Mainstream Bollywood is a giant game of Chinese Whispers. The era-defining success of one film is interpreted – heard, misheard, appropriated, forwarded – by a new generation of storytellers, who then unwittingly pass on their version of the formula to the next, and so on. In between, real-life and cultural shifts alter every subsequent iteration a little. The resemblances, over time, are lost in translation. But it's the starting point that matters. That first statement is the key. For instance, the recent spate of ultra-nationalist historicals and saffronised action dramas can be traced back to – believe it or not – Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) and its misplaced exclamation mark. To be fair, I often blame HAHK for everything wrong with my life, including a deep-seated dog racism problem. But hear me out.
The Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! syndrome
HAHK – which can also be read as a smug "Hah, K!" – was the beginning of a long chain of increasingly deformed mythmaking. To begin with, the 1994 family-friendly, friendly-family musical romantic drama by Sooraj Barjatya was an aggressive reaction to an India caught in the throes of post-liberalization. The film was designed as a reclamation of traditionalist values (read: sanskaar) from the clutches of a culture that thrived on violent portrayals of villainous elders and rebellious youngsters. So the ideological reset arrived in the form of a virginal 199-minute story with 14 songs; a big fat Indian wedding featuring perfectly-fried vegetarian snacks, Pomeranian propaganda, zero action sequences ("not even a slap" became a tagline) and a cloyingly sweet family that made even sadness look happy. Like that self-righteous uncle who considers Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT, 1988) an attack on community heritage and parental consent, HAHK single-handedly turned the suffocating autocracy of the Indian family setup into an aspirational life trope.
"No lovers can unite without the permission of their well-meaning families" soon morphed into Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995), then the Karan Johar oeuvre of NRI togetherness, then the Subhash Ghai trilogy (Pardes, 1997; Taal, 1999; Yaadein, 2001). Over the years, the principle of cultural restoration remained the same. Only the language and lens changed: Family values slowly whispered themselves into the shape of hardline Hindu values. In my opinion, the roaring success of HAHK – and its acceptance by masses who were subconsciously looking to be reminded of an idealised India – created the template we see today. You prey on a young country's insecurities about identity and roots, and voila, you get the Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! syndrome. Almost three decades on, the aftershocks of the film are still filtering through every iteration of commercial Hindi storytelling. All the more so during a pandemic that has visibly diluted the moral core of the movie business. Toxic nostalgia and 'timely' reminders define the socio-political aesthetic of the new landscape.
Masala movies and a liberal worldview
My theory is not all that radical. But there's also a personal angle to it. I grew up in Ahmedabad, a city that went on to embody the sinister marriage between domestic superficiality and communal conflict. In the early 1990s, my parents – who were homegrown poster children of the flower power movement – took great pride in our liberal family dynamic. They encouraged my love for masala Hindi movies because most of them rarely airbrushed family conflict and dysfunctionality. The tragedy of the vengeful son in Baazigar (1993), the distance between father and psychopathic child in Darr (1993), the black-sheep syndrome in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994) and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), the defiant daughter in Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (1993), the generational trauma of Lamhe (1991) – these titles shaped my versatile reading of the Indian parent-child relationship.
Two of my colony friends were brothers from a chaste Marwari family. Like most children, we got along because our differences merely supplied our curiosity. They found our existence amusing, unable to fathom my fondness for 'adult' films that their parents had banned them from watching. I found them amusing, too, especially because they were always on some family outing or the other with relatives who resided in other flats of our colony. Their picnic baskets, allergy to privacy and affinity to noise were a sight to behold every weekend.
But there was never a doubt about the envious glances my childhood invited. I was treated like the star foreigner in a housing society steeped in middle-class history. I spent the first eight years of my life revelling in the glow of my folks, who more or less drove the unrestricted idea of an Indian home by being the life of most late-night parties. They even fought in the open, unrestrained by public gaze or the pressure of wearing a smiley face. Their smoking, drinking and meat-eating was not looked down on or scrutinized by neighbours and friends. Some even tried to participate, determined to break the cycle of conformity and close-mindedness.
An honest plate of eggs
But something changed after 1994. Post the phenomenon that was HAHK, there seemed to be a shift in perception towards our apartment. We suddenly became the people from whom India – and Ahmedabad – had to be rescued. Neighbours now looked at my parents suspiciously, judging their lifestyle and sympathising with me for being their only child. The parties got smaller. Worse, I even rode the HAHK wave. I accompanied my Marwari friends to multiple drive-in shows, ate dinner with their boisterous joint family, and then came home and blamed my parents for not being as nice and pure as them. I started to resent my family for not being big and 'decent' enough. For not having a human-like dog. For not making me revere and worship them enough. For giving me a voice and a sense of individualism. I was supposed to listen to them, unquestioningly, yet they were telling me to follow my heart? I started to see cracks in the marriage that I previously considered normal, and begged them to argue quietly behind closed doors.
One evening, when I got back from school, I was surprised to see two of my friends at the dining table. They looked sheepish. My mother came out of the kitchen with freshly cooked omelettes for them. They wolfed it down while chatting with me. Apparently, the two had been coming over secretly to eat eggs for weeks; their strict-vegetarian parents had no idea. It took me an honest plate of food to recognize the cosmetic shallowness of the families that HAHK had legitimized in my eyes. They were so proud of being seen that they only showed us the sanitized surface the film represented. Behind closed doors, though, the script was as awry as ever.
The egg-eating hypocrisy extended to the sort of place we lived in – a 'dry' state that regularly topped the national alcohol consumption charts, and a Gandhian region where secularity was little more than a chapter in textbooks. The disconnect my family felt in the late 1990s reached its breaking point during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The progression was obvious, but only in hindsight: The neighbours who were all about preserving family values a few years ago were now speaking about the preservation of religion and cultural identity. We left the city two months after the riots.
Twenty-eight years after its release, Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! is yet to leave us. The country is yet to recover from the record-breaking success of a harmless Hindi family drama. And the game of Chinese whispers is now an Indian metaphor for cumulative error.