What makes me return to the unapologetic, unadulterated sweetness of the Sooraj Barjatya extended universe

It might seem artificial amid a rash of violent, realistic films, but Sooraj Barjatya attempts to draw us into a world he knows best, a world that is nostalgic to many, but real to him.

Subha J Rao November 14, 2021 09:56:49 IST
What makes me return to the unapologetic, unadulterated sweetness of the Sooraj Barjatya extended universe

When the going gets tough, we turn to our favourite guilty pleasures. But when entertainment is concerned, is there even any guilt to what gives one pleasure? In our new series Pleasure Without Guilt, we look at pop offerings that have been dissed by the culture police but continue to endure as beacons of unadulterated pleasure.

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1990, 1991, 1992. Saturday afternoons 3 pm. Coimbatore. In a world far removed from Sooraj Barjatya’s life in Bombay, my paternal grandmother Ammani Avva and I would sit down in front of the BPL television set at home, turn on the VCR, and play, on what I now definitely know was a pirated cassette, Maine Pyar Kiya, lent by a dear friend. Once that wore off, he gave me another one.

Avva did not know a word of Hindi, but that did not stop her from cheering loudly every Saturday afternoon when Prem (Salman Khan) thulped the thugs out to deprive him of his hard-earned money, or letting out words of agony in Kannada when they laid their hands on the money. Years later, when I interviewed Barjatya and told him this story, he was most delighted that a grandmother and grandchild watched the film together. For him, that family time took precedence over the fact that his film was watched as a ritual.

My lifelong love for Barjatya’s universe stemmed from those teenage memories of an age gone past. Over the years, I’ve been a total sucker for movies made by the director, who firmly believes in the joint family, in non-vicious villains, and in circumstances being the antagonist. And yes, there’s lots of food, a tremendous amount of blushing, and sanskriti or culture too.

What makes me return to the unapologetic unadulterated sweetness of the Sooraj Barjatya extended universe

Grown-up me, and possibly, Barjatya too, sees the smorgasbord of food for what it is — mostly unpaid labour by women (Vivah, in fact, had a scene, where the lady of the house, played with determined grimness by Seema Biswas, makes obvious her displeasure at guests being invited), the blushing to be the result of limited interactions between men and women, and sanskriti as a fierce desire to hold on to an ideal on its way out. As for the joint family, it works well for some, crushes spirits of others. But that has never stopped me from dropping the cleaning cloth to sit on the edge of the sofa to watch 10 minutes of Hum Saath - Saath Hain, only to realise it’s been an hour since the last swish of the wipe cloth.

However, with every film of his, Barjatya has attempted to co-opt youth into his world — creating a new family order by fusing a bit of the old and the new.

During the lockdown, when I could not watch anything new because the thought of an unknown written world terrified me, Barjatya’s films came to the rescue. New meanings were discovered in 'Chocolate Limejuice Icecream,' and the eyes misted over thinking of how in a world without SP Balasubrahmanyam, Prem’s songs will never be the same again. Also, who else but Barjatya, and to an extent Sanjay Leela Bhansali, have managed to make Salman Khan blush in the first flush of love? But then Barjatya has always said Khan knows him better than he himself does.

Despite what many might consider the regressive world his films are set in, Barjatya has always aspired to offer a level playing field for his characters — his world remained secular and egalitarian despite the multitude of Hindu rituals and the number of rich folks in his films. There was always a Bhaijaan or a Bhabhijaan, and the relationship between the domestic help and the people of the house was rarely that of employer-employee. Think Himani Shivpuri as Dr Razia in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and Shakti Kapoor as Anwar Bhaijaan in Hum Saath - Saath Hain or Laxmikant Berde’s Manohar in Maine Pyar Kiya or Lallu in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!.

What makes me return to the unapologetic unadulterated sweetness of the Sooraj Barjatya extended universe

Also, despite the rituals and the singing, dancing, and cooking, there was always a happy sprinkling of working women in Barjatya’s films. And there were gentlemen around, folks who would keep their love to themselves but never take revenge on a girl who they once loved. The world of revenge and attacks are far removed from Barjatya’s world.

Yes, this world might seem artificial amid a rash of violent, realistic films, but Barjatya also attempts to draw us into a world he knows best, a world that is nostalgic to many, but real to him.

He once told me for an interview for The Hindu that he loves being a repository of nostalgia: “I’ve always been fighting against the wind... I know I’m alone, but people relate to my films. I’m fortunate they remember them fondly, years later, and aspire to live like that...”

Human dignity and a ramrod straight moral core are not something we see often on screen. But, that is invariably the only world Barjatya shows us. People make mistakes, they own up. People change, for the better. The men are usually sensitive — probably. Vivah’s Prem (Shahid Kapur) is the most sensitive Barjatya hero as yet, who cares enough to realise that while he’s excited about a future with his bride in his space, she is leaving her present behind to be with him.

What makes me return to the unapologetic unadulterated sweetness of the Sooraj Barjatya extended universe

In a world that is not very kind, and where loss and death of relationships is fairly common, I’d happily grab the popcorn, or a motichoor laddoo and some jalebi, and enter the Barjatya universe. At least for those three-odd hours, I know that the bitterness of the world will not enter the mindspace. Escapist fare much? Probably, but we all need a dose of sweetness in our lives, and Barjatya’s films offer us that.

Also, Barjatya’s films are akin to a free holiday in the hills — rolling hillsides, grassy meadows, aristocratic homes, the works. In a terribly restricted COVID-19 world, his films were the perfect escape for me. I’d watched them many times enough to know exactly what would happen, and there was great comfort in that familiarity of scenes, and the music.

I’d only remove two of his directorials from my go-to Barjatya films — Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, which did not work for me at all, and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. Two little blips in a career that has made countless people smile and sing along and dance. Now, ready for some antakshari and passing the parcel of pillows?

Subha J Rao is a consultant writer and editor based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka. There, she keeps alive her love for cinema across languages. You can find her on Twitter @subhajrao.

Read more from the Pleasure Without Guilt series here.

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