Monday, September 15, 2008

SOORAJ BARJATYA: Music and Melodrama

More involved in distribution than film-making, Sooraj Barjatya has directed only a small handful of films – but several of them were such huge hits that he’s effectively made his mark on Hindi cinema as a director – specifically as a director of a specific type of film – the sentimental, schmaltzy, melodramatic ‘family drama’. Hallmarks of his movies include family celebrations (usually with gorgeous, heart-warming songs) and inter-generational conflict (typically resolved thanks to love, understanding and forgiveness – all done the desi way, of course).

Barjatya’s films always reflect – and even champion – so-called ‘traditional family values’ – values which are often decried as both unrealistic and anachronistic. Several of his films feature ‘arranged marriages’ between characters who, although they have no objections to spending the rest of their lives together, haven’t exactly had the opportunity to make such a life-changing decision with a person of their own choosing, after a reasonable period of discovery. The films also tend to endorse a model of marriage where the girl seems to set aside any aspirations or ambitions she may have had, in order to become the idealized ‘biwi aur bahu’.

In addition, Barjatya often seems to adopt the simplistic view (often seen in Bollywood – and also, by the way, in Nollywood (Nigerian cinema)) that 'Western' values are completely unwholesome and undesirable and worse, are some sort of raging virus out to destroy everything that the Indian family holds dear. This theme pops up in all the Barjatya films I’ve seen – the worst characters are those that try to look and speak ‘Western’ – they are immoral, greedy and uncaring about the needs of others.

I’m not going to weigh in on the debate as to whether there’s anything harmful or misleading in the ‘family values’ model adopted by Barjatya in his films – I think that everyone has a view on that. I will only say that as a lover of Bollywood films, I’ve learned to sift through the messages in various movies and to extract what (if anything) is of value to me, discarding whatever goes against my own worldview. And I will also say that my beliefs, I like to think, are pretty embracing of diverse views, and I sometimes (but by no means always) find that there’s value to be extracted from ideas that may at first go against the grain. And that’s a lot to say from someone who had nothing to say!

Before talking about the Barjatya films I’ve seen so far, I’ll just summarise what I love and (don’t love) about them. I like a formula that works, and his formula works for me – catchy, melodious music + beautiful, charming actors + some conflict + all-conquering love healing all wounds. I like it – it’s simple and it’s fun (for the most part). Let’s break it down.

The music: Barjatya uses music (and lots and lots of it) really well to heighten emotion and tug at those heart-strings, awakening feelings of nostalgia and tenderness. The melodies (usually provided by Raam Laxman) are simple, catchy (really infectious, actually), memorable and even sometimes shamelessly plagiarized (as in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’). The song picturisations are usually really beautifully done, in my opinion. Schmaltzy and over-the-top as it sometimes is, I think the music is my favourite thing about his films.

The actors: Like every director, Barjatya has his ‘MVPs’ – actors that understand how to effectively capture and demonstrate the family-friendly messages infused through each film. Alok Nath, who’s almost a genius at melodrama in my view, has to be the most valuable Barjatya MVP, but there’s also (among others) the charming Reema Lagoo, Anupam Kher (whom I love), Ajit Vachani, Mohnish Behl, and his favourite ‘hero’, Mr. Salman Khan.

Mr. Barjatya is a bit more adventurous when casting young females, and he sure goes for the gorgeous: Bhagyashree – she of the lamentably underachieved career (‘Maine Pyar Kiya’), Madhuri Dixit and Renuka Shahane (‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ – Renuka is another whom I wish had done more), Kareena Kapoor (‘Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon’), Amrita Rao (‘Vivah’), Karisma Kapoor, Tabu and Sonali Bendre (‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’). Barjatya picks beautiful people, and that makes for many beautiful picturisations – from Madhuri and Salman in ‘Joote Dedo’ to Shahid and Amrita in ‘Hamari Shaadi’, to Tabu, Sonali and Lolo in ‘Maiyya Yashoda’, to Bhagyashree and Salman in the Antakshari medley from ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’.

