Rai as the beautiful leading lady with style and sass, Salman Khan as the rakish charmer who captures her heart with his silky voice and impressive physique, and Ajay Devgan as the strong silent hero who knows how to be a good person above all else. If anyone had told me before I watched that Straight From the Heart—a movie musical with huge Hindi production numbers about a woman who wants a sour lemon and a man who wants to fly a kite—would move me to tears of happiness, I'd have thought they were crazy. But damn it, by the time the credits rolled at the end my face was wet. I'm not going to say this is a perfect movie (far from it), but I will say it has heart to spare. It's obviously a big influence on filmmakers like Baz Luhrman, who pretty much apes most of his style from films like this. Whatever faults it may have, you'll end up forgiving every single one because it's just such a joy and a rush to watch.
First, a little background on the leading cast members. Indian Actress Aishwarya Rai was Miss World in 1994, and has often been referred to as "the most beautiful girl in the world." Hard not to let her have that title after watching just two minutes of her in the opening of Straight From the Heart. Rai also appeared in Bride and Prejudice, which was done in the spirit of Bollywood but was made by a British director who was just trying to imitate the genre. She is the reigning queen of Indian cinema, and is a worldwide phenomenon. She gives an immaculate performance in Straight From the Heart, one that won her many awards. She can make you laugh and cry easily, and you root for her and fall in love. She's magical, especially when she uses her eyes. Salman Khan is the "bad boy" of Bollywood. He's been in jail for hunting endangered species, been in a real-life two-year tempestuous affair with Aishwarya Rai (who said publicly she would never work with him again), and is often accused of purposefully ripping off his costumes to show off his sculpted body. He's charming as hell in Straight From the Heart. The director added a simple touch of having him often talk to the sky, to his father, and he seems to do this with a mischievous glee. He's sexy, moves well, and is rather easy on the eyes. He's a whole lot of fun to watch. Then there is our third lead, Ajay Devgan. He was an action star, and not really suited to the demands of singing and dancing his way through a movie. But somehow the chiseled-featured actor has made a name for himself in these kinds of movies, playing the quiet and shy one. Straight From the Heart is a powerful performance for him. His quiet resolve and heartbreak are palpable. You'd think his lack of musical experience would be a hindrance, but he becomes the most real character in the whole story. No small feat when you have no songs to support you.
What works best in Straight From the Heart is the sheer melodrama mixed with pageantry that takes over any musical. There is something special that happens whenever actors get to communicate emotion through song and dance, and in this film it comes off like gangbusters. The movie forces you to feel every turn with its powerful score and searing images. The musical numbers inject so much life into the narrative, you sometimes wish their magical visions would never end. The production looks amazing! So much color, so many people, and so well photographed. It is more than eye candy, it's an eyeball buffet of striking visuals coming at you in every frame, which jumps off the screen. You'll swear it was in 3-D at some points. If Bollywood has an unmistakable trademark, it's the Busby Berkley-style musical numbers, with immaculate choreography, tons of color, and hundreds of participants. Straight >From the Heart knows exactly when to pull out the hordes of Indian dancers, but it also knows when to linger on a single face with tears streaking down it. Emotionally it's better than most of the dreck we're fed at the multiplexes every week. I'd rather sit through one of these extravagant affairs of the heart than the latest comic book CGI bastardization any day.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's not-so-perfect about Straight From the Heart? Pretty much standard for Bollywood, it seems to go on a little long. The movie clocks in at over three hours in length—it's a marathon of endurance for any viewer to view it in one sitting. Usually the films are shown in Indian cinemas with a lengthy intermission between the two parts. The DVD tells you when this would occur, and I would strongly suggest taking one at that point. It goes on and on if you don't. Musicals always seem corny to me; this one has patches where it seems to cute for its own good. There are scenes that seem to be cloying and a little too artificial when you compare them to the really gutbusting heartbreak of the story. Yet I find these scenes in almost every musical ever made, so it's not something unique to Straight From the Heart. The filmmakers of Straight From the Heart made one really wonky decision about their movie. They filmed the climax in Hungary, but decided at the last minute to refer to it as Italy to make it more universal. Any savvy viewer will catch the Hungarian writing, the strange language, and easily spot how nothing in the cityscape even remotely resembles Italian architecture. Ultimately you will forgive all these shortcomings, but you will notice.
The Pathfinder DVD treatment of the film is bare bones, and that's a shame, since the film was originally released in a full-out region-free special edition in 2001. The anamorphic widescreen transfer seems to be just a touch too artificial, with some shimmering and edge enhancement. It is also not the original aspect ratio of the film, and it's slightly cropped. The sound transfer is quite robust and hearty, but again seems a little too aggressive for the film. When the big numbers kick in you may find yourself scrambling for the remote for fear of your neighbors hearing the loud music several doors down. There are no supplemental materials provided at all; I would have loved to hear interviews with the cast and crew of this amazing film. Also, the timing of the subtitles seems off. Often you will see a sentence flash, and instinctively know another character said the remark, but here it is on someone else's shot while they are talking. It seems clumsy. Hindi is a fast moving language which says a lot with few words, so the subtitles also seem overly drawn out many times.
Straight From the Heart is a visual Valentine to lovers of musicals. It has a huge heart, and some of the most beautifully photographed and staged sequences committed to film. I'd be hard pressed to find a movie that has more attractive leads, better emotions, or more extravagant production values anywhere in the world. Visually, Straight From the Heart proves that Bollywood has trumped Hollywood in picking up the traditions of the grand musicals. It has an operatic quality that sends everything exquisitely over the top and into a blissful place. Sure, like most musicals it has its moments when it feels too artificial. But do we want realism all the time? In many ways this is what escapist movie Nirvana is all about.
Straight From the Heart is a joyous tearjerker that is free to go out into the world with its hundreds of dancers and make a glorious noise anytime. Aishwarya Rai is guilty of stealing my heart, and those of millions of movie-goers around the world. This is a must-see.
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