Thursday, March 12, 2015

Satanic shirts and lasting values: remembering the 80s classic Naseeb Apna Apna

(A history lesson for all you little teenagers and 21-year-olds. You’re welcome)

For people of my generation, it can be unsettling to find that new movies set in the 1980s or even the 1990s are now officially “period films”. Take Sharat Katariya’s charming (and surprisingly low-profile, given its many fine qualities) Dum Lagaa ke Haisha. Set in the mid-90s in Haridwar, with a callow young protagonist who idolises Kumar Sanu(!) and manages an audio-cassette store for his father (the CD era is about to knock forcefully on their door), this film has obvious nostalgia value for anyone above a certain age
and obvious knock-their-eyes-out-of-their-sockets value for anyone below that age. All the usual signifiers are here. Rotary phones, red Ambassadors, rickety grey scooters, a reference to Vinod Khanna as the epitome of male hotness.

The tiny moment that left me nearly moist-eyed though was when Prem (Ayushmann Khurana) struggles to remove a videocassette from its tight cover – he has to yank the thing out – and then does something that people of my generation so unconsciously did hundreds of times in the old days. He flips open the little lid at the rear of the cassette and blows at the visible strip of film to clear away dust particles and other lethal, real-or-imaginary microscopic things. (This keeps the player’s “head” safe, we would tell ourselves.) Then he puts the cassette in. If he is anything like I was, he is holding his breath for the few seconds until the TV screen lights up. (Please, please let it not be covered by “snow”, which could mean the VCR has packed up again and needs to be serviced.)

The scene lasts barely a few seconds but I felt sentimental because I wondered if any of the young people in the hall would even know what it meant. Or would they dismiss Prem’s gesture as a character quirk? (“Hey, there’s a guy who likes to whisper randomly at rectangular plastic objects. It’s probably a religious thing.”)

However, there’s another reason why Dum Lagaa ke Haisha took me disappearing down the foggy ruins of time. Its story about a self-absorbed man who is pushed into an arranged marriage and is then indifferent to his wife because she is an overweight “saand” (at least, that is what the plot seems to be about at first – it takes a right turn in the second half and becomes much more about the insecurities of Prem, intimidated by a woman who is smarter and more poised than him) reminded me of another film that haunted my younger self.

I have spoken, oh gawping teen readers, about the character-building ritual of blowing into a videotape’s rear end. Let me now introduce you to a thing called Chitrahaar that we used to watch on Wednesday and Friday nights. It provided the soundtrack of my childhood, pre-dating the Kumar Sanu-Sadhna Sargam one you hear so much of in Dum Lagaa ke Haisha. In the mid-80s this soundtrack included the yowling number “Teri Meherbaniyan”, sung by a dog to Jackie Shroff (or vice versa), which I wrote about here, as well as Anil Kapoor screeching “Zindagi Har Kadam Ek Nayi Jung Hai” to himself. And it included a hypnotic, droning song called “Bhala Hai Bura Hai”, which was telecast so often that its lyrics nestled into the minds of every little Indian boy and girl and gave us moral conditioning and good value system for decades to come. They began:

Bhala Hai, Bura Hai, Jaisa bhi Hai
Mera Pati Mera Devtaa Hai

(Good, Bad, Whatever,
My husband is my flying spaghetti monster and I will worship It and feed It samosas and beer)”

Thus spake Naseeb Apna Apna.

It wasn’t just the song, but the power of the accompanying visuals. Displaying acres of wifely stoicism was a dark-complexioned woman who didn’t fit the Hindi-cinema ideal of beauty (not even the one established by south Indian heroines like Rekha and Sridevi). The film did everything it could to make her look ludicrous anyway. She sticks her tongue out (when she isn’t singing) and makes other strange expressions for no clear reason.
Most important of all, trailing her head at a distance of several metres is an astonishing upright chhoti that ends in a ribbon; the sort of accessory that would have made Hanuman very envious as he set about using his tail as a wick to set Lanka afire.

Also visible in the scene (though he tries his best to stay out of sight)
is Rishi Kapoor, doing his famous double-takes and managing somehow to look mortified, cocky, sheepish, contented, despairing, self-important, despicable and helpless all at the same time, all in the same frame.

