It has long been understood that cinema in India, with a certain importance given to Hindi cinema, has had a close connection with the imagination of a national identity. According to scholar D. Bhoopaty, “cinema is widely considered a microcosm of the social, political, economic, and cultural life of a nation. It is the contested site where meanings are negotiated, traditions made and remade, identities affirmed or rejected”. Public policy researcher and former journalist Ingrid Therwath, in her essay ‘Shining Indians’: Diaspora and Exemplary in Bollywood, writes that the stakeholders involved in the making of a film, such as the producers, distributors, financiers, officials in the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC or the Censor Board), together strive to project profitable, aesthetically pleasing, and respectable material. This produces a normative corpus of work that has reflected, and largely impacted, conceptions of national identity, gendered behaviour, and acceptability over the years. In doing so, films generate a certain ‘normality’ in behaviour and aspirations. As Therwath writes further, “they shape and impose exemplarity by broadcasting role models, figures of idealization and identification at once”. What this means is that actors and storylines do not simply exist for the screen, they are also socially imbibed and seep into the society.
‘Bollywood’ as a category (and industry) was said to have been formed with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1991 and its subsequent globalization. Granted the status of an industry in 2000, Bollywood was able to receive multiple sources of financing for its films. Import liberalisation gave the industry access to top equipment and also the chance to shoot in locations abroad. With these changes was realized a specific audience as well: the NRI (or more generally, the diaspora). The overseas audience was interested in watching films that were traditional but also had facets of the West. The NRI became an icon, an ideal to aspire for: rich, modern, male, and a devout Hindu at the same time. Indeed, films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994), Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), and Pardes (1997), all catered in some ways to building up this symbol of national identity. In fact, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun became the first Indian film that earned ₹100 crore worldwide, and with it was also born the post-reform Bollywood film.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994); Rajshri Productions
Mohabbatein (2000), directed by Aditya Chopra, literally translates to “Loves”. It tells the story of an elite educational institution for young men called Gurukul, headed by the authoritarian figure of Narayan Shankar, played by Amitabh Bachchan (the role was a comeback of sorts for Bachchan whose films weren’t doing too well in the ‘90s). Raj Aryan Malhotra (played by Shah Rukh Khan), a prospective music teacher, tries to change the no-romance policy of the institution by telling the students stories of his own historic love and urging them to go out and fall in love themselves. He guides three of these young men (Jimmy Shergill, Uday Chopra, Jugal Hansraj) into falling in love and flouting the rules of Gurukul (inviting women inside, being outside campus grounds after hours etc.). In the film, there is a rather visible tussle between tradition and modernity that are represented by the characters of Narayan Shankar and Raj Aryan Malhotra respectively, where Shankar represents the bygone era of pre-reform license raj and Malhotra represents the new, liberalised, post-reform ideal. The central axis on which these two revolve is represented by the character of Megha (Aishwarya Rai), Shankar’s daughter and Malhotra’s one true love, along with the women in the other three pairs. Megha is the ‘good’ daughter and lover, who fulfils both her roles well. But she is not allowed to be with her lover because her father, the head of Gurukul, considers it an egregious mistake for a student of Gurukul and his daughter to be in love. In the end, she decides to surpass this pain by dying by suicide.
Much has been written about how Hindi cinema is “a virtual teleprompter for reading the script called “nation.”” Professor Jyotika Virdi in her book The Cinematic imagiNation: Indian Popular Films as Social History (2003) and Sumita S. Chakravarty in National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema (1993) write about how Hindi cinema has manufactured a sense of Indianness that agrees with Hindu morality, therefore, easily breaking class barriers but not trying to traverse those of religion or caste. Eventually through the years, patriarchal authority has taken over class as a barrier to romantic love in Hindi films. But sociologist Priyasha Kaul in her work notes that in post-liberalisation Bollywood films, instead of outrightly disobeying patriarchal authority, romantic love was acquired only by gradually winning over the patriarch through persuasion and dedication. Kaul also points out that while the larger post-liberalisation nationalist narrative tries to learn from the West by trying to show material wealth and skills externally, there is a stark difference in the portrayal of the internal, the home, the hearth. That is to say, the on-screen portrayal of women, relationships, and power structures inside the home remain as conservative as before. She writes,
“Post-liberalisation Bollywood films’ treatment of gender issues therefore follows this larger nationalist trajectory by allowing space for superficial change in areas such as dress and appearance but resists any significant deeper changes in gender roles and identity which might be seen as compromising women’s ability to transmit the nation in moulding further generations.”
