It’s been pointed out that I might appear to undervalue this film and that is why I haven’t spoken much about it. Truly, I don’t undervalue it! It’s just such an unusual film that it doesn’t fit easily with a discussion of anything else. Nothing else is really like it, and therefore available for comparison with it. And it didn’t start a particular trend in filmmaking (beyond the general “Family Films” trend), because it would be so hard to imitate. But yes, I do know about this movie, I know all sorts of things about it and I am aware of it’s place in film history.
This movie is made by Rajshri, which is as unusual a film company as HAHK is as a film. It was the first and for a long time the only studio which also served as a distributor. This meant it was able to make films that no one else believed in and give them a release that let them find an audience.
In 1975, Sholay was the top film at the box office. Violent, angry, about society breaking down and so on and so on. And the second top film was Jai Santoshi Maa, which was completely different. And a Rajshri film.
Jai Santoshi Maa was a film about women, about families, and about religion. 3 things that were not remembered in the Amitabh era of films. And it had no big name stars. No one would have thought that it would sell tickets in this era. But it did!
Jai Santoshi Maa tells the story of a young woman, played by Kanan Kaushal a Marathi actress, who worships the Goddess Santoshi. Santoshi is a “new” goddess. That is, she is vaguely referenced in older texts, but her worship really began and spread rapidly through word of mouth and popular pamphlets in the 1960s. She is a daughter of the god Ganesh, and worshiping her is supposed to bring happiness and success to the devotee. Most importantly, the worship practices popularized for her were very very simple. They involved a fast for 16 Fridays, and offerings of flowers, chickpeas, and sugar to your personal altar to the Goddess.
This is the kind of worship that an overworked housewife without much money can accomplish. Many of the higher levels of worship in Hinduism involve expensive ingredients, travel to temples, elaborate time and space consuming rituals-all of which restrict these devotions to only the leisure classes. Santoshi Maa’s popularity, in its own way, was part of the same revolution of the underclass as Amitabh’s Angry Young Man films. But a quiet revolution, of poor housewives flocking to worship a Goddess that respected their desires, not just the older Gods who seemed cut off and only available to the elites. The plot of the film reflects that, as a revolution is happening in heaven at the same time as on earth, Santoshi Maa demanding her rightful place and the efforts of her devotees helping her increase her power. A call for collective action for social justice as the best way to effect change in higher levels of power.
Rajshri wrapped this rebellion in “traditional” messages. Our young heroine leads her own worship, but what she wants from that worship is a husband. And her methods of getting, and keeping, that husband are through worship within the home, not through anything more radical. For instance, fighting a battle to maintain her place amongst her many in-laws, rather than fighting a battle to move out of the combined household and into her own home, questioning the very underpinnings of society.
Jai Santoshi Maa is the most successful Rajshri film (until Hum Aapke Hain Koun), but the issues it raises are also representative of the issues in most Rajshri films. A turning towards “tradition”, but in an untraditional way. Breaking some rules but upholding others. And not just in content, but in style.
Rajshri films are one of the few to keep the original song styles of Indian film. Way way back at the beginning of the industry, “songs” were not a moment to stop dead for 5 minutes and then pick the plot up again. They were more like the Parsi theater tradition, or light Opera in the West. Songs as sung dialogue, or leitmotifs. Woven in and out of the film. And they are not fantasy, they are the real actors and actresses dancing in elaborate costumes, in temples or gardens or other beautiful sets.
(the original version of this song, a man walking down the street singing, very different from the elaborate complex version we saw in the title version from the recent Ae Dil Hai Mushkil)
With all of this to be recorded by the camera, it is perhaps forgivable that the actual camera work in these films is fairly unremarkable. Framing is static, lighting is basic (day, night, and twilight is about it). There is minimal use of shadows, camera movements, anything imaginative. Instead, that imagination is lavished on the movement of the people in front of the camera. Heads tilted just so, eyes meeting, the flow of a skirt as it runs across the frame, the flicker of a hand.
