Choreographer Farah Khan, who leapt to fame with her dance number atop a moving train in “Dil se” (From the Heart, 1999), makes a socko transition to the helming chair with “Main hoon na,” an all-stops-out masala movie without a minute of downtime across three hours. Fluidly mixing comedy, action, music, family drama and youth appeal, yarn about an Indian commando who goes undercover in a Darjeeling college to foil a terrorist plot toplines megastar Shah Rukh Khan at his most relaxed. Big budget production looked to reap hunky biz on release April 30, and should certainly feature in any offshore Bollywood slots.
In interviews, the two Khans (unrelated) have made no secret of their desire simply to make a full-on Hindi formula movie, reminiscent of ’70s pics. (One scene tips its hat directly to 1975 blockbuster “Sholay,” still regarded as the peak of that era.) It’s certainly the best production yet from Shah Rukh Khan’s own company, Red Chillies Entertainment, with his wife, Gauri, producing. Every element is worked to the max, but Farah Khan, who also choreographed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Bombay Dreams,” brings a lightness of touch and gentle irony to the proceedings that make the formulaic elements shine anew.
Opening two reels set up the basic dynamics, as India, in a goodwill gesture toward its longstanding enemy, plans to release 50 Pakistani prisoners on Independence Day, Aug. 15. However, the scheme, dubbed Project Milaap (Unity), is threatened by masked terrorist Raghavan (Suniel Shetty), a rabid Indian nationalist. He storms a TV chat show, kills an army brigadier (Naseeruddin Shah) and threatens to kidnap Sanjana (Amrita Rao), estranged daughter of Project Milaap’s commanding officer, Gen. Bakshi (vet Kabir Bedi).
Bakshi asks commando Ram Sharma (Shah Rukh Khan), son of the dead brigadier, to protect Sanjana by enrolling incognito as a student at her exclusive college in the Himalayan foothills. Ram finally accepts the mission when he hears his mom, Madhu (Kirron Kher) and half-brother Lakshman (Zayed Khan), whom he hasn’t seen for 20 years, are in Darjeeling. Ram’s dying father had made him promise to reunite the family.
First song-and-dance number, some 20 minutes into the movie, is an invigorating Bollywood version of “Summer Nights” from “Grease,” as it intros Sanjana and Lakshman. Former turns out to be a punky tomboy who carries a torch for the latter, a longhaired biker layabout with looks like an Indian Tom Cruise and the nickname Lucky. Subsequent reels, spiced with student-teacher comedy, center on the square-looking Ram being accepted by the two juves, especially when Ram saves Lucky’s life in a college dare.
As the story ping-pongs back and forth between college life and Raghavan’s plan to terrorize Sanjana — with an auto chase worthy of a Jackie Chan movie — script stirs in a romantic element for Ram, who falls hopelessly for a glamorous chemistry prof, Chandni (former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen). Prior to intermission, helmer Khan wheels out a jaw-dropping fantasy number between the two, played with more than a touch of irony.
Part II further ups the choreographic stakes with a rhythmic, five-minute number, in traditional Indian style, that features a now-glammed-up Sanjana attracting Lucky’s attention. (More shades of “Grease” again.) And as Raghavan plans a final terrorist outrage at the school, helmer Khan caps even that number with a Prom Night dance (men in black, women in red) that magimixes ’50s rock ‘n’ roll with elements from “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity.”
Pic’s sheer invention, which extends to an end-title number showcasing the whole cast and crew, makes the whole masala enormously likable, as much for its tongue-in-cheek flavor as for its formulaic construction. Only in one late plot development, as Raghavan himself goes undercover at the college, does the script overstep its own boundaries of believability.
Otherwise, the blend of running jokes and student-teacher antics blends surprisingly easily with the serious action sequences, latter jazzed up with smooth “Matrix”-like effects. Moments of family drama in Part II aren’t allowed to bog down the film’s momentum.
Shah Rukh Khan, looking far more relaxed than in “Chalte chalte,” brings a quizzical, self-mocking charm to the role of Ram, and newcomers Zayed Khan and Rao are fine as the juveniles. Sen brings a light touch to the school glamorpuss and Shetty, last seen as a patriotic soldier in “LOC: Kargil,” makes a worthy villain, especially in his final mano a mano with Khan. Tech credits are rich, with every rupee up on the screen. Hindi title means “I’m There for You.”