I love Dil Aashna Hai! I watched it years ago on a funky library copy, and fell in love with it. And then I couldn’t track down a copy on DVD to buy until just recently. I should have stolen the library copy! No one else could possibly appreciate it as much as me, I deserved that DVD! But I didn’t, because I am honest, which means it wasn’t until it just popped up on a random ebay list from a seller in India that I was able to watch it again. It’s even more wonderful than I remembered!
To start with, I think this might be my all time favorite Hindi film adaptation. Just for the fascinating transformation between the source and the result! The source is a super cheesy and dramatic and popular American TV miniseries, Lace. In which a rising young American starlet (Pheobe Cates) plays a famous and rich and powerful film sex symbol who tracks down the old woman who paid for her upkeep in her childhood (Angela Lansbury), and confronts her, asking her for the story of who her true parents were. And then there’s a massive flashback to 3 young girls (Brooke Adams, Bess Armstrong, and Arielle Dombasle) at school who each have their own individual romances. One of them gets pregnant, the 3 of them conspire and blackmail and so on to make sure they are the only ones who know which girl it was, and that their respective reputations all stay clean. Then they give the baby up for adoption.
(I think this is the trailer. Really gives you a sense of it, doesn’t it?)
Much of the miniseries (based on descriptions, I haven’t actually watched it, because it is almost as hard to find as Dil Aashna Hai) is taken up by the rise to success and fame of the 3 girls in the subsequent years. Two of them are now married to important and powerful men (not the men with whom they had the original romances), while the third has an important career as a journalist. Which is when Phoebe Cates enters their lives, bribes them with promises and threats into meeting with her, and then demands to know which one of them is her mother, or else she will ruin all three. Finally, the three women talk together, renew their friendship, and decide that Phoebe Cates deserves to know the truth, and send in the one who is her mother to tell her.
Super juicy, right? Scandals in high society and among film folk, school girls getting pregnant and blackmailing their headmaster to cover it up, lots of reasons to throw drinks at each other’s faces and have slap fights. It’s all about, for want of a better word, “bitchiness”. In fact, the most famous line of the miniseries is “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
But, that’s not going to fly in India! Not just because women are supposed to be sweet and docile and innocent, but because films are supposed to have a good wholesome message. Even when you do get those gloriously evil and ambitious female characters, like Simi Garewal in Karz, they always get their come-uppance. And there is always a sweet and innocent Tina Munim set up as contrast. Even in the soaps it is the same, right? Even if everyone knows you tune in for the villain, the “Star” is supposed to be the sweet and pure and good heroine.
If every single main character isn’t a scheming and amoral woman, which they can’t be in an Indian film, that means that whole flashback to the rise of the 3 girls to their current positions of power has to get cut. They go straight from innocent school girls to respectable noble married women. And since they had to be sweet and innocent school girls, there is no blackmail involved either. Which means no elaborate subplots about getting dirt on those in authority. Which means the whole flashback bit changes from teenage sex trysts and lawbreaking to sweet young love stories. But that works well, because of course their teenage love stories are True Love in this version, because an Indian woman loves only once! So they ended up married to their high school lovers, instead of some other random hunk.
And the other way they fill it in is with a sweet “mother” song between the 3 girls and the new baby. Because of course as soon as a baby enters the picture, they go straight from 3 foolish school girls to Mothers, with all the nobility and sacrifice that implies. And that also means the whole “foster family paid off for years” story has to change. Because surely such noble Mothers would have a better plan than that! So they steal the plan from Aradhana, where the baby will be given to an orphanage, but only until the mother can come back and claim it as an “adopted” child. And it works even worse than in Aradhana, because of course by the time they come back, the baby is gone!
And this is where the second biggest difference comes in (I’ll get to the first biggest in a moment). In Lace, Phoebe Cates is a starlet and a sex symbol, assumed to be loose and easy, but also with her own power and money to set this whole plan in motion. In Dil Aashna Hai, Divya Bhatia was sold to a brothel, raised as a courtesan, and now performs in a hotel restaurant while dodging the advances of pimps and potential patrons. It’s a huge difference on paper, but in terms of their positions in society, it’s kind of brilliantly equal!
Divya’s character is definitely a courtesan in the traditional mode, she is even called a “Tawaif” multiple times. She may have been raised in a brothel, but she has the refinements and training to be at home on any level of society. And she has non-sexual skills (dancing, singing) that can make her a good living. But while she may be accepted at parties and entertainments, and can be paid huge amounts of money, she isn’t quite respectable, part of the higher levels. In India, if her character had been made into a starlet, she would have been respectable and a good choice for a boy from a nice family (Tina Munim married an Ambani!), or at the worst lower-middle class (at least, in the 90s. Of course rumor has it that many of the early actresses came from Tawaif backgrounds themselves). And in America, if she had been the American equivalent of a Tawaif (so, a stripper maybe?), she would never have had the power and access and comfort in high society that her character needs. But that perfect combination of shockingly unacceptable but can interact with the best people, that is just right for a sexy starlet (in the West) and a Tawaif (in India).
