The 90s was an exciting time in India. Liberalisation was making the kind of sweeping changes that would enable a whole generation of B-School grads to start off with double-digit salaries. The license Raj was disappearing, sectors were being thrown open and everywhere we were ascending new heights. Except Bollywood. If there is one era that can be pointed out as the worst in Bollywood’s history, it must be the early 90s and Raja Hindustani was perhaps some sort of a flashpoint in this nadir. I watched the promos of this movie as an 18 year old and wisely stayed away from it.
Then again, you grow older, more sentimental and foolish. After all, 90s was my day and frankly no other sane human being would preserve the cultural heritage of this fine generation. It is up to me and my ilk to inch up TV ratings to ensure 90s songs and movies don’t totally disappear from mainstream. So saying, I settled down to watch Raja Hindustani on Sab TV the other day.
What a movie it turned out to be. Reading like a competent doctoral thesis on ‘successful elements in a 90s pot boiler’, the movie has everything – poor hero, rich heroine, scheming step mother, communication gaps, hero defending the heroine’s honour, high society birthday party where everyone stands around and politely nurses a drink while the rich family members sing sad songs.
Arthi Sehgal (Karishma Kapoor) comes to Palanpet (or Palanpur) to celebrate her newly straightened hair and ponder on the exact mathematics involved in getting thin eyebrows. She hires Raja Hindustani’s (Aamir Khan) car and going by the irrefutable Laws of Bollywood ends up falling in love with him. Enter father (Suresh Oberoi) who wants to take Arthi back home. Raja drives them to the nearest airport. On the way, singing the worst superhit song of the 90s Pardesi pardesi jana nahi Raja persuades Arthi to stay back and marry him. The couple marries and proceeds to sing even more horrible songs in the hillside. Step ma-in-law (Archana Puran Singh) enters the fray and separates Arthi and Raja. Raja goes back to Palanpur and sings sad songs during the course of which Arthi has a baby. At this point, the villains wake up and decide to do away with Raja and the baby. Baam Bish Doom. Raja and baby emerge unscathed. Arthi and Raja reunite and sing more songs.
At first glance, you may want to go ‘blech’ and throw up after listening to the story. It takes a talented viewer to notice the subtleties that made this movie a super hit. Here they are
The Kiss: This movie finally solved the mystery of what happened when the hero and the heroine brought their faces together and then the camera swiveled to give a view of the back of the hero’s head and the top half of the heroine’s face. Curious teenagers did not have to wait for Emraan Hashmi to give them lessons in hitting first base.
The Stepmother: The evil stepmother wears vamp-like clothes. But no one immediately equates this sartorial preference with lurking evil. Hindi movies finally moved beyond associating scantily clad women with a lack of moral fibre. Of course, as informed viewer, you have known right from the beginning that ma-in-laws showing some skin must be evil and can barely suppress yourself from saying ‘I told you so’ when events prove you right.
The Surd: One could easily dismiss Johnny Lever as the worst type of Sikh stereotyping. Especially when he walks around squatting and screaming ‘balle balle’ for no good reason. But no. Carefully notice how he does not sport a beard.
The Cross dressers – Early prototypes of Bobby darling, the female does a volte face and marries the surd. In just one quick scene, she sprouts a long pigtail worthy of a good Bharatiya Nari. I am not sure which shocked the audience more – the change in preferences or the quick hair growing lotion.
The movie is actually one of those wonderful bridges between the old and the new – the halfway house before kissing on screen, transvestites, and every song repeated atleast twice in the movie became standard Bollywood practice. And really, the fact that it wants me want to scream even after 11 years is just a testimony to its consistent legacy.