In the career of every celebrated artist there is one work of art which stands above all others, one that is celebrated as the pinnacle of artistry, the apex to which all that preceded it has led, and against which all that follows will forever be compared. "Lamhe" is that performance in the gallery of Sridevi's great acting achievements: indeed, it is THE masterpiece in her repertoire. Of all the films ever made by Sridevi, "Lamhe" is (and shall likely remain) the greatest film of her career. Since its release, critics have universally praised the film, and upon viewing it, one cannot help but submit that the praise is rightfully deserved. While "Sadma" has been called the definitive performance of her career, there is a strong case to be made that 'the performance' of her career is that of "Lamhe".
Though the film was deemed too 'risqué' for the average film-goer (its first issue to cinema halls was an abysmal financial disaster) it remains the most bold and uncompromising love story ever made in India. Here for the first time in India's long and sordid celluloid history, we witness the consummation of a highly unconventional relationship between Pooja (Sridevi) and Viren (Anil Kapoor), a man twenty-five years her senior who had himself been in love with Pooja's mother, Pallavi (also Sridevi) who was herself a decade older than Viren. Therein lies the incestuous shadow which has forever made viewers both weary and fearful of "Lamhe" and its fiercely non-conformist morality. One critic has written that, "Viren was not only the father figure in her orphaned life, he was the man who could have been her father if her other had reciprocated his ardour. But for Pooja, bred on Viren's intermittent visits to his ancestral property in Rajasthan, there was no distinction between Prince Charming and this long-distance godfather. Hers was the love that knew no barriers. Neither spatial, nor temporal, nor of age. Even the knowledge of her beloved's repressed passion for her deceased mother did not act as a deterrent. For Viren, too, the initial shock of discovering an unconventional emotion was gradually replaced by self-analysis, introspection, and self-discovery."
Yash Chopra recalled that when he first screened the film prior to its release, "the response was ecstatic, but many who saw it advised me to change the ending. They said it would be a big hit with a conventional happy ending. I said if I change the ending, there's no point in making the film." "Lamhe" is the pinnacle in bold and sensitive film-making, so incomparably replete with the message that love knows no limits, that pain and passion have no boundaries, that it reveals a revolutionary maturity of expression far beyond the conventional clichés of love stories. "Lamhe" is a fiercely unconventional film, standing in defiance of the totalitarian ideas of what is and what is not Love. Its theme of transgenerational romance, under the very heavy and unsettling shadow of incest, have made it a litmus test of our moral tendencies and artistic liberties. Traditionalists watching the film will find its theme difficult to digest"How can any woman find love with a man who loved her mother?" they ask.
But the film begs us to understand that one can love in different ways, and for Viren the passion he has for Pallavi is his first real love of anything that dared to exist on its own terms, human or otherwise. Raised in very polite but stoic English society which has made him hopelessly sheltered, Viren is used to things and people being of the 'proper' sort. When he is confronted by Pallavi, he is entirely smitten by her exotic charms, her chaotic wildness, her absolute connection to the world in which she lives, a notion of which Viren knows nothing about. He is seduced and enchanted by this exotic figure, but her regard for him is that of a foreigner who has come to reacquaint himself with his roots. Many years later, the experience is echoed in Pooja's upbringing: lonely and isolated, she somehow manages to recall her mother's wondrous spirit, and then lays the memories of Viren's past squarely in front of him.
Whatever assessment of the film one chooses to make, the brilliance of its performances cannot be denied or overstated. Anil Kapoor has never delivered a more accomplished or subtle performance. Viren is etched with such finesse and delicacy that it is his heartbreak which becomes our own. Waheeda Rehman gives a heartbreaking and heartwarming portrayal of Daija, Viren's maternal confidante and caregiver who plays the same role in orphaned Pooja's upbringing. Anupam Kher is riotously funny as Prem, Viren's only real friend, a sort of elder brother who understands Viren better than Viren will ever understand himself. It must be said, however, that all of these exceptional performances are given to balance the duality of Sridevi's brilliance: she is literally awe-inspiring in a double role which transcends anything India has ever put on the big screen. The mother-daughter characters are inverse reflections of one another, and are played in such distinct fashion that one never feels one character intruding into the other, a perennial fear of actors playing multiple roles in one film. One prominent reviewer probably said it best in her review: "Sridevi does not enact a performance in 'Lamhe'. She becomes an incarnation of two women whose lives (and deaths) are bound by the nature of Love. Sridevi has pushed the limits of acting with 'Lamhe', and like the film, she has decided that there are no limits."
There are a great many treasures in the cannon that calls itself Hindi Cinema, but none more resplendent, more wondrous, more beautiful or more painful than "Lamhe". This is a film that challenges, both artistically and morally, and has emerged as an unforgettable and unmatched work of human artistry.
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