Spellcheck wants me to replace “Mohabbatein” with “Mountbatten”. This makes me giggle every single time. Do you think it is possible that the whole film is an allegory for Edwina and Nehru’s affair? Amitabh is Mountbatten, Aish is Edwina, Shahrukh is Nehru, the school is India, Anupam Kher is Gandhi? It TOTALLY WORKS.
This is a very very boring movie. It’s big, it’s slow, it has too much stuff happening. Most Hindi films have a lot of stuff happening, but usually it is a lot of stuff happening in sequence. Our hero is orphaned, becomes a thief, is arrested, makes friends in jail, turns police informer, falls in love while undercover, his girlfriend is kidnapped, he has to work against both sides to save her, dies, and then the 20 minute opening section is over and we jump 20 years into the future to follow the story of his son. That’s a fun movie! This movie, where everything happens at the same time and nothing really changes, we just keep cutting between multiple stories to feel like things are changing, that’s not so fun. But then, it’s not supposed to be fun. Adi made this movie by the numbers. Songs, stars, storyline that would all be commercially viable. He didn’t want to take a risk or do anything exciting or upsetting anywhere, so that the one big risk at the center of it all could be protected.
Amitabh Bachchan was an unprecedented star in Hindi film. For over a decade, every hit film was an Amitabh film. If you didn’t have him, you might as well not even bother. He WAS the Hindi film industry. And when he started to falter and fall, Hindi film did too. During the 80s, as Amitabh aged and his collaborators lost their creative spark, Hindi film sank. The families left the theaters, only the young men remained. The Hindi films that Amitabh created, the deep philosophical action films, were turned shallow and ugly, all the depth removed and only the violence remaining. And then Aditya Chopra rescued the Hindi box office. He crafted a film and a star that would bring the families back to the theater, and attract the new diaspora audience as well. Suddenly Amitabh was left behind, Shahrukh and romance were on the rise. By 1999 when this film came out, Shahrukh was the king and so was romance. Amitabh was left in the dust.
But Aditya had a plan. His father had made Amitabh with Deewar, he made Shahrukh with DDLJ, and now he was going to unite them and at the same time solve the “Amitabh Problem”. He was going to find a way for Amitabh to exist in this new era of film as a new kind of actor.
The solution wasn’t to try to keep Amitabh away from the new style of film, it was to welcome him into it. Welcome him into it, but don’t make him change himself to fit. Aditya decided to lean into the conflict. Create a film explicitly about “love” (the new value of the 90s films) versus “duty” (the value of the older Amitabh films). Drop Amitabh with all his nobility and anger and so on right into the light hearts and flowers world of the 90s, and see what happens.
This film marked the birth of a new Amitabh. It’s hard to convey how important that was, how the whole world breathed a sigh of relief once he appeared, unless you were there. Or you can think about how happy you would be if someone figured out how to make Shahrukh gracefully age into a new avatar without losing what made him special in his old avatar.
All of Mohabbatein is built around the few moments of confrontation between Shahrukh and Amitabh. The other characters, the entire dumb plot, exists only to give them an excuse to talk to each other. If you watch the Mohabbatein edit that is just Shahrukh and Amitabh talking, it is a great movie. And a nice 45 minute film! If you watch the version that is the actual movie, it is very slow and dull and meandering and a wee bit pointless.
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I think Adi started out writing this film by thinking on the Shahrukh-Amitabh conflict he wanted to create. He needed a question of love versus duty and greater society in a way that would echo Mughal-E-Azam. But he needed a conflict where “love” would be the right answer over “duty”. And he needed a backstory that would make Shahrukh and Amitabh enemies who had never met before.
For the conflict to have the right lightness, he picked a boarding school. Picking “love” in this case is very low stakes, and “society” is a tiny world that can be challenged and broken without drastic effects. Even the authority is fairly weak, Shahrukh isn’t encouraging the characters to rebel against their parents or other legitimate authority figures, just the school principal. On the other hand, it is still a legitimate conflict because Shahrukh is only the teacher, he has no greater rights over these children than Amitabh does. They can both believe they are doing the right thing and either could be correct.
Once Adi had the essential conflict concept, he had to craft a backstory. Making Shahrukh the lover of Amitabh’s daughter is a classic conflict and something that would cause passion between them without them ever having need to meet before. But then, if the daughter was alive the conflict would be a triangle, not a line. Okay, the daughter has to die. And if she has to die, might as well make her die in a way calculated to bring the greatest amount of tragedy and complication to the conflict, heck in a way that will start off the conflict.
The film is now all nice and tidy and complete. Setting is a boy’s school, conflict is between the principal of the school and a new teacher with the boy’s as the objects of the conflict. Bigger question is love versus duty. And backstory for the conflict is that the teacher loved the principal’s daughter in the past and they both blame each other for her death, the principal because love broke her heart and the boy because duty broke her love which broke her heart. It’s the perfect set-up for Shahrukh and Amitabh to confront each other again and again.
Final least important step is to put in the trigger for those conflicts, the boys that they both teach who fall in love. And so we have 3 nice young love stories, that are fine, but ultimately BORING. In order to give scope to the conflict and keep the focus on Shahrukh versus Amitabh, it has to be three. If it was only one, then it would feel like a 3 lead film instead of a straight conflict between two leads and “love” versus “duty”. But if there are three, none of them can have a really deep plot or character, there isn’t time for that, they get one third of the whole movie that is further subdivided into 3 until they are left with a pitiful 1/9th. It works perfectly for keeping Shahrukh and Amitabh at a higher deeper character level, not so well for making us actually care about the other characters.
Even the worst part of the film, the love stories, isn’t terrible. Adi is a good craftsman, he came up with something a little unique for each of them. A young widow being encouraged back to life, an old friend from childhood, and a taunting rivalry relationship. Adi also went all out in using the multi-star format to bring interest to the song sequences, there is something special about having 6 young dancers weaving around each other with Shahrukh as the special guest star.
But after the first watch, the young love stories lose any luster or depth and we are left only holding on for the Shahrukh-Amitabh moments, But the thing is, that’s what was intended. The songs and love story and all that was to draw the audience in to the theater. The point was the Shahrukh-Amitabh conflict that we weren’t even expecting, this new unexpected Amitabh reborn and going toe to toe with the biggest star of the day.