By Wally Adams
Heart surgeon Dr. Siddharth Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) runs his hospital with total dedication only accompanied and matched by his concurrent dedication to his adopted son, neurosurgeon Dr. Akash Sinha (Anil Kapoor). Akash has his own dual dedication to his father and their shared profession, and to his colleague Dr. Neha Mathur (Gracy Singh) whom after a rocky start, his love for increases by the day. Unfortunately, Dr. Sinha Sr.’s hospital is rife with financial challenges for modern equipment and with the property lease, leaving him and his son desperate for a financial breakthrough to the point they’d make almost any sacrifice.
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But a silver lining with sharp thorns is offered in the form of super-wealthy businessman Gulshan Kapoor (Randhir Kapoor), whose daughter Soniya (Preity Zinta) has fallen for Akash after being fascinated by his profession and impressed with his worldly knowledge. Ever-coddling to his daughter and quite convinced money is the key to any and all the world’s problems and armaan (desires), Gulshan offers Siddharth full funding not only to keep the hospital going but even full overhaul, modernization, expansion and luxuries. The only thing Gulshan requires in return for his gracious philanthropy is Siddharth’s son’s hand in marriage to his lovely, cheeky, spoiled, possessive, ignorant, manipulative, obnoxious daughter.
Armaan is the directorial debut and only movie to date from famed screenwriter and past actress Honey Irani, invaluable in the industry for having conceived pivotal star-making scripts for Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan. Irani also co-wrote the script here with ex-husband and even more legendary screenwriter Javad Akhtar, with whom they had two children: screenwriter-director son Farhan (2001’s influential urban youth film “Dil Chahta Hai”) and screenwriter-director daughter Zoya (2019’s acclaimed “Gully Boy”). So to say that screenwriting talent runs in the family would be an understatement. Therefore, in theory one needn’t worry about the screenplay here at all, with the direction being the uncharted waters. But in both departments, “Armaan” offers a truly mixed bag.
First the good: the cast is undeniably interesting, being the only instance thus far where Bollywood’s biggest male stars of the 70s and arguably any other decade (Bachchan) and the 80s (Kapoor, though he’s actually more famous than Bachchan in the West) are paired together and as family on top of that. While holding their own on an individual level as expected, Bachchan and Kapoor’s pairing is by all means cute (sometimes too cute, as in a saccharine musical bonding scene) but far from making the most of it on either side. Singh is amusing as the hot-tempered Dr. Mathur who very slightly masks her dislike, disgust, distrust etc. in very formal and professional language of acerbic tone.
But “Armaan” is a MUST for Preity Zinta fans. Not only is she given and deliciously reveling in a rare role as a villain (exuding Westernized vanity clearly deemed anathema by the movie, making it a point to use English whenever at her most assertive, defiant and haughty) with flamboyant fashion to go along with it, but what may be her only bonafide item number song! She moves to seduce and entrap Kapoor in Mere Dil Ka Tumse Hai Kehna [“My Heart Tells You….”] with a delirious cocktail of allusions to sex, sweetness and suicide which also works to illustrate just how damned crazy she is.
In fact, Soniya and Gulshan make for an interesting and unorthodox pair of villains, channeling their villainy not through guns, goons or physical/economic strong-arming but literally with love and charity. Those are things most couldn’t possibly imagine to be villainous but which in their case is used with a special and powerful degree of entitled conviction that once he wants to pay for something and once she wants someone respectively it doesn’t even matter whether the other side is willing or the feelings are reciprocated or not. Yet they’re still shown as having what can be seen as a genuinely sweet father-daughter relationship with a great love for each other; natural for two people certain they’re better than everyone else.
Furthermore, “Armaan” emanates Irani’s signature conceptual sophistication and freshness, giving its characters a novel problem to deal with (among Bollywood films at least), intelligently setting up serious dilemmas between personal desires and practical, professional and familial needs, and with the woman in a relationship severely tormenting the man with jealous, manipulative and salacious streaks for a change here. And in the first half at least, the movie takes rather unpredictable turns going considerably further with a couple of angles than one would expect.
Unfortunately, in execution “Armaan” often wears its sentimentality, simplicity and conservatism so conspicuously on its sleeve that one can barely notice the rest of the wardrobe. Just listen to the doctor’s harsh, extensive righteous reprimand of the thought an unmarried colleague having a child amplified to an even bigger reprimand by the thought of an abortion. Likewise, the screenplay’s big weakness lies in the uniformly all-good completely selfless or all-bad completely selfish characterization that hampers the possibilities for a story and characters that could’ve and should’ve been richer by layers. It gets to the point that it’s hard to tell whether Zinta’s character openly giving a “slanted eyes” gesture upon mentioning she ordered Chinese food was more to illustrate her character’s giddy but dubious lunacy or that of the movie itself.
And while the first half is marked by interesting turns, the second more often proceeds in a manner both obvious and forced — though granted sometimes with kitschy charm. Key characters end up being injured and having to be treated by those most involved with them (positively or negatively) with comically “coincidental” timing and frequency. Similarly evoking a Bollywood movie made 30 years earlier, the denouement goes great contrived lengths to ensure everyone a sufficiently happy and morally palatable ending.
Vital Signs Report: Despite the acquaintances brought to the patient “Armaan’s” side (particularly Preity Zinta) occasionally putting the patient in high spirits, during the majority of the stay the patient unfortunately lingers in fair condition and could’ve used a few shocks to really be brought to life.
Side note: In retrospect, Bollywood producers and directors seemed on to something with their tendency to cast Zinta as thoroughly Westernized cosmopolitan women. While that was usually done in an at least partially negative light if seldom as a pure vamp like here, she was often a misguidedly Westernized woman in need of reform, not only in “Armaan” but since her first lead role as a naive college student who got pregnant in 2000’s “Kya Kehna”. It was done to the most comedic effect on 2007’s “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom” where she played a Christian who prayed in the church, “Dear God…Please find a nice white-skin British man just like Yourself to marry me”. Funny enough, even if she was acting, her prayers were answered! Zinta would end up being probably the first active female Bollywood superstar (so as to exclude Radhika Apte and Sashi Kapoor) to get married to a Westerner, wedding American national, British ancestry hydroelectric executive Gene Goodenough in 2016. More famously in the West, Priyanka Chopra would follow suit soon afterward, though unlike Zinta after already having made a move into Hollywood.
“What are you looking at? EAT YOUR OMELETTE!”