Veer-Zaara: Love and Law in Bollywood
by Michael H. Hoffheimer
Yash Chopra's 2004 megahit
Veer-Zaara combines a "feel good" love story
and courtroom drama with running commentary on hot issues like
the status of women in South Asia, Indian prisoners in Pakistan,
and Hindu-Muslim relations. Virtually ignored by Western legal
pundits, Veer-Zaara should be required viewing.
Even if you are not Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukerji or Preity Zinta
fan, the film's social and cultural impact commands attention.
Veer-Zaara was 2004's top grossing Bollywood film and
won Filmfare awards for best film, best lyrics, best story, and
best dialog. See filmfareawards.indiatimes.com
(announcing 2004 film awards). Its song Main Yahan Hoon
("I am Here") still ranked as a top ten hit as of mid
story opens with a lawyer-client interview set in a Pakistani
prison. Novice female Pakistani lawyer Saamiya Siddiqui (Rani
Mukerji). meets her court-appointed client Veer Pratap Singh
(Shah Rukh Khan). Imprisoned for twenty-two years on his own
false confession that he was a spy, Veer reveals he is an Indian
Flashback from the interviews presents the story of Veer falling
in love with a Pakistani citizen, Zaara Hyaat Khan (Preity Zinta),
when she visits India to dispose of the remains of her beloved
Sikh caregiver. When Veer later follows Zaara to Pakistan, corrupt
Pakistani officers in league with Zaara's jealous fiancé
coerce him into signing the false confession.
Because Veer forbids Saamiya from contacting Zaara, the lawyer
must travel to India to find proof of Veer's true identity. There
she (spoiler alert!) discovers Zaara operating a school for girls.
Saamiya returns with Zaara. Veer and Zaara embrace in the middle
of the courtroom as cameras circle.
Lawyers and the search for
Saamiya's courtroom triumph
does not just reunite lovers and secure Veer's liberty. It proves
the competence of women lawyers and vindicates the power of truth
to the sneering prosecutor who had insisted, "It's not a
lawyer's job to decide what's right or wrong, it's a court's
job. A lawyer's job is to win the case under any circumstances.
Saamiya responds humbly, "Well that's the difference between
you and me. Your principle is to fight to win and my principle
is to fight for the truth."
When he loses, her adversary concedes, "I'm giving up law
because you've taught me I'm not fit for this work." His
dialogue links truth to communal reconciliation: "I always
thought that a country's progress is measured [by] its judicial
system. But now I understand that the future of both these countries
is in the hands of youngsters like you who do not measure humans
as big-small, man-woman, Hindu-Muslin, who don't rake up bitter
war memories of 1947, 1965 and 1999 on every pretext, who wish
to address the future with the truth and only the truth and there's
no stopping a country where truth prevails."
The dialogue's point is reinforced visually. While the prosecutor
blesses Saamiya, the camera centers the two lawyers in front
of the bench, flanked by two Pakistani flags.
This is Bollywood, so the fantasies
favor Hindus. At the border, Saamiya, a devout Muslim, offers
Veer vermillion, a traditional Hindu sign of marriage. As Veer
and Zaara cross the border, Veer kneels to kiss Indian soil.
Nor is there much room for doubt as to who is to blame for religious
intolerance. Veer's adoptive parents extend Zaara a specially
warm welcome when they learn she is from Pakistan, and they urge
Veer to marry her. But Zaara's father insists on arranging her
marriage to the son of a political powerful Muslim.
The film projects a casteless, open-handed Hindu spirit. Sikhs
appear repeatedly in peripheral roles where they mediate Muslim
and Hindu relations. Zaara' devotion to her Sikh bibi takes her
to India. Veer's Punjabi family celebrates Lohri collectively
with the village Sikh community.
Over-the-top scenes--from a deathbed request to a helicopter
rescue--eclipse subtleties that reward close attention. Broad
depictions of Muslims should not blind Western viewers to the
film's welcome departure from convention in presenting (most)
Muslim characters in a positive light.
The judge, who embodies the state of Pakistan, is fair-minded,
diligent, and empathetic. Even the rough Pakistani jailer redeems
himself on the witness stand.
The role of law, specifically
courtroom legal process, in resolving disputes and restoring
family harmony reincarnates 50s law drama formulas, updating
pleas for social and penal reform to include advocacy of women's
rights, religious tolerance and international cooperation. One
of Yash Chopra's heroes is Raj Kapoor, and Veer-Zaara
pays sentimental tribute to Kapoor's Awara (1953), the
mother of Hindi law dramas and the greatest lawyer movie ever
Chopra's resort to nostalgia includes a soundtrack built on previously
unreleased songs by Madan Mohan (1924-1975) with new lyrics by
the liberal Muslim poet and activist Javed Akhtar. Even if the
music did not scream retro, the marketing did: The DVD and the
two-disc CD include recreations of the songs, and the CD adds
two bonus songs not pictured in the film. The DVD is available
and Yash Raj.
