Well, “lessor”, meaning not all time classics. It’s a pretty darn good movie, really! Or at least a fun movie.
So, I just put Zamaana-Deewana on my Christmas list. I already own it (of course, I own all Shahrukh movies. Yes, even Maya Memsaab), but I need another back-up copy for when my current copy wears out. To which the response I got from my family was “You wore out a copy of ZAMAANA-DEEWANA?!?!?”
See, most people don’t appreciate the brilliance of this film. If you look at it as a straight up 90s rom-com-action-family-gangster film, it’s got a super super sexy song:
and cute baby-faced Shahrukh:
and an awesome Anupum Kehr drag number:
but otherwise it is nothing special.
But, if you look at in context of the director’s career, it is fascinating!
So, Zamaana-Deewana is the last film directed by Ramesh Sippy, director of Sholay. Poor Ramesh Sippy, at age 28 he made not just his greatest film, but the greatest film in the history of Indian film. Where do you go from there? Where he went was a long descent into irrelevance, fighting it every step of the way.
To back up a moment, let’s talk about Ramesh Sippy’s childhood (if I’ve learned anything from Indian movies, it’s that all the important motivations happen in the childhood flashback). Sippy’s Dad, G.P. Sippy was one of the first, and the few, businessman producers. Because of the legal difficulties with making films in India (censorship, lack of industrial status prior to 1999, constant threat of civil cases against you, the mob’s protection racket, etc. etc.), most producers are also directors (or actors or writers) who get into the business for the love of film rather than simply to make money.
GP Sippy not only got into film to make money, he was really good at it! He started funding films back in the 1950s, and by the 1960s was one of the leading producers in the industry. Eventually, he did get into directing, but it was more from a standpoint of saving a buck and doing it himself than a deep artistic calling.
Ramesh grew up on filmsets, acting where a bit player was needed, watching his father fight with writers and directors until he got the most profitable possible version, making nice with the stars and star composers, learning all that goes into a film.
And then when he was 23, his father gifted him a film, Andaz. It looked like the first financial miss-step of GP Sippy’s producing career-who would let their 23 year old kid direct the two biggest male stars of the day (Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna) with a recent arrival from the southern industries (Hema Malini), and a plot about widow re-marriage?
And then of course it turned into a huge hit. Shammi gave a totally out of character performance as a sad widower, Rajesh Khanna was riding high on a string of hits and even his glorified cameo appearance gave a boost to the box office, and Hemaji was Hemaji.
This first film was notable for several reasons; the way Ramesh juggled the star cast, the slightly radical societal message, the strong female characters. Ramesh doubled down (literally!) on the strong female characters with his next, Seeta Aur Geeta in which Hema Malini plays identical twins with very different personalities.
He also upped the star cast, having Hema be romanced by both Sanjeev Kumar and Dharmendra (side-note: this was also the beginning of Hema’s real life love triangle between the two men, although watching the film kind of spoils how it will end, as she has crazy chemistry with one of them and not so much with the other). The film was a huge hit, especially internationally. There is a good chance, if you grew up in the USSR during the 1980s, you saw this movie.
Most importantly, Seeta Aur Geeta confirmed the partnership between Sippy and the scriptwriters Salim-Javed. They had worked on Andaz as well, but it was with Seeta Aud Geeta that they proved their brilliance to the Sippy father and son.
The Sippy’s put their faith in Salim-Javed and paid them to start working on their magnum-opus, a film about two crooks who go to save a village from bandits. And thus was born Sholay.
We all know what happened when Sholay came out. Slow start, followed by massive success, ran for 5 years, defined the careers of all who worked in it, Hema Malini married Dharmendra, etc. etc.
But what happened to Ramesh afterwords? Well, eventually, he had to go back to work and try to make something that could compete with his own brilliance. His next film, Shaan, was basically Sholay, but bigger! Two more loafers with hearts of gold, another big bad villain, another noble cop. Only this time, the villain has a remote Island hide-out, and the end fight scene involves helicopters! And, explosions!
(I have no idea what language those subtitles are in) (Update: Romanian! Thank you Anna!)
Basically, he was attempting to imitate his own imitators, who had taken the success of Sholay and only seen in it an epic action film, not an action film with multiple strong social messages, brilliant characterizations, perfect casting, and really, perfect everything.
