We often say that one should leave one’s brain behind when we choose to watch most mainstream Hindi films, but the human being is full of surprises and often learns most from really unconventional sources. I watch relatively few films but I tend to bring them back home with me and live with them for years. Their characters stay at the back of my mind like sudden friends, strange relatives, evil uncles or wise mentors, offering a lesson or two to choose from at different turns in life. This week, I offer a list of some unexpected life lessons from popular films.
QAYAMAT SE QAYAMAT TAK: “We refuse to inherit your hatred," says Raj, the young lover played by Aamir Khan, to the cohort of elders in his extended family who are threatening him with violence and abandonment if he insists on marrying Rashmi (Juhi Chawla), because she belongs to a family that has been marked as an enemy.
I was in my teens, and here was a clear-eyed, pithy line to use every time one would be required to justify thinking for oneself and rejecting the narrative of hate between communities and castes. I hadn’t imagined how apposite this short sentence would remain over the years, instead of losing relevance.
In the film, the lovers are doomed, but it isn’t always necessary to let screenwriters and film directors decide how stories end. In my own fan version of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Raj and Rashmi become organic forest farmers and raise unschooled children who become climate warriors and join farmers’ marches when they grow up. They inspire a new generation but are difficult to reach when news television hosts try to convince them to participate in prime-time debates.
SHOLAY: Be like Basanti, the rustic north Indian tongawali played by Hema Malini. The loquacious Basanti is the entertainer, the comic relief, the lone Uber/Ola substitute in the village and the one who will rescue the seething heroes repeatedly in her horse-drawn carriage. She stays calm, strong and strategic in the face of the enemy, personified by Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). She never breaks the law. She is an empathetic relationship manager. The village depends on the woman to bring it together.
Basanti is trusting, yet worldly-wise. She is comfortable with letting the joke be on her. As you know, in her own version of real life, Basanti grows up to become a popular member of Parliament and graduates from her tonga to tractors and photo opportunities from the sunroof of a Mercedes SUV. She is good at dealing with awestruck news reporters and offering laconic sound bites for mass entertainment.
LAGAAN: Get over your victim complex and recognize systemic inequality.
In this grand narrative of representing oneself (read Indians) as the victimized underdog, nobody really cares about the one who is oppressed within the system. Kachra, the Dalit villager played by Aditya Lakhia, remains on the margins and never seems to realize his worth in the film’s narrative despite being the star spin bowler in the victorious cricket team. His body language remains apologetic about his presence and no dignity is afforded to him even in the moment of collective victory. The focus remains on Bhuvan, played by Aamir Khan, who gets to be the beloved, heroic rescuer and has credit thrust upon him for the entire cricket team’s talents and efforts. The team needs Kachra’s contribution but he doesn’t get to become one of them. His name, Kachra, literally means garbage.
Sometimes you have to watch the film that the film-maker neglected to make. Maybe they will justify their storytelling by using the excuse of representing reality, maybe they will say they tell stories that audiences demand. When audiences take charge of stories, it really doesn’t matter any more.
TEZAAB: I learnt nothing from Tezaab except that a very screechy song that has lyrics as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13… can become a national sensation. Sometimes, when I worry about the resonance and value of my own work, I remember this song and reconcile to my fate as a failed artist who could not sync her rhythm with the pulse of the people.
Actually I did learn something from Tezaab. Sometimes I entertain my children with my impersonation of Babban, played by Chunky Pandey in the film. I hold a fake car steering and turn it all the way to the left and then all the way to the right, while pretending to drive on a straight highway and singing poetic lyrics that made a list of everything that was asleep—the earth, the sky, the destination and the road.
Be like Chunky Pandey. Sometimes it takes enthusiastic overacting to create memories.
CHANDNI: Falling in love within the patriarchal structure means doom and disaster.
Chandni, in which the eponymous role is played by Sridevi, is one of my favourite Hindi films even though it might be the only time when I felt that arranged marriage or even arranged love would have been safer for this wonderful, creative woman with such a naughty streak in her. “Do all my emotional labour, while I get better at being a thoughtless, bumbling, clumsy man who can’t walk down a flight of stairs without disrupting everyone else’s life," seems to be the main message Chandni gets from the man she is in love with— Rohit, played by Rishi Kapoor. Yet she finally chooses the needy, less emotionally mature Rohit over the older man, Lalit (Vinod Khanna), whose gentle and capacious love had helped her heal and rebuild her own sense of self.
Chandni makes me think of the contradictions in love and marriage a lot. Certainly, it is a film which shows that there is no such thing as happily ever after. Follow your heart and build stamina for the emotional upheavals life will inevitably bring. Take risks. Don’t always choose safety. Own the script of your life. Play your own role to smash the patriarchy and annihilate caste as you make and unmake your own life choices.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar