English Babu Desi Mem


Director: Praveen Nischol
Music: Nikhil-Vijay
Year: 1996
Running Time: 160 minutes

It started in Bombay. Similar in theme and content to the 1960 American film, It Started in Naples, which starred Clark Gable and Sophia Loren, this film too successfully mixes elements of drama, comedy and romance to create an enjoyable film whose outcome never really seems in doubt. Of course Sophia didn’t have to dance up a tropical storm like Sonali Bendre does here (though it certainly would have been great fun watching Ms. Loren do so!) and Clark Gable didn’t have to take on various ruffians in a whirlwind of kicks, as does Shahrukh Khan.

Though Shahrukh in an early role for him brings some easy charm to his broad role, the weight of the film rests squarely on the slender shoulders of Sonali. She scorches the night skyline with a series of leggy and sensual dances that jump start your pulse, while at the same time she manages to capture both the innocent and the harder edge of her character in the narrative. Her character may feel a bit unrealistic – nurturing traditional mother in the daytime, sizzling cabaret dancer at night – but the emotional range that this disparity allows and that Sonali eats up like a midnight snack is the heart of the film.
Shahrukh is a proper English gentleman – fifth generation Englishman to be precise – not an Indian as he points out snootily  - so much so that one expects him to break out in Gilbert and Sullivan rather than Hindi tunes. A business problem drags him reluctantly to India where he discovers through Saeed Jaffrey that he has a nephew in India. Apparently his brother (also played by Shahrukh) had years before escaped from an arranged marriage in England and fled to India where he fell in love, married and had a child before both he and his wife died in an accident. The boy (Sunny Singh) was then brought up by his aunt (who was eight years old at the time!) who earned money for them both by dancing on the streets for spare change.
Now all grown up into Sonali, she is the star attraction at the local beer bar in her small town. No ordinary beer bar is this though – nightly shows go on that would put Broadway to shame with it’s huge cast, resplendent sets and intricate ensemble dance numbers. The fact that the cast seems to greatly outnumber the patrons or that they in fact seem to outnumber the population of the small town is not something to dwell on – just enjoy the music. Sonali’s initial attempt to pass herself off as a princess with a sari that "accidentally" keeps slipping to show her cleavage collapses when Shahrukh wanders into her workplace to quench his thirst and comes face to face with her during a particularly steamy number.
Instead of dropping to his knees and declaring his love like any normal man would do, he instead assumes she is lacking in moral character and decides to take legal action to take the boy back to England and give him his deserved status in life. Of course in reality Sonali is as virginal as the Alaska wilderness (well before pipelines anyway) and she fights to keep her son and her honor. On top of this there is a sub-plot about some villain desiring to have Sonali – but this part feels badly out of place and adds unneeded action and melodrama to an otherwise touching film. Sonali's hip movments are all the action this film needs.
The musical numbers are really the best part of this film. Among the eight songs performed six of them are excellent with Sonali taking the stage in lovely fashion for four cabaret type numbers that are great fun and wonderfully choreographed. My favorite has to be the fifth song – “Come on Baby” in which Sonali begins in red top hat, then switches to a growling Sheena of the Jungle look and then eases into being an Arab harem fashion plate  - all while singing:

Love me Honey Honey
Love me Sweet
Kiss me Honey Honey
Kiss me Sweet

They just don’t write lyrics like that any more.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Song 1

Song 2