In fact, Kapoor tweeted a few days ago that Dum Lagaa ke Haisha was like an updated version of his 1980s film. (You only have my word for it, but I made the connection before he did.) He would have good reason to remember Naseeb Apna Apna – it was possibly the hardest thing he ever had to do, a role that would have any actor yearning for a more lightweight assignment, such as playing Hamlet and Falstaff on the same night. Because apart from anything else, this film is highly confused about its own characters: it feels for them while simultaneously making fun of them (or passing judgement on them). And Kapoor’s Kishen is often on the receiving end of this double-headed treatment. 

Take the early scenes where he is being bullied by his authoritarian father. Kishen should be the sympathetic underdog here, since he is saying nothing more unreasonable than: what, you want me to marry a girl I haven’t even seen? And yet, and yet... look at the shirt they made poor Rishi wear:

(Talk about subliminal messages. Beware, India's sons and daughters, the film is saying here. If you argue with your Mogambo-like dad or wag your finger at your poor long-suffering mother over something as trivial as your choice of life-partner, even your clothes will publicly denounce you.)

Ten years before Amrish Puri played the patriarch whose permission must be sought in DDLJ, here he is as a fiercer, more rustic version of that patriarch, the boy’s father this time, who threatens to break his son’s legs if he tries to leave home. “I’ll staple you to that horse’s back if I have to,” he growls (or words to that effect), so the next scene has Kishen in bridegroom’s garb riding along sulkily on his way to wed the “plain-looking” Chandu (Radhika). At this point you think Naseeb Apna Apna has set itself up so that one of two things will happen: 1) The parents eventually see the error of their ways, recognise that times are changing, or 2) Tradition is upheld and glorified; young man finds love with papa-certified girl, starts wearing placid white shirts with "सुन्दर सुशील बेटा" printed on them. 

But no, the film mixes and mashes both these ideas while sticking to its larger agenda: to gratuitously make fun of Chandu and her Hanuman-ji chotti. At the same time it introduces another, fairer-skinned heroine – Farha – who gets to be not just Kishen’s wife of choice, but the film’s Christ figure too. Summary of what follows: Wife 1 is happy to abase herself by playing maid to Wife 2 if this means she can get to live in the same house as her (their) husband. And Wife 2 is happy to sacrifice her very life if it means that husband and Wife 1 may find happiness with each other. (Meanwhile Kishen continues to look miserable – look at the rough hand fate has dealt him!)

This also means that the similarities between Naseeb Apna Apna and Dum Lagaa ke Haisha are only skin-deep. In the new film everyone is likable, and the big message of the present day – that Indian men need the right sort of education – is in plain sight. Prem’s father meekly accepts his culpability when his daughter-in-law Sandhya gives him a lecture about not having taught his son to respect women. (Her wisdom, and the father’s sensitivity, are tellingly set against the values of the khaki-shorts-wearing brigade Prem is involved with, bent on producing a species of men who have no need for a female presence in their lives.) Back at Sandhya’s home, when her mother tries to feed her the usual line about a woman’s place being with her husband, aurat ki destiny etc, the educated girl coolly shuts the door in the mother’s face and that’s that. Not much room here for real social conflict.

Prem himself
– before he makes a serious effort to improve his attitude comes close to being a worm in some scenes, but never in the way that the forever-entitled Kishen is. Basically: Dum Lagaa ke Haisha is steeped in political correctness and social progressiveness and general feel-goodness; Naseeb Apna Apna wouldn’t know what any of those things were if they were brought to it on a large silver tray carried by a gharelu, pallu-covered bahu with eyes cast downward. 

Well, apart from the very special, tearful sort of feel-goodness that comes from watching a Noble Soul make the Ultimate Sacrifice in the Last Scene – we loved that sort of thing in the 80s. And with that observation, this post comes to...


  1. hahaha this is quite delightful.I haven't watched Naseeb Apna Apna but the Tamil original Gopurangal Saivathillai is a favorite of tamil tv channels and been subjected to it as a kid during boring summer vacation afternoons or self-inflicted much later as an adult for pure humor. The director made a career out of these remakes I believe. Wonder how Radhika came to be cast though. She was just getting established in the south.

  2. Wonder how Radhika came to be cast though. She was just getting established in the south.

    Well, if the whole purpose was to find someone who wasn't familiar to regular Hindi-movie viewers + didn't fit their notion of good looks, and then to gloat at her nonstop, the casting is easy to understand...

