25 Years Of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun Tilted Heavily Towards The Urban Identity
The beginning of redefining the meaning of having an “Indian” identity.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) came nearly two decades after Jai Santoshi Maa quit the scene. But the message is clear. If a crudely produced, low-budget, star-less Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) could captivate audiences for months together and initiate a fasting ritual for all Hindu women on every Friday for 16 Fridays, two decades on, this needed to be dressed up, packaged and presented in modern, jazzy, dazzling clothing that did not compromise on a lavish budget in keeping with the economic policies of a Manmohan Singh. And this is precisely what Hum Aapke Hain Kaun had done.
Film sets and costumes began to illustrate the look and the feel of urban centers (openly displaying the brand names of Coca-Cola, Ralph Lauren, Nike...) in which the characters could be in middle-class India or the urban Diaspora of the West opening up affinities with audiences across the globe. But film critics in India have questioned some of the more city-centric film gloss which had begun to appear in some of the big movies of the nineties as ignoring the plight of rural India and its culture.
Even today, when the audience watches Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, it (the audience) watches the songs, the dances, the marriage rituals and fun, the romantic scenes, the melodrama, the moving marriage album filled with smiles, two happy extended Hindu families united in marriage, and the bonhomie that forms the focus of the film. What generally escapes its attention is the large-scale inundation of the screen with blatant consumer-centred symbols and motifs.
One notices that these consumer durables can fit only into an urban Indian family -- bath tub, soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, cream, perfumed oil, towel, jeans, jacket, tee-shirt, sneakers, skating rink, billiards table, cold drinks, ice-cream, chocolate, all put together (through Pooja's marriage and Nisha's impending marriage) with images of imported cars, a fridge, air-conditioners, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, kitchen gadgets, acrylic colours, furniture, clothes, suiting-shirting, and so on, familiarising the mass audience with dream pictures of affluence within an essentially Indian ambience. This is what is visible, with generous doses of glamour and gloss to overwhelm the viewer.
What lies hidden (invisible) under this blatant consumerism escapes the attention of the lay audience. A feminist film critic will try and highlight the invisible and point out its implications. The luxurious cushion of cocooned comfort, clothed in enough sophistication and modernity successfully keeps the women in the film confined to the private spaces of their homes, mainly matrimonial. Nisha is into ‘computers’ whatever that ambivalent word is supposed to mean but one misses out catching her even once toying with a computer. The audience is manipulated into accepting that she will get married and become ‘the politically correct surrogate mother’ to her dead sister’s child. That marks the end of computers for Nisha.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun is a brilliant example of how sheer affluence, especially after marriage, can be instrumental in turning a simple, almost juvenilely uncomplicated story into a box office hit. Not to forget the lovely music and the absence of a villain and no acts of violence. The women are ready and willing to toe the line of their mothers and grandmothers never mind their education and supposedly liberated and progressive upbringing. The film represents ‘globalization’ ideally, strongly but subtly by cloaking it with traditional values of ‘happiness’, synthetic or socially conditioned, that redefines “Indianness” and takes it to a different level of understanding and acceptance.
Academic scholar Meenakshi Mukherjee, while explaining the appeal of India's all-time hit Rajshri's Hum Aapke Hai Kaun(1994), writes:
Ramcharitmanas imbues the text with values that hold together the non-existent story. Not only does the initial meeting of the two families take place in Ramtekri, within the ambience of a Ram temple, the chanting of Tulsi's dohas (couplets) providing the background music, but even inside their own room, the bride's father playfully uses the Ramayan in his banter with his wife. The repeatedly foregrounded idol of Ram-Sita-Lakshman in the temple is made to serve as the paradigm for the dramatis personae -- the bhaiyya-bhabhi-devar triad -- each of who performs his/her ideal familial function in the plot with the servant Lalloo possibly filling Hanuman's role. When the bride enters the husband's house, she is presented with a copy of the Ramayan, accompanied by a cryptic comment, is mein Sita hai (there is Sita in this.)
Are these interpolations a calculated manipulation of box-office tastes that seem to have wearied of excessive doses of meaningless sex and violence? Or, are they the subconscious desires of a family film-producing concern-- the Barjatyas--that has always been committed to the upholding of family values and Indian norms through their films?
