In this series, we revisit films that deserve another look with fresh eyes
What’s the film about:
Suhaan Kapoor (Salman Khan), a failed actor, receives a notice that his ex-wife Piya (Preity Zinta) wants a divorce settlement of INR 50 lakhs. When Piya’s geeky college admirer Agastya Rao (Akshay Kumar) shows up at his doorstep in search of her, a broke Suhaan hatches a ruthless plan. He decides to play cupid by luring NASA astronaut Agastya to a New York-based Piya so that their marriage can spare Suhaan of alimony. But as in most self-respecting two-hero vehicles, plans are made to be broken: A triangle is destined to come full circle.
Director Shirish Kunder was an established editor by the time he made his directorial debut with Jaan-E-Mann. The multi-starring cast aside, his marriage to choreographer Farah Khan – who had just delivered a smash hit with her debut Main Hoon Na – had raised expectations. But Kunder’s expensive film tanked at the domestic box office and received below-average reviews largely because it came out when the industry had plateaued with larger-than-life love triangles. Not to mention sharing a Diwali release date with Farhan Akhtar’s Don. Moreover, the spoofy MTV-meets-Bollywood tone had already been introduced by Main Hoon Na, and the plot’s sardonic cocktailing of the Kal Ho Naa Ho and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam templates earned it doomed comparisons to the SRK and Bhansali schools of contemporary romance sandwiches.
Jaan-E-Mann, title included (Jaan v/s Mann), parodies the popular genre by crafting a Broadway-weds-circus universe that deliberately reminds the viewers of the over-the-top movie-ness of such premises
Why It Works:
Akshay Kumar’s nerd-laugh alone is a perfect advertisement of the film’s intent. Kunder’s “unoriginal” narrative was not an addition but a reaction to the mainstream ouvre of triangular love. Jaan-E-Mann, title included (Jaan v/s Mann), parodies the popular genre by crafting a Broadway-weds-circus universe that deliberately reminds the viewers of the over-the-top movie-ness of such premises. The irreverent form it adopts is an extension of a 1990s WWF setup: You can see the strings holding up the puppets, you know it’s make-believe, yet you thrive precisely on that audacity of choreographed fakeness.
For instance, the film opens with Agastya in a space shuttle with a Russian astronaut: Everything – from the cockpit to the controls to the accents to outer space itself – is designed to evoke a sense of colourful staging. Kunder punctures the suspension of disbelief with this disorienting style. This ‘musical’ model was traditionally limited to song picturizations – take Sachi Yeh Kahaani Hai from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, where the entire life-story of a gangster is recreated on stage with props and cartoonish costumes. The first forty minutes of Jaan-E-Mann in Mumbai fortify this style as a playful homage to old-school filming technique: Suhaan’s dream amateurishly plants him into the footage of a 1960s Filmfare Awards ceremony, Suhaan’s flashback is illustrated by a projector literally casting his memories onto the walls of his room, a character in it is told to step aside because he is “blocking the frame,” shots are designed to make us notice that characters are ‘driving’ static cars against a green screen.
The pace is compressed into the rhythm of single-stage play: The same room is elaborately lit and rigged to depict different scenes, with a simple camera pan/tilt used as visual transitions. Songs depict characters’ imaginations – a circus crew and ghazal singers randomly step out of a closet to perform Jaane Ke Jaane Na – materializing in real-time. As a bonus, Salman Khan pokes fun at his own reputation: Suhaan’s college version warns Diya of his violent jealousy, he plays an actor who only wants to be a leading-role superstar, he gets a big break once he takes to bodybuilding…the meta-ness is refreshing even for a pre-Dabangg Khan.
Salman Khan often oversells the caricature by appearing more like a participant in a school play than an adult in a quasi-musical
The magic realism of Jaan-E-Mann might have appeared too radical to unprepared audiences because of two reasons. Firstly, the film inexplicably abandons its Broadway tone once it reaches New York – Khan still plays the fool (his Elvis getup is jarringly good), but Jaan-E-Mann here becomes the movie it sets out to satirize. The balance between skit and theatre gets skewed. The Kal Ho Naa Ho spoofs from Mumbai (they pray for a farishta and geeky Agastya appears in slow-motion) turn into full-blown imitations: Brooklyn Bridge pining, the ear-piece tutoring, Zinta’s expressions, hero sprinting, even the engagement song. Secondly, Khan often oversells the caricature by appearing more like a participant in a school play than an adult in a quasi-musical: His bizarre accent and emotional scenes blur the line between self-lampooning and a lack of self-awareness.
Om Shanti Om, which released a year later, merely made this inventive treatment a little less uneven and a little more accessible. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that films like Jaan-E-Mann tried to walk so that those like Jagga Jasoos could run. Neither reached the finish line. In the end, it’s a cultural tragedy that generic critical markers like “Where is the story?” and “Is it a comedy or drama?” were applied to films that deconstructed escapism instead of fetishizing it.