Woot! It’s 90s week!!!! Gotta start with the two most significant romances of the 90s, Sleepless in Seattle and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Yes, HAHK and DDLJ were more important films in general, and When Harry Met Sally is more influential, but these two movies were the biggest romantic hits of the decade, the ones that you pull out when you just want to swoon over love and not worry about anything else.
The first time I watched Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 16 years ago, it was one of my first Indian films. And it was about 10 years after I had first seen Sleepless in Seattle. I think my parents missed Sleepless in theaters, but everyone they knew said they just HAD to watch it. And then they did and loved it and decided it was a totally appropriate movie for their daughters to watch. So we watched it, and also loved it. And I saw KKHH and went “IT’S THE SAME PLOT!!!!”
Now, 16 years on, I don’t think it is the same plot. It’s the same basic idea, a widower’s child helps him find love again. But that is the only similarity. The widower’s child finding love for their father is hardly an original concept, just off the top of my head we have The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in America, and Andaz in India. It’s a natural idea, single father’s are sexy (because being a good parent is super sexy), so you want a single father hero. And once you have the single father hero, it’s even better if the adorable child can be involved in the romance.
What is different is that KKHH in India and Sleepless in America were these runaway blockbuster totally unexpected hits! For one of my grad school classes, I read a book by the woman who produced Sleepless. She had been working in Hollywood for years and produced loads of movies. And she truly had no idea this would be such a hit. She knew it was a good script, she knew it was a good cast, but she had no sense that the American public would be so thirsty for this kind of film. And Karan was the same in India with KKHH. He liked his script, he liked his film, he really liked his cast. But it was opening opposite an Amitabh comedy, he didn’t have huge expectations. And then it turned into a record breaking hit.
What was going on in both India and America in the mid-90s that made this sweet romance between a widower and a career woman engaged to someone else into this massive unexpected industry changing hit, the sort of success that gave birth to dozens of imitations over dozens of years?
Here’s what I am thinking. It’s all about the economy, and the baby boomers. In both India and America, there was this firm line between the post-war and pre-war generations. In both countries, the 70s were an era of revolution and unhappiness as that post-war generation came of age and was disappointed with what was offered. But the 90s were the era when that generation was finally coming into what was promised to them in the past, when the economy was taking off, when suddenly the young post-war folks had a new kind of life offered in front of them.
Okay, so we want to hit this new successful group. And it’s not the teenagers or the 20 year olds. It’s also not the dissatisfied slightly older group who are struggling in the new economy. It’s the 30 year olds, that’s where the money is. Young enough to take advantage of the new economic opportunities, but old enough to have the experience and education required.
Back in the 1960s the first romances of the post-war era children in America and India were dealing with teenage issues. Because people were marrying as teenagers. Lots of love stories set on college campuses or just after, lots of young people still living at home, and so on. Now it’s the 90s. You can’t start your career until after you have a college degree at least, and you can’t be really solid in your career, have fully taken advantage of all your opportunities, until a few years after that. Romances aren’t between young folks any more, they are a little older than that.
I’m pretty sure Nora Ephron thought all this through when she wrote Sleepless in Seattle, because this was basically the whole point of her script When Harry Met Sally. Romances are different when you are older, people are different when you are older, and a love story between two folks settled in their lives and careers and personalities is very different from two young folks. They’ve got baggage.
So in Sleepless in Seattle, she carefully crafts two people who think they have missed the window for love. Our hero fell in love young and married young and then was widowed when he didn’t expect it. He thinks of love as something in his past, going back to dating now is going to be working and settling and making allowances for it not to be “perfect”. And our heroine is a somewhat successful professional who has a house and friends and a life, and has settled for marriage to her long time boyfriend who is very nice. It’s about giving in to the idea of romance and true love when you think of that as something that only happens in your 20s, something you aren’t even capable of feeling any more. The structure she puts around it, the magical falling in love over long distances, the sad widower and the woman who is just recently engaged, that builds all the dramatic tension. But what made it an immediate hit was the resonance with all the people of the 90s who were trying to believe in a second chance at love. A generation of folks who either married young and divorced, or didn’t marry and now believe it is no longer in the cards for them. This film speaks to them, it gives them both fantasy and reality, the fantasy of the happy ending but also the reality of the conflict between “settling” and “being practical” and wanting to believe love can still happen.
I don’t think Karan Johar thought his idea through nearly as much. I think he was more guided by his stars. He wanted to write a script for Shahrukh, that was the whole reason he was making the movie, because Shahrukh forced him into it. Shahrukh had become a star by playing the fun college hero type, but now in real life he was into his 30s and had just had his first child. And Kajol was Karan’s friend since teenage years, he had seen her go from a loudmouthed teasing teenager to an engaged elegant movie star. So he wrote a script about these two people going on that journey, starting as college kid and ending as adults. And along the way he created the Shahrukh successful businessman hero, which changed everything.
Now we have a romance and a hero for a new generation. The new successful ideal man in India is not the teenage college kid hero, but the successful urban New Indian Man hero. And the new successful ideal man in the diaspora is the same person. Shahrukh’s identity in KKHH could translate easily from India to overseas, a 30-something single successful businessman in suits. Of course we can’t just have a 30-something man who is single, so he becomes a widower. And the audience LOVED it.
Look at what happens after these two movies. Sleepless introduced the whole idea of “the career woman who thinks they have missed their chance on love” to the American rom-com. Sooooooooo many 30-something women feeling stressed because everyone else is married. And Kuch Kuch introduced the idea of the “30-something westernized successful suit wearing hero who still isn’t married” to the Indian rom-com. Soooooooooooooooo many 30-something heroes after that, while the poor college kids almost disappeared.
Neither of these films were the start of the 90s rom-com trend in their respective countries (that would be When Harry Met Sally and Maine Pyar Kiya), but I think they were the peak of it, the most successful ones that set the template that was then repeated and repeated with diminishing returns.
What do you think?
Also, if you can only pick one of these movies, which would you take to a desert island?
So sue me, I’d take Sleepless. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is not my favorite Indian movie, and Sleepless may be my favorite American rom-com. There’s just so many great bits!