Speaking of great picturisations, India itself is, I believe, a character in Barjatya’s films – the rich culture, the family traditions, the colourful clothing, and the scenic locations spread across the country. All his films that I’ve seen include scenes shot in the beautiful, picturesque, often rural areas of India. That’s another thing I love.

Barjatya is also fond of animals, it seems – from Tuffy the dog in HAHK, who ends up playing a pivotal role in the film, to Handsome the dove in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’. And he has a distinct affection for the the name 'Prem'!

One thing I do like about Barjatya’s characters is that they all have distinct and different personalities – some are feisty and forward, others shy and reserved; some are plain-speaking, others diplomatic geniuses; some are bubbling with life, others inwardly seething. They are definitely not the most nuanced and complex characters (although I think some of them end up having a lot more substance than you’d at first think), in fact they are usually very broadly-sketched, but I guess I can forgive that within the context of what he does.

The conflict: There is always one – whether created by human weakness (as in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’) or by bad advice from creepy friends (as in ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’) or by tragic accident (as in ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ and ‘Vivah’). As with real life, the conflict usually comes straight out of nowhere. Unfortunately, sometimes the conflict also comes off a bit contrived and/or unrealistic… but oh well.

All-conquering love: Ah… the all-consuming power of love, be it romantic or filial, able to straighten out every difficulty, obliterate every complication, assuage every human yearning, make people become exactly who the people they love want them to be…. Except, this works only in the movies! It makes for some nice, cathartic emotional resolutions though. It would be nice, I suppose, if a nod was made to the fact that things are never so nicely tied up in real life – but then again, isn’t that why we’ve got the movies?

Now to the Barjatya films I’ve seen so far.

HUM AAPKE HAIN KOUN…!’: I adore this film. It’s my favourite of the films Sooraj Barjatya has directed and just has a very special place in my heart. I wrote just about everything I have to say about it here.

‘HUM SAATH SAATH HAIN’: I’m one of the few people that actually really liked this film. Yes, it’s very saccharine in many places, but I think it had its heart in the right place. I love the songs from it and enjoyed the performances as well as the issues it tackled. I’ve written about it here and here.

‘MAINE PYAR KIYA’: This is a very sweet, charming film about young love. It’s very ‘typical’ of Bollywood romance – rich boy, poor girl, opposition from parents… but it’s very nicely done. A young, likeable Salman Khan and the adorable Bhagyashree play Prem and Suman, two young people who despite their differing backgrounds, find friendship, and later love, when Suman comes to live at Prem’s house (Suman’s father and Prem’s father are old friends). These two made SUCH a lovely couple, and the film-makers captured some really memorable moments with them.

Unfortunately, as the bond between Prem and Suman develops, the bond between their parents is destroyed by Prem’s father’s pride and elitism. Suman’s father’s pride is awakened in turn, and Prem must then convince him (as the Biblical Jacob had to convince Laban) that he is deserving of his daughter. Throw in the attempts of the greedy, Westernised Ranjeet, Seema and Jeevan (played by Ajit Vachani, Pervin Dastur and Mohnish Behl) to snatch away all that Prem and his family hold dear, and our young hero faces quite a challenge. Will he succeed? Anyone who knows Bollywood knows the answer to this question, but it’s still fun to watch.

The best thing about this film for me was the performances – especially by Bhagyashree and Salman, although they’re nicely backed by the rest of the cast. I do so wish Bhagyashree had built on the success of this film – I think she could have had a great career. The songs in this film are also really sweet (‘Dil Deewana’ is pretty, ‘Tum Ladki Ho’ is fun, and ‘Kabutar ja’ is delightful – I enjoyed the rest as well). Some aspects of the script could I could have done without, such as the strangely intense relationship between our lovers’ fathers (especially on Alok Nath’s side) – very amusing, but weird. Also could have done without the big fight at the end. But all told, this is a really, really sweet and charming love story.

‘VIVAH’: Sooraj Barjatya’s most recent hit, a charming courtship story starring Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao helped Barjatya regain the credibility he had lost with HSSH and ‘Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon’ (which I haven’t seen). It also sparked criticism from many who felt that its themes were obsolete and its female protagonist annoyingly submissive. While I don’t agree with all of it (I particularly disagree with the notion that Poonam’s shyness automatically makes her a mindless coward), I do have problems with some aspects of this film’s storyline.

