After playing a human version of the god Hanuman in Bajrangi Bhaijaan earlier this year, Salman Khan returns as an avatar of Lord Ram in Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. The title has been inspired by the Hindu prayer Payoji Maine Ram Ratan Dhan Payo, and the whole movie genuflects before the powers of the screen god who holds every character big and insignificant in thrall. Barjatya made Salman Khan a star with Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989, and 26 years later, Khan has clearly outgrown his mentor. He is in nearly every frame of the movie, and nothing works in his absence.
Khan plays Prem, a Ramlila performer from Ayodhya who is the spitting image of Vijay Singh, the duty-bound and humourless prince of the fictitious kingdom Pritampur. Vijay Singh is at war with his step-brother Ajay (Neil Nitin Mukesh) and step-sisters Chandrika (Swara Bhaskar) and Radhika (Aashika Bhatia), and as the date for his crowning as Pritampur’s king approaches, his heart grows heavy. Is that the reason he chooses such an antiquated mode of transport as a horse-drawn carriage?
Vijay is removed from the scene by an accident engineered by Ajay and his co-conspirator Chirag (Armaan Kohli), followed by the chance spotting of Prem at a marketplace by the prince’s loyalists. The commoner takes the place of the royal, and the movie moves into Bawarchi mode. Prem starts correcting Vijay’s minor wrongs and wins the heart of his reluctant fiancé, the princess Maithili (Sonam Kapoor). Aided by the faithful family retainer known only as Bapu (Anupam Kher), Prem emerges as the maryada purush, or idealised Hindu male, that Vijay should have been.
Barjatya’s latest overcooked family opus is dipped in the same batter of clarified butter and sugar from which emerged Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, Hum Saath Saath Hain and Vivah. The expected ingredients are all there -- the importance of the family unit, the emphasis on propriety and good public behaviour, the celebration of mercantile culture, the worship of wealth and social status, the assigned roles for men and women.
This is the fairy tale world of Disney movies, but with Indian touches. Rajshri films are to Indian cinema what Vicco Vajradanti is to the toothpaste industry – locally produced and proudly conservative – but the family-owned banner has been forced to acknowledge that popular taste has shifted since the mid-1990s. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo contains what might constitute radical alterations to the Rajshri template. Sonam Kapoor’s princess has the temerity to wear a strapless black dress and gets clingy and cuddly with Prem. Some of Prem’s dance moves fit right into the average Salman Khan movie, and his overall personality is a milder and more controlled version of the typical streetwise devil-may-care Salman Khan type rather than the polite and dutiful Rajshri hero.
The star swallows up the character whole, but it works in this case, since Prem Ratan Dhan Payo has nobody else in its sights. The characters of Sonam Kapoor and Anupam Kher are the most fleshed out in an otherwise sketchy narrative. Barjatya shows his hand while directing the tender family moments, but he doesn’t have any feel for thrillers. The conspiracy that replaces Vijay with Prem is mostly forgotten, and the real question is not whether or not Vijay will return, but who will walk away with the bride.
Sonam Kapoor is 20 years younger than Khan – she was four when Maine Pyar Kiya was released – and the age gap is painfully apparent in the numerous romantic moments. Yet, she doesn’t have a fourth of her senior’s energy. Salman Khan works harder at his twin roles than he has in recent movies, and he turns on the charm for the director who set him on his remarkable career. Prem Ratan Dhan Payo muddles through its 174 minutes, neither hitting the highs expected from such an expensive and high-profile project nor the lows that plague mid-career filmmakers. Like its intended audience, the movie sticks firmly in the middle.