A few weeks ago, while competing in Berkeley, Calif. with the University’s premiere Bollywood dance team, Michigan Manzil, I found myself talking to a reporter about the importance of happy endings in Bollywood stories. I explained that filmi dance routines, like Bollywood movies, tend to end happily.
“In the end, movies are all about entertainment,” I told him. “We want the story to end on a good note so that the audience leaves feeling good about it.”
Over the next few days, I couldn’t help reflecting on my comments, and not just because I felt like my answers made me sound like a prize idiot. I believe what I said and stand by it, so why did the interview answer feel so thin?
Last semester, Professor Jim Burnstein told my “Fiction Into Film” class that “movies are ultimately simple emotional journeys.” A simple emotional journey ends with positive resolution and emotional fulfillment, and Bollywood strives to uphold those ideals.
In “Om Shanti Om,” Om (Shahrukh Khan) delivers one of the most memorable speeches in Bollywood, saying that in life, like in film, everything is alright in the end; if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end (this English translation is almost exactly the earth-shattering quote that ties together “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Hmph). He’s kind enough to spell out one of Bollywood’s primary narrative values and to inadvertently explain the reasoning for it; we want movies to end happily because we want life to follow suit.
As touching as Om’s speech is — touching enough that I vowed long ago to repeat those words if I ever win an award — it made me take a second look at classic Bollywood happy endings to see if everything really is alright. Even looking at “Om Shanti Om,” the illusion started to fall apart before my very eyes: Om and his friends get revenge on the bad guy, but his family still suffered for 30 years without him, and Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone) still met a violent end.
How about “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” every ’90s kid’s favorite feel-good movie? Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) and Anjali (Kajol) finally find each other, but Tina (Rani Mukherji) is still dead and Aman (Salman Khan), bless his heart, is forever alone. In “Hum Aapke Hain Kaun”? the story wraps up with a big, boisterous wedding, though the family has barely digested the death of its oldest daughter.
And what about the films that don’t even try to end happily? What about “Kal Ho Naa Ho”? The film is one of Karan Johar’s strongest screenplays and Nikhil Advani’s few directorial pursuits, yet it stands out among both repertoires and viewer experiences because it was just so damn sad.
The film’s irreplaceable position in Bollywood history comes entirely from this plot. Would we remember it as well if Naina (Preity Zinta) and Aman (Shahrukh Khan) rode off into the sunset together? If Rohit (Saif Ali Khan) didn’t repeatedly get his heart broken, and no one cried to sad music on the banks of the Hudson River? An unhappy ending can be as effective and memorable as a conventional one — and sometimes more so.
And they don’t just stop at sad. One of the most impactful movies I have ever seen is unquestionably Deepa Mehta’s “Earth: 1947,” and that’s because the last few minutes were so horrifying that I’ve never quite shaken how they made me feel. A main character suffers a terrible betrayal, but even though I was deeply disturbed by it, I came away with a whole new understanding of the movie’s themes and how they relate to the real world.
Ending a movie uncomfortably forces the audience to think and cope. As much as we hope for a happily ever after, we should expect setbacks in real life. After all, a movie doesn’t represent a lifetime — events transpire before and after the script’s timeline to upset equilibrium. Things may be all right in the end, but that isn’t necessarily the end of the movie.
When those credits roll, the characters are free of the circumstances that constrained them, whether comedic, catastrophic or anything in between. We, as viewers, are left to ponder the implications, to weep over character deaths or shake the shock of a traumatic scene. We leave the theater with the joy of watching Kajol and Shahrukh get it together once again because they belong together.
Whatever the outcome, movies shape an audience member’s worldview. I appreciate the impressions left upon me by films both triumphant and tragic. I love my classic Bollywood endings where the hero and heroine sing and dance their way to happiness just as much as I value the films that broke my heart. I remind myself that, when things aren’t going so well in real life, if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.
Picture abhi baki hai, mere dost. The movie’s not over yet.