About the story: Karan (Ajay Devgan), who lives in Budapest, falls in love with Payal (Manisha Koirala), the girl of his dreams. When he finally gets the chance to meet her and to confess his love, she rejects him. The reason for this she confesses to her fatherly friend (Kader Khan): In New York, she had become a victim of the charming and wealthy playboy Shravan Dhariwal (Sanjay Dutt). At first, she had rejected his approaches in public, claiming that he could not buy every woman with his money. When he then apologised to her and asked for her hand in marriage, she believed that she finally could give her heart to him. But after the engagement and a night spent together, Shravan mercilessly threw her away like a broken toy, thus revenging his public insult by her. Since then, Payal never again had used her real name Varsha Mehra, and she doesn’t believe in love anymore. But finally she dares to start afresh with Karan and follows him to India to meet his family, above all his mother (Reema Lagoo) and his elder brother whom Karan loves and hero-worships and who mourns after a love whose worth he had not been able to realize until it was too late: Shravan...
When in the end of 2007 Eros announced the release of Afzal Khan’s Mehbooba for 2008, many film fans surely were surprised, especially while watching the trailer. The lavishness of decor and costumes, the music and the opulent and large-scale dance scenes reminded more of the 1990’s than of the hi-tech era in the end of the 21th century’s first decade. Insiders, however, knew the reasons for the nostalgic look: Mehbooby actually is a child of the late 90’s. In 1999, Afzal Khan had started shooting, but for several reasons – Sanjay’s court case, Ajay’s and Manisha’s overstuffed calendars, organisation (and maybe even financial) problems – the shooting was delayed again and again. In 2003, Khan could resume shooting some crucial scenes for Mehbooba, some last scenes followed later. In 2005, Mehbooba was in talks for an IIFA première, since then there had been no trace to the project anymore, until that Eros trailer wrenched Mehbooba from oblivion.
But in spite of the star cast, no one really expected a BO success (and indeed Mehbooba became a flop). The urban multiplexes didn’t bother to screen this relict from the previous decade at all; Mehbooba found its public more in the small hinterland cinemas where people didn't read or care about the damning reviews pouring down upon the "faded" and "old-fashioned" film and instead just were happy to wallow in nostalgia. As the Filmfare of August 20, 2008 quoted: "Afzal Khan's much delayed (and dated) Mehbooba comes as a stark reminder of what Hindi cinema has lost in the crazed pursuit of multiple storylines, twisted narratives, split-screen, colour corrected edits and cutting-edge special effects. An old-fashioned romantic triangle, this film makes no pretences of pandering to 'multiplex sensibilities'. It keeps the story simple, the setting dazzling and larger-than-life and the treatment highly melodramatic. It emphasises the very elements that gave Hindi films their kitschy identity on the global stage."
To give Mehbooba its due: In spite of having shot for it over at least five, six years, Afzal Khan managed to create a completely rounded opus. Compared to other, similar projects, you see no stopgaps, the scene succession is consistent, and there are no inconsistencies in the general look. Okay, the actors' looks are changing with the years, but - forget it, for even here there are not too many striking back and forth jumps. Obviously Afzal Khan shot his scenes methodically and not higgedly-piggedly, and this did pay off in the end.
Talking about the nostalgia in Mehbooba, you can't ignore the story. Classical love triangles like this one where two men love the same girl (and where moreover both want to resign for the other one) were absolutely usual in the 90's - including the girl mostly being just the love object pushed to and fro without being asked what she herself wants. Afzal Khan obviously knew a few of these films; Mehbooba comes like a melange of Saajan, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Chal Mere Bhai. From Saajan we know the mutual self-sacrifice of two brothers including their ladylove's final telling-off (though Madhuri’s outburst of fury can’t be topped, not even by Manisha), from HDDCS we know the lavish decors and the colourful dance scenes, the docile man ready to sacrify his love and, not to forget, Ajay in Budapest (to Ajay, Karan must have given several deja-vu feelings), and from Chal Mere Bhai we know the heart-warming love and chemistry between two brothers (though Sanjay and Ajay don't quite reach the chemistry of Sanjay and Salman).
Something new, however, is Sanjay playing an unscrupulous playboy. He has played several negative roles before, but his Shravan belongs to a category where otherwise only Raka from Zahreelay fits in: a veritable bastard (at least in the beginning) – charming and good-looking, but nevertheless a dirty svine who only comes to his senses when it's too late in more than one aspect. Sanjay's most mean scenes (e.g. when he beats and humiliates Manisha) were fortunately shot first so we may meet him once more in a habit similar to his memorable Raghubhai in Vaastav. And though the reason for Shravan's subsequent remorse and reformation is just narrated and not shown and developed, you can accept the "other" Shravan, particularly as Sanjay plays him, though emotionally strong, retaining enough not to attract improperly high sympathies from the public (which, as experience shows, is easily forgiving when a bad guy turns out to have a good heart and repents his sins; who would know this better than Sanjay who played loads of such characters in his career?).
For the sympathies belong first of all to Ajay and Manisha. Ajay plays the sincerely loving romantic with a lot of honesty in his eyes so that you can understand that Payal hopes to regain her trust into true love by his side. His chemistry with Sanjay is very good and partially really touching. And Manisha, who in the end of the 90's often was Sanjay's co-star (Khauff, Kartoos, Baaghi), shows once again that she belongs to the best of her guild.
Afzal Khan narrates the story straight-lined and without annoying accessories like superfluous subplots and comic reliefs etc. Even so, the film lasts nearly three hours which is also due to the large number of songs and dances where Khan spared neither trouble nor expense and mobilised hundreds of dancers, including Sanober Kabir for the "Babuji" clip with the slightly inebriated brothers Shravan and Karan - who afterwards both cool down in a huge bubble bath tub...
For film nostalgics and for those who love the good old colourful and larger-than-life "kitsch Bollywood" (including trips to the alps, this time in Austria), Mehbooba is a welcome choice and in any case a culinary alternation between all the fast-food films of today. It surely is no masterpiece - it wouldn't have been either if it had been released some years earlier. But it is definitely a nice treat for the eyes and ears.
Produced and directed by Afzal Khan
169 Min.; DVD: Eros, English Subtitles (including songs)
Sanjay about his role
P.S. In the opening credits, Afzal Khan thanked several people with extensive and warm-hearted words for their friendship and support: his late father and Manmohan Shetty, Raj N Sippy, Veeru Devgan, Ajay Devgan, Salman Khan - and Sanjay Dutt:
"The man responsible for me becoming a director – my best friend, my brother and a very important part in my family: Sanjay Dutt.
He’s been a part of every event in my life and he has always been there for me.
My life would be incomplete without Sanjay Dutt’s presence and undying support.
Thanks Dutt Saab."