Vet producer-director Yash Chopra returns to the helm with "Veer-Zaara," a full-bore, traditional <I>masala</I>-meller with a contempo slant. Tale of a stymied, Indo-Pak love affair doesn't rely on the jingoism found in some recent Bollywood actioners, and largely allows its liberal message to emerge from the strong characterizations.

Seven years after the smash “Dil to pagal hai,” vet producer-director Yash Chopra returns to the helm with “Veer-Zaara,” a full-bore, traditional masala-meller with a contempo slant. Tale of a stymied, Indo-Pak love affair doesn’t rely on the jingoism found in some recent Bollywood actioners, and largely allows its liberal message to emerge from the strong characterizations. Though it doesn’t quite match recent classics like “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham” in sheer technique and production sheen, in-depth star casting and thorough entertainment values make this a must-see for Bollywatchers.

Much-heralded pic opened worldwide Nov. 12 on some 900 prints (600 of them in India), and has already scored hefty biz. Helped by star Shah Rukh Khan’s strong appeal to overseas Indian auds, first weekend tally in the U.K., on 60 prints, was $895,000 (slightly higher than “K3G”), and in the U.S., on 88 prints, $900,000 (slightly lower). In India, where advance bookings have been heavy, and soundtrack sales already topped 1 million units, film looks likely to run and run.

First half is fairly straightforward fare, as ex-Indian Air Force officer Veer Pratap Singh (Khan), who’s been rotting in a Pakistani jail for 22 years, unburdens his memories to rookie human-rights lawyer Saamiya Siddiqui (Rani Mukerji). She’s a Pakistani taking up his case as part of cross-border detente.

Back in the early ’80s, Veer met rich Pakistani Zaara Hayaat Khan (Preity Zinta) when her bus crashed on the way to disposing of the ashes of her Indian wet-nurse (Zohra Segal) in the latter’s hometown. Taking her back to his Punjabi village for a traditional Lodi hoe-down — an exhilaratingly staged ensemble set piece — Veer falls for Zaara, and she’s welcomed by his broadminded uncle and aunt (vets Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, in light mood).

Alas, at the train station on her way home, Zaara turns out to have a fiance, the humorless Raza (Manoj Bajpai), who’s come looking for her. The putative lovers are torn apart.

Meat of the drama comes post-intermission, as Veer is secretly contacted by Zaara’s maid, Shabbo (Divya Dutta), and urged to rescue Zaara from her forthcoming marriage. When Veer turns up at a Lahore temple and the sweethearts embrace, Raza takes a terrible revenge that ends in Veer’s incarceration. Back in the present, amid several twists, Saamiya has to fight his case against a government lawyer (Anupam Kher) who’s never lost.

Zinta, the most interesting young actress of her generation, is her usual lively self as the willful Zaara, and she’s balanced on the distaff side by a quietly dignified perf from Mukerji as the Pakistani lawyer, who also has something of her own to prove. As Veer, Khan fills the screen with his likable presence as always, but lacks the gravitas to elevate the Veer-Zaara love story into the timeless Romeo & Juliet yarn to which pic aspires.

Still, the rest of the large cast is aces, from Kiron Kher as Zaara’s understanding mom to Dutta as her devoted maid. Production design is lavish without overwhelming the characters, with the Pakistani element providing a fresh look. Editing is trim and agile, and visual effects in the final number (morphing between the leads, young and old) are impressively smooth, though colors in the exterior shots had a slightly washed-out look in print caught.

As a point of interest, song score derives from an unused bank of tunes written by the late Madan Mohan, a hitmeister of the ’50s to ’70s, “recreated” by Sanjeev Kohli. While not instantly hummable, they do the job effectively.

Veer-Zaara

India

Production

A Yash Raj Films release of a Yash Raj Films production. (International sales: Yash Raj, Mumbai.) Produced by Yash Chopra, Aditya Chopra. Directed by Yash Chopra. Screenplay, Aditya Chopra.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Anil Mehta; editor, Ritesh Soni; background music, R.S. Mani; song music, Madan Mohan, arranged by Sanjeev Kohli; lyrics, Javed Akhtar; art director, Sharmishta Roy; costume designer, Manish Malhotra, Mandira Shukla; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Anup Dev; sound designer, Anuj Mathur; choreography, Saroj Khan, Vaibhavi Merchant; action director, Allan Amin; special visual effects, Tata Elxsi; associate producers, Pamela Chopra, Uday Chopra, Prayal Chopra; assistant director, Aditi Makin; casting, Sudesh Mahan. Reviewed at Odeon Wimbledon 11, London, Nov. 16, 2004. Running time: 193 MIN. (I: 92 MIN.; II: 101 MIN.)

With

Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Kiron Kher, Divya Dutta, Boman Irani, Anupam Kher, Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Manoj Bajpai, Zohra Segal, Akhilendra Mishra. (Hindi, Punjabi dialogue)

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