Editor's note: Since cinema is not only a form of entertainment but also an important cultural tool that has the power to shape opinions, we are reviewing classics and trying to see them through the lens of the current socio-political climate. The aim is to call out biases, misrepresentation and everything else that is problematic so that we can gauge our journey thus far and the road ahead.
Director: Yash Chopra
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Juhi Chawla, Sunny Deol, Anupam Kher
The kid's got issues!
One of my favourite sequences in Darr is when Rahul's father, Captain Mehra (Dalip Tahil), bemused by his son's eccentric habits, like holding long imaginary phone calls with his deceased mother, visits a psychiatrist to find out what's cooking, doc. The shrink, without having ever met Rahul, diagnoses him after just a few strokes of the chin and waggling of eyebrows, which is pretty much against all the rules of psychiatry and mental healthcare. No psychiatrist or counsellor is supposed to diagnose a person whom they've never met, just because papa kehte hain. That being said one can totally imagine an Indian parent doing that and most psychologists playing along because, of course, in sanskari India, mummy-papa know best.
Notwithstanding, as an example of Bollywood masala fare which released in 1993, the film was pretty ahead of its times in many ways. Depite obvious fallacies it pretty accurately portrayed common symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizoaffective disorder, managed to show Rahul as a highly complex and conflicted individual rather than a two-dimenional 'bad person', and addressed the amoral nature of certain mental health issues instead of going preachy and taking a moral high ground.
Still though, the film's got issues!
Darr is a slow-burn potboiler which sees a young Shah Rukh Khan play Rahul, a young man who becomes obsessed with his college-mate Kiran, played by an equally youthful Juhi Chawla. Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth. Kiran is in a blissful relationship with the dynamic Sunil (Sunny Deol, looking pretty much the same), and has no idea about Rahul's feelings. Also, as established, Rahul's got issues, what with the audio-visual hallucinations, social isolation and no respect for boundaries. Things (slowly) get out of hand, and Kiran and Sunil have to flee the country, after getting hastily married, as Rahul gets increasingly creepy and stalker-ish, terrorizing Kiran to the point of a nervous breakdown, as no one knows the identity of her 'secret admirer.' That's basically it, and like I said, it's a pretty good film, albeit with some things that have not stood the test of time.
Let's get technical first. Even though its an arresting story in itself, with a runtime of just under three hours, the film drags in places, especially during the last 45 minutes, which could have been fixed with some businesslike, detached editing. As Stephen King noted in his seminal book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is a must-read for every creative writer, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” One would think that since Darr is a film about a killer and his darling, they should have gotten this down pat.
What King (Stephen, not SRK) basically means is that even though you're a literal genius and evey word you write will be manna to your future readers, don't go overboard and inundate your reader with prose that is verbose. Ahem.
Within the entertainment industry especially, the brevity of any script is almost as important as its brevity, and quality film though Darr is, succinct it ain't. And since today, in a world constantly flooding us with audio-visual information and entertainment, our attention spans are about as long as a New York minute, making Darr an especially long watch.
Also since it's a Bollywood film made in 1993, it has got some elements which are pretty unpalatable in a (kind of) woke 2019. Let's start with the male entitlement. Sunil may be a dashing young naval commando and moralistic hero archetype, but he's also a raging Male Chauvinist Pig. From first dismissing his fiancee's fears of a stalker as a foible of women's overworked imaginations to then telling her she should feel flattered at being the object of a creep's affections to finally deciding Kiran is in legitimate danger, leading him to make the bone-headed decision to tackle the problem himself instead of calling the police, Sunil could be a poster-boy for the failings of men in general, and desi dudes in particular.
And finally, where there's a dude, there's also a damsel in distress and unfortunately, the writers reduce Kiran to a painfully stereotypical wo-manifestation of the trope. While the film makes sure you're privy to the thoughts and emotions of Rahul, Sunil, Rahul's dad and even the damn psychiatrist (all the men basically), all one really gets to know about Kiran is that she's a bubbly young woman who loves her man as well as her family, and, well, that's about it. Throughout the film, Kiran has basically only two emotional cues: either happy and in love or terrified out of her mind. Given that the film is about the fear of a woman, subject to ceaseless harassment and unwanted attention (in NO way an anomaly in this country), it's ironic that the woman herself is just reductive caricature of 'the gentler sex'. Actually, it's kind of scary.
As I said, the film's got issues.