Monday, June 29, 2015

Glam from the Ranch: Betaab (1983)

Even though Betaab seems to have been massively popular at the time ... I've never heard anyone recommend it or discuss it by name. So maybe we should talk about what makes this film stick out from its peers ... even 30+ years later.

The gist: 

Separated childhood friends Sunny and Roma (Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh) meet again as adults in ***Betaab Valley, when Roma returns for holiday . He's a devil-may-care rancher, she's a devilish heiress.

He realizes who she is.

She has no idea who he is. But, of course, she takes an immediate dislike to his impertinent ways.

They bicker and almost kill one another and she deliberately destroys all the out-buildings on his farm.

luckily, she didn't get the waterslide

'Course, when Roma's found out, she's also "forced" to stay on the farm to repair the damage and by extension, get to know her childhood friend all over again.

not the way to rebuild a chicken-coop, darlin'

Fortunately, Sunny's Ma (Nirupa Roy) is off looking for farm equipment or something, and has no idea how scandalous the situation at the farm is quickly becoming. (Note: I know I've seen this gimmick before in a Hollywood movie, but I just can't remember where. Maybe some screwball comedy ... seems like something Katherine Hepburn would have to do.)

By the time she finally figures out who he is and is de-thorned enough to commence embracing, Big Daddy shows up and objects to the snuggles. (I know this is a Tennessee Williams thing but I can't help using it to describe Shammi Kapoor characters.)

Turns out, the two families have a messy history (duh). Scenes from The Man From Snowy River (released just a year earlier) may be invoked. Etc. Etc.

The audience bait:

This film contains two kissing scenes (without much fanfare), a snake-bite/poison removal orgasm (as if nagin symbolism ever needs any help) ...

just when you think you've seen it all

... gorgeous Betaab (I assume) locations ...

... a castle and a strange art-museum-inspired gazebo ...

I  am in love with this monstrosity. 

... a well-paced script from Javed Akhtar, and A LOT of Sunny Deol.

(Like there's chest hair coming out of the seams, and maybe check your viewing device for stray fur balls at interval). Luckily, this is taazi roti-Sunny, just out of the film industry oven, and relatively free of the stiff mannerisms of his later days. [Or romances with co-stars a third of his age: *ahem* I Love NY.] The director did everything he could to exploit the family genes, it seems to me. Sunny is really the sexualized debutante in this production, and groomed bachpan-se, too. You can tell just by his frequently donned short-shorts, signature Deol wear that could only be more of a tradition if they weren't so much shorts as a robe or a blacksmith's skirt. A smart business move, as he was the star kid from a massively publicized family scandal, and people were more likely to be heading to the theatre to see Sunny, Dharmendra ka bacha, than a potentially disposable new starlet. (I mean did anyone see Heropanti for a better reason?) Still, he's not just a pretty face, either. His horsemanship is to be envied, and his comedic timing is pretty good, with the exception of some poorly-advised fake laughter.

glam but not so glam as you'd expect

Amrita Singh clocks in a debut performance as the heroine. Though she's rough around the edges (especially in her early dialogue delivery) you can't quite look away from her theatrics. My favorite thing about her is that she's believably vicious. Something about the look in her eyes and her cat-like way of lunging makes her scarier than the average romantic lead. Hema could use a whip, and I hear Amrita gets one of her own in Mard, but I don't really think she needs anything but her finger nails do to serious damage. That is, until she sheds some of them in the second half. If you like Bollywood heroines to be more riot grrrl than girl-next-door, you'll probably like her. Frivolous though it may be, I also have to mention that she wears the hell out of a pair of trousers...the staple of her wardrobe throughout the film (she never switches to saris). Also, Amrita was one of the best things about the recent 2 States (2014) for me, so it was fun to see how she got her start.

The well-matched physicality and athleticism of these two leads certainly must have contributed to the film's success. When they're not riding bucking horses, tumbling in the grass or hay or in the water or in the mountains, they're jumping off of roofs, throwing chickens, catching chickens, and playing chicken on the road ... jeep vs. truck vs. hairpin curves.