Rajshri films brought in a new era of rebellion-without-rebellion in 1988 with Maine Pyar Kiya. A romance that takes place almost entirely within the home, where Mother’s permission is required before a couple can truly fall in love, where our heroine dreams only of being a wife, and is ashamed to even show her ankles before marriage.
But it is still a rebellious romance. A couple in love across class boundaries and without the permission of their fathers. A couple in love at all, that is still a rebellion. And in some ways that rebellion is heightened by the perfection surrounding it. Even these two, these total innocents, can be “guilty” of love. Which begs the question, is love a sin at all? If two such sinless ones can feel it? Not to mention that the culmination of their love song occurs inside a temple, the power of God bringing them together.
Maine Pyar Kiya introduced a young director, Sooraj Barjatya (grandson of the founder of Rajshri films) and brought a young star, Salman Khan, to superstardom. This team came back together again 5 years later for Hum Aapke Hain Koun. The film which would make all other hits, going all the way back to Sholay and Jai Santoshi Maa, look like also-rans.
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Before moving on, I am going to give the entire plot of the film. It is a very simple plot. Mohnish Behl and Salman are brothers raised by their bachelor uncle Alok Nath. Alok Nath arranges an engagement for Mohnish Behl with Renuka Shahane, daughter of his old friends Anupam Kher and Reema Lagoo. At the engagement, Salman meets Renuka’s younger sister Madhuri. Through the engagement, marriage, and then preparations for the birth of Renuka and Mohnish’s first child, Salman and Madhuri secretly flirt and become closer and closer. Finally, they reveal their love to Renuka who immediately approves and declares her plan to arrange their engagement (in her role as the oldest female in Salman’s family). But before she can tell anyone else, she dies after a tragic fall, leaving her son motherless. In an effort to provide a mother for the baby, Alok suggests to Anupam and Reema that Mohnish should marry Madhuri. Madhuri at first misunderstands them to mean Salman. However, even when she learns the truth, she decides not to say anything as it has brought so much joy to everyone to plan this wedding. Salman understands and accepts her decision. At the last moment, the truth is revealed, the families understand immediately the purpose of their sacrifice and applaud them for making it, but insist that it is purposeless, Madhuri can move into the household as an aunt rather than a mother to this orphaned baby. Happy Ending with another wedding.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun is not an original plot. The older siblings marrying and younger siblings falling in love plot is a regular through out time and space. After all, Ram and Lashman married sisters. And the second half of the plot is not unusual either, it appeared in an Isreali film Fill the Void in 2012, and in real life with the engagement of Mary of Teck to King George V after the death of her previous fiance, his brother Victor. More specifically, Hum Aapke Hain Koun was based on a Bhojpuri language film that Rajshri had previously produced in 1982.
(I don’t know about the Isreali movie, I never saw it, but it worked out well for Mary of Teck and George V. He comforted her in her grief, she came to love the younger brother as much as she had loved the older)
Bhojpuri films gained a minor popularity in the 80s and early 90s. While the Hindi films became increasingly urban, the audience turned to smaller language industries to fulfill the need for something that felt “Indian”. Rajshri was good at these films, making them in multiple languages and doing targeted releases. But the story of Hum Aapke Hain Koun was something that Sooraj Barjatya discovered could be massaged into not just an All India hit, but an All World hit. A story line based on simple joys of family, food, religion, songs, dogs, babies, and love which would give people the India they wanted to remember, to believe in.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun is a fascinating mixture of old and new. Our heroine wears elaborate traditional garb, made out of old silks with hand embroidery, not the simple chiffon westernized styles. But she also wears blue jeans. Our hero lives in a combined family and reveres his older brother. But he also has a snazzy modern car and telephone and billiard table.
Essentially (and I am not the first person to say this), this film embraces the consumer aspects of modernity without the underlying philosophies. Cute hats and cool cars and big hair, but arranged marriages, long family games of Antakshari, engagements solemnized in temples. Everything happening based on rituals and practices so ancient as to make this film almost timeless, remove the telephone in the background or the electric light, and any scene of the film could come from any era of history.
