Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2000) Directed by Karan Johar. Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor (3 hrs 30 min plus intermission).

Unequalled star power, glamour, laughter, tears and fabulous musical numbers enrich this superb Bollywood extravaganza. Amitabh, India’s greatest movie star (in a 2000 BBC online poll, he beat out Laurence Olivier and Alec Guiness for the title Best Actor of the Millennium) enforces Indian family values in the face of his sexy sons’ rebellious romantic yearnings. If you think nobody is making movies like they used to during the classic Hollywood cinema era, guess again.

Bollywood conventions evolved from traditional Indian styles, where music and dance were inseparable from drama; there weren’t even words to describe a play without music. These classic works were quite long, and had to evoke all the emotional states, which account for the sometimes puzzling genre-busting qualities of popular Indian films, where there will be romance, tragedy, musical numbers, low comedy, kung-fu fighting, religious miracles and mother love in the same film. “Glorification of the family, individual sacrifice for the sake of others, respect for age and authority and the long term futility of crime are themes found in Indian cultural forms throughout history. It is not in the least surprising then, to see them forming the basis for plots in modern cinema,” (Joshi). He elaborates, “A hero’s rise through a film reassures audiences in an insecure world. A good film induces catharsis through a careful mix of comedy and tears combined with an element of hope in the narrative. A great film must take the audience through peaks and valleys of emotion.”

Few Bollywood films are made with synchronized sound. They are shot essentially like silent movies in hot, unairconditioned studios that are not sound-proofed, with honking car horns, chatting technicians and the director providing guidance while the camera rolls. Indian DVDs that provide outtakes show scenes of actors quietly professing undying love in remote Punjabi villages, while the live soundtrack includes the ambient sounds of Bombay traffic.They are also made “on the cheap” compared to Hollywood style productions. Since the most expensive film ever made in India (Devdas) cost around $US 12 million, the largest portion of which was the stars’ salaries, presumably a film like this one cost less than $US 10 million.

The music is an infectious masala of Western and Asian beats and thoroughly singable, even with a rudimentary knowledge of Hindi. The songs are often not subtitled, so here is your Hindi love vocabulary: Pyaar, prem, ishq, mohabbat all mean love, dil means heart and diwana and pagale mean crazy as in dil diwana (crazy heart). The version we will be showing at the NC Museum of Art happily does have subtitles for the songs. There may be salsa, reggae, or a banjo interlude, but no hint of a “show tune.” The dance numbers are wildly anachronistic and often take place in exotic locales, here in Egypt. Young and old, male and female, everybody dances, so one needn’t despair of not being Fred Astaire or Cyd Charisse. Although some critics view the musical aspect of Hindi cinema as limiting a pursuit of serious art, this convention creates a national film culture like no other. Director and choreographer Farah Khan says, “What is saving Indian cinema from being engulfed by Hollywood is our song and dance routines, because they just can’t imitate that” (Kabir).

Unlike in Hollywood films, which struggle to maintain the illusion that the acting stars also sing, it’s common knowledge that few of the actors do their own singing (superstar Amitabh Bachchan a rare exception, he does his own singing on “Say Shava Shava”). In fact, there may be different playback singers for one actor in a single film. The audience enjoys seeing their favorite actors lip syncing to songs sung by their favorite singers and don’t find it disconcerting. Playback singers in Hindi films have great fame and their own category in the Film Fare Awards, the Indian film world’s Oscars.

Just as a classic Hollywood film of the past contains cultural questions (did people really use that slang, wear those giant petticoats, drink so many martinis?) so too, Indian films entice the Western viewer with their mysteries. One must puzzle the language, the gestures, and the symbolism of clothes from a ferengi (foreigner’s) vantage point. For example, in Kabhi Khushi… (or K3G, as the film is nicknamed) the characters celebrate a holiday called Karva Chauth, a North Indian festival during which married women participate in a day-long fast to pray for the longevity of their husbands. This ritual appears frequently in Hindi films of the last ten years, often so an unmarried woman can coyly abstain from food for her beloved.

