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Letter from… the passenger seat of my car

Ek Haseena Thi is just a masterpiece of Bollywood filmmaking. Confused? Read on

I do not drive. I do not say this with any sense of that misplaced pride that some people have in declaring that they refuse to do commonplace quotidian things. Like people who say that they do not read fiction, or people who say that they do not "smoke if they are not drinking". What is wrong with these people? They think they are better than everybody else because they "don’t eat anything with noodles in them"?  

I do not drive because I cannot drive. I have tried many times to get a driving license. But each time, the universe has conspired to prevent me from obtaining one. (The last three attempts ended as follows: driving instructor went missing, moved to Delhi from Bombay, got a liver infection.)  

Therefore my wife does all the driving at home. I try to be helpful with luggage management, child management, music management and, most of all, navigation and crisis management. If your GPS fails or your car is beginning to sink into a lagoon of some kind, I am the rock you want in the backseat giving you courage and motivation.  

None of this is relevant to this week’s Letter. But is a Sunday. Nobody is in a hurry.  

So last evening we were driving back home after a week-long holiday. There was moderate to heavy traffic and I began to play a selection of Hindi classics on the car audio system. Eventually I got to Ek Haseena Thi from Karz. The missus smiled as she deftly manoeuvred our (her) car through traffic. “I knew you would play that at some point!" she said.  

And she is right of course. Karz is great. But Ek Haseena Thi is just a masterpiece of Bollywood filmmaking. It is a microcosm of everything that is good and great about Hindi filmmaking. It has romance, suspense, drama, reincarnation, flashbacks, backing dancers of questionable synchronizations, electric guitars without cabling, all kinds of macro and micro deceits, fantastic music, brilliant lyrics, a guy in the rafters with a sniper rifle, and that Rishi Kapoor shirt that will never be matched.  

All of which comes together to form what I think is the single greatest climax sequence in Bollywood history. There are several minutes of denouement after this song in Karz. But Ek Haseena Thi is the moment when Simi Garewal realizes that she has been outed via the medium of dance. When Rishi Kapoor walks on to stage dressed as the deceased Ravi Verma (played by Raj Kiran), the penny drops. The end is nigh. And Garewal knows it.  

Is this the greatest climax in Hindi film history? I suspect it is. Lots of Hindi films have superlative endings that have become the stuff of legend. For reasons good and bad.  

Sholay has a tremendous ending sequence. But I think it pales in comparison to that sequence on the train. Now that was how you ended a movie! Sholay, instead, opts for the standard ‘raid the villain’s hideout’ solution albeit ramped up with some coin-flipping and arm-amputating.  

Amar Akbar Antony, another microcosm of all Bollywood, encapsulated the problem Bollywood had in the '70s and '80s with film endings. They all mostly involved a semo-comedic group fight with everybody, including the children, fighting everybody else, including the animals, and occasionally throwing things to each other—bags of diamonds, secret papers, a stolen temple idol—in long looping arcs.  

When you sit back and think about it, you realize that much of popular Indian film, not just Bollywood, has had problems with endings. There appears to have been only so many ways in which to end them. Group fight, invasion of villain hideout, defusing of bomb… all ending in death of bad guy or death of good guy. And finally the rest of the cast, cheerfully negligent of the fact that hero/father/grandfather/token minority community side-hero has just died a brutal death, walk off happily to the theme music. The End.  

Thus unique endings are somewhat rare in Hindi films. Karz would have also been cursed with a mundane denouement if not for the spectacular Ek Haseena Thi number. Kahaani has a pretty good ending. And so does Lagaan. The Burning Train, another personal favourite, is an entirely unique film for many, many reasons from start to end.  

You know what they should do? Remake The Burning Train! I would pay good money to watch a Burning Train reboot still set in the 1980s, with its great clothing and quaint notions of national integration, but with up-to-date graphics and sets.  

As for Karz. Never, ever, ever touch that masterpiece. Ever. Greatest ending of all time.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday's antidote to boring editor's columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about over the weekend.

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