Really, some of the action made me nervous, especially the dubious horse stunts. I'm not sure how much of it was stunt-double work, either, which points to either excellent framing and choreography, or terrible safety practices.

Pretty sure that's actually Sunny. Mithun did a similar stunt the year before in Aamne Samne, clearly Bollywood was obsessed with Raiders of the Lost Ark (can you blame them?). 
If you're looking for '70s standbys, you will find Prem Chopra and Nirupa Roy once again in comfortable roles (though leaning more toward portrait than caricature, here) as villain and matriarch. It also occurs to me that they had 2-3 x longer careers in same-same supporting roles than Sunny had in the lead ... but maybe that's to be expected. Shammi Kapoor brings a human sparkle to the alternately gruff and benevolent crorepati.

Annu Kapoor also shows up for a welcome and touching role as the family nauker; a self-described "chhota aadmi" who still manages to help his favorite rude heiress out in a time of need.

But by far the best supporting performance came in from the anipal actor ... a yellow lab with remarkable dishooming abilities (canine-fu?) and amazing restorative powers. (People never recover from GSWs in Hindi films, but thankfully, nobody seemed to tell the dog that rule.)

"Here comes the dog, strong and brave!"

The sum of its parts: 

"You gave each other a pledge? Unheard of, absurd." 

Values-wise, I appreciated the attitude towards parental authority in this film. As far as I can tell, Roma doesn't spend any time feeling guilty about her father's disapproval of her romantic choice, and neither Roma nor Sunny put up with patriarchal abuse. Worlds away from DDLJ, thank God.

Sunny does cook up a bit of a taming of the shrew project for Roma, but it hangs more upon natural consequences than his will to dominate. He just wants his friend/sweetheart back, which is about as innocuous as it gets. And even when she's a bit tamed, she doesn't lose her edge entirely, or give up her ability to make decisions for herself.

So, ok, this film doesn't do anything new, but perhaps that's too much to ask of a star-launching vehicle. Even so, it's pleasant-viewing, with few of the usual wasted scenes, and creative wide-shot cinematography. You may or may not like the six R.D. Burman songs... for me they were just so-so. Still, Betaab has the gleam of new talent and the support of the old, and enough is as good as a feast. And the dog, did I mention the dog?

The rationale:

I know some of you are thinking, BUT WHY? Recently, when a former prof of mine compared Sunny's career in the 80s to some commercial (but critically ignored) mass hits of the 50s, I had to laugh. But I realized I couldn't in good conscience continue to giggle about Sunny without experiencing the height of his stardom for myself. Now that I have, well, I wouldn't mind seeing more ... maybe even films that better fit the "obscure" half of the "obscure hit" equation.. But I draw the line at ... No, actually, I have no idea where I draw the line anymore with Hindi films. The minute I draw one, I resent it and immediately want to see the other side. All you have to do to get me to try a new category I have vowed not to watch is to talk it up while I talk it down. Eventually, the curiosity will get the better of me.

***Did you know that the Kashmiri valley was named after the film, not the other way around? Thanks, A.B.! That's going to end up in my South Asian geography unit next year, I can tell you that.

Note: I saw this on a whim, so pardon any mistakes in details from a lack of subtitles (though the Hindi is easy to follow and anyhow, you really don't need to understand the dialogue to understand this film) and the sub-par cropped screen caps.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Saat Lakh (1957) سات لاکھ

"Finally" the first Pakistani film I've seen that can rightly join the ranks of the South Asian romantic comedy (with classics like Chori Chori, Mr. and Mrs. '55, some 70s and 80s middle cinema, Chupke Chupke, etc.), Saat Lakh (1957). As it stars Sabiha Khanum and Santosh Kumar, the first couple of 50s Pakistani cinema (and married in real life soon after this film released), I was certainly expecting sparks. And that's about all you get in Saat Lakh. Sparks, but never a fire.

