Who Is The Ideal Family: A Case Study Of 90s Bollywood.
Bienvenu, lovely ones!
I hope you are finding the positivity to get through life like butter on a heated skillet (yes, that sarcasm is intended. I guess you cannot really be witty and too warm at the same time). Moving on, as things start to close off into remoteness amidst the surge once again, we curl up into our own dens. I guess that brings us closer (in both good and not so fine ways) to our families.
So, as I sit here on a rainy evening with an empty mind, the Prada sporting devil lends me her workshop to wander into some aspects of cinematic depiction of the families in our beloved Bollywood.
Bollywood has always been a staunch representative of what a family in an Indian setting looks like or should look like. Be it a film about tacos (just read that as paanipuri for my sake) or someone’s hard-earned career, the aspect of an ever-present family has never been reconsidered or meddled within the last few decades. In this article, we shall peek into the depiction of Indian families and ideologies with a few prominent examples from Bollywood over the years. (Quick disclaimer: Gen Z kid opinions ahead)
Indian Families in the ‘90s Bollywood:
Bollywood, as an industry, has set new bars in the cinematic arts since it’s the origin. It has given the world wonderfully cultivated genres and exclusive styles. If we talk of the early 90s, one can clearly see (without glasses) the focus on romances and crime actions with films such as Ashiqui (Mukesh Bhatt), Baaghi (Deepak Shivdasani), Ghayal (Rajkumar Santoshi), and Agneepath (Mukul S. Anand).
This streak of romances and lighthearted thrillers has been the ruling source of content, with the exceptions of comedies like Yes Boss, Aankhen, Raja Babu, etc; social films like 1942: A Love Story, Fire, Sixth Happiness; adventure fantasies such as Ajooba and Chamatkaar (If Naseeruddin Shah is not your casper, we’re not the same, bro.) acting as sprinkles on a bland ice-cream. Horrors were partially forgotten in this era with the last prominent horror film being Veerana released in 1988 (The nun who?! the only things that scare me are Nikita coming back from the dead and delayed orders.)
Now that I am done with a short overview of how cinema looked like in the 90s, let us hop onto family dramas.
The ’90s saw the emergence of what I like to call “The Cult of Perfect Families.” This depicted Indian families as this loud, happy-go-lucky crowd of people who co-own large houses and factories and drag their lives from one rich event to another. We see a rise of the orthodox Hindu ideologies in these films that stood at the face of secular and diverse representation in cinema at the time. The depth of concepts was narrowed down to a mere two-dimensional facet, highlighting Hindu beliefs, patriarchal values, blind wealth, and unalarmed positivity over everything that needed an addressal. We can call this era of Bollywood, “the period of concussed classics that rose to popularity by sugarcoating and manipulating superficial aspects of religion, norms, patriarchy, and morality”.
These aspects were often whipped into fillers of patriotism to create a new image of a ‘true Indian.’ This garnered views from nostalgic NRIs through comparatively acceptable characters representing them and creating a contrast to the Indians back home. The concepts boosted a new identity inspired by the displayed beliefs and instilled a hazy pride against depictions of those who left the country as wealth-driven or selfish. Bollywood has sailed on parallel boats for the longest time by playing the subtle card.
Let us look at a few wholesome classics to understand the ideal family game a little better:
(A quick secret: I am not at all a 90s kid, so if you aren’t either, we’re on the same page. I’ve got you. Let us just choose and discuss some massive commercial hits that we all must have at least heard of. If not, where is the rock you’ve been living under my love?)
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994)
Many films produced under the Rajshree banner are a universe of flaky norms, stereotypes, and blatant inequality in themselves, with slight exceptions here and there (such as Saaransh).
Hum Aapke Hain Koun: A family that dances and poses together stays together.
(Image courtesy: timesofindia.indiatimes.com)
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, directed by Sooraj Barjatya, stars Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit in pivotal roles. It also stars Mohnish Bahl, Renuka Shahane, Anupam Kher, Reema Lagoo, Alok Nath, Bindu, Ajit Vachani, Satish Shah, Laxmikant Badre, Sahila Chadha, and others.
If you ask me to provide a true analysis of the film, I would be at a loss because it does not offer any major intellectual substance except for the question it raises against the norm of second marriages to immediate relatives. It does subtly prioritise the opinions of individuals while taking away the true essence in an attempt to cater to blind stigma.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun is the story of two orphaned brothers, Prem and Rajesh. They live with their uncle and aunt in a large mansion and smoothly handle a wealthy family business. Their lives are further adorned by the arrival of Pooja and Nisha. While the former falls in love in one arranged meeting and gets married to Rajesh, the latter is mesmerized by Prem’s cringeworthy and borderline creepy attempts at flirting through the course of the marriage. The narrative continues flat with songs and events like pregnancy, childbirth, and family gatherings until Pooja accidentally falls off the stairs and dies (there should have been a Filmfare award for the most futile conflict). As per the families choice, Nisha is supposed to become a second wife to her Brother-in-law for the sake of the infant that her sister Pooja leaves behind. The film comes to an end with Rajesh discovering Prem and Nisha’s true emotions for one another resulting in their marriage. (I shall not talk about how Nisha tries to use a dog as a postman to deliver the most prized, last love note to Prem.)