And then there’s the biggest difference! All the Men! The man many Men! Putting more focus on the school girl love stories means each of the heroes gets their own little love scene. And then get to come back in the second half! Well, all but one of them. Nassar Abdulla must have had a filming conflict, but Jeetendra and Mithun came back. Also, the male cast was considerably higher profile in the Indian version, reflecting the greater status of their characters. The cast in general was higher profile, really. Partly just because a movie is always going to get bigger names than a TV show. But also because Indian actors are more willing to be part of a multi-star story than American. And Indian actresses are more desperate for good roles! So instead of 3 barely known TV and stage stars, like in the original, the 3 mothers are Amrita Singh, Dimple Kapadia, and Sonu Walia. Okay, Sonu Walia isn’t like a top-top name, but Dimple and Amrita sure were! (fun wiki fact, Sonu Walia was Miss India after Juhi Chawla and before Mehr Jesia. One year later or one year earlier and she could have been a major movie star or married to Arjun Rampal).
(If I had to choose, I think I might have gone with marriage to Arjun Rampal over stardom in a constant competition with Madhuri Dixit)
Most important of all the men is, of course, Shahrukh Khan! In his 3rd role ever! (It was supposed to be his first, but the release got delayed) And he is ADORABLE!!! Skinny body, baby face, already knows how to work the dimples. He is also a little tired. This is his 3rd movie out of 4 that came out in 1992. And then 5 the year after that. There are some scenes when he is just standing around in the background while other people talk and I got a definite vibe of “I’m just taking a little nap with my eyes open while everyone else talks around me because I’ve been working on 4 different sets for 20 hours.”
(“I’ll just lean against this doorjam. No one will notice.”)
Besides Shahrukh being ADORABLE, his character is also fascinating. In the original, so far as I can tell from the wiki description, there is no real character equivalent for him. He provides unquestioning support and assistance to Divya in her quest, whether it is paying off witnesses, beating up pimps, or encouraging sweet old ladies to reveal secrets. He also provides a big motive for the quest, since his family will only support their relationship (and she will only feel worthy of his love), once they know her real background. And, of all the characters, he is the only one who never judges her for her courtesan background. In a classic Indian film move, when she offers him “anything” in gratitude for his help, he slaps her. Because she should never offer herself to any man! Including him!
(The face of a man who is about to slap the woman he loves for her own good)
But that moment is the only time he really fits in the mold of the Indian movie “savior” hero. He never rescues her, he never takes control of her quest, he isn’t even present for many of the big moments. She doesn’t really need him, although it is nice to have him around.
He doesn’t fit in the mold of the American hero in this kind of film either. In American films, the handsome hunk is a complete non-entity, something to aspire to and fight over like a dress or a job, but not a real person. Going back to the original “bitchy” American narrative, The Women, which famously didn’t even have the men appear onscreen, as they were not needed to be physically present for the women to fight over. Shahrukh is definitely present, he has his own little mini-arch, standing up to his father and insisting on marrying the woman he wants. But at the same time, he is less present than an Indian hero, who would usually be controlling all the pieces on the table.
It’s the kind of role he played a lot in the early years. The helpless young boy, directed by his women, his elders, his whoevers. The women part is what I find particularly fascinating, that he started out in all of these very female oriented movies. This one in particular, Divya is much more the lead than he, and the three older women also get more of a story than he does. Plus, it was directed by Hema!
(I mean, look at this song! He is literally following her lead)
Divya is great in this, by the way. Super cute, has some awesomely 90s dances, and convincingly plays “innocent young Tawaif tormented by love for a man for whom she does not feel worthy.” I’m glad they gave her a happier ending than poor Pheobe Cates gets in the original. Pheobe doesn’t have an unhappy ending, but it feels a little more grudging. In this, after all 3 women confront their guilt in failing to protect Divya (there is a whole thing about her being kidnapped from the orphanage before they could come back and adopt her), her mother triumphantly claims her in the midst of a fancy society party, and the other two women quickly claim their rights as her “other mothers”. And, best of all, in the end she is kidnapped by an eeeeeeeeeeevil person, and rescued by her mothers, her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s father, and her own father who has returned, an army hero!
(Although Phoebe Cates never had to wear this wig!)
Again, the differences are so interesting! Indian film is supposed to be so much more conservative than American. And of course in many ways it is. But in the American version, our illegitimate child was doomed to become a sex symbol, never able to have true love, not even wanted by her own mother. And in the Indian version, she is training to be a prostitute, and yet in the end she gets to marry the man she wants, with the approval of his family, and get not just one, but 3 mothers! Plus 2 fathers (not 3 because Nassar Abdulla couldn’t come back for the second half).
One last note about casting. According to the occasional comment, supposedly Amrita Singh and Shahrukh were childhood friends. Which just seems way too coincidental to be believed! That they would both end up in Bombay as film stars after growing up on the same street in Delhi. But if it is true, I am curious if she had an influence in him being taken for this movie. And, on the other side of things, I am curious how much the connections from this film have helped other people later in their career. For instance, Nassar Abdulla has a pretty sad and empty filmography. But he had tiny little roles in Main Hoon Na (the TV host on the show at the beginning) and Om Shanti Om (Om’s father’s assistant). Did his connection with Shahrukh through this film help him get those roles somehow? Speaking of Main Hoon Na, Kabir Bedi played Shahrukh’s father in this, and the general in Main Hoon Na 12 years later. And Kajol’s father in Dilwale 11 years after that. Was there an extra level of comfort in their scenes because he had played Shahrukh’s Dad back when he was nothing? Did Shahrukh pluck his name from the rolodex of “recognizable tall strong character actors” because he was extra nice to him here?
Heck, how did Hema Malini directing him back then affect their relationship onscreen in Veer-Zaara? Well, I know what effect it had in real life, despite being a BJP politician, she defended him back in November over his “intolerance” remarks, he made a point of attending the music launch of her movie in 2011, and he claims she gave him pivotal advice on the set of this film, from how to comb his hair to how to handle stardom.