  3. Well they may have cast her going by the success of Talluri Rameshwari..remember her? same pati parmeshwar theme with Dulhan wohi jo piya man bhaye..Another movie that got playtime on chitrahaar and is indelibly printed on brain toughened in the 80s:)

    1. Rameshwari!!! Yes - though if my memory serves me right, the film was reasonably sympathetic to her and didn't make her do the things Radhika is made to do here.

  4. Thank God I skipped this movie. I do remember it being a hit of sorts though.
    I have a favor to ask. Can you list 5-6 offbeat hindi movies from last 2-3-4 years, Like 'Zed Plus', which you liked but were commercially unsuccessful? I am planning to watch them.

    -- The alco guy

    1. "Offbeat" is a very broad term, and I'm never quite sure what "commercially unsuccessful" means. (I wouldn't have seen many such films myself, if they played only for a week or so.) Would you think of something like Ankhon Dekhi as unsuccessful? Or Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana? Those are definitely recommended. Will see if I can think of any more...

    2. Yes, I would. And, I was able to watch both of them. You see, my problem stems from the fact that over here in NJ, USA, only the big budget and movies with mega stars are released in theaters ( e.g. Khan brothers, Akshay etc.). For the rest, I have to rely on Star/Sony to show them after 4-5 months on TV. So, I do miss out on some gems. What I do is, I make a list and hunt them down :)
      That is, when I am going to India for a visit, or if somebody is coming over here from India.
      Thanks, for looking, and for such a nice blog.

  5. Haha wonderful piece. Happened to chance upon this film an year ago on TV. I swear, it had such hypnotic effect, I couldn't dare change the channel. Almost every scene was more cringe worthy than the previous one, but I couldn't look away. Having a crush on Farha Naaz helped probably ;)
    Some of these South Indian remakes had much more 'realistic' subjects, don't you think, than your usual 80s masala film. In there own universe, their characters were more reflective of the society at large, no ? I mean the the boy's family here, or the families of Ek Duje ke liye, for example

    1. Some of these South Indian remakes had much more 'realistic' subjects, don't you think, than your usual 80s masala film

      Mukesh: yup. And films like Naseeb Apna Apna (eminently mock-worthy or cringe-inducing though it is in places) are often direct and truthful about social attitudes, in a way that some of the more politically correct cinema of today isn't. (Which I implied in the post while talking about Dum Laga ke Haisha.)

    2. Indeed. Even when Bombay films touched upon something 'real' it was always so tangential and in a flaky manner. South films seem so much more frank in this aspect.
      Also, I like to imagine Amrish Puri here as a masala version of Amrish Puri in Sooraj ka Saatvan Ghoda. :)

  6. In the US, poorly educated teen devil-worshipers have spray-painted their gathering spots with graffiti arguing that "Satin rules." Perhaps Rishi's tailor simply wished to announce the silky-smooth weave of the fabric but unfortunately learned to spell from suburban Slayer fans?

    1. Yes! That occurred to me too. Seems the only explanation really. Since the film at this point is trying hard to stress that he is a silky-smooth salesman who has been corrupted by city life. I'm sure Rishi himself would have known better (even in the pre-liberalisation, pre-internet era, when all of us lived in a tiny bubble) - but actors didn't ask many questions in those days as they rushed from one studio to the next, accommodating three shifts in a day. The only important question was, "What is the name of the character I am playing in this film?"

  7. I remember bit and pieces of Naseeb Apna Apna, truly cringe-worthy! And that crazy chotti. In fact, I may have been subjected to it in Tamil as well. I did not remember the Satan shirt, though, and it gave me a fit of giggles that left me breathless. I think Radhika ended up having a successful career in the south (and one mustn't forget people built a temple to Khushboo in Chennai, Madras at the time).

    I love your blog, Jai, and like Kala Kavva I'm going to try and hunt your recommendations down.

  8. This is so good, I can't not share it with my fellow beings.
    Sharing on FB!

  9. I was the 8-year old kid who serviced the family VCR (and figured out that removing the tab on a VHS tape write-protected it.

    I'm here to say that I still whisper random things to the (granted, not plastic) Mac mini that I've connected to my television, particularly after I've turned on VPN, am trying to stream something from Netflix/ BBC iPlayer/ YouTube, and the stream breaks while trying to buffer. Not a prayer though; my choice of expression is, shall we say, more colourful and profane than a mere plea to divinity (should such a being exist)