King Lear meets the Prince and the Pauper mixed with Bollywood in this latest Indian cinema extravaganza that’s breaking records with its box office results. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (Receive a Treasure called Love) is in many respects a typical Bollywood film. A man, pure of heart, brings love and healing to a family torn asunder by mistrust. If that were all this film was though, while still enjoyable and highly entertaining, it would not be as good a film as it is.
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo tells the story of Prem Dilwale (Salman Khan), a small time actor whose speciality in life is putting on theatre shows about the Hindu Gods. One day, travelling to Pritampur to give a donation to his secret crush, Princess Maithilli (Sonam Kapoor), he finds himself caught up in a royal family feud that has seen the crown prince and next king, Vijay Singh, nearly killed in an assassination plot crafted, apparently, by this younger half-brother, Ajay (Neil Nitin Mukesh), but really orchestrated by the sinister Chirag Singh (Armaan Kohli), their distant cousin. So Prem, the prince’s doppelganger, is brought in by Sanjay, head of security, to make sure everything goes well with the Prince’s coronation, and his marriage to the Princess. Cue lots of hilarity, singing, and one man getting to become his dream woman’s dream husband.
What really makes this film special though is that beneath all the singing and the comedy, including an impromptu girls vs. boys football game as Prem tries to get the Prince’s reclusive sisters out of the house where they have retreated from the world, is the way it deals with bigger, more serious themes, like families ripped apart by jealousy and mistrust and the way the unscrupulous can exploit this. At the same time it provides a fascinating insight into modern India through the strange mix of modernity and anachronism that is Pritampur. The prince travels around in a carriage listening to his iPod as the only way to relax when he feels as if the whole world is conspiring against him. In reality of course, he is the author of most of his own troubles. His rigid desire to uphold tradition and have his own way have alienated most of his family. Prem overcomes all of this, providing the prince with the ultimate epiphany, and preventing him from killing Ajay by the brilliant method of finishing off what Vijay had started as he beats his brother black and blue.
Which isn’t to say this film doesn’t have failings. Not only is Ajay’s role somewhat two dimensional in terms of how the character is conveyed to the audience, but the way the Prince simply forgives him stretches credibility a little, at least for western audiences. Prem Ratah Dhan Payo is however, like pretty much every Bollywood movie, more than a little in the realm of the fairytale. Love conquers all, and when it comes to love, Prem Diwale is the most selfless exemplar.
You don’t go to watch these films because of how credible their stories are. You go to watch them because they are both fantastically entertaining and because, while they might seem a little grey in places, they still manage to retain a black and white morality that makes it easy to follow what’s going on. So while Ajay might be complicit in the attempt to kill his brother, it is Chirag Singh who we know as the real villain. The result? The former finds the start of his own redemption in the power of his brother’s love while Chirag ends up dead in the broken hall of mirrors.
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Good triumphs. Evil is thwarted and the couple in love get to live happily ever after – this largely constitutes the message of this film. That’s a good enough message for audiences to suspend any sense of disbelief in the manner it is conveyed.
By Gareth Wood