Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam stars Aishwarya Rai as Nandini, the entitled, vivacious daughter of a royal musician who falls in love with one of her father's students, Sameer, played by Salman Khan. Sameer is a half-Indian, half-Italian mischievous playboy, who falls in love with Nandini. But Nandini's father, Pundit, has already arranged Nandini's marriage to the quiet and reserved lawyer Vanraj. Following their marriage, the honorable Vanraj takes Nandini to India to reunite with her lover, sacrificing his own happiness for hers. What follows is an epic love story spanning two countries, in which Nandini must decide between Sameer, who taught her how to love passionately, and Vanraj, who taught her to abide by promises of love. In a shocking twist ending, Nandini falls in love with her husband Vanraj, rejecting Sameer and choosing to spend her life with Vanraj.
This film is unlike any other Bollywood movie I've ever seen. Thematically, it is similar to DDLJ - the daughter of a traditionalist father falls in love with a Westernized lover even though she is already arranged to be married to someone her father approves of. But Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam flips this formula on its script - rather than reuniting with her lover, Nandini falls in love with her husband along the way, and chooses to stay with him instead. Rosie Thomas writes that "the good-evil opposition becomes subtly conflated with another set of ideas: good with associations of the traditional, that which is Indian; bad with those of the traditional and the 'non-Indian.'" In this film, like in DDLJ, it is not the Westernized lover himself who disrupts the moral universe, but rather the overbearing father who rejects his daughter's wishes. However, this film takes that formula one step further by presenting Nandini with choosing between "good" and "bad" types of love. The "good" love is actually found with her "ideally traditional" (in the eyes of Nandini's father) husband, Vanraj, who loves her selflessly and respectfully. The "bad" love is found with the half-Indian, half-Italian Westernized Sameer, the lover, for their love is passionate, but it is also selfish, almost as if Nandini and Sameer are loving themselves through each other. Nandini and Vanraj grow to truly love each other, however this film does not provide a commentary on the father always being "right," or arranged marriages always being "right." Rather, within the framework of choosing between her arranged marriage husband and her lover, Nandini achieves greater agency, and in a rare twist on the typical Bollywood script, her character develops and comes more truly into her own through her search for Sameer, as shown through Aishwarya Rai's phenomenal performance. Appropriate for its time period (1999, when the Bollywood film industry was in a time of flux), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam interrogates what true love is, and rights the moral universe through the female protagonist figuring out what she truly wants in life and expressing her agency over who she chooses to be with; in choosing the "right" love, Nandini herself rights the moral universe.
One thing I did not enjoy about this film was Salman Khan's performance, as I found his acting to be completely overdone. However, he was balanced by Aishwarya Rai's range as well as Ajay Devgan's subtlety, which allowed his character to come to be the one we root against. I loved the costuming and the vibrant colors of the film - visually, it was stunning. I also enjoyed the different take on music that I saw in this film - there were rap and rock and roll influences in the music, and most of the songs were voiceover style as opposed to the traditional playback. I also really loved the message of female agency, with Nandini coming full circle as her free-spirited self in choosing to be with Vanraj. Ultimately, this film stands in my mind as a modern take on the classic Bollywood romance, and one that I truly believe should be a part of any academic study of Bollywood cinema, as well as a must-see for all Bollywood fans!