I remember the day. 7/11/1991. My first-grade class teacher had slapped me, I came home in tears. While our housemaid, who was my best friend at the time, soothed my frayed nerves with a banana milkshake, a voice boomed through the door. "Vijay Deenanath Chauhan. Poora naam." My father, a big Amitabh Bachchan fan, ushered me into the bedroom. "Baap ka naam: Deenanath Chauhan." Dad had the look of a man thrilled to finally share a part of himself with his little boy. I had never seen him so expressive. His high-pitched squeals made mom barge into the room. "Maa ka naam: Suhasini Chauhan." Our little flat in Ahmedabad had come to life. "Gaon: Mandwa." I was 5 years, 6 months and 13 days and 15 hours old. "Umar 36 saal, 9 mahina, 8 din…aur yeh solva ghanta chalu hai."
Mukul Anand's Agneepath was the movie on cable television that night. For better or worse, it taught me about confidence. And…a Master's degree? (Blame Krishnan Iyer M.A. for that).
A year later, Hum taught me about family. A year after that, I learned about sports and dark horses from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. A year after, Darr exposed me to the meaning of obsession and fear. Another year, and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa taught me that it was O.K. to be a flawed student, and that art is a controversial career choice here. Another year, and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge taught me about infatuation in fairytale lands (before Before Sunrise, even); I also learned the tongue of my future home, Mumbai, from Rangeela. Another year and Raja Hindustani opened me to the world of the "french kiss". Another, and Dil Toh Pagal Hai made me believe in soulmates. Another, and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai gave life to my affection for Archie comics; Ghulam taught me about redemption, Satya about morality and fate. And in 1999, I learned about music – and the importance of an ear for music in both life and cinema – from Taal. Not to mention Baadshah, which taught me the meaning of self-depreciation.
It's not just nostalgia speaking here. Well, maybe a little. I'd like to think I look at '90s Bollywood the way Sriram Raghavan looks at the '70s – with affection, fondness, yes, but also a certain sense of pride that my heart is shaped by the sights and sounds of that particular decade. When I'm tense, the background scores of Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja and Mohra combine to form a theme in my mind. When I'm elated, Yeh Dillagi's Ole Ole still rings in my head. I can't walk by a street-food vendor without lip-syncing to Kumar Sanu's Main Toh Raste Se Jaa Raha Tha, Main Toh Bhel Puri Khaa Raha Tha. When I'm in love, it's the Arre Yeh Arre Yeh Kya Hua theme – and not, say, the Doctor Zhivago score – that floods my senses. When I make a funny friend, he becomes Deewana Mastana's sidekick, Gaffoor, in my eyes.
I tear up when I see '90s time-capsules like TVF's show Yeh Meri Family and YRF's Dum Laga Ke Haisha. It might be fashionable to recall this "attitude" decade – I've taken the liberty of naming the '90s after WWF's corresponding Attitude era – in today's movies through tributes and parodies, but these throwbacks aren't entirely retrospective. It's not just the 'distance makes the heart grow fonder' syndrome.
They acknowledge, in a way, that the '90s might have mastered the mainstream "masala" template kick-started by the decades prior to it. Most films today abuse the term, but there was a sense of discovery to it back then. The difference being: it was the one phase of sociocultural storytelling that didn't just project its aspiration onto the movies but also its reality onto them. Films and characters weren't just reacting to the India they occupied, they were internalizing a post-liberalization nation through its politically incorrect and unshackled language, like a rowdy child finally breaking free of her stubborn roots. That's where Govinda's swag came from, Sunil Shetty's style, SRK's arms or Akshay's scissor-kicks, Juhi's giggles, Karishma's spirit and Salman's vegetarian-ness came from; everyone became both an escape and reflection of a country in search of permanent expression.
There were no cell phones, the internet was a new concept, and so there was a pureness to the way technology – both plot-wise and effects-wise – couldn't define a story. Emotions were more absolute. For a kid growing up in the era, it felt like the last decade in which movies could afford to be irrational and dreamy and offensive and large and wayward. It was the last time one could say things like "lover boy," "dhak dhak girl" and "bad man" without sounding sardonic about Bollywood. And it was perhaps the last time the movies could be a child who came back home after a rough school-day only to be hypnotized by voices from a screen. And faces in a room.
Here are five films I recommend from that period:
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa
Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar