It’s been 20 years now, this movie has been made fun of and rehashed and ridiculed over and over, it’s easy to forget what a massive industry changing international hit it was when it first released.
This is the most watered down weak-sauce fake-o-la version of Hindi film possible without actually no longer being Hindi film. If you were to do a line graph with Awara at one end and Bride and Prejudice at the other, this film would be snuggled right up to B and P. And yet not quite crossing that invisible Bride and Prejudice line that separates “Hindi film” from “Hindi film homage”. That’s what makes it so valuable, it is the best test case for “what is the bare minimum required to make a film still sincere and not an imitation”.
Common wisdom has it that Hindi film breaks down to two things, Stars and Songs. That’s what K3G is all about, it has 6 major stars and 6 major songs. Stars from every generation and songs from every genre. Of course, the stars are playing rather shallow character types and conflicts. And the songs are heavy on the spectacle and light on the poetry. But they are still stars and songs.
That’s why I make K3G my intro movie for people at my movie night. It is to Hindi cinema as pizza is to Italian food. Everyone likes it, no one complains, and it is recognizably Italian on some basic level even if it is missing most of the depth and deliciousness of more authentic Italian food.
Okay, that’s all my mean things I have to say. Here’s the nice things. If all this movie has is Stars and Songs, at least it uses them really really well. And mixes them together really really well. Every single song is a perfect example of a particular aspect of it’s star’s power. Whether it is Shahrukh-Kajol chemistry, Jaya-Amitabh sweetness, Hrithik youthful sexiness, Kareena glamour, or of course the most complicated, when all 6 combine together.
In other “nice” news, it also has the purest most obvious example of the way Indian film picks up on older Indian cultural traditions, through the constant way Hrithik and Shahrukh are set to mimic Lakshman and Ram. Little things like marrying sisters to being less than full brothers, and big things like Shahrukh obediently going into exile as a sign of love for his father. If I ever need to prove to people that Indian film is directly related to the ancient oral traditions of South Asian culture, BAM! Here it is!
And then there’s the spectacle. Costumes, hair, sets, everything is big big BIG. It’s not just a love song, it’s a love song by the pyramids! It’s not just a big house outside Delhi, it’s a house so big you can only reach it by helicopter. He’s not just the cute boy in school, he is the boy so cute he inspires his own cheerleading team to follow him around.
And the performances aren’t bad either! The roles and plot are tailermade for these stars, fit like a glove, and the stars live up to it. Shahrukh is the charming-est and sexiest he has ever been, Hrithik is the most confident and handsome, Kareena is the most arrogant and secretly sweet, Amitabh has the greatest gravitas, Jaya the greatest quiet suffering, Farida Jalal the greatest cheerfulness, and Kajol the greatest Kajolitude (which either means you hate her or you love her here, there is no middle-ground).
Most of all, it just feels warm and fun and happy. It’s not an homage, not exactly, but there is a bit of nostalgia, a bit of tribute, a bit of relaxing into familiarity as into a warm bath. Karan designed this film to be a combination of Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Kabhi Kabhi, and that’s what it feels like, somehow familiar and old-fashioned while at the sometime feeling updated and fresh for a new era. Shahrukh and Kajol, they were playing the same roles together they had played in 5 films before. Kareena, she looked just like her sister and her mother before her. Hrithik, he was the same hero he had been in his last 4 hit films. And Jaya and Amitabh, it was like watching your parents onscreen, we had seen them fall in and out of love in real and reel life for the past 30 years. That is what makes it just barely on the correct side of the Bride and Prejudice line. This isn’t a movie made by or for people who see Hindi film as kitsch, or an “experience”, this is for people who grew up within the warm soft embrace of all these films could be and have been. And that’s the other reason I show it to people as their first movie, if you watch this film you don’t go into Hindi films ready to love at them or minimize them, but ready to love them.
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It’s a surprisingly simple plot once you strip away all the songs and spectacle and so on. Shahrukh and Hrithik are brothers, Jaya and Amitabh are their parents. Shahrukh falls in love with poor girl Kajol while Amitabh is arranging his engagement to fellow rich person Rani. Amitabh is furious and throws Shahrukh and Kajol out, they move to London and create a life together. Ten years later, Hrithik has grown up and decides to track down his brother and sister-in-law and bring them home. He goes to London and meets Kajol’s little sister who has grown up to be Kareena and they fall in love. He works his way into Shahrukh’s family under an assumed name and then reveals himself and begs Shahrukh to come home. Shahrukh refuses until his grandmother dies and his mother asks him to come back home at the funeral. He and Kajol return to the family home and Amitabh finally makes peace with them. Then Hrithik and Kareena get married.
We were complaining a lot in the Jab Tak Hain Jaan review about how there was no real REASON for the 10 years of separation. And it’s kind of the same problem here. Amitabh said to go, so they went. 10 years later they came back and Amitabh says “When did I tell you to go? You should have stayed!” But this time around, it doesn’t actually ruin the script.
For one thing, the whole “when did I say that? Anyway, you should have known I didn’t mean it and not paid attention and done what I told you not to do even though I told you not to do it” conversation is just plain CLASSIC parental guilt trip. Very realistic.
But mostly it is because the conflict comes not from the Amitabh’s mind games, but from the situations they cause. Amitabh welcoming Shahrukh home isn’t the resolution, or rather it isn’t the only resolution. There’s the resolution of the Shahrukh-Kajol romance, when they get married half way through the film. There’s the resolution of the Hrithik-Kareena romance when he stops teasing her and confesses his love in “You Are My Soniya”. There’s the resolution of the almost unspoken sibling rivalry in Shahrukh and Hrithik’s love scene together. And there’s even the resolution of the marriage problems between Jaya and Amitabh in his admission that he needs her, and in her confrontation and declaration of her own authority. Amitabh is the central problem, but he spins off multiple other problems in all kinds of directions each of which have their own resolution.
That’s another reason this is kind of an ur-text (is that how that is spelled?) of Hindi film. It is about the patriarchy, represented by the ultimate Patriarch, and all the many many ways it screws people up. Each little subsection of story is a different way.
First there’s Hrithik and Shahrukh. The hidden central story. Shahrukh is the older brother, the second-in-command of the family. Hrithik grows up feeling overlooked and left behind, the “spare” rather than the “heir”. He whines his way through childhood, leaning on his nanny and food as substitutes for real love. And Shahrukh enjoys dominating him, waves his status in front of his face. Until it gets real, when the Patriarchy that has been slowly driving a wedge between them their whole lives accelerates the process, and sends Shahrukh away suddenly elevating Hrithik to the position of first son. Shahrukh’s last move on the way out of town is to stop and visit Hrithik, to try to pass on some strength to the one who has to struggle to replace him.
Hrithik’s great rebellion is to reject his new position. Like Bharat refusing to take the throne and instead leaving Ram’s shoes to hold the place, Hrithik will not fully accept his role as the only son. Instead he decides his father was wrong, he is wrong, the right thing to do is to track down Shahrukh and give him back his honor. And Shahrukh’s great rebellion is his reaction, when Hrithik finally admits his identity. He says he does not need to meet his father, or his mother. He just needs to see Hrithik one more time, that is enough. They spent their early years being set against each other, but now they have realized that they are stronger together than alone, that each needs the other as much or more than they need the useless old Patriarch. Youth united rather than age alone.
And then there’s Rani. She is barely in the film, but she has her own little rebellion. Her father and Shahrukh’s father have decided she should marry Shahrukh. She is in love with Shahrukh. It would be easy to just go with what the powers that be want from her. But instead, she rebels. She talks to Shahrukh directly and confirms what it is that HE wants, and makes her decision based on that information. She decides without hesitation to go against the decision made by her elders and form her own life.
(Good religious Rani who loves her father and Shahrukh’s parents, still ready to go against them when she knows it is right)
Moving on down the line, there’s also Shahrukh and Kajol. They are in love, one of the greatest possible rebellions. But neither of them really questions their position in the world. They are in fact the least rebellious characters which makes their punishment for their “transgressions” so obviously false, so unfair, as to incite rebellion in others. Kajol resists falling in love with Shahrukh because he is rich, because he is a man, because her father didn’t pick him out, because she doesn’t want to leave her father. She falls in love with him, but will not act on it, because she sees her father and little sister together and remembers she has a responsibility to them that goes beyond her own desires.
Shahrukh falls in love with Kajol, and at first does not see that as against his duty to the patriarchy. Men are supposed to fall in love, to conquer, to bring women home with them. It is only when Amitabh learns and disapproves of the relationship that Shahrukh decides he must give it up, better to break his own heart (and Rani’s by the way since she has already said she doesn’t want this marriage) than bring tears to his father’s eyes.
And so like good dutiful young people, they prepare to sacrifice their whole lives at the alter of the patriarchy. Until fate intervenes. My favorite moment of the film, Shahrukh comes to tell her good-bye, and sees that her father has died and she and her little sister are all alone crying over his body. And that changes everything. Before, they had flirted and loved but all under the protection of being essentially powerless. If their relationship did not end in marriage, she would not lose respect or safety in the neighborhood because she would still have her father with her. And if he walked away, he could say it was because his father ordered it and she would understand. But now Shahrukh walks into a situation where the patriarch has been removed, and two young women are left falling down (literally) without that strength to support them. It is the moment that, in an odd way, he was born and trained for, a life time of being taught how to be the head of the household with the expectation of taking over for his father at his father’s death, and now he finds himself automatically instead taking the place of the head of someone else’s household, becoming the man that Kajol and little Kareena at this moment in time need to lean on. He does nothing wrong, in fact he does everything right, he takes responsibility just as he was taught. And she gives up responsibility, obeys her new patriarch just as she was taught. And yet, they are punished, for this situation completely beyond their control. And the little people, the ones living under the tyranny of Amitabh, they are stunned at this wrong and it begins the rebellion that grows and grows until it takes him down.
Jaya and Farida, they are next. Amitabh does not like their closeness, he refuses Jaya permission to go to Farida’s daughter’s wedding. But Jaya talks to her in secret, asks her to go with Shahrukh and care for him. Jaya isn’t openly rebelling, but she is resisting a bit, using connections that Amitabh dismisses and disapproves of in order to bend his rules a bit. Even before that, she takes a moment to give her bracelets to Kajol, a traditional mother-in-law to daughter-in-law gift, before saying good-bye. She obeys the letter of the law, not communicating with Shahrukh and Kajol once they leave, but she is already avoiding the spirit of it.
And her small rebellions continue even while we aren’t watching. We come back ten years later to find the couple estranged, the house cold and empty. Jaya has been following her “wifely duties” by obeying Amitabh’s direct orders, but she hasn’t been giving him love, and has perfected the passive aggressive jab and side glance. She only comes back to him when he begs, broken down by her lack of love, and then turns on him again mere weeks later, declaring that she has lost all respect for him and will no longer obey his orders. This is what happens to the authoritarian, they drive all sincere love and affection away from them until only resentment and anger is left. Jaya’s story is of a woman who loves her husband because he has made her life full of love and happiness. And then slowly comes to hate him and lose all respect as he takes away the things that make her happy one by one.
Kareena is an interesting character, because she shows what can happen when the Patriarch inspires no fear whatsoever, but still love. Shahrukh is the head of her family, she loves him and worries about him and respects him. But he has no ability to limit what clothes she wears, who she dates, any of that. It is a family joke, the way he will play act being the authority while in reality they all laugh at him. But on the other hand, when he makes a decision, they all follow it out of choice and trust. At the very end, Hrithik and Kareena both wish to go back to Amitabh and Jaya’s house. But they will not go without Shahrukh. He does not forbid them, or give them permission, he does not give any opinion at all on their decision. But they, for themselves, decide to honor him as the head of the household and refuse to make a move without his approval. In the same way Kajol and he have a much more relaxed marriage than Amitabh and Jaya, less focused on rules. But when it comes down to the major decisions, Kajol naturally turns to him to take the lead because he has earned her trust and respect.
And so we finally reach the end of the film. Amitabh, the center of this massive family group, chose to shatter what they had built. And so the network re-formed without him, mother to son, husband to wife, brother to brother, sister-in-law to brother-in-law, even female friend to friend, a new net with no clear center. As Hrithik and Kareena and Kajol and Shahrukh arrive at the house, they are met by Jaya, love and memories bond them all together, and Amitabh is left outside of things. And so we reach the end to discover it is not Amitabh bringing Shahrukh back into the family, but rather the rest of the family agreeing to allow Amitabh to join their new group. Amitabh breaks down, tries to touch Shahrukh’s feet, reveals his weakness. Shahrukh has won, Amitabh has lost. Ram went into exile, but all of Ayodha followed him and the king lost his kingdom.
(Just like Mohabbatein, Shahrukh’s love defeats Amitabh’s Angry Old Man. Only, less boring and with a better heroine and younger cast)