Yash Chopra’s 1991 film Lamhe is the very definition of an unconventional love story. Starring Anil Kapoor (whom people now know as “the host from Slumdog Millionaire“) and Sridevi in a double role, it’s long been one of my favorite films. It makes me laugh, it makes me sing at the top of my lungs, and it makes me cry. And the older I get, the more it makes me think.
The film is about Viren, who falls in unrequited love with free spirit Pallavi when he visits his ancestral home in Rajesthan. Pallavi loves and marries another, but then she and her husband die, leaving her newborn daughter to be raised by Viren’s childhood nurse, Daija (Waheeda Rehman). Viren can’t even bear to look at the girl, Pooja, who grows up hero-worshipping him. Finally, when she’s eighteen, she’s the spitting image of her mom and a force to be reckoned with. Not realizing he was in love with Pallavi and turned into an angst puppy because of it, Pooja makes it her mission to bring happiness into Viren’s staid existence.
In ’91, Lamhe was a scandalous film. Not only did it feature a pair with substantial age difference, but that Pooja was her mother’s doppelganger also put a seriously creepy spin on things. Watching it now, some 18 years after its theatrical release, it strikes me how fascinating that romantic dynamic is. Viren loves on such an obsessive level that it turns into tightly wound repression. He’s afraid to feel anything. And Pooja… she’s pretty much the embodiment of youth and innocence. Sridevi, who certainly wasn’t a teenager at the time, captures that vitality with perfection.
Viren goes from viewing Pooja as something to be ignored to seeing someone who looks like his dead goddess and then to acknowledging a young woman he actually loves as an individual. And there’s a really simple scene that encapsulates when Viren and Pooja achieve “pairing” status, even though neither character realizes it. They’re at the breakfast table with Daija and Viren’s best friend Prem (Anupam Kher), and Pooja pricks her finger on something. Without even skipping a beat, Viren takes her finger and sucks on it. Completely innocent? Yes. Completely erotic? Oh, hell yes. I can’t think of a single reason why the director would include such a scene, except to show the audience how intimate they are even if Viren is too thick-skulled to realize it.
And, indeed, both the viewer and Pooja realize long before Viren does that the requited love he craves so desperately is right there. It’s heartbreaking, because while he’s ostensibly in his late 30s/early 40s, Pooja, in her absolutely earnest and secure love for him, is the one who is more emotionally mature. She knows what she wants, who she wants. That’s something that terrifies Viren, who is determined to remain faithful to a memory. I spend most of the movie calling him either a “stalker” or a “dick,” because he’s so frustrating. And yet Pooja gets to him, she makes him smile; she makes him want to reach out. And she makes me believe in what they could have together.
(There’s also a lot of homoerotic subtext between Prem and Viren, but that’s a post for another day.)
The word “lamhe” means “moment,” and it’s in the little moments of this film that its story really unfolds.