As Hindi filmdom’s highest paid star, Aamir Khan’s mass appeal is unquestioned. On the entire subcontinent, only Chennai-based Chiranjeevi, Mamooty, Rajnikant, and Venkatesh make more per movie. After Rang De Basanti, Fanaa is Khan’s second wide release of 2006. Here Khan plays Rehan Qadri, a happy-go-lucky tour guide in New Delhi, an aloof jack-of-all-trades, not unlike his characters in Rangeela and Raja Hindustani. Exactly which of the “all” trades he specializes in is the heart-wringing plot twist Fanaa gears up for. In Kohli’s supremely entertaining romantic thriller, etched out against the ever-changing geopolitical winds of the subcontinent, here finally is a character that is at once endearing and incendiary.

The film is also noteworthy as the comeback vehicle for Kajol—without doubt one of the most talented performers in Hindi cinema over the last decade. The slightly watered-down plot has Zooni (Kajol), a blind beauty from Kashmir, traveling to New Delhi on a singing tour, where she catches the eye of the storied tour guide Rehan. The reserved Zooni is, literally, blind to Rehan’s affections or, for that matter, Rehan’s true intentions. Suffice it to say that Rehan-the-lover has a roving eye and that Rehan has an alter-ego with serious career issues.

Filmed against a backdrop of New Delhi’s famed monuments and beautiful snowy vistas of Poland (proxy here for Kashmir’s up-country), Fanaa’s gorgeous contours help overcome an anemic storyline. As romantic leads, Khan and Kajol are nothing short of sizzling. Kajol’s Zooni is a shy woman who endears herself to a destiny she did not choose while Khan’s Rehan chooses a destiny that must be safeguarded, even from himself.

While Yash Raj Films’ reputation for a glossy finish remains intact, their track record of accompanying blockbuster films with blockbuster scores is tarnished. Yes, “chand sifarish” is a top-rung neo-qawwali that has made it to top of the charts, thanks in part to the re-introduction by Jatin-Lalit of the Arabic oudh string instrument, which creates a wider, richer clanging hook. The rest of the score, alas, falls short. Jatin-Latin—the popular fraternal duo that gave us the musical juggernauts Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham—here carelessly repeat extended notes from their own previous songs, giving the music an unpleasant after-taste.

Playing to full houses in places as far away as Kenya, Australia, and even the Netherlands, Fanaa has hit a bull’s-eye.

Khan’s populist image, however, has not been without detractors. His recent comments about the dam being constructed on the Narmada river irked Gujarat’s ruling political party into banning the release of Fanaa in that state. The politicos begrudgingly gave in after a week, yielding to public outcry over a homegrown movie that was screening to packed houses elsewhere all across the globe. As that and Fanaa’s $800,000, 72-theater Memorial Day Weekend U.S. bow proved, this Khan is the reigning king of the box office.

Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.

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