The hook did bode well. Kausar Banu (Sabiha) is an orphaned heiress who is compelled to marry (by one of those pesky parental clauses) to inherit a fortune of 7 lakhs three times over in land and assets. It seems that if she doesn't, her brother (Himalaya Wala), a boozy gambler will inherit instead. Though she hates the institution of marriage, she's compelled to take the will's stipulations seriously. Despairing to find a feller on the sunny side of 60 (perhaps because of her haughty temperament, perhaps because her brother's reputation) Kausar runs into a bit of luck, or rather luck runs into her, when a young man (Santosh) pursued by the police climbs through her window.

Strangely, the man, Salim, admits to being a suspect in woman's murder, but he begs for her assistance. Clever Kausar sees the opportunity. She offers a deal. She will cover for him when the police arrive, but only if he agrees to marry her. Salim hesitates (resenting her power play), but when the police knock at the door, he's ready to repeat "qubool hai" and "manzoor hai" with the best of them.

The two get married that evening, and Kausar discusses the situation in private with her lawyer. They come up with a plan. She will take hubby to her bungalow in the mountains for the necessary first few days of marriage. After three days, vakeel-sahib will call the police and tell them to arrest the new husband, and Kausar can settle down happily ever after with her cash.

Of course, as soon as the newlyweds arrive at the bungla, it is clear that Kausar will have to work to keep Salim in the dark to what their marriage really is. The separate rooms certainly give him a clue. BUT in heady hill station air, anything can and will happen.

A few days at the bungla, some triangular drama with a local flower seller and dancer (newcomer Neelo, whose career was launched by the biggest hit of the film, Aaye Mausaum Rangeela) . . .

. . . a snake, and a thunderstorm, all bring the two newlyweds into a state of mad sexual tension. Kausar also starts to realize (duh) that Salim can't possibly be a murderer.

(Note: I liked the folk tale symbolism of having the first night scene in the bedroom be one of unrequited lust, and the second, a chance for Salim to save Kausar from the snake about to attack during the storm. South Asian paintings often depict snakes and storms as visual emblems of desire and lust, but it seems to me that these things are being defeated here ... intentionally. Whether this symbolizes heroic love over erotic love, or their upcoming separation, I don't know. It was suitably dramatic and reminded Kausar of her own weaknesses, so perhaps that's enough.)

Things almost certainly would have escalated, except that Kausar forgets how many days have passed. When she realizes that it is the calendar date of the police's arrival, she tries to call off her vakeel, but is too late. (Darn vacation house hours.) The police are already at the door. Kausar tries to explain away the charge, but to no end. Salim is carried off to jail.

It's the second half that tells us whether or not Salim is actually a murderer, whether he will be acquitted, and surprisingly more extensively, how many bewafai songs will have to be sung and virginal tawaifs sacrificed before he can forgive Kausar of her actions. Also, shady brother and his drinking crew must be defeated.

Sadly, much of what is worth seeing in this movie takes place before the last hour. I can give the film the benefit of the doubt that perhaps the dialogue was more interesting than I could appreciate, but the plot itself was painfully old hat. Two or three songs in the second half, however, were brief oases. I read somewhere that the unusual thing about Salim's bewafai song is that his lyrics talk trash about the heroine ... during a time when songs tended to idolize lost loves.

This brings me to the aspect of the film that was most enjoyable--Sabiha's flawed heiress.

When industries put women on pedestals, trying to catch a glimpse of the being at the top sometimes gives me a headache. But Kausar is not the dangerous vamp or the good town girl or the seductive dancer only existing to stoke jealousy between would-be lovers. She's messy, and I like that in people.

This helps the portrayal of their mutual attraction. It's just not as safe and guarded as I expected. He spouts some funny lines before trying to make a move (something about how "this is SO not how a suhaag raat is supposed to go") and after rejecting him, she slinks around the bungalow the next day, barely able to keep her growing interest in check. When he meanders off to the woods, she follows him and communicates with him frankly ... commenting on his bad mood and pushing him towards the reaction SHE wants. In general, this is a character reminiscent of early Nargis or Katherine Hepburn roles ... where the woman is powerful and intelligent and confident, but desperately needs some basic human kindness added to the mix. Since she's allowed to be a sensual being, and since we are allowed to see her fight her feeling of burgeoning love for personal rather than religious reasons, it's easy to be invested in her side of the story. *Spoilers* I get the sense that she is reformed a bit in the second half, but mostly the two lovers are ultimately reunited because others force Salim to confront his misunderstandings.

