An exceptional soundtrack, featuring songs performed by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and other great singers, adds flavor to this Bollywood stew, which tells the somewhat true story of a simple soldier-farmer who transcended the sectarian violence of partition-era India. Big sweep, an attractive cast and many beautiful settings give “Martyr-in-Love, Boota Singh” a bit of edge away from home, but it’s hard to imagine its two-plus messy hours being genuinely loved outside the world of festivals and Punjabi-lingo vid stores.
Wrongly punctuated title doubly errs, since this bighearted Sikh was a martyr to love, not some doomed prophet or agitator who also happened to have a primary relationship. The man in question (played by Gurdas Mann) returns from World War II to find his small farm in disrepair. He’s also considered too old to marry, or at least that’s what his venal uncle insists — especially because he’s hoping to inherit the plot himself. (The man’s need for this scrap of land is made to bear an awful lot of narrative weight throughout the endless tale.)
Fate takes an active hand when India and Pakistan split and Boota saves a Muslim girl from a rowdy gang that has cornered her on his property. Zainab (Divya Dutta) is a teenage beauty with nowhere else to go, so she stays with Boota, refurbishing his farmhouse and his soul. They fall in love, with the blessing of the community, and have a much-loved baby girl, although for some reason the locals turn on Zainab when a new repatriation law is put through. The uncle, literally twirling his mustache in a shock-zoom close-up, arranges for the police to pick her up while Boota is away, and the bereft husband spends years traveling to Delhi and then deep into Pakistan, trying to get her back.
“Those who are martyred in love rise above religion,” one turbaned follower explains at the start, so you know things will end in tears. Along the way, though, there’s plenty of time, especially in the second half, for reverb-drenched songs in the fields, temples and everywhere else. The music is quite exciting, but it doesn’t exactly fit with the gritty violence of the riot scenes early on, or with the broad humor provided by Boota’s retarded buddy (the usual village idiot), who can think only about eating sweets, even when Sikh extremists are running their sabers through him.
Tech credits, except for some bad edits and harsh dubbing, are quite impressive. Acting is good, if hammy, in the Indian tradition. Pic’s English-lingo subtitles are amusingly off-center: When one devotee is told his Sikh buddies can bury Singh in a sacred Muslim cemetery in Lahore, he responds, “Thank you. We almost made a grave mistake.” Indeed they did.