The artificiality of the studio environment, the constant gentle breeze ruffling hair, the symbolic sound effects, the rain machines, (invoking the sexual metaphor of the marriage between Mother Earth and Father Rain, but really an excuse for showing the stars in clingy wet clothes) the exotic locales, all contribute to the creation of an extreme fantasy environment where the real India rarely intrudes. Is it possible anybody really lives in the fabulous Raichand mansion? As huge as it appears from the outside, the constructed interiors make it seem even larger. Current filmi heroes tend to drive Ferraris, arrive home for visits in helicopters, and wear Armani suits. The actresses may begin in Western clothes (often tiny, tiny ones) but later don saris as a sign of their maturity and desirability as a wife.

Bollywood Indian culture is quite conservative, with little smoking or drinking, except by bad (or straying) characters. Although there is no on-screen kissing allowed, chaste eroticism is raised to heights undreamed of in the Hollywood Production Code era. Family loyalties are paramount and because of the Indian extended family system, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins appear, even if they don’t figure directly into the plot. Even the real movie stars, rich and seemingly independent as they are, still often live with their parents. While feminism is rudimentary in Bollywood films, heroes are often quite tender hearted. At some point in the plot, they must shed tears.

There’s no question why the stars are stars. Actors and actresses are gorgeous, and must make you laugh and cry as well as (sing) lip sync and dance. Their on-screen charisma is intense, in part through an exaggerated performance style. Maithili Rao notes, “It is amusing how many Indians saw Titanic (which was stupendously successful in India) as a typical mushy Hindi film on a lavish scale. But this equation overlooked one essential difference: the unhappy ending, which is prohibited in the Sanskrit drama tradition of Natya Sastra.” Shah Rukh Khan shares the same opinion, “The Hindi film is like Titanic, everything is told to you. This is going to happen, the ship will hit an iceberg and just in case you don’t know it, let me show you at the beginning of the film how it happened. Everything is explained, you don’t have to think too hard, just enjoy the moments” (Kabir).

K3G has a stellar cast, which is one of the reasons I wanted to share this particular film with the NCMA audience. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays the father, is often referred to as India’s greatest movie star. He became a star in the 1970s, playing a rebellious character who reflected the emotions of a country torn by the Emergency, de facto martial law imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He was also the star of the #1 Hindi movie of all time, Sholay, a “curry western” greatly influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese samurai movies and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Sholay (1975) has recently been reissued theatrically in India and in September, 2004 is playing to sell-out crowds, (records were released of not just the music, as is standard, but just the film’s dialogue). Bollywood films are filled with Sholay references; it is part of the national language. When Maithili Rao writes, “Film stars have been the unifying icons in a country starved of role models, particularly in the post-Independence days of cynical disillusionment” Amitabh is a primary example. In India, there are shrines built to movie stars, and they are literally worshiped as gods. The Hindu principal of darshan, where in looking at a god, he/she looks back at you completing a circle of devotion has been transferred to the love of screen icons by dedicated cinema fans. Hinduism is a religion that is seemingly quite accepting of differing belief systems! When Amitabh nearly died after an accident while filming a fight scene, (Coolie, 1983) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi flew to his hospital bedside, and India held its collective breath until their idol was out of danger. Jaya Bachchan, who plays his wife in K3G is his real wife, and they have made many movies together since the 1970s. A large part of K3G’s huge success is due to the fact that many in the Indian audience saw their own father’s character reflected in that of Amitabh’s character, Yash Raichand.

The first half of the film focuses on the romance between Shah Rukh Khan (who makes the aforementioned helicopter entrance) and Kajol. They, too, are a romantic couple who have been in many movies together. The most famous, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) is often cited as the beginning of the cycle of recent family romances of which K3G is an example. DDLJ is also still playing in India as of 2012. In these films, the NRI, or non-resident Indian, is shown as being just as capable (or more so) of upholding Indian family values as those who never left the subcontinent. In a previous generation of films, the Westernization of those who had traveled or studied abroad often cast them as villains. In fact, NRI-themed films like this one have been a tremendously important and profitable cultural touchstone amongst the world-wide Indian Diaspora.