Shahid Kapoor plays the sweet, sincere Prem, a young man whose father (played by Anupam Kher) apparently gets up one day, and out of nowhere, decides it’s time for his son to get married. Prem has his doubts, but like a good, obedient son, he meekly goes with his father to meet the selected prospective wife, the lovely Poonam (played by Amrita Rao). After only one brief and one-sided conversation, during which Poonam seems to be afraid to look up at Prem's face, she agrees to marry Prem. There is no discussion about her goals, desires and aspirations until after the decision is made. And even then, the ‘discussion’ (such as it is), almost explicitly subjugates her own future accomplishments to the chief role she will soon have as supportive wife and dutiful daughter-in-law. And through it all, Poonam is quietly acquiescent - and somehow it's a little difficult to tell whether it's because she's doing what's expected of her or because she's doing what she wants.

After this beginning (which, you can probably tell, I found pretty problematic), the bulk of the film is taken up by Poonam and Prem’s sweet season of courtship. I have to say I was won over at this point by the warmth and sincerity of the characters and the way they slowly establish friendship and intimacy.

I thought Shahid and Amrita had great chemistry, and I liked their characters’ mutual respect and the fact that neither was ‘fronting’ - Prem and Poonam were keeping it real. Their relationship takes time to mature, and both of them have to make an effort - I liked that as well. And it was immensely gratifying to eventually discover that Poonam, despite initial appearances, does, wonder of wonders, actually have a pretty resilient backbone and something even more endearing – maturity and wisdom along with a sense of fun.

I really, really enjoyed ‘Vivah’ – I loved the songs, I loved the romance, I loved the way in which it all unfolded, and I just thought that it was really lovely and sweet. But there is no doubt that unfortunately, I also found some aspects of it unacceptable.

I think that this ambivalent note is a really good one on which to end this post. While I like the fact that Barjatya’s films put family values front and centre, while I love the music and the emotion, and the beautiful people and scenery, and the whole formula; there definitely are aspects to that formula that can be difficult.

But I think that I am probably not the only movie buff that comes to this point with a number of films (whether they be products of Bollywood, Hollywood, or Nollywood) and has learnt to deal with it – extracting, as I said earlier, what works for me and pushing aside what doesn’t (of course, there are times when there’s nothing to extract because none of it goes down well).

I am of course conscious that some will use messages in films to continue to legitimate and reiterate (even if only to themselves) ceretain inequitable viewpoints – and even worse, that some more impressionable viewers may possibly find their viewpoints shaped by what they see on their screens… and of course at this point the whole ‘life imitates art imitates life’ circular argument rears its ugly but compelling head.

Phew… I went a bit deeper with this than I planned… funny how I returned to the same point I tried to avoid at the beginning of this piece. Time to summarise. I remain a fan of Barjatya’s work as a director – and even if he never directs another film, I will always be glad he made the films he did (especially HAHK – I love it so much).


veracious said...

Lovely post, DG, you pretty summed up the man's style of cinema completely. I'm no great fan, but I do think that at times the fluffy sugariness of HAHK can be lovely and I especially liked MPK - cute, fabulous cheesy little film, it's no surprise it made stars out of its main couple.

Nicki said...

This is a wonderful post and recap of Sooraj Barjatya. I reallyu enjoy reading it. My fave SB film has to be Maine Pyar Kiya though. However, all his films have that family element to it. You are right about the beautiful people and scenery.

Daddy's Girl said...

veracious: Thank you - this was a lot of fun for me to write. I really like the adjectives you used there: fluffy, cheesy, sugary, cute - you hit it straight on the head: that's what Barjatya does best. It's simple, it's formulaic, it's unabashedly sentimental, and I think that therein must lie the appeal.

nicki: Thanks - I think most people will agree with you on MPK being SB's best work - I know a lot of people tend to find 'Hum Aapke Hain Koun' a bit over-long and overdone - the reason why I love it as much as I do is still partly a mystery even to me. I loved MPK, but something about HAHK just gets me!

aloted said...

so u are an india film love..nice one

pls when r u coming back to update your other blog??? u know for ur naija peeps! ;-)

Pessimisissimo said...