One suspects that the film is a product of both. Suraj Kumar Barjatya, the young director of this film, took a calculated risk of playing on the most popular mythological theme of all, the Ramayana, relocated within the ambience of an Indian small-town, set against the backdrop of two families very close to each other, seeking permanent social sanction for this closeness through marriage.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun also expresses the ideological beliefs of the Barjatya family, itself closely knit into a unified and a cohesive whole, repeatedly demonstrating their togetherness at all the award-giving functions by the three producers literally receiving the awards together Suraj Kumar Barjatya says"we may wear jeans and Nike shoes, but we, as Indians, also end up making the yearly trips to our holy sites. So, despite the cosmetic changes, we Indians at heart have remained the same."
All three life-experiences of marriage, childbirth and death are visited upon the same character, the older sister Pooja, who is a woman happy to make herself the object out of the two sisters, the younger one, Nisha, automatically placed as subject of the drama. Pooja is also the turning point in the drama because through her accidental death, she sets off a chain of events she is ironically not witness to. The screen space converts her presence into a smiling photograph which evolves into a statement of benign wisdom, passively audience to those who visit her (photograph) for succour, or advice, or both. The pacifist state of happiness and complacence in Pooja's life (her name too, means prayer) is disturbed by the accident.
Nothing else disturbs the narrative till then. And when it does, the set of actions and reactions that are planned are totally in keeping with the Indian convention of the younger sister being asked to marry her widower brother-in-law so that she becomes the ideal surrogate mother to the motherless infant. The modern element is introduced through the dog who lets out the secret love story.
Once again, it is for Pooja's soft-spoken husband to do the sacrificing act and be Cupid to the lovers, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun reversed the effects of the global invasion on our culture, implicitly asserting the permanence and stability of all institutions of our traditional culture that were then under severe threat--the joint family, patriarchy, the traditional qualities of the image of the Indian woman, and the nation.
While retaining and highlighting traditional Indian cultural values, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun takes care not to criticise or condemn the economic liberalisation of the country. The two families are affluent and live in palatial mansions which would embarrass the most luxurious of modern city apartment blocks. There is a spacious playground and a swimming pool in the boys' house and they are actually shown enjoying a game of cricket.
The younger girl Nisha is into computers (an American import). She is as comfortable on a billiard table as she is in playing surrogate mother to the orphaned infant though she has never been a mother herself. And the fourteen songs enliven the proceedings so much so that you actually become a part of the song-dance ensemble before the film is over.
Sneha Kanta discovers how a family dance performed in the family’s ‘public domain’ is actually a subterfuge to present an ‘item number’ in a different disguise which touches on the pleasure of ‘looking at being looked at’ by the theatre audience. She uses the example of the naughty song-dance number Didi Tera Dewar Diwana in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, a perfect family drama of two extended Hindu families getting united harmoniously through marriage.
The song-dance number performed by the then-heartthrob Madhuri Dixit with a chorus is an example of the performance by a family member at family functions as a staged event with the members of the extended family forming the audience. Yet, this particular dance number is danced to a highly suggestive song with words that have dual meanings.
The voyeurism in the (theatre) audience is neatly and cleverly undercut by incorporating an ‘approving’ (within the cinematic space) ‘family’ audience. The audience watching the performance in the film interestingly is all female with an exception. The hero and his friends enter into this female domain in disguise as men are not permitted entry into this particular pre-wedding custom. The camera often closes in on the smilingly approving faces of the ‘audience’ inside the film thereby trying to show that there is no erotic content involved and thus, no voyeurism involved either. This absolves the film audience of voyeurism and the filmmaker of indulging, in a devious manner, in a game of titillating the audience.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun became a record-breaking box-office blockbuster about a wedding and all events around it, especially an innocent romance between the groom’s brother and the bride’s sister. This marked the beginning of redefining the meaning of having an “Indian” identity. For the male and female protagonists being ‘Indian’ meant bearing allegiance to an idealized middle-class Hindu Indian family, which also became the trademark for most Barjatya films. Barjatya films have consistently asserted religious rituals and traditions primarily from a Hindu perspective.