So, Shaan didn’t work the way he hoped, his next film, he leaned heavily into the social message side of Sholay. And the amazing acting/casting side, as he managed to get Amitabh Bachchan acting against Dilip Kumar (by the way, happy day after your birthday, Dilipsaab!). Great script concept, a noble cop who fights for justice inside the law must confront his own son who fights for justice outside of it, lots of nice twists, some clever call backs to the 1950s classic Awara, it all looks great.
And it is great! Shakti is an evergreen classic. But it was no Sholay. Failed to set the box office on fire, failed to truly win the hearts and minds of the Indian public.
So what’s left for Ramesh to try, as he fights his way down to the bottom? Well, there’s always sex! Saagar, his next, still has that Sippy touch with the casting. He got Dimple Kapadia in her comeback film, which reunited her with her Bobby caste-mate Rishi Kapoor. And southern genius Kamal Haasan in one of his few Hindi roles. But it is mostly remembered because Dimple has a brief topless scene. It was the mid-80s, after a decade of post-Sholay action movies, the audience was mostly made up of teenage boys, and that’s what they wanted.
And then he reached a turning point. Much like one of his own heroes, he shook his fist to the sky and swore he would stop living this life of lies! Or at least, that’s how I picture it. His next film, Akayla, not only starred Amitabh, it was written by Salim-Javed and revolved around twins. It even has a reference to Seeta Aur Geeta built into it! Anyway, this last desperate attempt to reclaim his destiny failed horribly, both critically and at the box office.
(yes, I skipped this movie in Sippy-fest, it was too terrible even for me)
And then, finally, 4 years later, we have Zamaana-Deewana. Think of Thakur Sahib patiently watching Ramlaal pound the nails into his shoes. He is methodically and outwardly calm, but inside he is on fire! He wants to destroy, piece by piece, that which took his dreams from him. This is how I picture Ramesh approaching his first 1990s Rom-Com.
So, it opens with a meeting of the police department as they struggle to deal with the gang war going on in their city. A classic set-up for a 70s film exploring the connections between order and disorder, crime and criminals. But it is interrupted! By Anupum Kehr, wacky top-cop, who’s solution for this crime spree is simple: A Love Story!!!
Which leads directly into a 20 minute sequence of Shahrukh Khan and Raveena Tandon falling into picture perfect, saccharine sweet, love. If you watch it straight, it is kind of boring and by the numbers love song.
But it isn’t not straight at all. After it is over, Anupum Kehr admits that it was all his fantasy of how young people will behave and he is promptly shouted down by others, because of course that is a ridiculous fantasy.
To see what Ramesh is getting, compare this:
That is some epic shade, right there! I mean, I love Maine Pyar Kiya and QSQT, but they really do have the most ridiculously sweet and innocent characters. I can see Ramesh Sippy, with his complex character with adult problems, like widow remarriage or violent criminals or the divide between law and justice, just spitting on these puppy-eyed twerps taking over his films.
His point just becomes clearer once we are actually introduced to our hero and heroine as they really are, not as they are imagined. The 90s directors saw Indian youth as pure and innocent, blank slates for emotions, or to put it another way, stupid. Sippy sees them as crazy conmen, full of energy, power, and no direction. Remember, this is our hero:
The film really peaks in the first half hour, with that awesome fantasy sequence take-down, but there are other delights in store for the viewer who watches it with an eye to the 90s tropes. The ending takes the “interrupted wedding” idea to the extreme, with fathers and other authority figures changing their tunes second by second depending on the perceived marital status of the heroine:
(I also like when she is going to commit suicide by using the ceremonial fire to burn her wedding sari. So the metaphors are just too rich to swallow!)
And of course, we have the extremely literal take on the “oh my goodness, now I know what love is!” moment. The super sexy song above comes about because the hero and heroine’s eyes meet, in the rain, and then they have to be force ably separated and locked in separate rooms, or else they will have sex, right there, and nothing can stop it! Even though, mere hours earlier, they were actually handcuffed together and locked in a bedroom, and nothing happened:
(Because they aren’t in luuuuurrrrv yet.)
Anyway, if you watch this film as a straight up 90s Rom-com-gangster-action film, it ricochets wildly between being super boring (all the set-up for the gangster feud and evil plotting! Get to the point already!), and super strange (why does Anupum Kehr have a ten minute drag scene?). But if you watch it as bitter, angry Ramesh Sippy shouting to the world “See! See what you have reduced me too!”, then it is brilliant.