Santosh is pleasant to look at and has a good presence ... I only found him lackluster during the admittedly formulaic later scenes. But his role pales next to Sabiha's in this film, so it's hard to tell exactly what else he has to offer. If nothing else, I'm sold on their onscreen partnership.  Ooh la la.

I shall leave you with Sabiha's lone number, "Ghoonghat Utha Loon" a flirtatious song about a veil that seems to mark her personal transformation from playing house, to real love. (Is this the equivalence of the mid-film sari dance/sari shift in Hindi cinema?)

*No subtitles here, so please forgive any errors in plot or analysis!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Ek Hi Rasta (1967) ایک ھی راستا

Filmi~Contrast's fascination with Pakistani actress and dancer, Rani, continues with Ek Hi Raasta (1967), a love story between an outlaw and a tawaif, and the rise and fall of a female dacoit.

But first, Rani. A couple of months ago, I realized I wasn't the only blogger fixating on her performances. Richard at Dances on the Footpath had discovered her a few years back, and I'm thrilled to not to be alone in this interest. Richard just finished a lovely tribute to Rani (her death anniversary was May 27th), and in the way only he can, curated some of his favorite Rani dances. If you want an introduction to the Rani-magic, you can't do better than spend some time with his post.

But why all the fuss? I guess ... she's an easy performer to love, and impossible to miss. You don't watch a Rani performance and wonder if it's that same girl from that other film, or just a look-alike. Nobody looks like her, much less *ahem* moves like her. When watching films with low budgets, poor preservation, missing sections, sound distortions, and no English subtitles. one needs a concrete incentive to make up the difference. Rani is that, for me. I can't say that her acting is more than adequate (she doesn't really get beyond the standard emotions), but she always manages to upstage everyone else in the room with her singular and almost masculine way of using physical space. Where other actresses might play it safe, keep things sedate and ladylike, Rani projects energy and movement. She's always big and imposing and confident, and when the occasion calls for it, she knows how to work an hero-esque action sequence or physical showdown or a seduction number (see Richard's post).

Given her physically intimidating style of theatrics, if she was working in Hindi cinema in the 60s, she almost certainly would have been confined to vamp roles. But in Pakistan, while playing several famous tawaif characters (including Umrao Jan), she played mostly positive roles, as far as I can tell. Whether this was because her peak period, in the late 1960s and early 70s, was especially open to diverse expressions of acceptable femininity (as 70s Bollywood was starting to be), or because she still manages to project "chasteness" along with everything else, or because she allied herself with some powerful figures in the industry (through her marriage and professional partnership with director Hassan Tariq), it's hard to say.

But how to approach Rani fandom? Personally, as she excels in a variety of dances (especially cabaret and folk styles), I generally pre-assess her films to see if she gets enough chances to strut her stuff. And with four dances + three montage-y songs all picturized on Rani, Ek Hi Raasta was a no brainer.*

While not exactly frequenting "best-of" lists, I would argue that this film offers an entertaining twist on a stock plotline: good farmer Badal (Sudhir) becomes a dacoit when he crosses some bad elements in the district, mainly a corrupt police commissioner and his associates. I'm not positive on the exact reason for his persecution, but it seems he is blamed for the willful destruction of his home village (which was probably a personal attack on him by the same authorities). After escaping prison, he becomes an outlaw. Around the same time, fresh-faced Putli (Rani), the estranged daughter of a town official, catches the lecherous commissioner's eye. When asked, the unscrupulous baap arranges for his daughter to meet him at an appointed place. Of course, it is the commissioner who is waiting for her inside the room. And as we all know, after being raped, Putli has no other course of action but to become a tawaif to support herself and her mother.

