On my 16th birthday, I stepped into City Gold, one of Ahmedabad’s first multiplexes, to watch Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage. This is a confession. Well, half a confession. The full version: I chose to celebrate my 16th birthday by watching Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage. For the second time. Alone. Because I loved the film.

Let’s examine the psychological circumstances of this teenaged infatuation. Firstly, I was too young to distinguish between so-good-it’s-good Hindi cinema and so-bad-it’s-good Bollywood. For instance, “I loved AMALL” and “Lagaan is a fantastic movie” amounted to the same feeling in my head. Secondly, I was fresh in puppy love, and nobody – least of all my girlfriend’s father, whose gait resembled Kiran Kumar on a good day and Prem Chopra on a bad day – approved of it. Hence, I projected the secrecy of my first relationship onto the forbidden nature of my affair with this (universally panned) movie. Nobody understood us. So, we met in the shadows. At times, the girl tagged along.

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Thirdly, the rebellious SRK fan in me had disliked Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai because it shunted Mohabbatein to second place. And when Hrithik fans got disappointed with AMALL, I might have subconsciously adopted the film (and rescued it, like Rohit rescues Sapna, by loving her) to defy popular culture. Fourthly, Vikram Bhatt’s AMALLcame two months after Vikram Bhatt’s record-breaking Raaz. You have to laud anyone who goes from horror to romance in no time, even if you (or he) can’t tell the difference between the two.

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Years later, I am still conflicted about my fondness for AMALL. Did I love it because it’s unintentionally comical and aggressively bad? Or because the actor’s natural progression into Koi…Mil Gaya’s slow-witted Rohit found its origins in Rohit’s expressions of exuberance in AMALL (“I love youuuuu,” he screams to the stars) followed by peak senility in Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon? Or did I love it because I was just in…that phase? Either way, it has reached a stage where, as an adult film critic, I have a ready defence for every one of its “flaws”.

I loved the love in it. Given Sapna’s caged damsel-in-distress syndrome and childish innocence, Rohit essentially plays the dual role of a lover and a father. Notice how his heart melts when she speaks like a five-year-old. During the Garba medley, when a little girl asks Rohit, “Ramvu chhe? (want to dance?),” this is a soothsaying metaphor for Rohit’s affection for adolescence. Rohit does dance with dreams (sapna) after all. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he dances like Michael Jackson, too.

I loved the Gujaratiness of it. Before Sapna Dholakia’s dreaded gangster family, the only Dholakia I knew was my mild-mannered Sanskrit tuition teacher, who once gently berated me for killing a mosquito. Sapna is later engaged to a Hasmukh Patel’s son. Not to mention the fact that AMALL released only six months after Narendra Modi became Gujarat’s Chief Minister.

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I loved the songs. The title track had the two new-age stars matching steps opposite Australia’s most administrative landmarks. The hidden message: the parliament-like backdrops signified rules and laws, and this was the rule-breaking couple’s dance of defiance. Even the authenticity of the lyrics – who wouldn’t expect a bunch of Indian engineering students to rhyme “life” with “wife” (We wish you a great life…life life…wife wife!) in their musical ode to star-crossed lovers? She does ‘wifey’ things, too: At one point, the hundred-odd students, ecstatic with the presence of a girl in a boys’ hostel, musically dump their dirty laundry into her waiting hands. This, a moment after she is shown sweetly slaving for them in the mess kitchen.

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I loved Ameesha Patel’s “breathless” performance. The actress went a step further and literally interpreted her director’s figurative brief of ‘suffocated Sapna’. Oxygen becomes her enemy, and perhaps Sapna’s unusually asthmatic demeanour stemmed from the fact that her limited reading of human emotions might have been derived from the adult websites she accessed on her dial-up connection in absence of real human company. Every lonely character has a backstory.

I loved Mukesh Tiwari’s vein-popping rage as Sapna’s psychotic brother. You could sense that he was still recovering from the trauma of playing the unhygienic baddie that loses to the 8 old men from China Gate. At one point, daddy Dholakia interrupts his murderous assault and orders him to “SHUTAPP” in front of a thousand students when he tries to reason (“But PAPA…”) with him. Can you really blame him for being so salty?

I loved the ‘National Engineering College’ campus, its cool canteen (with ‘College Canteen’ inscribed on the walls, just in case), and the fact that there’s very little to choose between Rohit’s physics-defying bicycle kick in the football match (featuring boys in basketball attire) and Rohan’s elegance-defying “sixer” in K3G’s cricket match.

I loved the dialogues. “Aaj nahi, abhi nahi, kabhi nahi” and “Rohit, mera dil dhadak raha hai” are phrases of undying love. Or Rohit’s rhythmic phone number: 8484448, Shri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram. And naive Sapna’s timeless line at McDonald’s: “Rohit, tum bhi bohot bade maal ho.”

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I loved the details: The hero’s perfectly diverse collection of friends (a Sikh, Muslim, Maharashtrian, and the Tamilian canteen manager Shetty). Sapna’s bottle of poison with a “Danger !!!” warning – note the space between the word and the three exclamation marks – and Cadbury’s gems parading as the deadly pills. The white Maruti vans, Ceilos, Esteems, Gypsies and Contessas screeching to a halt like a ‘90s police jeep. Hrithik’s busted left eye that mirrored Aamir’s busted eye from Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam.

Look closer, there are more gems: A teenage Daisy Shah as a Ganesh Acharya backup dancer in the Navratri song, the names of Mohit Suri, Ashmit Patel and Vishal Pandya (Hate Story 2,3,4) as ADs in the closing credits, De De Pyaar De’s director Akiv Ali as assistant editor, the Coca Cola sponsored campus and air (Hrithik was the brand ambassador). And the climax battle featuring bylane walls with: Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai posters, ‘Vote for Ajay’ and ‘Stop Aids’ slogans, ‘Keep Clean Mumbai’ and ‘Chala Azad Maidan’ stickers, Rainbow Cycles and Balaji Bulb advertisements.

Also Read: My Favourite So Bad It’s Good Film: Ranjith’s ‘Rock N’ Roll’, Which, Incidentally, Is About A Jazz Musician

Actually, here’s a full, full version of my confession: I chose to celebrate my 30th birthday, too, by watching AMALL. For the nth time. Alone. Because I still love the film. And its unpretentious opportunism. Its tragic failure to capitalize on the couple’s iconic debut. I’m now too old to distinguish between so-good-it’s-good and so-bad-it’s-good Bollywood from 2002. To those who still cannot understand our abusive 17-year-old affair, all I (and Daisy Shah) can say is: My business is my business, none of your business.

BEST (WORST) SCENE:

In the last scene, when a modestly dressed Sapna wakes up from a coma, Rohit’s parents silently materialize, watch Dholakia apologize to Rohit, smile and leave. In short, the assistant directors hastily pencilled in “Rohit’s parents” onto the hospital call-sheet, and Bhatt improvised. The rest, as they say, is geography.

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