The depiction of a family seems so vague and imaginary in the film that it is difficult to not refer to it as an upper-class fantasy. The characters are unreasonably whitewashed, beyond humane quotients. The females in the film are deemed to be bright and intelligent, yet morally disabled for the sake of fitting into the typical Indian ideology of a ‘Perfect Woman.’ They respect and obey the men in the family and submit to the advances of the male characters as beacons of modesty.
As a result, the film offers a glimpse into Bollywood's skewed sense of morality and duty in the 1990s. It also brings us closer to the fake ideals of a joint family (I believe and respect the ideals of both joint and nuclear families; but you cannot convince me that you sing and dance around in a frenzy like they do in the film).
To wrap it up, we also witness a dampened dig at the concepts of marriage and happiness in general.
Directed by the legendary Yash Chopra, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge stars Shah Rukh Khan as Raj and Kajol as Simran in a romantic escapade of errors.
DDLJ: Pestering and bullying the woman you like will make her fall in love with you.
(Image courtesy: timesofindia.indiatimes.com)
We see partially progressive characters like the nostalgic and patriotic NRI played by Amrish Puri, contrasting against the lovable and carefree man played by Anupam Kher. Amrish Puri is depicted as a man who wants the best for his daughters but is governed by his own faulty ideas of moral modesty and responsibility. He owns a store abroad and, in my opinion, treats the women in his family as a bunch of commodities. He determines their fate at his own will, binding their beliefs and desires at his staunch disposal. The rug is swiftly snatched away from under his feet when his daughter, Simran, falls in love with Raj and is discovered pursuing him at all costs amidst her own wedding festivities. The film takes a leap in the depiction of a strong and almost unfeeling man being preferred as the sole decision-maker of a family.
Do you remember the iconic green attire of Kajol? I was as green with anguish at the end of the film to see an internationally educated woman begging a father to let her marry the man of her dreams.
I cannot even get started on the concept of the ideal man of dreams that literally bullies you into love in these films. Raj, played by Shah Rukh, is a careless young man. He has little respect for fellow humans and boundaries and thus, matches the perfect description of sensibility that Simran writes poems about. Raj might just be one of the reasons why many Indians still believe that wild love must be crazy enough to get you drunk and make uncomfortable jokes after a blackout. Play mandolins on trains and make a fool out of so many people for secrecy’s sake.
Regardless of all the ill manners and habits, he is an ideal man and a true Indian since he humbly decides to keep his hands to himself while Simran lashes out drunk. The film is rooted in ideas of misogyny and hypocritical patriarchy in all senses. The contorted ideas of an ideal father, husband, and submissive women are being the obliviated highlights of this heartwarming blockbuster.
Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999)
I assure you, this is not the last time you will read my rants about the Rajshree Universe. In the initial years, Rajshree made some profound films such as Chitchor (1976), Dosti (1964), and Saaransh (1984). But the succeeding era has been a train wreck of grandeur, blotchy writing, and prejudiced concepts of marital and familial values.
Hum Saath Saath Hain: Don’t let the shiny bangles, innocent expressions, and pleasant smiles distract you from their toxic drama and mindsets. (Image courtesy: indiatimes.com)
Hum Saath Saath Hain, directed by Sooraj Barjatya, stars an array of actors: Salman Khan, Sonali Bendre, Tabu, Mohnish Bahl, Karishma Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan in pivotal roles; Reema Lagoo, Alok Nath, Satish Shah, Rajeev Verma, and Himani Shivpuri playing blatantly typecast characters since the director’s debut; and Shakti Kapoor, Ajit Vachani, Mahesh Thakur, Zoya Afroz, Sheela David, Dilip Dhawan, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, and finally, Dinesh Hingoo. (I might’ve missed my children’s lives writing this long credit list.)
Moving on, the film revolves around the lives of Ramkishan who marries Mamta after the demise of his first wife. Mamta gets along well and is respected by her stepson Vivek and gives birth to Prem, Sangeeta, and Vinod as well. There is love and peace in the large family, grandeur and wealth being the eye candy in these films. Things go on well as the narrative jumps from one family gathering to another as the characters keep falling in love with one another more and more (Romeo would be alive if he were a Rajshree character, Alas!)