From top left clockwise: Sudhir, unknown actor playing commissioner (?), Rani, Talish.
Of course, it's only a matter of time before Badal visits Putli's kotha, soon making it clear that he wants the lion's share of attention. This sets up one of the best running gags of the film. One of the other clients is uncomfortable with the presence of the outlaw and calls him a chor. With dry humor, Badal replies, "Chor nahiin, daku." [This kicks off a series of dialogues in which a person in power will call one of the two protagonists a name, only to be rebuffed with a preferred identifier. It never gets old hearing marginalized characters stick up for themselves.]

Enter honest police-wallah (Talish), who realizes that the best way to find Badal is to harass the daku's favorite courtesan. This doesn't get him far, at first. Putli still has little knowledge of Badal, other than that he's chased a few paying clients away. Police-wallah comes up with a plan to encourage the connection, sending Putli to the outlaw-controlled region to be "captured" by Badal.

Badal is clearly-head over heels in lust for Putli ... especially when she breaks out the flamenco-y gypsy number at his camp. It might be the standout dance of the film, if only for the pop-fantasy element of the captive seducing the captor. Here, the film shifts from a tale of woe and injustice to something closer to old Hollywood swashbucklers. Shades of Baaz (1953) are everywhere. But the idyllic camp-life is disrupted by a wedding procession. And who is it but the corrupt official at fault for Badal's mother's death, all bedecked out as a groom. Badal takes swift revenge, killing the official mercilessly. Afterwards, when he realizes what he has done, he laments to Putli. Unfortunately, the very same official he killed also happened to be her father.

Distraught, Putli goes through with the plan, running off into the wilderness, and leading Badal (on her tail) right into the hands of the police. Still, she's torn, and sings a fabulous song, "Parvane, jal na jaana, shamaa nazar ka dhoka hai." (Moth, do not burn, the sight of the candle is a deception.) Here, too, the melody echoes songs from Baaz.

Badal escapes on the way back to town, and Putli goes back to the kotha. But soon she meets Badal again on her own terms, when she takes in a revolutionary. Here I have to concede my ignorance, as the reason for the ongoing populist uprisings in this film that escape me. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be Partition violence, or local tribal wars, or revolutions against the corrupt rural government. No idea. But the film makes you feel as if revolutionaries are in the right, and Badal soon thinks so, too. After getting pouty that Putli has taken in another outlaw that isn't him (which is mostly played for laughs), they run off together and join the revolution proper as dacoits in love (but they're mostly in love with blowing things up, I think).

The rest of the film will probably be no surprise to those familiar with Westerns and outlaw stories (Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance), but it's still a lot of fun to watch.

I have a low tolerance for messy beginnings (which plagued this film), but I have to say I liked Ek Hi Rasta more and more as it went along. I'm never going to say no to a female dacoit, and Rani as that dacoit is as much as I could ask. (Other than finding a copy of that elusive Rakhee-Vinod dacoit film from the 80s, that is.) I'm just sayin', the woman knows how to use a bayonet.

I also kind of love that Ek Hi Rasta's idea of a dacoit is someone who can go anywhere at anytime, as long as he is wrapped in a curtain. Need to get into the masjid? No problem. The kotha? Please and thank you. The police wale building? They won't look twice until you throw off the sheet and start waving your gun around.

Talish has the standout male role in this film, if only to employ his lovable character-actor versatility. After running into him several times, I would categorize him as the Madan Puri of 60s Pakistani cinema: equally comfortable as a cackling villain, a dedicated cop, or a traditional baap.

I liked the fearless on-the-nose transitions, like between a dialogue where the dacoit says he eagerly awaits the moment when he is no longer a "daku", but "Putli ki saathi" (Putli's companion) and a lone desert ride with the pained vocalized refrain "Meri saathi..." But overall, this film usually uses songs to push the story foward, and smartly (Hassan Tariq did direct, after all), Rani is the lead in ALL of them, while Sudhir is usually just the observer or the object of interest. Quite all right with me, as at this stage, he was far past his romantic hero heyday (which I have yet to see in action so ... can't be sure what that heyday was like). He was best when delivering humorous dialogues, or threatening people in his headdress and fake Sikh beard.

