Chalte Chalte (`Walk Along') is a mainstream Bollywood romance that goes one better.
Instead of leaving you at the altar to assume that `they lived happily ever after', Chalte Chalte takes you inside the marriage after Boy meets Girl, Boy wins Girl, to experience Man faces the realities of life with Woman.
Start with Raj (Shah Rukh Khan), a middle class guy who owns a small transport company. Raj is messy, impulsive, quick tempered: a guy who acts in haste and repents at leisure. One day he bumps into Priya (Rani Mukerjee), a beautiful, sophisticated upper-class fashion designer born in Greece and raised in luxury. Priya is organized and efficient; passionate, but always proper. Also a bit of a snob, she assumes Raj is merely a truck driver and snubs him accordingly.
Love blossoms, but the road to happiness is never smooth in Bollywood: Priya becomes engaged to her childhood friend, Sameer, a wealthy businessman from Priya's world of money and privilege. Raj, not wanting to spend the rest of his life regretting `if only' follows Priya to Greece to convince her that he, not Sameer, is the man of her dreams. Not so amazingly, he manages to succeed.
Your typical Bolly romance would be running the end credits about now, but we're just at the interval. The rest of the film switches from sun and sea drenched beauty of Greece to the mundane colors of Mumbai, and Raj's messy apartment. Now daily life intrudes, and Raj is left trying to keep the grand promises he so easily made when Priya was a prize to be obtained.
Chalte Chalte provides a mature look into a marriage, not of two movie stars, but of Mr. and Mrs. Anybody. The charm, or the drawback, depending on how you view it, is that the film has no real plot, no villains, no heros. Just real people doing the best they can with what they have, and with whom they've chosen. The problems Raj and Priya face are problems that all married people the world over face every day: disapproving in-laws, money problems, personality clashes, and on and on. The film works best for me on its most mundane level: arguments over wet towels on the bed, shoes on the floor, appointments missed, arguments about anything and everything, and then the making up, the kissing and cooing and apologies before starting another round.
Most of the performances in Chalte are solid. The supporting players, including Satish Shah and Lilette Dubay are wonderful, and though a handful of new-comers intrude on the flow of the film from time to time, their presence helps develop the story and provide narration and a bit of comic relief. The usually shrill and obnoxious Johnny Lever shows some welcome restraint this time, and creates an endearingly poignant character who helps tell the story in yet another way.
Rani Mukerjee, in my opinion one of India's best actresses, is stunning, both in appearance and in her acting. She exudes a warmth, a naturalness and a realness that makes you want to be her best friend, or her lover. With her exotic amber eyes and husky voice she is spellbinding in all her scenes, an intriguing mixture of sexy sophistication and little girl charm rolled into one.
But this movie belongs to Shah Rukh Khan, and no mistake. Coming after the opulent success of Devdas, and the larger than life Asoka, Raj is Everyman, a regular guy with money problems, wife problems, ego problems, problems, problems, problems. Khan is brilliant, and totally believable as a middle class business owner, struggling to keep up with everyday life. Usually prone to bursts of hammy over-acting, in Chalte Chalte he is restrained and controlled in every scene. Even in those moments when Raj is rampaging over his wife's well-intentioned betrayal, or on his knees humiliating himself in a crowded airport in front of Priya's snooty relatives, begging her not to leave him, Khan never goes over the top in his acting. Gone is the bratty charmer of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: this Raj is a mature, sensitive lover, and a bumbling husband, willing in the end to sacrifice even his male Indian pride for his love. Shah Rukh Khan has a definite gift for creating complex characters who don't fall easily into good-guy, bad-guy categories, and Chalte Chalte's Raj is one of those characters. The story has a definite (and intentional) been-there-done-that feel, but Khan is the reason to watch it all one more time.
There are those who say the movie has no ending, no resolution, and at first viewing I was one of them. But on second viewing I came away feeling that both Raj and Priya had in fact learned important lessons about each other and themselves. Priya, coming from the upper classes does not at first understand the inner demons Raj has to grapple with, knowing he is from a lower class, and that however successful he might become, to Priya's snobbish Anna Aunty he will never be more than a truck driver. Raj has to learn to put aside his ego if he wishes to remain with Priya, and respect her feelings and attachments, even though they are uncomfortable for him. In the end they both realize that life goes on, you do your best and forgive each other's flaws and mistakes, and love will get you through. Chalte Chalte.
The music of Chalte Chalte is a good mix. There are a couple of catchy tunes that will grab you immediately, a couple of ballads that might have to grow on you, and a couple of poignant numbers that I found to be hauntingly evocative during the sadder moments of the film. At times the background score does become a bit loud and intrusive, but on the whole I found it to be quite beautiful. The choreography was nice, if not overly exuberant (perhaps due to Khan's highly publicized back problems), the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are some dialogues and scenes that will stay with you long after the film has ended.
There are a couple of scenes that I would have trimmed, most notably the climax which starts out very movingly, but then lags a bit because of length, and the fact that the entire cast are in danger of drowning in glycerine. But Chalte Chalte is a thoughtful offering that will leave you pondering after the closing credits.