True love happens only once in a lifetime, we are told. Fortunately in a country with at least two religions that believe in rebirth, unfulfilled desires and incomplete unions in one lifetime can easily be addressed in the next.
The July 9 release Raabta goes over well-shod territory, tracing the interrupted romance between the leads (Sushant Singh Rajput and Kriti Sanon) that carries over from ancient times to the present. Dinesh Vijan’s directorial debut has been in the news for ripping off the Telugu blockbuster Magadheera (2009) – a charge that Vijan has denied, correctly arguing that no Indian filmmaker can claim ownership over an idea that has yielded numerous films across languages.
All reincarnation films are arguably the same. They follow lovers separated by inimical forces and reunited in their next births, usually alerted to the other’s presence by a totemic song or object (a painting or a keepsake) or sudden and unprovoked flashbacks. The memories of the previous lives conveniently unfold in perfectly linear cinema-ready sequences. Several films open with a Voice-of-God narration that reminds viewers to suspend rationality. Nearly all movies contain such fateful dialogue as, “Our bodies can die, but our love never can”, “I will be waiting for you”, and the giveaway line, “I have been here before”.
In Prem (1995), for instance, the title song declares that the love between the leads (Tabu and Sanjay Kapoor) is as old as the sky and the earth. In Subba Rao’s Mooga Manasulu (1964), remade in Hindi as Milan (1967) and in Tamil as Praptam (1971), features a newly-wed couple realises that they were lovers in the previous birth when they visit a graveyard.
In Shakti Samanta’s Mehbooba (1976), pop singer Suraj (Rajesh Khanna) meets the ghost of his lover Ratna (Hema Malini), who reminds Suraj of the time when he was a court singer and she was the dancer he loved. Their interrupted romance continues in the new birth when Suraj meets a Ratna lookalike. The mournful title song haunts the soundtrack as well as Suraj’s dreams.
Mnemonics are key to the reincarnation movie, often represented in older productions by a wall painting that draws the characters into its secrets. Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) is better described as the story of tragic obsession and possession than one of the earliest examples of reincarnation in Indian cinema, but it popularised Gothic elements such as the spooky abandoned mansion, the mesmerising painting and seemingly alive furniture, the doubling of characters, and the sense of uncanny that complicates the straightforward love story.
Reincarnation films don’t just allow love to linger through the ages, but also make amends for delayed justice. The template-creating Madhumati (1958), one of Bimal Roy’s best-known films, marries romance and revenge. Written by Ritwick Ghatak and borrowing an idea or two from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Madhumati is the urtext for subsequent films in the genre. It begins when Devendra (Dilip Kumar) takes shelter with a friend in a sprawling mansion and finds his likeness on the wall. Devendra’s flashback reveals the love between Anand (Kumar) for Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala), which was thwarted by the evil Ugranarayan (Pran). A lookalike of Madhumati in the previous life helps send Ugranarayan to the hell where he belongs. In the present birth, Devendra is reunited with his wife (Vyjayanthimala yet again).
Farah Khan’s reincarnation drama Om Shanti Om (2007), starring Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, lifted its entire climax from Madhumati¸ but it cannot match the power and simple beauty of the original.
The reincarnation-for-the-sole-purpose-of-revenge idea has been fruitfully tackled in Subhash Ghai’s Karz (1980) and Rakesh Roshan’s Karan Arjun ((1995). In Karz, based on the American film The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), pop star Monty (Rishi Kapoor) has a nervous breakdown while playing a tune on his guitar. A medical test helps Monty relive his past life as Ravi (Raj Kiran), a wealthy man who was tricked into marriage and murdered for his wealth by Kamini (Simi Garewal). Monty inveigles himself into Kamini’s life and, channeling both Hamlet and Madhumati, recreates the circumstances of Ravi’s death. Kamini dies in the same manner in which she killed Ravi, proving that justice delayed isn’t always justice denied.
Vengeance also motivates the brothers from Karan Arjun, one of Rakesh Roshan’s most well-cooked potboilers. After a series of nightmares, Vijay (Shah Rukh Khan) realises that he is the reincarnation of Arjun, the son of Durga (Raakhee) and the brother of Karan (Salman Khan). The sons return to Durga’s village to kill the perpetrator Durjan (Amrish Puri). Karan initially doesn’t share Arjun’s visions, but a familiar visual jogs his memory – the killers advancing with swords.
Vendetta propels SS Rajamouli’s Magadheera, a bloodthirsty drama about star-crossed lovers separated by an evil relative and reunited through the magic of touch. Magadheera anticipates the director’s Baahubali blockbusters. It is set in the present and in an ancient kingdom spilling over with noble warriors and proud princesses. Nearly everybody is reborn, from the conqueror who witnesses the unjust deaths of Kala Bhairava (Ram Charan) and Mithravinda (Kajal Aggarwal) to the white horse that canters through both lifetimes.
Magadheera compensates for its sketchy plot by staging spectacular action sequences, but it does little to challenge the orthodoxies of the reincarnation film. The overall lack of imagination in tackling the rebirth template has ossified a potentially fascinating genre. It’s rare for a reincarnation drama to suggest that a relationship in a previous birth doesn’t have the same charm in the present one, or that vendetta isn’t the only reason for being reborn. There is no scope for a what-if in this most convention-bound of storytelling categories, no opportunity to rebel against its rules, and no freedom to rethink previous choices. What if a man were to be reborn a woman? What if sexual preferences have changed?
Ram Maheshwari’s Neelkamal (1968) marks a mild departure in the genre. Shot in gorgeously expressionist colours and lighting by the legendary Fali Mistry, Neelkamal is about the titular princess (Waheeda Rehman) who is the muse of the court sculptor Chitrasen (Raaj Kumar). In her new birth, Neelkamal is Sita, the distracted wife of Ram (Manoj Kumar), who is inexorably drawn to Chitrasen’s abandoned studio, where she discovers a statue that resembles her. Sita abandons her wifely duties and sleepwalks to the studio every night where she confabultes with Chitrasen’s ghost, who is intent on liberating her from her corporeal state. It ends as expected, but not before flirting with the idea that Sita is better served by Chitrasen’s ardour than by Ram’s dutiful ministrations.
For the reincarnation genre to survive, it needs to embrace the deeply restrictive idea that first love, like caste, can never be overcome. Raabta, which means connection, isn’t the film for a dramatic reimagining. Its characters are condemned to repeat the past. True love often happens more than once in a lifetime, and if there is any genre well-suited to the idea of second chances, it is the reincarnation genre. If we actually believe that people can be reborn, they must be allowed to choose new partners and new destinies for themselves.