Film Review: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Smart, colorful and well-acted Bollywood romantic comedy succumbs to sentimental wish-fulfillment toward the end, but could still teach Hollywood rom-coms a thing or two.

With a roughly 150-theatre U.S. opening, according to the distributor—making this perhaps the widest Bollywood release in North America so far—this romantic-comedy musical of a mismatched couple may be no Barefoot in the Park, but it's smarter and more self-aware of its rom-com contrivances than most Hollywood movies, and works harder to give its wacky antics a bit more believable justification. Rolling along with humor and heart, and one spectacular musical number, it unfortunately succumbs to a deus ex machina ending. Then again, it is titled Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (literal translation: "A Couple Made by God,” marketing translation "God Bless This Couple"), so you can't say you weren't forewarned.

Subcontinental superstar Shahrukh Khan, successfully managing to pull off a character at least a decade younger than his own 43 years, plays Surinder Sahni, a cubicle drone in the northern India city of Amritsar. Bespectacled and with a bad haircut and old-fashioned mustache, Suri isn't so much a nerd—no Star Wars figures adorn his apartment—than simply a shy, decent introvert. With no apparent family, his father-figure is one of his old college professors (M.K. Raina), who for years has bragged about his star pupil—mostly to daughter Taani (newcomer Anushka Sharma, a Bangalore-born Elite model with a Kate Hudson cuteness). When Taani's fiancé gets killed in an accident en route to their wedding, leading dad to a heart attack, the professor elicits a death-bed promise that Taani will marry Suri.

Taani, more a traditionalist than not, reluctantly agrees, and though she doesn't love Suri, tries to be a dutiful wife—at least in the kitchen. Suri, though smitten, won't press her about the bedroom, and spends his nights in an attic studio. When Taani asks to join a dance class and competition called "Dancing Jodi"—sort of a touring “So You Think You Can Dance”—Suri's happy to let her. And in the obligatory wacky rom-com plan, he decides to join as well, as "Raj"—a clean-shaven, mousse-haired, sunglasses-wearing "cool guy," or at least Suri's movie-based idea of a cool guy, which is anything but. Helping him is his gay-in-everything-but-the-word buddy Balwinder "Bobby" Khosla (Vinay Pathak), a hair-salon owner.

You can more or less write it from here, but in this case the predictability actually works in the movie's favor, since it lets you concentrate on the lead actors' terrific timing and endearing chemistry. Sharma, in her first film, makes deft use of stillness, allowing whispers of expression to waft across her face. She plays both possibilities at once—that she's unaware Raj is Suri and, more satisfyingly, that she knows it's him the whole time but wants to indulge her curiosity, alleviate her boredom and see where this will lead. And though the movie's cleverness eventually devolves into a simplistic Harlequin-Romance-for-males wish-fulfillment about beauty and the geek, it's a very well-acted variation on a Hollywood staple.

Even more so is the one outstanding musical number amid a half-dozen so-so ones. The song "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" ("We’ll Meet Again as Time Goes By") gets a full-out treatment paying impeccable homage to Busby Berkeley, MGM's Arthur Freed Unit, Vincente Minnelli musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and some candy-colored 1960s hippies-meet-Carnaby Street something. Topping it off, each change in sequence includes a famous Bollywood beauty: Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukerji and Kajol Devgan. Despite some mid-movie sag and a lack of subplots, God bless this couple of hours.