The story of Prem began back in 1989, when Salman Khan and Sooraj Barjatya first teamed up for the love story Maine Pyar Kiya. In 1994, Prem took on a new avatar, but was played by the same Khan, and won hearts in Barjatya’s 14-song family drama Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!. In 1999, Salman Khan stepped into a new Prem’s shoes in the ensemble saga Hum Saath-Saath Hain. With Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, Khan and Barjatya interpret Prem yet again, this time using Rajasthani royalty as the backdrop and giving the actor the additional challenge of playing a double role.

Though he went on to play Prem in many other movies (such as Judwaa and Ready), it remained a constant as the protagonist’s name in all Barjatya films, even the ones not played by Khan (Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachchan in 2003’s Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, Shahid Kapoor in 2006’s Vivah; Sonu Sood in the 2008, Barjatya-scripted Ek Vivaah…Aisa Bhi).

From the opening scene of this 10-song-burdened musical-costume drama, you become aware of the patently sluggish pace and plodding screenplay that make the running time of just under 3 hours feel like much more. We see a happy-go-lucky Prem Dilwale (Salman Khan) playing Ram at a Ram-Leela performance in Ayodhya, which prompts the thought—from Hanuman devotee in Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Ram loyalist in this? Fortunately, this Prem does not invoke the lord at every juncture, nor is his simplicity absurd. He speaks decent English and holds on to strong family values.

As Prem lives his life in a make-believe world of re-enactment, his doppelgänger lives life within palatial homes with high stone walls. Like his house, Vijay Singh (Salman Khan) is formal, traditional and steeped in old-world grace, but also modern enough to be using an iPhone and speaking a mix of Hindi and English. Prince Vijay Singh is awaiting his swearing-in as the next king. He is a man of particular humour and high regard for the royal ways.

Vijay’s marriage has been arranged with princess Maithili (Sonam Kapoor), an ever-smiling do-gooder who enjoys an independent life in Delhi. Maithili is a modern-day royal, as comfortable hopping off a helicopter in knee-high boots as she is in embellished chiffon saris and little black dresses.

Vijay has a fractured relationship with his half-sisters Chandrika (Swara Bhaskar) and Radhika (Aashika Bhatia) and a tense relationship with half-brother Ajay (Neil Nitin Mukesh). One day, when Vijay’s horse carriage meets with a near-fatal accident, his loyal right-hand man Diwan (Anupam Kher) enlists Prem to participate in a charade. Prem poses as Vijay Singh until the latter heals and is able to return to his rightful place.

Prem barely hesitates before taking on the task. His primary motivation is to get close to Maithili, whom he has adored from afar. Fortunately, not all are fooled by this easy replacement. Ajay and Chirag (Armaan Kohli), masterminds of Vijay’s accident, remain suspicious. But Maithili is bowled over as Prem steadily wins her over and wins back “his" family at the same time. All this takes its time—there are songs, dances, silly jokes and flirting. There are a million costume changes and the height of absurdity is a song set around a football match. It’s a ridiculous plot by Prem to win over his football-loving, estranged younger sister Radhika. Men are playing women but the ball isn’t kicked till 2 minutes into the song and only after a soaking-wet Salman rolls up his pajamas and rips off the sleeves of his sherwani. It’s all captured with a glossy lens by V. Manikandan’s camera.

Vijay is ruled by the head, but Prem is ruled by the heart. His caring nature thaws the royal house. How the real Vijay reconciles to these changes could have given the film its missing edge. But Barjatya focuses instead on changing values and a modern love story, using songs, vast sets, costumes and locations, and wisdom imparted by the pious Prem.

While Khan plays both Vijay and Prem with seeming ease, Deepak Dobriyal as Prem’s sidekick Kanhaiya, Kher and Bhaskar raise the acting bar by a few notches. Neil Nitin Mukesh as the manipulated and spineless younger half-brother overacts; Sonam Kapoor’s brief, it seems, is to be feminine yet firm, ethereal and flawless, which would describe most of Barjatya’s leading ladies.

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is an endlessly long saga with a sheesh mahal at the end of a treacherous precipice propped up by illegitimate children, fake football matches and overly made-up actors. You can imagine brides-to-be making mental notes of which lehngas and saris they want copied as they watch this opulent, colour-coordinated costume drama.

Prem Ratan Dhan Payo released in theatres on Thursday.

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