Yash Chopra’s Dil to Pagal Hai (1997) follows the time-honoured Hollywood formula of “Let’s put on a show”, complete with a classic love quadrangle and a leading lady who breaks her leg, making way for a new star to emerge and steal both the show and her director’s heart. At the same time, the movie is credited with introducing jazz dance to India, and ushered in a new era in Bollywood dance, with its corps of highly polished and impressively synchronised background dancers that has since become the norm.
Following a corny but really quite sweet opening credit sequence that more or less gives the ending away, the movie opens with a literal bang as Shah Rukh Khan cannons onto the stage in a burst of flames, landing squarely in the midst of the eye-popping, disco glam number Le Gayi.
Khan plays Rahul, a visionary director planning his next dance extravaganza. His loyal troupe of performers includes leading lady Nisha (Karisma Kapoor), who is not-so-secretly in love with Rahul, and who logically assumes that she will star in the new show. But Rahul has something else in mind, and no sooner does he describe this romantic ideal – an ethereal, unattainable beauty named Maya – than she strolls into his life in the flesh.
Pooja (Madhuri Dixit) is an aspiring dancer and hopeless romantic, who dresses in gauzy pastels, in sharp contrast to Nisha and the gang’s glittering metallic and day-glo ensembles. In a momentary lapse into pragmatism, she gets engaged to Ajay (Akshay Kumar), her adoring childhood friend, who lives in London and sends her letters in the form of long, chatty cassette tapes. (In one of the movie’s weirder interludes, he whisks her off on a day trip to an unnamed location “very near India” that appears to be a Tyrolean theme park).
Pooja and Rahul cross paths several times during the first hour of the movie, in a series of near-misses, but they only meet properly Nisha collapses mid-leap with a fractured heel that will take her out of commission for several months. Rahul resolves that the show must go on, and retreats to a nearby dance studio to search for a new actress to play Maya. There he finds Pooja, and a spirited jugalbandi ensues, with him on drums and her doing jazz inflected demi-kathak. After she leaves, he stares transfixed at the empty spotlight she leaves behind.
Rahul and Pooja’s mutual attraction is immediately obvious to everyone but themselves. The romance gains momentum when Pooja’s mentor (Aruna Irani, in a special appearance that leaves me wondering why none of my dance teachers ever led practice sessions outdoors on a grassy hillside) encourages her to follow her heart, adding the very sensible advice – perhaps unprecedented in a Hindi movie – that self-sacrifice is not the best course of action.
The script deploys a number of fake-outs and code switches – they were only acting! It was only a dream! After all, she is Maya! This works largely because the rehearsal scenes are inherently meta-theatrical anyway. In the song Arre Re Arre, Maya and alt-Rahul are swept away on a cloud of romance in a double exposure, while Pooja and real Rahul remain in the studio accompanied by a phalanx of neon spandex-clad background dancers, rehearsing and joking around like old pals. Rahul rewrites scenes of the play to suit his mood, and on more than one occasion, he appears to express his innermost thoughts and feelings, only for the camera to pan out and reveal that he is practicing his dialogue. This is mirrored in the film’s climax, when Pooja’s declaration of love for Rahul finally plays out onstage in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
Dil to Pagal Hai marked Shiamak Davar’s Bollywood debut, and won him a National Film Award. The choreography is ebullient, if not overly nuanced, and there are several memorable set pieces, including a ferocious dance battle between the two heroines. Karisma Kapoor is not a dancer, but she gives it her all, vogueing and flipping her hair with steely determination. Madhuri Dixit is effortlessly graceful, even when called upon to do the kind of jazz-aerobics that really should have stayed in the 1980s, with a few classical hastaks thrown in for good measure. Pitting them against each other in a dance-off is hardly a fair fight.
The best song of the movie, Koi Ladki Hai, is not even part of the show-within-a-show, but an exuberant celebration of the pure joy of dancing in the rain.