Prem Ratan Dhan Payo ****
Dir: Sooraj R. Barjatya. With: Salman Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Anupam Kher. 171 mins. Cert: 12A
The nature of public accusation and counter-accusation may mean that Salman Khan can never appease his fiercest critics, but give him this at least: he’s trying hard. Khan owned the summer season upon pairing with an adorable child for July’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and he’ll surely maintain that box-office dominance with the postmodern fairytale Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. Here is both a sumptuous Diwali treat and another object lesson in the power of mediated fantasy to overturn anything so piffling or painful as reality: for three hours, this charm offensive successfully returns us to the company of the planet’s most likeable fellow.
In fact, this is a tale of two Salmans. Old Salman is represented in the personage of Vijay Singh – not the golfer, but a brooding, moustachioed prince with forearms like bedside cabinets, set for an expedient yet loveless marriage with aid worker Maithili (Sonam Kapoor). Prince Vijay has his enemies, however. After an assassination attempt incapacitates him, the court turns to the one individual who resembles the Prince to ensure the match proceeds as anticipated: this is Prem (Khan again), a prancing flibbertigibbet with a modicum of acting form from his days in a theatre troupe.
If the plot’s familiar, no imagination or expense has been spared in mapping the kingdom it winds through. Writer-director Sooraj R. Barjatya has apparently spent the nine years since his last feature finessing this coherent, pleasurable screenplay, while saving a decade’s worth of budgets to blow in one go here. These tunics and saris give the lavish fabrics of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella a run for their money; the shimmering Palace of Mirrors – constructed, in defiance of all known health-and-safety guidelines, atop a waterfall – makes much of SPECTRE look like something on offer in Poundland.
Yet we get wit with the glitter. Perhaps inevitably, a princely stick-on moustache goes astray as Prem beds into his new role, and his good-natured yammering causes consternation for uptight courtier Diwan (a terrific Anupam Kher, scattering notes of worryworn humanity like rose petals). Barjatya has a sly, winning way of mixing mythology with modernity: the Prince’s horse-drawn carriage arrives with Forbes magazine in its reading rack, while there are nods to everything from the Ram-Leela legend to Game of Thrones via Roman Holiday.
Yet as the pre-intermission cliffhanger establishes, Barjatya has something more substantial on his mind – and it’s something he can use Khan’s considerable clout to address: the sorry fate of women in patriarchal societies. Since Prince Vijay is too busy waggling swords to notice his bride-to-be’s discomfort, the sensitive Prem sparks a minor revolution within court, opening up to his fake fiancée in ways the real Prince appears incapable of, and re-establishing diplomatic ties with the latter’s scorned sisters. Transforming one dreary state function into a footballing free-for-all, this political progressive puts girls and boys on a level playing field.
That it’s Khan who’s fighting for change makes this doubly special: we’re watching modern cinema’s most rapid and radical modification – mollification, even – of an established star persona. Where Bajrangi Bhaijaan identified maternal qualities in this previously hulking heavyweight, Barjatya’s film wonders whether the actor nicknamed Bhai – brother – could equally be claimed as a sister. In a rhapsodic courtship sequence early in the second half, you catch the star observing the newly liberated Kapoor with genuine awe, and with good reason: for one, nobody has ever appeared more luminous drinking directly from the tap.
Perhaps Khan has realised, as have so many action heroes over time, that he can’t play the tough guy forever; that, without some application of sense and sensibility, the relentless flexing of moviestar muscle can appear like so much posturing in the gym mirror. (Or the Palace of Mirrors: whatever it takes for a hero to take a long, hard look at himself.) Khan has surely made his mistakes, not least associating with filmmakers who were only ever interested in him for his biceps. Yet these last two movies – bringing the best out of this performer, and everyone around him – constitute a pretty wonderful form of community service.
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is now playing in cinemas nationwide.