The answer to the observer's question is "yes." Bollywood cinema has been cultishly popular here for the past few years, due in part to the tremendous verve of its best product -- a verve Veer-Zaara shares. The industry's entertain-at-all-costs spirit conjures up primal memories of the golden age of Hollywood, films we love now even though we recognize the ways in which they were hedged in by absurd censorship codes and taboo topics.
While Veer-Zaara seems like something that could have sprung fully grown from the head of Louis B. Mayer in 1936, perhaps co-starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy instead of Indian superstars Preity Zinta and Shahrukh Kahn (the "gods" in question), it's actually much more sophisticated than most Hollywood fare of that era. While mainstream Indian cinema does indeed have its rigid prohibitions, faithfully observed here -- such as no kissing -- the film's third major character is a feminist lawyer, and the picture bluntly addresses the half-century divide between India and Pakistan.
As Veer-Zaara opens, its hero, former Indian Air Force officer Veer Pratap Singh (Khan), is an aged, stooped prisoner in a Pakistani jail who hasn't spoken since his incarceration some 22 years earlier. Novice attorney Saamiya Siddiqui (Rani Mukerji) is handed his case, her first challenge being simply to get him to talk.
Once lured into speech by Saamiya's mother's Indian cooking, Veer doesn't stop talking for the next two hours of screen time, narrating the romantic saga of how he met the lovely Zaara Hayaat Khan (Zinta), a feisty Pakistani on a day trip to India to "immerse the ashes" of a beloved maid. Many perils, spills, joy rides, helicopter panoramas, and patriotic musical numbers -- like "Oh, My Beautiful Land" (a pastoral hide-and-seek of farmers and colorful cloth) -- follow.
Veer's imprisonment, explained and resolved in the movie's much more somber last hour, has more to do with preserving Zaara's honor than with the Indian-Pakistani conflict that underlies the story. A daughter of Pakistan's elite, Zaara is condemned to a loveless arranged marriage -- at least until Veer intervenes.
Stars Kahn and Zinta have played similar roles in many other productions. While Kahn has quite a following in India (and drew audible sighs from the local press-screening audience), to this viewer he suggests a smoldering Ray Romano -- more likable than charismatic. Zinta, as the pretty heroine, is another story, initially a bouncy ingénue of almost unhinged perkiness, but maturing as the story rolls on into a believable romantic lead. Twenty-two years in prison for her? Er, OK.
Chopra, born in 1932, has been active in Indian studio films since the 1950s, and Bollywood Web sites credit him with several genre classics. He's a good director: His command of color, beautifully rather than garishly deployed, suggests (speaking of MGM) the Vincente Minnelli of Meet Me in St. Louis or The Pirate. Like the best studio filmmakers, Chopra has a great sense of screen movement and pace. As long as the movie is, it never leaves you bored. Minnelli was the one MGM director who had permission to use the studio's crane whenever he pleased; like him, Chopra lifts and spins his camera around on a crane freely, to good effect in the musical numbers and to tremendous dramatic effect when Veer breaks into Zaara's wedding rehearsal.
Whether Bollywood has it in itself to ever produce musicals or melodramas as provocative and socially critical as Old Hollywood's best, Veer-Zaara reminds us why a Meet Me in St. Louis (or a Casablanca or an It's a Wonderful Life) still work, and why the secret of effective mass entertainment seems lost in today's Hollywood. As thought-out and consciously planned as it evidently is, Veer-Zaara seems utterly sincere in both intention and result.
It's also pretty progressive. While all the film's Indians are good and all of its villains Pakistani, both of its heroines are Muslim, and the story subtly puts down extreme Hindu nationalism. As one lover says to the other, "Why does your country feel like mine?" Chopra endorses a pan-South Asian patriotism that extends across the whole subcontinent.
The movie's other progressive stance is a practical feminism that embraces both Veer's attorney and the feisty challenges his aunt and Zaara make to his patriarchal uncle. And while Saamiya's dedication is attributed to her father's example, she's still shown challenging Pakistan's all-male legal establishment.
But what really makes Veer-Zaara work is its pervasive sense of loss. Even after a happy ending has unfolded, a real sadness hangs over the theater. We feel all of Veer's 22 lost years. There's nothing ironic or knowing about the film in the slightest, and that, more than the three hours plus of entertainment it offers, may be its biggest achievement.