I so wish I could begin this post by saying I loved Jaan-e-Mann without reservation and recommend it to everyone unconditionally. For a solid one-and-a-half hours, Shirish Kunder’s directorial debut is a delightful, thoroughly absorbing film. I sank wholeheartedly into its marvelous stage-musical world, the constant self-referencing and clever sight-gags, the gorgeosity of the song “Humko Maloom Hai” and its picturisation, the tributes to Singin' in the Rain, What Price Hollywood? and even the dancing space stations of 2001: A Space Odyssey (yes!), and the performances of Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan and Preity Zinta. (All this was so well done that I was happy to overlook the one sour note in the film’s first half: the unfortunate bit of lowbrow slapstick involving Anupam Kher playing Salman’s midget uncle – with much tasteless punning on the word “bauna”, meaning dwarf.)
Unfortunately, after the intermission, the film lost its distinct style (and, crucially, much of its sense of humour), turning into a prosaic story with leaden dialogues and going on for at least half an hour too long. (I know I’ve been saying that a lot recently, but when you’re watching a movie at night in a hall that’s a one-hour drive from your home and you’re mentally geared for it to be over by 10 PM and it goes on till 10.45 and it’s been a long day … trivial though it seems, on such things do our lasting impressions of movies often hinge.)
And yet, despite the disappointment that comes from an immensely promising film losing the plot, the good bits were so brilliant I can’t get them out of my head. This is one of those times where I’m grateful I’m not reviewing professionally (especially for a newspaper that demands dumbed-down reviews and offers you just 400 words to be dumb in), because then I’d have to get into the business of evaluation – talking down to the reader, summing the film up in a few lines, explaining loftily why it’s Good or Bad. Writing in this medium, on the other hand, allows me to forget the bad and remember the good, to unapologetically talk about the many things I loved about the film.
In short, Jaan-e-Mann is about Suhaan Kapoor (Salman Khan), a budding actor who becomes distanced from his wife Piya (Preity Zinta) when his career seems about to take off; they get divorced, things subsequently turn bad for him and he can’t afford to pay the alimony. Just as he and his midget-uncle are scratching their heads about what to do next, in walks Agastya Rao (Akshay Kumar), a NASA astronaut and all-round geek who was besotted with Piya in college. Suhaan now plots to take Agastya to NY, re-acquaint him with Piya and eventually get them married off so she isn’t a financial burden on him any more.
There’s heaps to relish here. There’s the enthralling black-and-white montage of scenes from Filmfare Awards ceremonies from the early 1970s (featuring Raj Kapoor, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz, Sanjeev Kumar and Amitabh among others) in a Forrest Gump-meets-JFK-style fantasy sequence where Salman is presented a special trophy by Meena Kumari and goes on to thanks his buddies “Meena, Kaka, Amit, Dharam”. There’s the completely superfluous but still delightful shot of seven helicopters spelling out “New York” when the action shifts to that city. And Akshay Kumar’s infectious nerdishness, his Beavis-and-Butthead laugh – huh uh huh uh huh – which seems puerile at first but see if you don’t find yourself imitating it hours after you’ve seen the film.
There’s Salman dressed up as a statuesque woman in a nightclub (he participates in the film’s only fight scene in this outfit) and the mild dig at superhero films like Krrish when he dons a Zorro outfit with a black mask covering just the upper part of his face and muses “Now no one will recognise me”. And there’s a lovely scene where the two men, having trained a telescope (!!) on Piya’s living room and projected her “Live” image on their room wall, look at her crying as she watches a romantic film and end up in tears themselves – eventually falling asleep in each other’s arms. (Just by and by, what a fine screen couple Salman and Akshay make – remember Mujhse Shaadi Karogi? The girl is almost redundant.)
There’s the deliberate, self-aware theatricality of the song sequences – so Broadway-like, so different from the standard Hindi film idiom. (Musicians and back-up dancers materialise when a song situation arises; when it’s over they exit the room muttering “Arre, jaldi karo”, like the band-baaja wallahs at a shaadi, once they’ve been paid for their efforts.) When characters reminisce about their past, they walk into their own flashbacks, asking peripheral figures to “clear the frame, please”. The need for a sutradhar character and for persistent commentary is so strong that when our heroes make it to New York, leaving the midget uncle behind (thankfully!), what do we have but Anupam Kher showing up as an unrelated character and essentially proceeding to perform the same function that he did in the early scenes as the uncle – listening to the heroes’ problems, conniving with them and such (soon Salman even starts calling this stranger “maamu”, and it doesn’t feel odd).
Even the things one would usually consider irritants are put to good use here. Akshay Kumar’s unremarkable voice (often cited as a reason why he never became a really big star) is completely suited to Agastya’s bland personality. And Salman Khan’s self-conscious, Yank-accented English works superbly in a couple of scenes, including one with an air-hostess and another where he shrugs off a TV scriptwriter.
In praise of Salman
Jaan-e-Mann is nothing if not self-referential, and I thought it was interesting how some scenes are almost like a commentary on Salman Khan’s career. An admission here, which research suggests will cut my blog traffic by 15 per cent: I’m a closet Salman fan. (Okay, just a Salman fan now.) I’ve enjoyed his willingness to risk looking ridiculous onscreen right from the time he ran around a college campus in a bikini for a ragging scene in a very early film, Baaghi – how many other good-looking hunks do you know who are open to becoming objects of derision? In comic roles, he’s often very good. As a dramatic actor he’s sometimes laughably bad (which still makes him fun to watch), but there’s also a directness, a transparency about his performances that can be effective when he’s in good hands; some of his emotional scenes in Jaan-e-Mann aren’t bad at all.
It’s been difficult in recent years to separate Salman’s loveably goofy, self-effacing screen image from the unpleasantness of his real-life doings (running over sleeping people on pavements, slaying endangered deer, being nasty to Aishwarya Rai – oh wait, does that count as a character flaw?) but I’ve managed somehow to retain a morbid affection for him through it all, and I like the way this film played with his image. Take the montage scene where, after a series of unsuccessful auditions (inspired by Gene Kelly’s “Dignity. Always dignity” sequence in Singin' in the Rain), he removes his shirt, flexes his muscles and is promptly signed on by a producer. Or his character’s refrain that he only accepts “main lead” roles (which quickly becomes ironical in a film where Akshay Kumar is playing the conventional romantic lead for the most part). And later, when Piya tells Agastya, “I feel so bad for Suhaan, no one ever has anything good to say about him but he’s good at heart,” it almost feels like an appeal for Salman Khan.
Okay, since I realise how enthusiastic this post has been, let me get back to being defensive: Jaan-e-Mann does fall short in the final reckoning, and if anyone goes to watch it based on this post and then comes back and complains to me, I’m simply going to go “I told ya so”. (One thing I found especially problematic is that a couple of the songs are downright mediocre – not a good sign for a musical of this type.) But if this film is unsatisfying on the whole, it also contains at least an hour’s worth of entertainment that’s richer and more dazzling (if you’re willing to open yourself to all the strangeness) than almost anything else that has come out of Bollywood so far this year. So there!
P.S. Much enjoyment comes when a reviewer you greatly admire is in 80 per cent agreement with you about a film. Do read Baradwaj Rangan’s excellent review (the unedited version, please).