In the early ’80s, Karachi had just discovered VCRs. For small-town Pakistanis like me, summer breaks in Karachi was the closest it could get to going abroad, so we quickly lapped up this new development. The lending libraries were yet to come. We watched Indian films on video cassettes, bought by people who actually went abroad — to Dubai, Hong Kong and such places. I quickly transformed into a dastango, memorising the films for their plots and dialogues that I could then narrate to cousins and friends. I wish I could say that Sholay was the first Indian film I watched. It did, however, become the first film I recounted for my audience. The Indian films I watched gave me my first life lessons on love, steered my life choices over the years and continue to influence what I consider a good love story.
LESSON No 1: PYAR BANDAGI HAI
My first Indian film is one that will forever remain a mystery, for none of us, not me, nor my aunts who had slipped the cassette into the machine ever registered its name. The movie was a tale of two young women, best friends to each other, living in houses with the same numbers, intent on playing matching-matching even when it came to getting married on the same date. Of course, one friend had to marry a sanskari, the other a scoundrel. At some stage in the film, the scoundrel pacifies a sulking glamorous creature who has just discovered he got married with the lines — “Marriage toh maine society ke liye ki hai. But love, love toh darling tum se kiya hai.” My impressionable six-year-old self learned that romantic love, this heartstopping lakshman rekha-defying love, could exist beyond the cloistering walls of the home and hearth.
LESSON No 2: YE DOSTI HUM NAHI TODENGE
On that Karachi weekend, I also learnt a lot about friendship, ideas that were reinforced when I watched the next film. This film, my second, was Sholay. I learned about friendship, with Jai and Veeru’s ishq-e-haqiqi (true love), which was quite in line with my Pashtun sensibility and Plato/Aristotle philosophy that true love can only be between men. The rest is procreation and “Marriage toh maine society ke liye ki hai.”
LESSON NO 3: DOST DOST NA RAHA
I had fallen down the rabbit hole of Indian films, with all their baffling ideas of friendship and love. Look at the happy-go-lucky Raj Kapoor, now brooding, as friendship across class and background rears its ugly head in Awaara. In Andaz, I watched Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor complicate matters and friendship for beautiful Nargis. That was not all. Later in Sangam, Kapoor’s affable and genial character would glower in the corner, suspicious of friend (Rajendra Kumar) and lover (Vyjayanthimala). The film also taught me to simply swallow an ex’s love letter rather than have my present partner piece the fragments together. Ye love bhi na.
Later, when Maine Pyar Kiya slipped in a codicil — “Ek ladka aur ladki kabhi dost nahin hote” — with nary a sorry, thank you, Salman Khan and Bhagyashree reminded me how this tricky thing called love could challenge friendship pacts. With Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the institution of friendship between the sexes, as I understood it, lay in shambles.
LESSON No 4: MAAR DIYA JAAYE YA CHHORh DIYA JAAYE
By the ’90s, movies were challenging all the gyan early film viewing had provided me. My VCR days had put love and life dramas in perspective — life, rather our love lives, had to go on, no matter what. Lover has just gunned down your family, but this is true love, so keep calm and carry on walking into the sunset. Her uncle betrayed your aunt, leading to slut shaming, suicide; your dad going to jail for he has just killed some of your in-laws… Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth. But the dilwales and dulhaniyas in families that are wooed together, staying together had me confused. That was till Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai’s protagonist had his father-in-law carted to jail. Finally, here was a Raj I could be comfortable with.
LESSON No 5: SALAAM-E-ISHQ MERI JAAN ZARA QUBOOL KAR LO
Well, it was clear that I was in love with Indian films and its ways, but I had to stop and wonder that if I were to run away from school and make a beeline for Mr B, whether my Muslimness and I would fit in. I had two left feet so I could not be the Good Muslim Tawaif, like Umrao Jaan or Sahibjaan in Pakeezah, who would dance at a lover’s wedding. Then again, I never wore ghararas to bed, nor could be ready to suffer unrequited love because I had exchanged the damn burqa with my bestie in college. I was also too scatter-brained to remember to feed all the pigeons.
But my absent-mindedness could hold me in good stead. Didn’t Coolie make Muslim motherhood cool? Maa ka pyar. Yup, that could be my Indian love story.
Many years later, and hopes stir afresh for trading in the Pakistani man for an Indian model. Look at those Indian men ‘commuting’ on foot across the border most days to catch up with you (Refugee), ready to cool their heels in jail for 22 years pining away in love (Veer-Zaara) and masquerading as a porter to carry our luggage across platforms (Jhoom Barabar Jhoom). And oh this one — this one is so sweet, putting up with your dysfunctional family, especially screechy Kirron Kher as a mom (Total Siyapaa). Oh wait, that is Ali Zafar, apni hi party hai. Exchange offer cancelled.
Aneela Z Babar grew up in Pakistan watching Hindi films. She works on popular culture, gender and the religio-military nexus in South Asia.