Still, if you aren't convinced, find the film on YouTube (with the exception of the one above, the songs aren't uploaded separately). Skip to the mujras (which aren't perfect technique-wise, but are fun and well shot) and montages, and if nothing else, the gypsy camp number at 102:30 is delightful.

*As this film did not have subtitles, some scenes were missing, and some of the dialogue was very colloquial/hard to hear because of the audio quality, I hope you'll forgive any errors in my narration of the plot.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nikaah (1982)

The image above depicts Nikaah's heroine's second (!) wedding night, which occurs while her first husband is still alive (!). Also, the story isn't resolved by a death, imprisonment, or pregnancy. Can this really be a Hindi film? In short, yes, but maybe *Urdu* film would be more accurate.

[Since there aren't a million reviews of this film on other blogs, I'll summarize the plot before I pick it apart. Spoilers below, including a discussion of the ending, marked separately for those who want to be surprised.]

Old college-acquaintances, Niloufar (Salma Agha) and Haider (Raj Babbar) run into one another after a long stretch of lost contact. A poet in school, he's now a gainfully employed writer at a magazine, and he shares some mostly one-sided reminiscences about his crush on her in their university days. But Haider is suspicious when he sees Niloufar, who he knows married into money, dispute a small fee and take a bus home. He follows her and finds that she lives at a women's hostel. Kindly, he approaches her a few days later, asks her to a cafe, and entreats her to tell him of her real situation. She goes on to tell him what happened after his advances were rebuffed. Cue long flashback.

Perhaps we should install some art on the ceiling to make these moments more interesting for us. 

Upon graduation, she had married her childhood sweetheart, Nawab Wasim (Deepak Parashar). It seemed a natural match, but right after their wedding night, the Nawab wins a bid to build a five star hotel in Mumbai. They travel to Mumbai together [ostensibly] for their honeymoon, but Niloufar ends up spending most of the the trip alone in their suite or on the breakers outside their hotel while her husband is off conducting business.

The "lucky break" business deal ends up taking the Nawab out of the house at all hours. Perhaps unused to so much responsibility, or just because he's a self-absorbed ass, Wasim repeatedly fails to show up for dinner dates, and movies, and parties. He also doesn't seem to know how to use a phone to let people know he won't be home. Expected to stay home and socialize or keep herself amused all day, Niloufar quickly starts to feel the effects of such an isolated, unreliable existence.

Luckily she has one staunch ally in Iftekhar, who keeps making chai that she won't drink alone.

Whenever Wasim does come home, the newlyweds either fight over his tardiness, or some comment Niloofar has made about his frequent absences to their in-laws, which Wasim takes as a loss of face with his family. Over their first year of marriage, his temper tantrums grow more and more frequent, and her rejection complex deepens. Eventually, when he fails to show up for their first anniversary party, Niloufar breaks under the pressure and goes upstairs (gasp).

Gossipy guests take offense and leave, and Wasim comes home to an empty house and "massive" blot on his social standing. The two have a high-pitched argument, in which Niloufar dares to stand up for herself, telling him she doesn't deserve such treatment and that he doesn't deserve her physical affection.

This doesn't go over well with Wasim, who pronounces the dreaded, "Talaq, talaq, talaq." And just like that, Niloufar is out on the street. Still, she now has an ally and friend. When she is assaulted at her new job, Haider arrives just in time (diffusing the situation with nary a dishoom) and whisks Niloufar away for a good cry-chat on the steps. [Note: this man is like the elusive Rocky-Road of potential suitors.]

What, no covering of my head? You want to talk to me and help me process this? 

The rest of the year passes pleasantly, until her ex invites her for dinner on the date of their anniversary. When Niloufar doesn't show, Wasim has his own breakdown (which is very satisfying, I must say). But Niloufar is watching after all, and when Wasim begs her to come back, she walks out. Faithful manservant begs too, but she tells him she knows her path isn't with Wasim any longer.

