It was 2000 (and I was barely in first grade) when I saw “Hum Saath Saath Hain” for the first time, along with my entire extended family. Although I was too young then to comprehend what was going in the film plot-wise, I did notice one interesting thing – nearly all my older family members were watching it with rapt attention, weeping or nodding along enthusiastically every time any mention of family or sanskaars came up.
And herein lies the success of the typical Sooraj Barjatya film – it panders to this extremely outdated, highly patriarchal, upper-class Hindu sensitivity and emotionally manipulates us all into thinking that the values portrayed in it are beyond reproach. But the truth is far from it, and in fact, over the years, the things Barjatya’s films have taught me are actually far from “valuable”. Here are six things I wish Barjatya never taught young women like me.
For someone who claims to make films about “good Indian family values”, Sooraj Barjatya’s understanding of the Indian family sure seems pretty narrow. The only time we see someone who’s not Hindu in one of his films is Anwar Bhaijaan in “Hum Saath Saath Hain” – and he is as “token Muslim” as it gets. He’s a walking mess of stereotypes – speaks in archaic Urdu, wears Lakhnawi shirts and topis, and isn’t given a steady family life at all. As writer Imaan Sheikh puts it in her satirical review of the film, he is “one beard away from being SuperMuslim”.
“Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ho sakte (A boy and a girl can never be friends),” said Mohnish Behl’s character in “Maine Pyaar Kiya” in all his wisdom. Of course friendships between men and women aren’t sustainable, because at the end of the day, sexual attraction will always get in the way. And healthy platonic equations between these two genders – what, can that even be possible? At least Mr. Barjatya doesn’t think so (it’s probably even un-sanskaari to him). This scene was also probably the birth of the ‘friendzone’ as we understand it in Indian pop culture, making men think that they deserve a woman’s reciprocation no matter what, as her friendship is, in reality, the basis of romantic love.
According to Barjatya, literally all women do is wait with bated breath for a guy to sweep them off their feet… or wait around for her parents to arrange their rishta. Almost none of Barjatya’s women have independent careers, and when they do (like in “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo”) – the importance of that is subsumed by their marriage. Even when the women are portrayed as intelligent and well-educated, like the three female protagonists of “Hum Saath Saath Hain”, their character arcs do not go beyond their roles as good, obedient, and silently supportive wives, whereas their husbands are shown involved in important business and family matters.
In “Vivah”, Chhoti, the dark-complexioned younger sister, is entirely ignored by her father who instead focuses all his rishta-hunting energies on the more conventionally attractive elder sister. Poonam’s (the elder sister) fairer skin is constantly mentioned as a mark of her beauty and is glorified, while Chhoti is sidelined and totally desexualized. At one point, her mother even tries to brighten her skin tone by applying liberal amounts of powder on her face. This film came out as recently as 2006, and to think that it tells young dark-skinned girls that they are somehow inferior because of their appearance, is pretty appalling. Slow claps for all the colourism.
Barjatya loves his patriarchs, and every film of his has one. Whether it’s the humble and hardworking Babuji of “Hum Saath Saath Hain” or the long-suffering Babuji of “Vivah” – they have one common goal – to get their children married off. But when it comes to daughters and daughters-in-laws, their double standards come through in full force. Their ‘ideal’ daughter is soft-spoken, virginal and always submissive to the men in their lives, but the sons are supposed to be loveable flirts, and successful businessmen. But most importantly, an ‘ideal’ daughter has to be obedient to a fault. How dare a woman marry someone out of her own agency when Babuji is here to approve and fix up every single match?
“Mujhe Haq Hain (I have the right)” goes the refrain of a popular song from “Vivaah”, in which the would-be husband of the female protagonist pretty much lays down how he has an irrefutable ‘right’ over her body. And that sums up the entire aesthetic of Barjatya’s ouevre – where what the husband wants always comes before the woman’s agency. In “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo”, the male protagonist (who is an actual prince) has the ‘haq’ to order the woman (played by Sonam Kapoor) to wear a dress of his choice whenever he pleases, and then take it off to have sex whenever he pleases. And when she refuses, he gets angry with her, because of course, female consent does not matter.
But despite all of these horrifyingly regressive lessons, Sooraj Barjatya still seems to be going strong. Though the portrayals of family in Bollywood have somewhat evolved over the times and are no longer this explicitly patriarchal, it’s disturbing how much TV time Mr. Barjatya’s movies get every single weekend, and how my older relatives still watch “Hum Apke Hain Koun” and “Hum Saath Saath Hain” with rapt attention, clearly still holding on to those same “family values” (and maybe even enforcing them). And the worst part? I bet they aren’t the only ones who do.