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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Jab Tak Hai Jaan (As Long as There is Life)

Or: An Era Ends with a Bomb, defused by Redemption and Joy and SRK.

I would like to begin with an apology. One of my back burner passions is big blockbuster Bollywood films, especially those put on by Yash Raj Films and especially those staring Shah Rukh Khan (my fuzzy warm feelings towards studio and actor are comparable to followers of Fred Astaire and MGM). I realize that I am an outsider to the industry, a foreigner to the culture and many other lovers of hindi films would question my taste. Yet knowing all my short comings I would like to step up and offer my own feelings on Yash Chopra’s last work.

It is the end of an era. Chopra, who gave the film industry so many tropes and then reworked each of them to be fresh and sincere at each encounter, passed away during the filming of this work. It’s like losing Hitchcock again, if Hitchcock did musical’s celebrating love, religion, and Indian family values. No more will I look forward to gawking at groovy Farah Khan choreography, or wince at jokes so lame they can scarily hobble, or count the costume changes as the lead couple is inexplicably transported from the motherland to frolic in the swiss alps. And no more shall I wade through the silliness to find truly earth shattering, pick-your-jaw-off-the-floor, drama that electrifies and calls forth true sensations of despair and joy.

So with tear-wet eyes I settled down to follow Jab Tak Hai Jaan’s recognizable but twisty plot. Akira (Sharma), a optimistic and shameless junior Documentary maker, on assignment in Kashmir, has a chance encounter with Maj. Samar Anand (Khan), a curt and solitary man who diffuses explosives without any protective gear, taunting death with every job. The carefree Akira is captivated by the suicidal heroism and deep mystery of “the man who cannot die”. With the help of a misplaced journal and her own gumption the audiences is introduced to Samar of ten years earlier, a carefree spirit in London, working a restaurant job, trying to learn posh english and spreading joy as a street musician in his free hours. One day he runs into the beautiful but personally conflicted Meera (Kaif), and falls head over heels. His problem: she is already engaged to a family friend and made a promise with her very involved Catholic Deity (“Sir Jesus” as Samar calls him) not to disappoint her father. Yet mutual attraction, comedic flareups, advice from a missing mum and lascivious dancing help bring them together. How then did Samar go from a warm lover to a bitter soldier hoping to end his days in one brief flash of fire? Akira must find out and turn Samar back to the life he left behind, even if her own heart begins to sigh for him.

Does that sound like a fun three hours to you? Because it sure does to me.

But, gull darn it, though the overall affect is just what the doctor ordered, many of the criteria for a true SRK/Yash Raj experience are missing. The effect is rather like the fall of Rome, free reigning artistic decadence and self assurance crushed by the visigoths of misunderstanding (in story) and of shoddy planning (out of story). The dances, while nimble, lacked any of the sparkling work for Khan and Sharma (both accomplished dancers) to shine. The music, composed by the usually reliable A.R. Raman disappoints: relying on repetition, saxophones and wind chimes (not a bangra drum to be found, alack the day). And the script, or at least the subtitled script, is awash in vagaries and confusions.

To stand upon my soap box amoment I must lament the loss of the normally (by Boise standards) Chaste model of hero/heroine decorum in Yash Raj dramas. They've strayed into the dangerous shoals of soft porn before (the towel dance in DDLJ and the deathly dull strip tease in Darr spring to mind, despite my best attempts at mental bleaching) but this took the prize for most lascivious picture. I lost count of how many times I shouted “Put some pants on!” at the screen. I would hazard that Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a watershed moment for the subcontinent’s moral tolerance in Blockbuster films: Kissing (once a major film taboo) runs rampant, and there is even a brief moment of actual on-screen fornication !!!! (the four exclamation marks of horror). This is probably for the best in the wider scope and the longer run, but while the sexual revolution takes place I’ll be over in this corner holding my head and moaning “Why? Why? It’s not a strong choice! We didn’t have to see that? Put some pants on!” etc.

Granted this new foot loose generation of strong will and free love is very well sheltered under Sharma’s Wings. I had not seen her work since Rab Ni Banna Di Jodi, and was pleased to find she carries off the same magnetism and believability to make Akira annoying but captivating. She also has not lost any of her easy give and take with Khan and I half hoped for her to launch into ‘Dance pe Chance’. No such luck. Though equipped with her own theme and plenty of stunts heroic and comedic, Akria is not given a single song to her lonesome. And Sharma, despite her versatilely, ends up presenting more of an animation than anything approaching a real woman struggling to make her dream come true. Her near constant verbal clicks remind me of George Clooney’s performance as Fantastic Mr. Fox.

But at least Sharma has her act together more than the unfortunate Kaif, who fails to come across as anything at all. This is partly because the film loads too many identities onto Meera’s character: the maternally abandoned “I must be strong” daughter, close cousin the morally upright “I must honor and please my father” daughter, which partly manifests in the “business prodigy” lady (running a multinational corporation at 21? You go girl!) and partly into the “I’m supposed to be good but I feel an undeniable urge to dance in tight leather” girl, which in social-cultural turns comes to “Am I an english girl or a hindustani” lass and finally at the strongest explored identify of “If I want to be happy I must live life by my faith” girl which drives much of the plot but also leaves me wondering how Indian Christians took the whole enterprise. The writers give Meera everything to work with, which is to say they give her nothing to work with. The confusion is not helped at all by Kaif who doesn't seem to care overmuch about the story and her role in it. She doesn’t even try to lip-sync her songs and her guitar playing is ludicrous in the extreme. She suffers well, but sufficient tragedians are a dime a dozen in today’s market. I wish her the best in her next picture (which hopefully gives her something more concrete to work with) but hope she puts a touch more backbone in: acting is work after all.

But all these possible failings these small thorns did not nettle my love of the film and for that I must thank Shah Rukh Khan. SRK has always been a ham (lovable jerk or adorable caretaker or sympathetic psychotic) but he is the one in a million who can make ham an delicious dish for our ears eyes and spirits. The Hijinxs (and the lasciviousness, oy vey) are still there in spades after all these years, but there are more and more moments of subtly and Crystal clear transformation of thought without so much as a trembling lip or twitching eye. He can chew out Akria, or sneakily woo Meera or charm little children in Kings Cross station, but what ever he does, Khan knits up Samar into a vibrant, caring and deeply human man. Which makes his transformation into the cold and calculating Major (and his hopeless personal war against himself) all the more terrifying. It is perhaps the best scene he’s turned in years.

All in all, Jab Tak Hai Jaan redeems every short coming through its masterful steering under Khan’s experience (with some help at the trimming by the ever delightful Shamara) and the Yash Chopra instinct for gripping stories that makes all cynicism fly back into the corners of your mind. As Khan himself intoned in Om Shanti Om, “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end”. I am content to see the Chopra era out and to thank his spirit for the joys he has given to the howlee curmudgeon of Boise Idaho, and the mark he has left on Indian Cinema. as the last card tells us, beneath Chopra’s grim but resolute face “And he will Live...Forever.”

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