2003 / produced by Mukesh Talreja & Sunil Manchanda / directed by Satish Kaushik / starring Salman Khan & Bhoomika Chawla / music by Himesh Reshammiya / lyrics by Sameer

    "Unfortunately a true love story," the film's slogan tells us. Indeed, the murkiness of TERE NAAM's moral makes it less a tragedy than a story of really bad luck. But the freshness of the characters saves the film from sinking beneath the weight of its highly unsatisfying climax.

   Radhe Mohan (SALMAN KHAN) is the Agra version of the frat boy who never got over his glory days as an undergrad. Radhe spends his days hanging out at his old alma mater near the Taj Mahal, beating to a pulp anyone who offends his sense of moral propriety. Bullies, overaggressive Romeos, and professors who grade too hard bow in fear to his Rambo-style revenge, while the audience applauds. Meanwhile, freshmen quickly learn how to properly respect this Dawood Ibrahim of the collegiate underworld. One such fresher is Nirjara (BHOOMIKA CHAWLA), the sheltered daughter of a local priest. Her innocence — some would call it naivete — surprises and charms Radhe, who begins to court her in much the same way a hungry cat might woo a plump little mouse.

   Being so preciously ingenuous, Nirjara doesn't realize at first the intensity of Radhe's feelings for her. By the time he makes his intentions (marriage, mutual obsession, total possession) explicitly clear, she's gotten a firsthand look at his more violent tendencies. She's also already informally engaged to her father's protege. She turns Radhe down flat. She's a nice girl, he's a thug: story over, she tells him.

  Radhe doesn't take this too well.

  Finally he makes a half-hearted attempt to lay off the thuggish behavior, but hey, there are a lot of bad guys out there just asking for a thrashing. When one of his assaults ends up helping out Nirjara's sister, Nirjara's fiance finds out about it, sees the light, and tells Nirjara it's clear that Radhe is her soulmate. Nirjara begins to soften, but before she can come to terms with her feelings for Radhe, Radhe decides to force her through the process, in a pretty horrific way. At this point, he becomes, hands-down, the most disturbing anti-hero in recent Bollywood history, hooking the viewer despite her horror. All she can hope is that the director doesn't demand too much more moral ambivalence from the audience before calling it a wrap.

   Well, the viewer gets her wish — kind of as the story shifts to addressing a moral kind of. Whether you believe the second half of the film redeems Radhe or not, one thing's for sure: Radhe's vigilante justice has targeted the wrong guy, a bigger and badder villain than himself, and Radhe's going to pay the price for it. Unfortunately, so will Nirjara.

   In good tragedies, the hero's greatest strength becomes his fatal flaw. TERE NAAM excels in convincing us that the hero's best and worst qualities are one and the same. We love Radhe for the very reasons we hate him, which engenders within us both fascination and discomfort, the hallmarks of a truly excellent film. But after prepping us for the masterstroke — the grand moment in which our hero will lose his delicate balance between good and evil, and throw himself into the flames — the story wimps out. Radhe's fate is determined not by his own actions, but by others'. Instead of a tragic hero, he becomes a victim of circumstances, the stuff of which ballads, rather than tragedies, are made. Ultimately, then, this story lacks the ironic, bittersweet resonance of the best "unfortunately true love stories."

   But the brilliance that precedes this narrative failure makes TERE NAAM obligatory viewing. Bollywood fans are used to obsessed lovers — sometimes scary, as in DARR, and sometimes sweet, as in TERA JADOO CHAL GAYA. But in the character of Radhe, director Satish Kaushik has left the judgment up to us: sweet or scary? The answer is both. Radhe's frightening devotion to Nirjala is but a different outlet for the same violence that animates his attacks on wrongdoers. And Kaushik makes it clear, in several chilling scenes, that the barrier Radhe sets between violent passion and violent assault is extremely thin and always in danger of breaking. Therefore the considerable attraction Radhe exerts affects viewers as intensely as it does Nirjala: we cannot help but root for this character, and we cannot help but wonder what this says about our own moral barometer. Is violence acceptable for any cause, love and justice included? Depending on the box office's answer, Radhe may well become the archetype for the 'Angry Young Man' of the new millenium.

  One wonders if the character of Radhe would grip us so completely if we were not aware of the rumored similarities between him and the actor who plays him. Either way, Salman Khan inhabits the role fully, with panache and (vaguely disturbing) ease. The song sequences complement the narrative, intentionally or no, by articulating the schizophrenic quality of Radhe's nature: moments after he threatens his beloved's life, he's able to take her in his arms and cheerfully waltz her through a love song. Perhaps we'd consider Nirjara daft for going along with this, save that Bhoomika Chawla invests her with a genuinely touching simplicity that makes passivity seem downright noble. She is the archetypal princess in the tower: whoever climbs up first will have her heart forever.

   That doesn't make Nirjara a great role model, but then, no one said TERE NAAM was the film to show your kids to teach them right from wrong. However, if you're curious about the attractions of moral ambivalence, or just sick of the same old masala, this film is more than a "time-pass." Up until that final third, it's almost a revelation.

- reviewed by Meredith




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