Six yarns of love, infatuation, longing and desire twist and turn across two continents and over 3½ hours in epic dramedy “Salaam-e-Ishq,” which raises the Bollywood bar in a single stroke. Think “Love Actually” (Urdu title means “Hail, Love”) but on a much larger emotional and physical canvas, and you’re halfway there — even without the catchy musical numbers. Strongly cast pic opened well in Indian plexes and overseas, though its extreme length (only a few minutes shy of “Lagaan”) and general air of urbanized sophistication could hinder it in the long run with mass auds.
Director Nikhil Advani was schooled under helmer Karan Johar (“Kabhi khushi kabhie gham … “) in slick, New Age Bollywood masalas, and repays his debt here with a running gag about Johar. “Salaam” is sometimes too knowing in its show-off editing and use of visual f/x and dateline intertitles but, as in his impressive, Gotham-set “Kal ho naa ho” (2003), Advani has a talent for drawing out performances that, at the end of the day, carry the emotions.
Six stories are intercut, with multiscreen sections occasionally reminding the audience where each is at. It’s an extremely elaborate juggling act over such a long span, and one of the pic’s triumphs is that it manages to bring all the different strands satisfyingly to a boil in the final reels, as well as interlocking most of them together.
Stories mostly hinge on crises in relationships that are sorted out in some way. Though it takes a while to click, one of the best vignettes centers on Raju (Govinda), a cab driver at New Delhi airport who fantasizes about his blonde dream girl coming out the doors one day. When she does, it turns out to be Stephanie (South African thesp Shannon Esrechowitz), a hard-assed Canadian who ends up going with him on an epic journey to Udaipur to track down her errant Indian b.f.
With each hardly speaking the other’s language, a lot of the comedy and dialogue spins on verbal snafus in the early stages. But as mutual understanding blooms, the relationship (well played by both actors) morphs into a surprisingly touching interracial love story that forms the backbone of the whole movie.
With popular comic Govinda as the cabbie, strand is clearly designed to appeal to less sophisticated Indian auds — as is the least developed story, a comic tale of a horny groom (Sohail Khan) who keeps getting stymied from getting it on with his bride (Isha Koppikar). Story does, however, provide the movie with a witty capper.
Flashiest tale is that between birdbrain Bollywood actress Kkamini (Priyanka Chopra), who wants to change her image, and self-confident opportunist Rahul (Salman Khan), who takes advantage of the fact. Both thesps have conspicuous fun sending up their own images and show terrific onscreen chemistry. Relationship also provides pic with its biggest musical set pieces, including one jaw-dropping eight-minute number prior to the intermission.
As it fans out to include all the other stories, set piece equals the “Say Shava Shava” birthday number in “Kabhi khushi kabhie gham … ” as a breathtaking demo of Bollywood musical-dramatic staging at its best.
Equally good chemistry propels the yarn between confirmed ladies’ man Shiven (Akshaye Khanna, in fine comedic form) and the bride, Gia (Ayesha Takia), he’s having major doubts about marrying. Strand in some ways complements the more serious one between Ashutosh (John Abraham) and his Muslim wife, Tehzeeb (Vidya Balan), whose love is tested when TV journo Tehzeeb goes missing in a train crash.
Linking many of the tales together, however, is middle-aged, London-based PR manager Vinay (Anil Kapoor), married with kids to devoted Seema (Juhi Chawla, very good), who falls for a beautiful young dance teacher, Anjali (Anjana Sukhani). Pic’s basically conservative, middle-class values come to the fore here, but also provide some of the meatiest dramatic scenes.
Production values are top-drawer on all levels, and during part two, as the stories develop some emotional depth, Advani thankfully eases up on the visual trickery.