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.
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).