Was the 1990s kitsch or pop? Pure cringe-fest or plain, unadulterated nostalgia? It doesn’t matter if you look at the 90s as awful or awesome because the impact (for better or for worse) of that decade is so deep-rooted within us – especially the 30-somethings reading this – that we remain very much a product of that decade even though many world cinema-exposed cineastes and urban sophiscates now seem to be in utter denial about the 90s. Did it even exist? Yes, it did. Yes, before Netflix, there were the video parlours (early training ground for filmmakers as varied as Anurag Kashyap and Madhur Bhandarkar). Yes, we could tell our Nadeem-Shravans from Jatin-Lalits and Mahesh Bhatts from David Dhawans (no right-minded 90s guy can ever confuse Mahesh Bhatt’s cinema with David Dhawan’s). Yes, Doordarshan was a bestseller and we flocked to that one family in the building that owned a TV set for our weekly fix (in our case, we were that family unfortunately). Yes, we waited for weeks to catch movies of our favourite stars, in many cases pre-booking it by physically paying a visit to the theater. Yes, there once existed the ubiquitous Munna/Pakya-type black marketer (refer to Aamir Khan in Rangeela) outside Maratha Mandir, Minerva, Geeta, Gaiety-Galaxy and Chandan among others.
Yes, there were no cell phones and only landlines with their heart patient-killing ring tones. And yes, there was the fashion, as epitomised by larger-than-life hits such as Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The rich kids went designer post Kuch Kuch Hota Hai while those enjoying the thug life, one supposes, found solace in the candy-coloured Rangeela. Thousands of diehard Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit fans emulated the wedding look of Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, some compulsively wearing it as a uniform. The Khans emerged as the romantic stars of the 90s but the decade equally belonged to action stars like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol and Suniel Shetty. Of the heroines, Karisma Kapoor, Madhuri Dixit, Raveena Tandon, Kajol, Rani Mukerji, Manisha Koirala and Shilpa Shetty commanded large followings. Govinda was a special breed, with his own cottage industry of the silly and the slapstick.
Meanwhile, economic reforms of 1991 had forced open the markets. Public’s spending power shot up and Bollywood became one of the biggest beneficiaries. The budgets went through the roof. So did star salaries and ticket and popcorn prices. Out went single screens and the multiplex era was ushered in. Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Subhash Ghai’s Pardes were instrumental in creating the lucrative overseas market, cashing in on the NRI nostalgia. Both films starred Shah Rukh Khan, who as many suggested, represented Bollywood to diaspora audiences. He still does!
In the fifth of our on-going ‘Hindi classics that defined the decade’ essay series, we examine ten Bollywood hits from the 90s.
The last of the ‘Amitabh Bachchan as a leading man’ hits, Agneepath is the star’s very own The Godfather/Scarface turn – complete with the famous Brando-inspired drop-in-the-voice. The superstar produced another blockbuster in Hum a year later, but these would, sadly, become Bachchan’s last great outings before the younger stars upstaged him and finally, the downfall brought in by ABCL fiasco. What followed was a slow fade – and, needless to say, a remarkable revival circa-2000s.
Mahesh Bhatt is to the 1990s what Manmohan Desai was to the 1970s. Bhatt’s musical hits set and changed, at once, the rules of the game. Bhatt came to the commercial mode of filmmaking as a wounded tiger, having burnt his fingers with the sensitive Arth and Saaransh. With a string of hits such as Aashiqui and Zakhm, he mined autobiographical stories for commercial benefits. Aashiqui is also significant for Bhatt’s collaboration with Gulshan Kumar’s T-Series. Their music, in many ways, became the unofficial emblem of the 90s.
