Yash Chopra's Lamhe was ahead of its time in how it dared to celebrate female agency 30 years ago
Lamhe’s lead women, both played by Sridevi in a double role, dared to desire at a time when females largely played objects of desire on screen. They did not wait to be chosen. They chose instead.
Films like Hum, Phool Aur Kaante, Sadak, Saajan, and Saudagar were getting the box office rolling in 1991 when Yash Chopra treated cinegoers to a love story unlike any other.
After the bumper success of Chandni, he cast Sridevi again. This time in a double role, that of a mother and daughter. The young Pooja grows up to look exactly like her mother Pallavi, who dies during childbirth. However, it is not just their face that bears an uncanny resemblance. It is also their vivacity, strong-headedness, clarity of mind, and chutzpah that unite the two.
Both of them, in their own way, show remarkable audacity in falling in love with men thought highly unsuitable for them. Despite her conservative and illustrious lineage, Pallavi chooses Siddharth Bhatnagar, a squadron leader raised in orphanages. Pooja, meanwhile, grows up loving a much older Virendra Pratap Singh (Anil Kapoor), who is still struggling with the memories of her dead mother, the only woman he has ever loved but could never tell her.
Chopra attempted the unthinkable with Lamhe. He used to call the film a gamble. And it was. In 187 minutes, he weaved such an intricate, sublime web of emotions and relationships across generations and continents, he stumped the audiences with his pluck. The maverick filmmaker gave cinephiles a love triangle that transcended time and space, a story Indians admired but could not come to terms with.
Lamhe was a massive success overseas but it did not work in India. In an interview with filmmaker Karan Johar uploaded on Yash Raj Films’ official YouTube channel in 2009, Chopra reveals that he was heartbroken to see his big plunge get such a lukewarm response at the domestic box office. However, I am hardly surprised. Indians were not ready then to see women exercise their agency the way Pallavi and Pooja did. In a country that celebrates films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and Hum Saath Saath Hain, which released much later, Lamhe was “too dangerous” and “too bold,” as Chopra was warned by many people, including Sridevi when he was making the film.
I agree with Sridevi when she said that Viren’s change of heart at the end is too sudden. When he finally confesses his love for Pooja, it does feel hurried. However, barring this one slip, Lamhe is a masterpiece. People often say it was made ahead of its time, but I feel it is one of those rare films that are timeless.
In an age when things, tastes, and sensibilities are changing at a dizzying speed and movies made even five years ago feel dated, Lamhe has secured that enviable, sweet spot. It has become a classic that grows on you but does not grow old.
My mother calls it kaaljayee, immortal.
The film is a wonderful example of the coming together of stellar individual components to create a brilliant whole. Sridevi, Anil Kapoor, Waheeda Rehman, and Anupam Kher’s nuanced performances, Shiv-Hari’s soulful music, Anand Bakshi’s meditative lyrics, Sudhedu Roy’s luminous art direction, Saroj Khan’s thoughtful choreography, and finally, Chopra’s nerve and masterful storytelling, all make Lamhe what it is. But in this motley group of luminaries, for me, it is Dr Rahi Masoon Reza’s dialogues and Honey Irani’s story and screenplay that shine the brightest. Because it is they who made Pallavi and Pooja the way they are.
The two leading women of Lamhe dared to desire at a time when females largely played objects of desire on screen. They did not wait to be chosen. They chose instead. When faced with dire circumstances, they show incredible grit, and do not let anyone else make decisions for them. Unperturbed by the prevalent status quo, they go after what they want and do as they please. They question, protest, rage, and live life unencumbered.
In a mandir scene early in the film, Pallavi asks Viren to touch her feet since she is elder to him. In another scene in the second half, Pooja buys a sweater for Viren despite being told he would not like it. Not just that, she goes on to challenge Anita (a woman who loves Viren, and wants to marry him) that she would make Viren wear it — she does. There is another scene in which Pooja and Anita are eating ice cream at a London mall, each trying to establish that they are more suited to be with Viren. It is a confrontation between the two women, both vying for the same coveted trophy, both unwilling to be dismissed. A lot can go wrong in showing two females sparring. But Irani and Reza equip their women with such solidity, the scene becomes a rare cinematic moment. It is as sharp as it is reflective. Films in 1991 did not have too many scenes or women like these.
I love Kapoor’s portrayal of Kunwar Viren Pratap Singh. In a prolific career spanning 41 years, he is at his finest, most restrained in Lamhe, a rarity in a filmography full of playful, energetic roles. However, despite his career-best performance ably supported by the dependable Kher, it is the women who hold the fort in this jewel of a film.
Sometimes, I cannot help but wonder what a delight it would have been if Lamhe released not 30 years ago, but today. Inundated as we are with agenda-driven soulless films of hyper-nationalism and machismo, it would be a sheer joy to see one that celebrates female agency with such aplomb and inimitable beauty.
Both Chopra and Johar call Lamhe their favourite film. It left an imprint on them a tad bit more indelible than all the other films, they say. Who can argue? I, most definitely, cannot.
When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.
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