Rajshree films generally have a single conflict narrative. The conflict in this film occurs when Mamta, after years of togetherness, doubts the terms of inheritance and tries to secure it all for her own children. The problem lies in the fact that this conflict is triggered by a dispute in her son-in-law’s family. But while securing inheritance, Mamta excludes her daughter from the discussion because women do not inherit property according to patriarchal familial beliefs. The quarrel causes a rift in the family, which is later patched up by Prem who refuses to take his elder brother’s place in the family as well as the business empire. Mamta realizes her paranoid error while every deceptive character miraculously learns moral principles and apologises, and the film concludes with the family's reunification.
As the last addition to the article, I would like to talk about this little gem of a film by Subhash Ghai starring Shah Rukh Khan and the ravishing Mahima Choudhry as protagonists along with Amrish Puri, Apoorva Agnihotri, Alok Nath and Himani Shivpuri in pivotal roles.
Pardes: Image courtesy: bollywoodhungama.com
The narrative revolves around the lives of Ganga and Arjun, who unsuspectedly fall in love by being thrown at one another by destiny. Kishorilal, an NRI, decides to arrange a marriage between his son Rajiv and his friend Suraj’s bright and beautiful daughter, Ganga. He sends Rajiv and his foster son, Arjun, to India to meet the lady, where Arjun acts as a matchmaker. They get engaged and fly off to the USA where Ganga starts to discover the unfaithful and morally questionable character of Rajiv. He abuses, insults, and openly reproaches her values in front of family and friends. This brings Arjun closer to Ganga as an only beam of support and friendship that blossoms into platonic love. Ganga puts up with Rajiv while Arjun is removed from her because of their increasing emotional intimacy, until he tries to get physically intimate against her consent and gets violent.
Arjun finds Ganga and brings her back to India where their relationship is questioned and demeaned. In the end, Ganga speaks up about the abuse and attempted rape. Kishorilal shuns his son and accepts Arjun and Ganga’s love for one another.
The film talks about abuse, the state of women in families, the adverse effects of westernization, and the mischievously persuasive nature of society towards unjust settlements. It is indeed a gem, but proves to be an uncut and unpolished one. The behaviour of Kishorilal towards Ganga’s abuse depicts a state of complete oblivion. He forces his son to verbally apologise to Ganga after he physically abused her. The women in the family constantly put up with the abuse and shut other women down when they try to stand up for themselves. The friendship and innocent love between two people are justifiably scrutinised under the microscope of baseless social norms.
And lastly, what I find the most heartbreaking fact, is how unsupportive and ruthless Ganga’s family is towards their abused and emotionally wrecked daughter. The father-daughter dynamic starts on a high note and disappointingly fades into unfeeling coarseness out of nowhere.
The film tries to successfully highlight all the wrongs people might be subjected to. The setting, as well as the long stretches of uncomfortable time, cause me to disagree with the film's backdrop of a family. In the end, the film is a hero in terms of production, music, performances, and intellectual content, but a complete freak show in terms of its depiction of western morals, familial courtesies, and internal relationships.
Despite the slight issues, it is a film worth watching and cherishing for all the value it has to offer. Once again, can I just mention how incredible the music was?! (Do not tell me you have not sung “Zara tasveer se tu” while eying your crush on social media or grooved to “Do dil mil rahe hain” with the notification ding of a text.)
In my opinion, misunderstandings and harshness amongst family members have their own course. They cannot be magically dissolved through sudden realizations. This deems the characters to be extremely shallow reflections with no specific arcs. The dream family is rich, always at peace, and in love. Yet, the twisted ideology of a stepmother not being equal to a birth mother, educated women waiting around for a suitable groom while learning how to bake perfectly circular flatbreads, and sensibly educated men promoting misogynist morals astonishes me.
With this, we come to the end of an era that shaped several opinions and values throughout the country. The only reality being is that the ideal family in 90s Bollywood does not exist. The concept of perfectionism is as tricky and imperfect as it can get. A perfect family is an idea that can only be achieved through immense acceptance and mutual compromises, with due respect to individual imperfections. Most of the family dramas, fail to honour or showcase this very fact to this day.
Nonetheless, cinema is a vast universe. It would be a one-sided rant if I do not refer to certain works of art that did try and make a mark with the power of influence that cinema has always had on viewers. There have been path-breaking films like Mehndi (1998), Damini (1993), Bandit Queen (1994), and once again, for the sake of making amends to any hurt that I might have caused to Rajshree fans, Piya Ka Ghar (1972). In these films, we get a glimpse into the inner worlds of characters as they swirl along their arcs while unveiling the norm of hypocrisy and familial boundaries. Although there have been few attempts to make such films, they are nevertheless terribly relevant to Indian society today.
Author’s Biographical Note: Sahana is an aspiring writer and cinema enthusiast. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in cinematic arts from the Asian Academy of Film and Television. She is an avid reader and has been writing poetry and fiction since long. She is passionate about literature and entertainment and hopes to share a little view of her perspective with the world. She is currently associated with Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern.
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