Comedy has always been David Dhawan’s forte but take his pre-Aankhen phase and you will notice his strength for melodrama and action. It was in Aankhen that he first revealed a head for comedy. The Govinda and Kader Khan pairing became a recurring standard since but you can’t deny that it all began with Aankhen. It was rib-tickling in the right places and thrilling at the same time.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994)
Some scoffed at this Barjatya outing, slamming it as the “longest wedding video.” For the BuzzFeed generation, the film is a Burger King of memes. Memes about Bharatiya sanskriti, family values, weddings and Alok Nath are invariably linked to HAHK – a troll favourite. But the Salman Khan-Madhuri Dixit starrer (along with a formidable supporting cast) remains iconic for its stupendous ticket sales (it rewrote box-office history), an unlimited supply of songs and for being the ultimate family saga where you don’t need an occasion to break into a song or go on an extended vacay – Tuffy in tow. Life is one big, unending party in this Prem-land.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994)
One of Shah Rukh Khan’s most endearing performances (a cult has been steadily growing around it), Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is an ode to Chaplin and Raj Kapoor. The goodhearted hero is a loser who won’t get the girl nor conventional success, a curse inflicted on a Hindi film leading man since eternity. But the little fellow will win hearts – justifying its Tramp-esque roots. “You have Chaplin walking away into the horizon – there’s always hope, but there’s sadness,” author Jai Arjun Singh quotes Kundan Shah in his Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro book, in response to a question as to why the underdog quality is intrinsic to comedy.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge gave Bollywood many gifts, including the trend of acronym. It also gave us SRK’s romantic Raj, Kajol’s dreamy Simran, Amrish Puri’s bauji, exotic European locales and of course, Karan Johar. But most importantly, it gave us a formula of how all Bollywood films of the future would look like, courtesy Mr Johar’s chance involvement in its making. This YRF film opened a goldmine that was the diaspora market, turning the NRIs from London, Toronto and New Jersey into a sucker for everything Indian. Though SRK and Kajol were first seen in Baazigar, it was DDLJ that established them as an unforgettable screen couple.
Those who say that Mani Ratnam won Mumbai over with Dil Se or Guru are probably wrong. Because that happened with two key films from the 90s: Roja and Bombay. These two films also ushered in the A R Rahman era, making the Mozart from Madras a pan-India phenomenon. But it was Bombay, with its communal angle, that felt urgent. Rahman’s songs were the film’s burning heart. In the aftermath of the Bombay riots and blast, this interfaith love story was yet another example of Ratnam’s ability to blend social realism with original songs in an attractive commercial packaging.
Another South Indian was slowly challenging the grammar of Bollywood and that was Ram Gopal Varma. A radical, RGV conquered Mumbai with Rangeela. Once again, Rahman’s experimental soundtrack was the soul. He was at the forefront of sweeping musical changes, a marked shift from Nadeem-Shravan and Jatin-Lalit’s saccharine-days. Urmila Matondkar was instantly hailed as a sex siren on the lines of Zeenat Aman while Aamir Khan aka Munna pulled off an Anil Kapoor (the original screen Munna), only more multiplex-y.
There were gangster films before. But nothing quite like Satya. Serial experimenter, RGV invented a new language with this underdog of a film, set in Mumbai’s gritty gangland. Every character feels authentic and so do the lyrics. Gulzar, who penned the songs including the whimsical Kallu Mama, once explained, “You can’t have a gangster sing Ghalib. His idea of poetry will include words like bheja and goli.” A real game-changer and unlikely hit, Satya’s influence can be felt most on two key technicians involved in the film – Vishal Bhardwaj (music composer) and Anurag Kashyap (Satya’s co-writer).
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
A harbinger of the designer film era, this Karan Johar blockbuster celebrates love and fashion in equal measure. The film is luxurious and grand and is a build-up and a prototype for all future KJO hits. It was conservative enough to appeal to the hidebound middle-class India and catchy enough for the young audiences. DDLJ taught Karan Johar an important lesson, which he puts to good use in his debut: no matter what, Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj/Rahul has to walk away with the heroine in the end. Another important lesson in here is for Bollywood: rich people problems spell money. Big money!
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)