When watching Yash Chopra’s Darr, a quote from film critic Daniel Kasman regarding Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night constantly came to mind:
“we see two great kinds of love, both obsessive: the transcendental which will sacrifice itself for the love, and the destructive, which will sacrifice anything else for that love.”
The first musical number tells us everything: starting with a creepy scene of voyeurism where Juhi Chawla’s character, Kiran, almost disrobes to the song’s lyrics coyly suggesting that regardless of her consent, Kiran will be his. Darr doesn’t start in the realm of pure romantic love; instead it begins with a love that has morphed into a dangerous obsession. The imagery of this number is all subterfuge: Kiran believes she’s being serenaded by her lover and rushes toward him carelessly, her trek through a tree-lined path and empty hallways perhaps leading toward her doom.
Known primarily for being the film that launched Shahrukh Khan to stardom, Darr is a fascinating film that anticipates but also complicates his screen persona of the next two decades. The film tells the story of Kiran and Sunil (Sunny Deol), a young couple who are engaged to be married. He’s a badass navy guy who, in the film’s most incongruous scene, wipes out a boatful of baddies in a hostage rescue mission (by himself!). Kiran is home from school and just happy to stay at her brother’s house and just wait for life to be wonderful. And then there’s Rahul (Khan). Ostensibly a supporting performance, there’s not a moment in the film where his presence isn’t felt; the characters may not be thinking about him, but the audience is always aware of the danger lurking near. The film then turns toward a stalker narrative where Rahul harasses and tries to sabotage Kiran and Sunil’s relationship, while trying to tell her how much he loves her.
But, although there’s definitely moments of interest regarding that setup, I remained more invested in how the film takes the elements that would fuel SRK’s later Yash Raj films, and shows the flip side. The Swiss alps that Chopra loves so much and that show up continuously in the 90’s Yash Raj vehicles are perverted here. Although they act as fantasy in those films, too, here they are converted into Rahul’s demented vision of happiness. When he finally is able to hold Kiran in his arms in a platonic and friendly dance, he denies the reality of it, and imposes another narrative on top of it (which looks exactly the same as other films). In those other Yash Raj films, the fantasy aspect of it is shared between the characters, as their love for each other eliminated their physical reality and placed them into a higher plane (Kiran and Sunil have their own rendezvous in the alps in the film as well). Darr allows Rahul not only to hijack its narrative, but to reshape it in the way he would like it to be.
By committing so fully to showing Rahul’s mania and obsession to wreak havoc upon its narrative, Darr truly becomes disturbing at points. Moments that should be celebratory and beautiful become rife with tension. The Holi celebration, a staple of the Hindi language cinema, takes on an element of danger, as Rahul inserts himself into it, participating in its rituals. As he witnesses the flirtation between Kiran and Sunil, his beating of the drum become more and more desperate. The scene takes on two different meanings: we’re watching the movie this could be if Rahul weren’t present, and also waiting for the shoe to drop as it were – we wait for Rahul to make the scene about himself. His action in the scene, mirroring the song’s lyrics (“douse the colors on me my love”), are another perversion of the traditions of the Bollywood narrative (the Holi powder could be standing in for his blood).
The ultimate tension at the heart of the film, and the reason why it’s so powerful, is because you can feel its characters trying desperately to live another happier story, but Rahul resists all their attempts and drags them into his personal hell, turning this into a completely different and terrifying film.
Directed by Yash Chopra
Yash Raj Films