Daddy's Girl, this is a really thoughtful and highly articulate post. While I can't share your love of HAHK, Madhuri is wonderful in it, and "Didi Tera Devar Diwana" one of the greatest (and most eyebrow-raising!) dance numbers ever.

You've detailed how Sooraj Barjatya's films are alternately (or simultaneously?) seductively appealing and disturbingly problematic. I have to say that despite my hardened cynical exterior, Vivah (2006) managed to get under my skin, and I even found myself choking up in the last few minutes. Does this mean I have to re-evaluate HAHK...?

bollyviewer said...

A very good summary of Sooraj Barjaty's body of work. His movies and cotton-candy have a lot in common! Plus, I find that his movies have been getting progressively sweeter (not in a good way). MPK had some genuine villains and some dishoom-dishoom (in other words, real masala) but the later ones seem to have characters all in one shade of the spectrum (have only seen HAHK, HSSH and Main Prem Ki Diwaani Hoon) and that is sweet enough to turn my stomach!

Daddy's Girl said...

@pessimisissimo: I wouldn't think so - I think most people who like HAHK liked it from the get-go, and most people who are underwhelmed by it felt that way the first time round as well. I don't think it's a 'grower' at all - it's probably best to do what you've done, take away the parts you liked best (Madhuri and the fabulous dance numbers) and leave the rest. My love for HAHK really mystifies me when I try to think hard about it - I guess it just 'got under my skin', as 'Vivah' did for you. Thanks for the kind words - I love your description of SB's films as 'seductively appealing and disturbingly problematic' - and I think you're spot-on with your assessment of them being simultaneously so.

@bollyviewer: I totally agree, they have gotten progressively sweeter. MPK is definitely the most 'masala' of the lot - ironically, I found the action bits rather tiresome, but I can definitely see why you would prefer its more varied, harder-hitting landscape to the unmitigated mushiness and slushiness of SB's later films.

memsaab said...

I'm a sucker for Bharjatya too. Especially since he likes to cast dogs in his films too :-) But I'd rather watch saccharine happy mush any day than angst and despair!

B said...

Bhagyashree's leaving films when she had the world at her feet-is one of the biggest sacrifices done for love..sad that she had to it though

Barjatya's should apply for the patent of family-romance movies that they make..they do it the best-hands down

Nida said...

Great post! I'm a fan of "Vivah" and plan on watching "Maine Pyar Kiya" soon...

I saw "HAHK" last Christmas and didn't quite "get" it...but, for some reason, I have this urge to watch it again this holiday season...almost like its a part of my holiday traditions, because despite being long and drawn out, it gave me that warm fuzzy feeling when a song would come on...or Madhuri and Salman would make googly eyes at each other.

I saw "Vivah" more recently and loved it. I agree wholeheartedly that Barjatya's films are more of an experience, a trip into becoming a part of a family, than an actual movie. I feel like I want to rewatch them just to be around the characters again, instead of just wanting to watch the story again.

Daddy's Girl said...

@memsaab: I know, happy is so much better!

@b: they certainly do - they've put their stamp on the genre. Thanks for stopping by.

@nida: I love your description of the films as an experience, becoming part of a family. So apt! When I re-watch them, you're so right, it's not about re-visiting the story, it's about re-visiting the characters, spending time with them and getting that 'warm, fuzzy feeling' you've desrcibed.

Alan said...

Hey DG, Nice write up. HANK and HSSH are two of my favorites as well. I also liked Renuka Shahane alot. She has that nice "girl next door" quality about her. From what I recall she was more into television than films.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

This is potentially the best piece written about Barjatya ever. Seriously very very well thought out and extremely enjoyable read. Thank you so much!

upholstery cleaning San Mateo said...

It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, however you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

Création société Suisse said...

The films reflect traditional family values which are often decried as both unrealistic and anachronistic.

Surbhi said...

Though this movie was really slow but Indian audiences love the performance of Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao.

He is simply amazing package of entertainment.

My favorite movies of Shahid -