There is a hospital bed with all its modern medical paraphernalia, as if moonlit through some cracks, somewhere deep under a medieval fort. A lavish palace and princes fencing in its front yard. There are horse carriages for transport – and other machinations like murder attempts – but in that carriage you are allowed to use mobile phones to talk and listen to music. A glitzy looking Ram Leela with Deepak Dobriyal as Sita but playing a character called Kanhaiya. The people in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo are dressed for every occasion however minuscule it may be. Forget the people. For the arrival of a princess, not just the railway station, even the train is adorned with flowers. Suddenly you wonder if Sooraj Barjatya has morphed into a poor man’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
But Barjatya of course retains none of Bhansali’s panache. The aforementioned fort is called “Royal Fort”, a generic name in a generic film. He borrows from the myths but has none of that penchant for myth-making. The film begins predictably with Ram Ratan Dhan Payo. He doesn’t have the extended family coming together at regular intervals for song and dance this time. In fact the very problem here is the togetherness of family for a change. Therefore it harks back to all of Barjatya’s previous films in its own way. The Boy and Girl teams playing a cricket match is replaced with Kings and Queens playing football. A short dress that Rajkumari Maithili Devi (Sonam Kapoor) wears with an air of apprehension for the inconsiderate Yuvraj Vijay Singh (Salman Khan). And there are matters of love, money and property between the crown-prince, his step-brother and step-sisters. Barjatya unfortunately also harks back to the filmmaking of a different era. As always in his films, characters are spoken about before they are introduced. While we are dealing with the diabetic effects of his previous films, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo lacks a great amount of that sweetness. It’s like we were all ready to excuse a few calories for Diwali but got served salad. Why, even Yuvraj Vijay Singh has a digestion problem and eats only boiled veggies which makes Prem (again Salman Khan, clearly the 90s version) suitably scoff. Barjatya learned all the wrong lessons over the years.
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo also works as an Adarsh Balak live action film. Words like maan, samman, parampara occur multiple times. Even the much maligned sindoor makes its presence felt. Prem unifies brothers, sisters and royal attendants. Maithili is introduced as some sort of an NGO worker, first seen distributing aid in a flood relief camp. They even talk in shuddh Hindi at times. A journey is referred to as to have been aramadayak! Prem also shuns all forms of physical contact with Maithili – that has to wait till wedding. That ideal notwithstanding, this is Salman Khan’s second coming this year delivering sermons on Indian culture. While the politics of Bajrangi Bhaijaan were external in nature, the politics in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo are internal. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is agam to Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s puram. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo in fact takes off from where Bhaijaan left. It begins with Hanuman Chalisa in the town of Ayodhya not far from Banaras where Kabir Khan’s film from earlier this year was set. While Khan’s film was tongue in cheek in dealing with the right wing, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo plays it straight. As if on cue, a Modi video directed by Censor Board chief Prahlaj Nihalani is playing during this film’s intermission across theatres in India. But between all this, it is only Salman Khan who is having fun. He’s deliberately stiff as the crown-prince but as Prem he’s in familiar territory asking people to loosen up but within parampara. Khan knows he is in a film that has a problem even being cheesy and his camaraderie with Dobriyal as small time drama artistes is the only part that elicits some chuckles.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)