On a Monday morning, Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir, a 42-year-old movie theatre, understandably looks forsaken. The ticket counter looks closed from the outside, but is accessible from inside. A balcony ticket for the morning show of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) is ₹ 20. The dull, grainy print on the enormous screen just about lights up the spacious theatre, with a capacity of about 1,000. At least 100 people jeer every time a song begins. Otherwise, there’s pin-drop silence.
Why do a young Shah Rukh Khan in baggy pants, a Harley-Davidson jacket, and facial contortions of simian proportions, and a young Kajol, at ease with a short red dress as well as a white salwar-kameez and bandhni dupatta, in the Eurorail still arouse loud applause? In 2010, the show completed 800 weeks—and is still on. Now, it is a piece of history.
DDLJ, produced by Yash Raj Films, Bombay’s romance foundry since the 1980s, and directed by its then 23-year-old scion Aditya Chopra, released in Indian theatres and in about 20 theatres in diaspora pockets of the UK and US in 1995. It was the pinnacle of Khan’s already ascending status as a not-so-angry and charmingly gawky boy-hero—the hero who spends his father’s money, drinks Stroh’s beer, woos a quasi-liberated Punjabi girl in Zurich and pursues her to a village blooming with mustard fields.
SRK became the face of a new, globalized India which prized money. But he also offered us the solace that all is not lost. Just like Raj Kapoor, Raj Malhotra’s dil was Hindustani. That the Everyman at Maratha Mandir that Monday morning still gets him says something about what movies of the 1990s did to us. They comforted us; DDLJ still comforts us. Anupama Chopra writes in her engaging biography of the superstar, King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan, which examines him as an icon of globalized India, “Shah Rukh Khan personified the new millennium Indian who combines a global perspective with local values and is at home in the world."
Made for each other: Raj and Simran, the Bollywood poster couple of the 1990s, represented a generation at ease with modernity and tradition.
The arts did not muster any robust reaction to the new economic order. The idea of open dialogue inherent in the idea of a globalized society did not affect mainstream Hindi cinema; instead there was homage to symbols of globalization such as expensive cars, foreign brands and extravagant weddings. A sense of easy euphoria related to spending money infected milieus in film stories.
In contrast, a large slice of Japan’s transitional generation of the mid-1990s, left out of the country’s economic boom, chose cultural anarchy. It used money to rebel against cultural norms and produced manga, the Harajuku girls, the motorcycle gangs (speed tribes), underground films and punk musicians. A cultural underground is only beginning to brew in Indian films, with works such as Gandu by Bengali film-maker Kaushik Mukherjee.
The only interesting, if not revolutionary, experiments in cinema were facilitated by the opening up of the distribution system, leading to the “multiplex film" or the “crossover" film in the next decade—defined, not by aesthetic or idea, but by the audience they were tailor-made for. The first revolution in distribution was because of one film. Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (HAHK) was released in a few select theatres in 1994, including Regal, Eros and Liberty in Mumbai, with the producer Rajshri Productions’ promise that if smaller theatres were spruced up, they would distribute it there too. HAHK, about two families mired in endless ritualistic revelry and song-and-dance routines, had a spectacular opening at the box office and many theatres instantly renovated and improved infrastructure. Ticket prices increased and family audiences went back to theatres. Madhuri Dixit, then in the prime of her stardom, hosted a long, grandiose Marwari wedding on screen, and India’s business class and aspiring middle class flocked to theatres. HAHK remains the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time and its gross profit (adjusted to inflation) is ₹ 309.26 crore, followed by DDLJ(Rs 267.77 crore).
Barjatya facilitated the beginning of a distribution revolution in the mid-1990s which was to culminate in the opening of India’s first multiplex theatre, Delhi’s PVR Anupam, in 1997. A year before DDLJ released, metro audiences warmed up to Dev Benegal’s English August, the first English film set in an Indian milieu, to release in Indian theatres—a precursor to the “multiplex film", and a far cry from the late 1980s, when going to the theatres to watch a film was unfashionable.
Like everything else in the 1980s, film production and distribution were in a slump. The National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) was almost bankrupt, a mere content provider for Doordarshan. The arthouse or parallel cinema movement was history in the country’s film capital and Amitabh Bachchan’s career was at a low ebb. Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director of PVR Cinemas, said in an interview to Lounge in 2010, “Scale matters, but I would rather be the best than the biggest." This was a mantra that gained momentum in the movie business through the decade.
By the 1990s, in the US and Europe, the home video market had exploded, films had been scaled down to suit small screens, close-ups became de-rigueur and the New York independent film industry was a formidable establishment. Here, with PVR Anupam and subsequently many other multiplexes, the experience of watching a film changed. While going to a multiplex was luxury, the number of smaller films suited to niche city audiences grew.
Through most of the decade, heroes and heroines were soaked in consumerist gloss—with Yash Raj Films ruling the roost with films such as Dil To Pagal Hai and Dharma Productions’ Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Commercially successful Hindi cinema either projected the pretty urban confines of society or looked back on 1980s staples such as patriotism (1942: A Love Story, 1993; Border, 1997) and forbidden love (Dil, 1990; Beta, 1992; Raja Hindustani, 1996). The socialist hangover of the 1970s and 1980s found crass expression in films such as Raja Hindustani.
The films which combined intellectual rigour and commitment to cinematic craft were being made in the south, especially Kerala, and appreciated in festivals outside India. The films of Shaji Karun and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, both graduates from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), in this decade contained the opposite of society’s euphoria—which great art of any age often does. Karun’s most memorable film, Vanaprastham (1999), is about a Kathakali dancer, played by Mohanlal, who is shunned by his family and lover. He is the master of his art, and in the film’s dazzling climax he uses it to rage against his own sorrow. Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993, about a Christian migrant worker’s conflict with his master, played by Mammootty), Kathapurushan (1995, about a man’s struggles after embracing Marxist ideas), and Mathilukal (1990, a love story of two prisoners who can’t see each other) are important films of the decade. So are some works of Kannada director Girish Kasaravalli (Mane, 1990; Kraurya, 1996), who explored women’s heroic struggles in conservative rural societies in the 1990s. Other than National Film Awards ceremonies, these films were not part of our cultural map. The Tamil director Mani Ratnam, a master of the grand canvas and the visually potent moment, first bridged the regional-national gap with Roja, a political drama, which was dubbed and released in Hindi in 1992. Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) reached a wider India.
In Mumbai, Satya, in 1999, was the new road. It was the birth of what critics have called Mumbai Noir. The setting, Mumbai’s underworld, was not new. What the writers of the film (Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla) and the director shattered were sentimental “Bollywood" ideas of poetic justice and virtue. It was, aesthetically and on paper, a lean film but it was also commercially viable. Bhiku Mhatre, one of its leading men, and indeed the film’s most powerful voice, played by Manoj Bajpai, redefined the petty gangster. Drunk with power, but ultimately powerless, Mhatre was a figure possible only in the 1990s’ dystopic Mumbai, ravaged by underworld terror, and weakened by an indifferent political establishment. Ram Gopal Varma’s language was backed by extremely competent sound design and editing.
In the 2000s, the water was no longer still. You could get away with a Munnabhai as well as a bratty Devdas from Chandigarh as long as they were new on the eyes and ears, and had a grain of truth.