LAMHE (1991). Director: Yash Chopra. Players: Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Waheeda Rehman, Anupam Kher. Music: Shiv-Hari. (Available on demand/ online streaming through Netflix.)

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May December romances generally don’t fare well in Hindi cinema. Cheeni Kum was indeed a rare entry that succeeded in this category. For Yash Chopra to take on this sensitive subject two decades ago was a bold move only a supremely self-assured director-producer would tackle. When it was released,Lamhe was an outright box failure, which many critics attributed to a script that was, quite erroneously, perceived as having to do with incest. Against the rear-view mirror, however, Chopra’s upper-crust drama got right the story, the setting, and a superb lead pair for a first-rate classic.

Viren (Kapoor), the very rich scion from a well-pedigreed Rajasthan land-owning family returns from London for a ceremonial visit. What is left of his family is just the midwife (Rehman) who raised Viren and stands in as a strong mother-figure for him. Viren’s too-dirty-too-hot outlook on his ancestral home gets a redo as soon as he sets eyes on Pallavi (Sridevi), the beautiful daughter of friend of the family and neighbor.  The heartbreak that results when Viren learns that Pallavi is betrothed sets in motion a life-altering track for Viren, Pallavi, and Pallavi’s daughter Pooja (also Sridevi).

The arc for when the wealth of a surging “new India” first came to light on the big screen may well have begun with Lamhe. The jet-setting Viren travels in style in his fleet of Rolls Royces and Mercedez Benzes. The desertscapes are uniformly warm, the dunes stretching out as far as the eye can see, hiding from Viren’s view the fact that Pallavi is searching the horizon—for someone else.

In hindsight, Viren’s early disdain for his Indian roots is also a telling sign of the subtle clash between modernity and tradition. Viren has chosen to stay away all these years and by suddenly showing up and falling head over  heels for the already spoken-for Pallavi is the acid test he must undergo to prove his ties to the mother country. He initially rejects India and, in turn, India rejects him and he returns to London disappointed.

Then there is the complex texture to Pallavi’s role. Chopra succeeds so well at keeping Pallavi “chaste” from Viren’s gaze. She never even considers Viren as a possible lover. It’s all a one-sided dream in Viren’s fancy. This nuance is critical to the plot point when Viren eventually crosses paths with Pooja, Pallavi’s look- alike daughter, who ignites a firestorm of conflict within Viren—not to mention unease with said film critics and audiences.

From 1983, when Sadma was released, to about 1993, when Khalnayak’smegahit Madhuri Dixit-led number “Choli Ke Peeche” was released, Sridevi absolutely ruled the female frontline at the matinee.

Even though Chandni (1989) was the zenith of Sridevi’s box office appeal—back then she was affectionately known as “Lady Bachchan” for the craze she ignited amongst her fans—catching a master performer close to the peak of her prime, and in a double-role at that, was a marvelous casting move. In 1991, the movie offended critics and audiences alike. In 2012, Lamhe is considered amongst Chopra’s finest works, and rightly so!

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