Nikhil Advani has made no secret of the fact that his second directorial venture after the extremely successful Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), is inspired by Richard Curtis’ Love Actually and is heavily influenced by 8 years of collaboration with Karan Johar under the Dharma banner. Advani, who assisted Johar in his direction of the romantic superhits Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), has referred to Salaam-E-Ishq as “vintage Dharma” with some original touches and a dose of reality. The film is peppered with references to Johar, Dharma movies, the film industry and notions of celebrity. Sometimes there is a little too much self consciousness – a little too much clever banter or distracting camera work at the expense of emotional sincerity. But on the whole, Advani – who also developed the screenplay, gets the balance right. Salaam-E-Ishq is a neat package of 6 love stories bound with surprise, humour and tenderness. Uplifting variations on a theme, a catchy soundtrack (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy) and fine performances combine to create a romantic offering which is not too cloying.
One of the biggest surprises is the pairing of Govinda with South African actor Shannon Esrechowitz. This story begins at the airport, where a taxiwala (Govinda) picks up a visitor to India who is searching for her boyfriend. A hint of whimsy, lots of warmth and humour and finally a sense of emotional depth, feature in their interactions. Gulzar once said that good romance is not about physicality but going “beyond the body of the two people in love”. Compelling and compatible performances from Govinda and Esrechowitz make their segments of the film special and carry the less effective sections of the narrative.
Less impressive is the glamorous filmi fable of item girl – Kkamini (Priyanka Chopra), who wants credibility as an actor; the chance to star in a Karan Johar movie as a tragedy queen. Clearly the initial tone of this story is consistent with parody and spoof which does not seem to suit Priyanka Chopra’s acting style. Her performance appears forced and unnecessarily exaggerated. Perhaps this was deliberate so that we could watch her character evolve into a more natural, feeling person at the end. Even so, a little more subtlety would have made her eventual character change more plausible.
The Kkamini story on the whole, seemed disappointing and predictable even though it featured the biggest stars in the film. Salman Khan plays the role of an actor who latches onto Kkamini as the fiancé she needs to clean up her public image. Apart from featuring in two of the films most lavish musical numbers – the theme song and the dazzling Tenu Leke, Salman’s role is minimal and rather clichéd, inspired by one of the minor characters in Love Actually. Perhaps I’m wrong, it was really a clever twist to give a male actor the glorious status accorded to the item girl in Bollywood movies. If it was a case of role reversal then it didn’t work because the whole piece seemed heavy on glitz but somehow too contrived so that when sincerity finally calls, the viewer is too desensitized to view it with appropriate recognition.
Derivative of Love Actually and not particularly poignant is the story of infidelity centred on the marriage of frustrated businessman Vinay Malhotra – Anil Kapoor and his obliging wife (Juhi Chalwa). There is however, a “cringe worthy” but surprising sequence in a nightclub which redeems this otherwise grey and lifeless tale. Babuji – the seduction song featuring Vinay and his younger love interest (Anjana Sukhani) is picturized too similarly to Saiyaan Re. In both cases a sexy female performs to an appreciative gallery of men and this isn’t even a police drama.
More engaging is the tragic story of media workers Tehzeeb (Vidya Balan) and Ashutosh (John Abraham). This one initially looks as though it will collapse into cliché but by-passes it quite cleverly, overlapping with one of the other stories and creating a nice juxtaposition of meanings. The film’s strength is its ability to use the clichés associated with romance in an unpredictable manner. Part of its unpredictability is the way the threads of the stories intersect and merge, particularly in the second half.
The quality of the editing is a little inconsistent. Fewer cuts with time and place slides inserted between them would have created a more streamlined effect and generated greater momentum. Each story has its own energy and trajectory but there is a collective momentum that the film achieves which puts it in a category above films like the Darna series where the stories are linked thematically and nothing more.
In some respects the glue that binds this package is the impending shadi of playboy Shiven Dungarpur (Akshaye Khanna) to vivacious Gia (Ayesha Takia). His commitment phobia is a bit plodding and ponderous but the layered story lines liven things up so that the seeds of viewer annoyance don’t get the chance to grow.
Even though the highs and lows are not uniformly arresting Salaam-E-Ishq is light and entertaining. Thanks to the combined talents of Govinda and Esrechowitz, it can even make this firenge laugh. If the film has a message it’s that starting again makes for a happier future provided there is a preparedness to build what has been lost. With it Advani might be saying there is life after Dharma.