On a spiritual level loving a country is like loving a woman. This is Veer Pratap Singh's experience as he languishes in a Pakistani prison for 22 years, enduring separation from two loves; his homeland, India and his 'first love' Zaara Hayaat Khan, a Pakistani girl.
The first half of Yash Chopra's lyrical film gently interweaves Veer's love for Zaara with his beloved Punjabi roots. As Veer (Shah Rukh Khan) tells his story to Pakistani lawyer (Rani Mukherji) we are transported to a pastoral life tinged with nostalgia. A sense of the past is heightened by a combination of Lata Mangeshkar's singing, the late Madan Mohan's music and Yash Chopra's vision. Zaara (Preity Zinta) is Veer's guest as he introduces her to his foster parents (Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini) - custodians of a traditional way of life that he values. Scenes of a village fair, a lodi celebration, girls with long plaited hair on floral swings are reminiscent of BR Chopra's Naya Daur (1957) while the golden fields of Amritsar could be straight out of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995).
However, these associations are not out of place because they form the reminiscences of a man who is homesick for the sights, smells and tastes of India. On another level, as Indian films reach out their global market or cater increasingly to the westernised tastes of audiences that frequent the urban multiplexes, a yearning for the images and values embodied in films past may be intended.
Tolerance, communal spirit, respect for family and human rights are the core beliefs that the characters espouse to greater or lesser degrees. Commitment to these beliefs ranges from the altruism of Veer, Zaara, and their lawyer Saamiya Siddiqui to the jaded views of the prosecutor (Anupam Kher) and the double standards of Zaara's father. There is just one character who doesn't fit within this framework and that's Raza (Manoj Bajpai) Zaara's selfish fiancée - the cause of much suffering.
In Waqt (1965), Yash Chopra used images of clocks to bind the narrative. In Veer Zaara it's walls that suggest separation and entrapment; windows that offer illumination and open doorways that invite opportunity and hope. These forces are shown to be working as much within individuals as they are on the broader levels of family, community or national institutions.
The second half of the film is sombre in tone and colour with an introspective musical overlay and little choreography in the dance/celebratory sense. Throughout the film and particularly in the second half, the music is beautifully threaded into the narrative. One example of Chopra's craftsmanship is the use of the qawwali Aaya Tere Dar Par to enhance the dramatic reunion between Veer and Zaara in Lahore where their love is publicly exposed. The tension between the lovers, the shamed onlookers (for this occasion was to have marked Zaara's betrothal to Raza) and the soulful rendition of the song make for powerful viewing. Another great musically enhanced scene is the climax of the courtroom drama (Tere Liye) which contains a surreal juxtaposition of spell binding images.
The film's strength lies in its well-constructed, multi-layered story, skilled direction, fine musical score and performances. Shah Rukh Khan is credible as the aged, brooding prisoner. At times however, the illusion is a little shaky because his make-up isn't adequate. In the close-ups Shah Rukh's white teeth and manicured fingernails don't match his matted hair and haggard face. When Veer gives his lawyer a cheeky "thumbs up" sign in court, I had a sense of the actor in his familiar 'Raj-Rahul' mode but generally, he was suitably restrained and even self-effacing. Preity Zinta, who is also required to age 22 years in the course of the film, is a little too energetic when we see her many years down the track. It's necessary to show her energy but liveliness and dour, 'grandmotherly' make-up don't quite mesh at that point.
The characters are well conceived and integrated into the drama although, on a few occasions, situations appear a touch heavy handed. On the upside, Veer initially sees Zaara's Pakistani origins as an obstacle to their union. He also tries to convince her that being a Muslim can open her to the hurt of intolerance in India, only to be proven wrong. These views work to make the bonding of the couple more realistic. Less convincing is the quick and convenient way women's roles are given equal status with the men's. Zaara, on very short acquaintance, remarks to Veer's father that he should think about establishing a village school for girls and instantly, the bricks are laid! It's equally unrealistic to see a worldly, cynical male lawyer buckling so readily and completely after a show of skill from a younger, female colleague. Perhaps western sensibilities cloud my judgement or perhaps the film is indeed, a little self conscious in the way it seeks to avoid stereotypes. It may even be pointing at the conciliatory power of female involvement as a solution to the divisiveness of conflict.
Generally Veer Zaara is to be admired for its subtle, poetic depiction of the volatile relations between India and Pakistan. By having the interlocked love of India and love for a Pakistani woman as its heart and building on the complexity of that paradox, the film avoids violence and damaging stereotypes. There is humanity and compassion on both sides of the border. Men with political agendas put the barricades there; but even in the bleakest times, commitment to the ideal of love is the window that lets the light in so that eventually, the doors may open.
- Lidia Ostepeev