Shah Rukh resisted being typecast as a romantic hero, playing psychopaths in some of his early film roles. In the one Bollywood film that seems to be available in regular video stores, he’s bloodthirsty emperor turned Buddhist, Asoka, in the sumptuously photographed film of the same name. However he looks so fabulous in his fake historical costumes cutting people to ribbons with his sword as copious amount of stage blood squirt in every direction that the film’s pacifist message is obscured. Shah Rukh still does variety of different roles, unlike many other Hindi film heroes, including silly comedies where he does his own pratfalls. Vijay Mishra suggests that the reason for his success is that he has managed to fuse the three types of male Hindi film stereotypes, the weepy hero, the macho hero and the comic hero into one star persona. Bubbly Kajol brings a tomboyish quality to her heroine parts, and her sense of humor is always welcome. She’s made a number of films with Shah Rukh including Baazigar (1993) an early film in his career, in which she played the sister of his murder victim.

The romance between Hrithik Roshan (who is introduced playing cricket at the beginning of the film) and Kareena Kapoor who plays the stylish Poo, dominate the film after the interval. Both of them come from film families and grew up in the movie business. No one has a more distinguished filmi lineage than Kareena. Her great-grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor, started in Indian films in the silent era. His three sons are among the influential of Indian movie stars. Kareena’s grandfather, Raj Kapoor, was a great movie idol of the late 40s and 50s who also directed and produced his own films. Her great-uncle Shammi Kapoor was called “the Indian Elvis” who brought rock and roll to Bollywood in the 1960s and great-uncle Shashi Kapoor has been in many Merchant-Ivory and other English language films, like Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Got Laid, as well as Indian movies. Raj Kapoor said that no woman in his family was going to be in the movie business, a dictate unheeded by the successful Kapoor siblings, Kareena and her sister Karisma. Hrithik is probably the hottest hunk in Bollywood in 2004. He blazed to glory in Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai (there are not one but two jokes about it in Monsoon Wedding) and you’ll see his excellent dancing showcased here. He won the Best Actor Film Fare Award for his performance as a mentally challenged young man in Koi…Mil Gaya, India’s first science fiction film.

Kajol, Shah Rukh, Jaya, Amitabh, Kareena and Hrithik

Many thoughtful South Asian people, when I share my love for these movies quickly say, “Have you ever seen any Indian art films?” meaning, serious, non-musical movies, since they believe this reflects a more intellectual side to Indian film culture. In fact, Vijay Mishra, in defending the Bombay film aesthetic suggests its critics “were bound to valorize art cinema over and above the popular because the controlling eye of high modernist directors (Bergman, Fellini, De Sica, Satyajit Ray, for instance) is more readily discernable in works that have a self-conscious aesthetic intention and where, for obvious reasons, there is considerable directorial control…too many other factors contribute to the creation of popular cinema.” Recent hits like Monsoon Wedding and Bend it like Beckham, and most notably, Slumdog Millionaire, ambitiously attempt to combine the two forms by incorporating Bollywood exuberance with a reflection of real lives and problems, and actual street scenes, rather than life on the sound stage. But, every national cinema has encompassed escapist films as well as serious ones, and they are just as important, complex and culturally indispensable. K3G is a Victorian novel set in the poshest MGM studio glamour years, it’s Busby Berkeley choreographing for South Asian MTV, it’s a universe unto itself—Enjoy.


Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge by Anupama Chopra, Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema edited by Lalit Mohan Joshi, particularly the essays “Classics and Blockbusters by Pratik Joshi, “Heart of the Movie” by Maithili Rao and “All Time Greats” by Kavita Mehta, Pocket Essential Bollywood by Ashok Banker, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film by Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire by Vijay Mishra, Bollywood by Nasreen Munni Kabir.

c.MoviedivaMarch2004RevisedOctober 2012