Songs on Screen: ‘Lara’s Theme’ from ‘Doctor Zhivago’ through Bollywood Eyes

Songs On Screen: All week HitFix will be featuring tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film. Check out all the entries in the series here. 

With its exotic setting, tortured emotion, and overbearing soundtrack, “Doctor Zhivago” is the perfect Bollywood movie, despite not technically being in Hindi. Its iconic refrain, “Lara”s Theme,” is as familiar and evocative a leitmotif to an entire generation of Indians as Darth Vader”s Imperial March is to Anglophones.  To talk about the theme is to talk about the entire movie, as it appears at least 15 times, with additional versions on the official soundtrack. Composer Maurice Jarre famously protested its overuse when producer Carlo Ponti trimmed the rest of the score, but Ponti, still mainlining pleasure to the masses on his HUNDRED AND SECOND FILM, knew what he was doing. Jarre won an Academy Award.

In the late 1960s, most English language films either weren”t released in India, or didn”t court local sensibilities enough to divert ticket sales from the masala matinee of the moment.  “One Flew Over the Cuckoo”s Nest,” for example, devoid of songs or romance, was met with bewilderment and failure in my small Himalayan town. One reason “Zhivago” was massively popular is that Indians of a certain age (my mother”s) were obsessed with Russia. Growing up in the chaos and uncertainty of a post-independence nation, with the US supporting Pakistan, Mum saw Russia as a literal utopia; from an optimistic distance, a shining example of what India could become if we just got our act together. As witnessed by this verbatim exchange:

Mum: I went to Moscow once! I loved it. We had ice cream.
Me: What else did you do?
Mum: Oh, it was in a dream, so not very much.

Indians also love to wade waist-deep into a sad story, ideally enhanced with even sadder songs. The dizzying pace of Bollywood film production doesn”t allow the luxury of story structure. Filmmakers aim directly for viscera, and the primary goal of any movie is to reduce the audience to tears.  According to Mum, here was no greater word of mouth in post-colonial India than “I cried from beginning to end.” A well-executed calamity was the pinnacle of artistic achievement, and Doctor Zhivago”s moneyshot scene, when Omar Sharif finally sees Julie Christie from afar but has a heart attack before he can get to her, devastated an entire generation to whom nothing was more tragic to a than pining after a woman your entire life and not even getting to chase her around a tree.  The scene is also notable as one of the only meaningful moments in the film without an elaborate orchestral overlay. The score is completely empty, like our crushed souls after Yuri Zhivago clutches his chest and falls so handsome, so elegant, in the square.

Mum has lost count of how many times she has seen “Zhivago”, but she first saw it in 1968 and last saw it this week, so… a lot. Because I want to be my mother, my DZ count is also unusually high. She supposes she could re-watch other classic movies from the last 30 years, but they don”t hold up as well, because they”re often “the kind where things work out in the end.” We wrapped our latest nostalgic conversation by humming the theme in our identical high-pitched voices and then sighing like lovesick teenagers.

Me: A real classic. 
Mum: A beautiful film. Nothing like One Flew Over the Cuckoo”s Nest.

This year a Broadway adaptation of “Zhivago” opened, and tripped into a pit of critical derision. Reviews called it bombastic, dated, and overstuffed with unmemorable and melodramatic songs.  For any aesthete it”s painful to see a decade-long artistic labor of love crumble, but its demise was inevitable – Even as superfans, Mum and I didn”t consider for one second of going to see it, because of Omar Sharif. Would you watch a version of “Cool Hand Luke” without Paul Newman? Rebel Without a James Dean? A Woody-free “Toy Story?” Of course you wouldn”t.

Because we live in the future, and because “Zhivago” was immensely popular – the 8th highest grossing movie of all time (inflation-adjusted) – chances are that David Lean”s version is playing at any moment of any given day. The next time you turn on your TV and hear the strum of balalaika, think about re-watching “Doctor Zhivago” in its entirety. Immerse yourself in the intrigue, the pageantry, the elaborate costuming. Imagine yourself in a horse-drawn sleigh in the dead of sparkling winter, extravagantly draped in guilt-free white fur. It”s a three-hour celebration of Bollywood values; bright colors, boundless love, complicated life choices set to swelling music. Nothing like that dreary old Cuckoo”s Nest.

Priyanka Mattoo has had every job in entertainment. Follow her twitter.com/@naanking.