This is what has been so hard, in fact impossible, to replicate. The message of family and love and so on, that was picked up quickly. The long loving scenes of the Punjabi farmhouse in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the elaborate multi-generation love story of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, the family friendly humor and excessive emotion of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, that was all inspired by Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Aditya Chopra himself said, when congratulated on the success of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, “We are all just chasing Sooraj.” But those films couldn’t help but put in something that made them of a particular time a place. A sweater with Gap branding, an obvious discussion of the NRI experience as of the 1990s, a scene in a mall. Even Maine Pyar Kiya, before Hum Aapke Hain Koun, ran into those issues, scenes at a factory launch, at a party, which told us exactly what period of Indian development it existed within.
The trick of Hum Aapke Hain Koun is really remarkably simple. It never leaves the home. And the home is always the same. We have the engagement in the temple, a brief drive through the countryside, and otherwise everything occurs within a home. And most of it occurs within familiar rituals that take place inside those homes. It is a soothing safe place, one where nothing seems strange, threatening, unfamiliar.
And it isn’t threatening. Even the threat of a love marriage is contained within the home, within family approval, there is no moment of actual rebellion from our lovers. In fact, their love serves to make them less rebellious, more accepting of their socially defined roles, the man as the worker and the woman as the homemaker. The peak of their love occurs at night when she has stayed up late to serve him food after he has returned from working at the office.
The rebellion, the conflict, takes place almost invisibly under the surface. It is there in little dropped phrases and moments. In “traditional” ways. The most iconic moment of the film is the “Didi Tera Deewar Deewana” song. Which is about women making fun of men, talking about their helplessness, piercing the perceived power of the patriarchy. But it is done within a non-transgressive space, the space that was set aside for this behavior, the all female baby shower. And so it is invisible to the audience. As is the conclusion of the song, in which our hero accepts female rule over him.
Female rule is what rules the day in this film. Our heroine, Madhuri, is the most “active” character, the driving force of the film. She makes the decision at every turning point in the plot. But again, it is not obvious. Because this is a plot that takes place within the home, not in public. Madhuri is not going out into the streets and demanding her rights, or even into an office or a school. She is staying safely in the kitchen, the bedroom, the private areas of the home.
It’s a complicated message. Women are all powerful, but only within their carefully defined sphere. Obviously it resonated with the audience, women flocked to this film, it brought them back into the theaters after years of the VHS market eating away at the female audience. But did it resonate because it inspired rebellion in them, a desire to make decisions for their own life, or did it resonate because it made them feel as though they had made those decisions, that a life lived within the boundaries of the four walls of the home was all they could hope for?
At least women appear in this film. This is a movie that showed a forgotten part of Indian culture, the happy life of a family at home traditions and worship and so on that was often ignored by films in preference for public culture, violence and glamour and so on. But in the process, this film left behind other groups. Religions besides Hinduism are invisible, laborers are invisible, the rest of the world outside India is invisible, the rest of the world outside this house is invisible, the whole surging mass of angry unhappy humanity is invisible.
That’s what I mean by “The India people want to remember”. For the NRI audience in particular, this was a fantasy they craved. The idea that an India existed somewhere, waiting for them, filled with happy singing people. An India they could cling to as what they were “really” about, where they “really” belonged.
And for the Indians in India, this is a fantasy they could try to achieve, they could build towards. Huge families living together, happy times shared, the pleasures of Western consumer objects without the pressure of changing lifestyles. Everything joyful, everything peaceful.
It’s a fantasy, and the style of filmmaking invites us to enter it. The pace of Hum Aapke Hain Koun is so slow as to become hypnotic. The songs flow one to the other, the colors blend into a gorgeous kaleidoscope, the sets become familiar to us as we move in and out of the same rooms and up and down the same halls over and over again. It is a very small world that is shown, but it is a world that increasingly feels like the “real” world as the film goes on, like it is more real than the world we are sitting in as we watch it.
