November 21, 2016

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015)

A prince is about to be crowned, but his enemies conspire against him and take him out of the picture. The prince's chief adviser desperately needs to stall for time, and keep the general public confident that their prince is alive and well and preparing for his coronation. To achieve this he takes an unwitting visitor who is a dead ringer for the prince, and has him perform the role until the prince can be returned to power.

That's the plot of Anthony Hope's 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, a popular adventure novel that has been adapted many times for film and television over the years. It is a fairly versatile story, and that versatility has seen it transformed into contemporary political comedy in Dave (1993), South American intrigue in Moon Over Parador (1988), and even a four-part serial in Doctor Who ("The Androids of Tara" in 1978).

Now Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (literally, Found a Treasure Called Love), a 2015 Indian romantic comedy directed by Sooraj R. Barjatya, appears to follow the exact same storyline.

I say 'appears to have' because I am by no means an expert on Indian cinema, culture or literature. Early scenes in the film show the protagonist, a theatre actor named Prem (Salman Khan), performing scenes from the Ramayana that make me wonder if perhaps the film's plot reflects that epic narrative as well. Without knowing for sure I'm hedging my bets and hoping some reader of this blog may eventually confirm things for me one way or the other.

So anyway: Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is, based on my limited experience, a fairly typical Bollywood crowd-pleaser. There is a romance at the film's core between Prem and an unwitting princess named Maithili (Sonam Kapoor), who believes him to be the prince that he is pretending to be. There are many moments of comedy. There are occasional dramatic scenes, particularly when Prem's deceptions begin to come apart and he regrets his lengthy deceptions. There is a climactic action sequence. There are, of course, several song and dance numbers.

It is occasionally difficult to compare Indian cinema with its English-language counterparts. Generally speaking, America-centric audiences prefer straight-forward and easily classifiable genre works. A thriller should be a thriller, and not also a comedy and a romantic drama, for example. A horror film should probably not include songs. Bollywood works in the opposite direction. The sole purpose of a Bollywood film would appear to be to entertain as many different audiences as much as possible. That leads to a striking combination of content within most films. In my experience these films are never the best at any given genre or style, but when they work they are hugely entertaining movies.

All up Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is a fairly middle-of-the-road affair. The musical numbers are a tiny bit underwhelming, which does not do it many favours, while a lot of the comedy is a little too broad and obvious to work that well. There are a few highlights among the cast. Anupam Kher is rock-solid as the harried, desperate Diwan Sahab, who hatches the plan to replace the unconscious Prince Vijay with the more outgoing and optimistic Prem. For his own part Salman Khan does a pretty good job distinguishing his dual roles from one another. He and Kapoor have a lot of chemistry as the mismatched lovers as well.

This film is breezy, superficial entertainment, and as long as you approach it looking for a simple confection it is a perfectly enjoyable romantic action thriller drama comedy musical. It is not the best that I have seen from India, but Bollywood is such a distinctive form of cinema that it's difficult not to find enjoyment out of even the more ordinary examples.

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