The film's multi-generational appeal includes the director's
son Aditya Chopra as story writer. Aditya himself directed DDLJ,
the longest screening hit (500-plus weeks) in Bollywood history.
Veer-Zaara's story associates border crossing
with both danger and romance. Sometimes border crossings may
carry too much romantic weight. You might get the idea that Veer's
family loves Zaara more than he does.
Border crossing is also associated with loss of identity. Veer
loses his identity in Pakistan. Zaara's entry into India and
her later marriage to Veer rupture her identity with her past
life and threaten her loss of Muslim identity.
The narrative resolution ambiguously permits a reading either
that she assimilates into a Hindu community or that she and Veer
preserve their religious differences in a secular community.
This ambiguous resolution echoes that of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi
Gham (2001) where Kajol's Muslim character appears with mangalsutra,
a Hindu sign of marriage.
Veer-Zaara's union, however ambiguous, marks a departure from
Bollywood treatments of Hindu-Muslim romances which even in recent
years sometimes spelled the death of one lover, the disclosure
that the Hindu was really a Muslim--or both. For all its clichés,
a commercial hit built on a love affair between Hindu and Muslim
reveals how far Bollywood leads Hollywood, where credible Black-white
romance is rarely attempted and, perhaps, still not achieved.
Veer-Zaara's romance bristles with ironies that both reinforce
and subvert a traditionalist reading. Romantic love, strongly
associated with family identity, overcomes religious difference.
Love also overcomes patriotic militarism, for Veer does not hesitate
to renounce his glam career with the Indian Air Force in order
to visit Zaara in Pakistan. The ironies are coded onto the casting.
Muslim SRK plays the Hindu, while Hindu Rani Mukerji plays the
The plot exhibits a theme that has emerged as a common structural
element in Bollywood romances since the 90s. Its happy ending
leaves one of the protagonists uncoupled--and without the prospect
of immediate coupling. Just as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
ends with Salman Khan seeking comfort from his dead father while
Ajay and Ash pair up, Veer-Zaara leaves Saamiya at her
father's grave while Veer and Zaara walk into the sunset.
Lawyers as lovers
Where Veer-Zaara falls
short is on the capacity of lawyers to be lovers. There is a
tension between the son's screenplay and the father's direction.
How can Saamiya help falling in love with Veer?
Ingredients of the story--Veer's captivity, idealism, status
as orphan, even his love of Saamiya's mother's cooking--suggest
the vulnerability and romantic compatibility of their characters.
Moreover, prior screen pairings of SRK and Rani Mukerji suggest
the danger of a romance.
The director's pedagogic goal of presenting Saamiya's single-minded
devotion to justice keep him from developing any amorous interest
between her and her client. In this the film differs from the
classical melodramas of the 50s in which Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy
and Mehboob Khan regularly explored romantic ambivalence as a
source of social conflict.
Comparing Veer-Zaara to Bollywood classics may even support
the generalization that while older Hindi melodrama imposed ambiguity
on characters who were emotionally indecisive (Devdas) or morally
conflicted (Kapoor's eponymous Raj), contemporary Bollywood imposes
ambiguity on the plot, permitting a variety of readings to suit
Law and revenge
What Veer-Zaara loses
in emotional edge it gains in didacticism. Like traditional Bollywood
law dramas, the courtroom offers Veer a platform to address political
concerns. He neither denounces corruption nor demands retribution.
Instead he reads a poem expressing wonder at the identity of
Muslim and Hindu. The poem's universalist message simultaneously
advocates communal harmony in India and promotes international
friendship between Pakistan and India.
Since The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45), wrongful imprisonment
and loss of a beloved have formed the mythic foundations of revenge-genre
melodrama. Veer-Zaara's refusal to identify justice with
vengeance differentiates the film from most Bollywood and Hollywood
Veer-Zaara envisages law as a force capable of surmounting
national barriers and resolving personal and international disputes.
The film does not present law's incapacity to restore the past
as a deficit that requires individual agency.
At a time when escapist fantasy often castes lawyers as demons,
Veer-Zaara reminds us of alternative traditions where
law works to reveal true identities and lawyers serve as reconcilers
and healers. The film's commercial success proves the renewed
appeal of such fantasy in South Asia.
The author acknowledges the
help of Jean S. Hoffheimer in preparing this article.
Posted August 5, 2005