When MF Hussain watched this film, he declared that Madhuri was his new muse, his new Goddess. Because she is the Goddess of this small world in which we live while watching the film, the presiding goddess whose joy gives us joy and whose sorrow brings us sorrow. Rajshri was the company that first found Madhuri, back in the mid-80s, and unsuccessfully launched her. But in this film, they were able to bring to full fire that spark they had first seen when she was just a teenager. She is effortlessly magnetic, real, both human and superhuman somehow.
And Salman, Salman was another Rajshri discovery. Given his star making part in Maine Pyar Kiya which used the youthful energy bursting out of him to give us a young hero that we could believe in. In this, that same energy made him the most human of humans to Madhuri’s Goddess. While she is strong and sure and bright, he is surprisingly sweet and sensitive. He is the one to bring his new sister-in-law out of her shell, to intuit without Madhuri needing to say the words why she is marrying Mohnish, to notice Madhuri’s tears as her sister is married. He spends a lot of time watching her, often positioned below her and looking up. That moment at the end of “Didi Tera” when he kneels before, that is foreshadowed through out their relationship, and is followed through in the remainder of their relationship. Salman has the energy and the physical power and the big heart, but he puts it all in service to her.
From a star studies perspective, this film is the peak of the star image for all of it’s players. Fatherly and funny Anupam Kher will never be more fatherly or funny. Sweet sincere Alok Nath will never be sweeter or more sincere. Heck, even Tuffy the dog will never be more doglike! But it is most apparent with Salman and Madhuri. Madhuri is sometimes called “sexy” or “glamorous”, but that’s not her appeal, not quite. She is more than that, she is beyond sex and beyond glamour, she is not the retiring shy heroine, but she also isn’t the broken vamp, she is something in between, something with the purity of a heroine and the power of a vamp. And that is what this film tapped in to, a woman who accepts her role in the world, who is self-sacrificing and loving, but who does it all with the kind of vibrancy that makes even these small things glow.
The thing about Madhuri is that her glow is so bright, it will always be visible. It’s hard to put her in a film where she will not dominate, will not force the role she has taken into a “Madhuri” part. But Salman is more difficult. He can bend to his character, to his role, more easily. His sweetness, his heart, his beauty, his unique Salman-ness, it only comes out in brief flashes. But this film somehow carved out the excess so that only the Salman at the heart remained. A sweet little brother who wants everyone to be happy, who can feel the hurt of everyone in his household and would rather take it all into himself (giving up the woman he loved) if it would take it away from everyone else (giving them the marriage they want). This is a movie of Salman with the almond shaped eyes, the young breathtakingly handsome Salman who just wants someone to love him. This is the Salman that is always there in his greatest roles, the one who sacrifices his love in Saajan, who does everything for love in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, who gives it all up for love in Ek Tha Tiger.
That’s really what made this film special. It’s a big family ensemble piece with tons of songs and tons of costumes and tons of festivities. But nestled within it is the central love story which glows like a diamond among glass just thanks to the actors that are portraying it.
That is the magic that was never quite recaptured. The later film, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Salman’s sweetness was still there, but there was no heroine to match him. The heroine’s were equally split, Tabu’s dignity and Sonali’s shyness and Karisma’s pep all making their own mark. And so the story split in 3 as well, with Salman as the hero, but of 3 separate storylines. Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, that was a failure straight through. A hero without Salman’s impossible sweetness, and a heroine without Madhuri’s impossible charms, they could not pull off the story they were given. Vivah came closest to recapturing the magic, but that was only because the removed some of the glass pieces around the edge, made the cast smaller, the songs fewer, the costumes smaller, and therefore our hero and heroine were able to shine in their own more modest way. And then there was Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. A new kind of film, one where Salman is not just the hero but the head of the family, the one around which everything revolves. His love story is only part of his responsibilities.
But all those variations, they didn’t come close to capturing the magic of Hum Aapke Hain Koun. And nor did Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham or Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or Raja Hindustani or Mujshe Dosti Karoge or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or any of the hundreds of others that came after. It’s still true what Aditya said, they are all “just chasing Sooraj”.