It's when she tells Haider the same thing that night in his office, that he is finally free to ask, "Could you see your path being with me?"

She can, and they decide to get married. Haider proves to be a polar opposite sort of spouse--attentive and funny and inclined toward playing hooky from work instead of staying out to all hours. They develop a playful relationship, and seem to have a lot of fun together. Still, there is much left to be sorted out.

Wasim hasn't given up, instead, he sees her marriage as an opportunity to fulfill the sharia requirement of halala nikaah: the woman's second marriage to someone else required before the first couple can get remarried. But does Niloufar feel the same? And more importantly, can Niloufar and Haider handle the shadow of her past relationship and the interference of her ex?


From the opening "epic" prologue about women and their unfair lot, Nikaah sets out to tell the other side of the story. And not only that, it tries very, very hard not to ruin this goal in the last act.

In fairness, before we go on, I want to be clear that "favorite actor" stepping stones probably won't lead you to Nikaah. For 70's film lovers, Iftekhar can be seen now and then in a magnificent red beard and dark manservant's achkan or expertly brandishing a towel and chai platter. Asrani appears briefly to advance either the comedy or the dramatic stakes, and gleefully takes the the male lead in a magnificent [really kinda feminist] wedding qawwali. But the male leads in the film as a whole didn't excite me at all, I admit. And at first, it appeared my assumptions were confirmed. Raj Babbar and Deepak Parashar demonstrated the liveliness of set pieces spouting poetic dialogues. By the end of the first half, it seemed clear that the relative unknown in this equation, Salma Agha (a Pakistani actress and talented playback singer who went on to win the playback singer award for Nikaah's lovely Dil Ke Armaan) did less acting with far more results.

But it turned out that Nikaah faithfully follows the emotional journey of Niloufar. She barely thinks of the kind, but sometimes ridiculous Haider in the beginning, as her whole life is wrapped up in her first marriage. So, neither do we. But as she gets to know Haider over the second year, he becomes more attractive. And by the third year, he's the perfect contrast to Wasim, and a breath of fresh air for the audience. He comes home early, leaves late, asks her where she wants to go and follows through, and is all together a fun person to actually live with. Basically, this is a rare moment when good writing and casting actually support one another ... as Raj Babbar successfully creates a character the audience can love and even be surprised by. Even, dare I say, a role model.

And this is something that not every "strong woman" film can boast. There are a lot of classics with women of steel, women of God, women of the kotha ... women who overcome every difficulty, and never give up. Men have these films too, countless films full of heroic conquest. But only rarely comes a film that models strong male-female partnership, with men who are strong enough to sacrifice their ego for the little daily indignities and negotiations, and women who expect to be treated not like goddesses or martyrs, but like human beings. This is what Nikaah champions--the value of mundane goodness.

Why yes, both the men are framed under inscriptions spelling out the name of the Prophet, while the woman is centered beneath the name of God. What does it mean? You decide.

Driving these points home is Nikaah's ending, which at first looks to be a textbook filmi climax (even narrated in a meta fashion in a penultimate scene). But Niloufar isn't going to be punished for remarrying, either by society or fate or human weakness ... even if the set-up looks to do just that. Because of course, Haider mistakenly finds a note from the ex and a melancholic diary entry by Niloufar, puts two and two together, and thinks his wife wants to remarry Wasim ... and he takes it upon himself to give her up.

It's also been a while since I've seen a non-Ma character so expertly use melodramatic religious performance to call out the wayward men in her life. 

The woman in question will have none of it. She tells Wasim that she isn't going to be treated like "property," and tells Haider that she won't be given a "gift" she doesn't want or allow him to be a "martyr" for her. In an epic showdown, she tries to leave both of the men. But Wasim saves the day, proving a voice of truth (for once). He notes, rightly, that while he wanted her for his own happiness, Haider is only interested in giving her happiness.

And a film that only wants happiness for its twice-wedded, independent, and childless heroine is definitely a keeper.