Her most significant declaration is that gender is the axis around which the tension between tradition and modernity plays out in Bollywood films. Does this hold true for Mohabbatein?
Mohabbatein (2000); Yash Raj Films
Two of the women in the film, Ishika (Shamita Shetty) and Sanjana (Kim Sharma), are shown to be modern by way of their appearance: they often wear short, sleeveless, midriff-baring dresses, are outspoken, and seem playful and/or adventurous (Ishika at one point tries to steal apples from Gurukul’s campus). In contrast, Kiran (Preeti Jhangiani) is portrayed as a traditional wife in a highly conservative, patriarchal household, who bears the cultural markers of a married Hindu woman, such as sindoor and mangalsutra, and wears her bridal outfit to the train station during Karva Chauth, in anticipation of her dead husband’s arrival.
The women’s behaviours are shaped by the men who desire them. The subtle but firm policing on women’s bodies is evident in the film. Ishika performs in front of Vicky to prove that she is a better dancer than one of her peers. At the end, Vicky covers her with a dupatta, reminiscent of a Hindu groom covering his bride with the ghunghat. In a parallel sequence, Sameer and Sanjana are walking on the streets, after a disturbing incident at Sanjana’s boyfriend Deepak’s birthday party. She asks how it was possible that she made such a mistake (in choosing Deepak to be her boyfriend). Sameer replies by pointing to her clothes (a short dress) and saying that that was her mistake. With Kiran, since she is a widow and ‘belongs’ to the Khanna household she married into, she is finally sanctioned her freedom to love another person by her father-in-law and ‘given’ to the other man. All these instances signal that in order to win the affection of the men they are attracted to, it would be better for each of them women to conform to ‘simpler, more innocent’ ways of being, which are more traditional in nature.
Mohabbatein (2000); Yash Raj Films
Mohabbatein tries to touch upon the theme of love of course, but also memory, loss, and trauma. But the love talked of in the film is of a very specific kind, although the title would try to suggest to us otherwise. The four central romantic loves that the film portrays are in fact just slightly modified representations of the same kind of love, functioning under heteronormative rules. These loves seem born out of a sense of entitlement rather than a propensity to understand the other person. The three young men who usher in the “winds of love” into the oppressive institution are ready to take risks and are convinced they will succeed. They are guided by Raj Aryan, whose past only consists of having loved a woman and being expelled from the institution he studied in. So pained he is at his lover dying, that he makes it a point to change the ways of the institution itself and remove the barriers to love. The characters have no histories that we are clued into. In fact, Sudhanva Deshpande, in his article The Consumable Hero of Globalised India, claims that “The consumable hero is the creation of the liberalised market”. What he implies is that often in pre-liberalisation popular Hindi cinema, the story would follow the hero’s life journey, from boy to man to reach the culmination of the plot, especially the ones starring Amitabh Bachchan (consider Namak Haraam, Deewaar, Zanjeer). But considering that liberalisation is itself a recent phenomenon, having no history beyond 1991, in post-liberalisation films “the consumable hero has no history [either].” A new hero is born.
SRK’s Raj Aryan is the embodiment of the new liberalized India. He stands for love, charm, and the ability to take chances and risks (neoliberal tendencies) against the tyrannical and oppressive system of the Gurukul, the central tenets of which (Tradition, Honour, Discipline – Parampara, Pratishtha, Anushasan) are embodied by yesteryear superstar, Amitabh Bachchan. For instance, it is through a large party that Malhotra decides to welcome love into the college. He invites women from the neighbouring college over, and throughout the song, tries to pair up men with women, urging them to try to be together, purporting the idea of romance as being together in whichever way possible. The halls of Gurukul in which the students would assemble for official purposes like assemblies and announcements, is turned into a festive place that is the banquet of love. This display is lavish, ‘modern’, and pleasurable.
In the end, after the “winds of love” have rocked the foundations of Gurukul, Narayan Shankar hands over his position as the head of the institution to Raj Aryan Malhotra. Here is also the metaphorical takeover from Bachchan to Khan as the reigning superstars. Bachchan was the ‘angry young man’ of the ‘70s, who played characters that were often working class and poor, and wanted material wealth in order to change the way they were looked at in the society. Khan on the other hand is the epitome of post-liberalization films, the ‘lover boy’ hero that was softer, more materialistic yet very grounded and ‘Indian’, as seen in his previous films Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).
Mohabbatein (2000); Yash Raj Films
Mohabbatein may not be the typical film that one thinks of as forming a national identity. It is only one of many in a slew of post-liberalisation films that led to a new imagination of a hero, but not in the imagination of the woman or relationships tied with that hero.