An arranged marriage stands between a poet (Amitabh Bachchan) and the love of his life (Raakhee).


A stylish, complex classic from Yash Chopra.

INDIAN FILM FESTIVAL OF MELBOURNE: Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie, originally released in 1976 and a box office hit in its day, is now considered a classic of Bollywood cinema. But when a colleague of Chopra’s first looked at this melodrama, a man invested in the process, he told the filmmaker (with apparently the utmost seriousness) that what they had on their hands was not a commercial story with great tunes, good acting, romance, action, lots of incident, and sex appeal but it was, in fact, an art film!

the film has a tortured, serious quality

Maybe it was the theme, which contemplates, with deadly earnestness, the cost and rewards of 'love’ in a plot that spans a generation. Here what love means is tested against duty and family obligations, which, of course, is conventional enough (and indeed is the very foundation of this kind of melodrama). But the truly intriguing thing about Kabhi Kabhie is that Chopra and co. send the storyline into the murky depths of complex, hard-to-pin-down emotions that in life (and in the movies) are rarely resolved in anything like a satisfactory way. Or to put it another way, the film has a tortured, serious quality that seemed to me to be not 'purely escapist’. Easy answers aren’t enough here, and its happy ending is sound, earned and bittersweet.

Still, that’s not to say Kabhi Kabhie is in any way radical. Indeed the script mobilises an arsenal of sturdy standard plot tropes to keep the action evolving. Just when you think the characters have escaped into a happy universe, something out of the past – like an illegitimate child, a lost romance – emerges to make it all go ugly for them. What’s so moving about the way this stuff is handled is that when people lie here it is a selfless act aimed to protect the one they love from harm.

The storyline is complex, but essentially it revolves around the fall-out from a doomed romance. Amit (Amitabh Bachchan), a poet, is in love with Pooja (Raakhee). Pooja, though, is promised, in an arranged marriage, to Vijay (Shashi Kapoor). An idealist, who holds love as something sacred, Amit is left disillusioned, his own words (which we hear sung) returning to haunt him: 'Sometimes, in my heart a feeling emerges/That it's like you have been created just for me/Before, you dwelled among the stars somewhere/And now, you have been called down to the earth just for me.’

Cut to years later: Pooja and Vijay now have an adult child Vikram (Rishi Kapoor). He falls in love with Pinky (Neetu Singh). Pinky turns out to be the daughter – born out of wedlock – to Amit’s wife, Anjali (Waheeda Rehman). This turn of events has Pooja and Amit reuniting; is their nostalgia for the love they once shared toxic, or will this reunion return their respective families – inspired by their idealism – to harmony?

Well, you can guess the answer to this set-up but getting to the point is actually harrowing and anguished and I found it rather moving. Still, Chopra has a lot of fun with a subplot where Vikram torments Amit and Anjali’s other daughter, Sweety (Nassem), with romantic overtures – much confusion, slapstick and double-talk follow before it finds its climax in a genuine heartbreak.

Viewed against the delightful excess of current Bollywood cinema, Kabhi Kabhie is bound to play as, well, restrained. Aside from the landing strip wide collars, side-burns and long hair, there are moments of visual stylisation that place the film in its historical moment that are anything but low key – whiplash flash edits, smash zooms, and a lot of slow pans across picturesque parks and snow-filled meadows. There is also a love here of 'fog’ (it crawls around the feet of the lovers in wispy clouds). This kind of 'visual atmosphere’ (a cliché of '60s and '70s advertising) will doubtless give rise to much derisive laughter these days but what I found disconcerting was the way it had me thinking of dry-ice and disco.

Of course, since there are so many moments in Kabhi Kabhie that are really wonderful it’s easy to dismiss anything that might appear 'dated’. I particularly loved the beat early on where, on her wedding night, Pooja reads the poetry of her spurned lover to her new husband. Oh, and the songs, now considered classics in the own right, are really terrific. This was Chopra’s second picture as a director and the first to establish him as a filmmaker who promised great things.