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Wednesday, May 1, 2002

A love supreme, in true Bollywood style

Straight From the Heart

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Mimora
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Running time: 187 minutes
Language: Hindi/English
Now showing

It happens on occasion. You come home, you're miserable, you feel like an A4 sheet of paper that got stuck in the machine, then crumpled roughly and thrown into the trash with someone's cruel, exasperated sigh: "Damn."

News photo
Aishwarya Rai in "Straight From the Heart"

This is time for turning on the TV or checking your e-mail. This is when you ease into a warm bath, close your eyes and think niiiice, pampering thoughts while suitable visuals play gently beneath your eyelids. Some fantastically impossibly beautiful love story movie will do. Mmmmmm.

But what if such a movie is not stored in the database of your brain? What if all you have in there are "Ally McBeal" reruns and Julia Roberts looking totally wan in "Ocean's Eleven"? Oh dear. Everyone needs to stock up on over-the-top cornball movies for downloading on just these crucial moments when nothing (and certainly not Julia Roberts) should remind you of the least little bit of reality.

What the therapist orders is "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Straight From the Heart)." The title gets you hooked right away, doesn't it? No pretense at cleverness, no smacking of cynicism. Just wham: "Straight From the Heart." Almost brings on a rash just typing it out. But what's a little rash in exchange for a dose of magic?

"Straight From the Heart" is a Bollywood movie, and anyone who has sampled the fare knows just how adept this industry is at creating no-holds-barred love stories that go on for like, hours. And they're usually musicals, with vast troops of dancers and musicians in the background, orchestrating and enhancing the emotions to a point of near hysteria. In these star vehicles, the girls are either sobbing with agony at unrequited love or swooning with sheer delight as their lovers look deep, deep into their velvety eyes and pledge everlasting love.

"Straight From the Heart" offers all that, but director Sanjay Leela Bhansali had his eye on the international market and also tailored it to be restrained (that is, compared to other Bollywood works), sophisticated and funny in all the right places.

When you have a leading lady like Aishwarya Rai, a love story becomes so much easier to tell. Think of her as lightning grease on skateboard wheels. After she appears on screen, all rational thought is rendered impossible for the remainder of the movie. When she sings and dances, you feel your brain cells pop and go "sssstt." Winner of the Miss World title in 1994, Rai has made a successful shift from modeling to film. She's now deemed the most stunning actress in India -- not an easy feat when one considers the level of competition. Her role is Nandini, the spoiled (but deservedly so) and cherished daughter of Pundit Darbar (Vikram Gokhale), a famed classical music instructor. She is her father's darling, and secure in this knowledge she can be bold and free-spirited in an otherwise rigidly traditional household. Of course, my magnificent darling, anything you want.

Then Sameer (Salman Khan) comes into their lives and everything changes. He has arrived from Italy to study music in his homeland, under Darbar. At first resentful of the intrusion, Nandini begins to feel palpitations every time he's near -- and vice versa. Against the backdrop of resplendently colorful festivities (including a wedding and a kite-flying party), Nandini and Sameer promise eternal love. But the family has already decided their daughter will marry the industrious lawyer Vanraj (Ajay Devgan). Sameer is banished and returns to Italy whereupon Nandini enters into a marriage against her will. Vanraj soon catches on that the heart of his bride lies elsewhere and, behaving like a true gentleman, offers to accompany her to Italy to find Sameer. She accepts and the two set off, not knowing that further obstacles await Nandini before she can reunite with her true love.

The first half of this three-hour spectacle is the visual equivalent of a royal buffet spread at the Taj Mahal where the eyes are asked to feast and gorge, occasionally lying down for breathers before the next amazing course. (Minimalism? Now what can that be?) The color scheme alone is a weeklong seminar in interior design. Nandini's costumes make Comme des Garcons couture look like prison uniforms. And the soundtrack includes a number from India's first MTV dude-singer Hariharan.

In comparison, when the stage shifts to Europe during the latter half of the movie, the visuals tone down and lose the splashiness. Rai's performance also seems to bloom best under the sun in India but after three hours in her company, attempts to critique are thrown out the window. You don't care anymore. You're in the movie. Like Sameer, you're looking deep, deep into her velvety eyes and pledging everlasting, ever-true, undying love, while singing up to a stark blue sky.

And if you stay in the tub too long and catch cold, this office will not be held responsible.

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