Rajkumar Santoshi’s Andaz Apna Apna (1994) turned twenty-five last year. I was scrolling through Twitter tributes to the film, enjoying the innumerable memes, reproductions of the highly quotable lines, and gifs, when I came across the following conversation between two Twitter users (let’s call them A and B):
A: I think Andaz Apna Apna is overhyped.
A: It just doesn’t hold up to classic comedies like Chashme Buddoor.
B: Yeah, we used to laugh like mad at the silly jokes in Andaz Apna Apna when we were kids because we didn’t know any better. I guess a lot of people still don’t.
This conversation made me sad for two reasons: (a) it was unmistakeably condescending and patronising and aimed to create an artificial schism between so-called intellectuals who prefer high-brow comedies over the low-quality pap that the masses consume. It’s exactly this attitude that is driving people with different preferences away from each other at a time when everyone needs to stand together, and (b) Andaz Apna Apna is unquestionably silly, and therein lies its genius.
When Conan O’Brien was plucked from relative obscurity as a young writer on the Fox network’s critically acclaimed sitcom The Simpsons to host NBC’s Late Night after former host David Letterman announced he was moving on, people were shocked. Just who was this young upstart, and how did he get the job? Many years later, Conan revealed in a book that he had impressed the network executives by pitching his version of the show as follows:
“This show has to have a different quality. I think the time is right for silliness. Dave’s got that dignity and that personal space. My thing is, I don’t really do that. I do silliness”. Indeed, Letterman’s version of Late Night had been the bastion of smart comedy for a decade; to differentiate his version of the show from Letterman’s, O’Brien decided to go in the opposite direction and try to be as silly as possible.
To understand the differences between the two approaches, watch these skits by Letterman and O’Brien, both involving Taco Bell. Here’s Letterman’s skit and this is O’Brien’s skit. Do you notice the differences between the two?
Letterman is a wordsmith, and he’s able to mine humour from interactions such as “Do you have Diet Pepsi?” “No, we’re out of it.” “Diet Dr Pepper?” “No, we’re out of it.” “OK, I’ll take any soda you have.” “No, I need to know what soda you want, ma’am, so I can tell you we’re out of it.”
Conan, meanwhile, finds humour in broad, silly actions like taking a bite of a new taco and immediately falling over and flailing like he’s being electrocuted. Neither of these examples is exact because both Letterman and Conan are capable of doing smart and silly comedy when they think it is warranted, but they serve to show how smart and silly comedy are both legitimate art forms in their own right.
This brings us back to Andaz Apna Apna. Boasting the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Aamir and Salman Khan – even then two of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars – the film was a commercial failure, lasting barely three days in cinemas. However, over the years, it gained a cult following on TV and home video, and it continues to find new fans year after year.
The reason it remains so popular – and the reason it failed during its initial release – is that the film takes its silliness seriously. For example, the opening gag depicts Amar (Aamir Khan) meeting and falling in love with Hindi film star Juhi Chawla. In a scene where the young lovers walk through a forest, a fog machine creates fog all around them, evoking similar scenes from popular romantic films from the era.
Later, when Juhi is shooting a scene with Govinda (the poster boy for silly comedy of the decidedly forgettable kind), we see all the hallmarks of a conventional Hindi film: bad lighting, overwrought dialogue, a defiant hero, and a helpless heroine. In the United States, such parodies were regular fare on Saturday Night Live – another iconic institution where both smart and silly comedy have flourished for decades – but no one in India was doing them in 1994.
Having confidently set the tone in its five minutes, Andaz Apna Apna barrels forward relentlessly for the next two-and-a-half hours. It’s pointless to talk about its innumerable comedic set-pieces because they’re so well known already, so I want to point out elements that have rarely been discussed, such as Paresh Rawal’s captivating performance as the perpetually unlucky crime lord Teja.
Teja is often overshadowed by Gogo (Shakti Kapoor), which is a pity because Gogo, while undoubtedly a singularly memorable character, is still just a bunch of quotable one-liners wrapped in a flamboyant cape, whereas Teja is a fully realised character. Rawal had been typecast in the role of the villain in the early 90s, and he was almost certainly chosen to play Teja for this reason. However, Rawal was able to bring many different layers to the role, such as an unexpected sensitivity that accompanied Teja’s snarling intensity.
When Robert asks Teja why he didn’t go to London like his brother, he starts weeping and says, ‘How could I? There were people after me. Do you think I don’t want to see London?’ Later, when his brother says he wants to bestow his fortune on Teja, Teja declares, ‘I’ll lead an honourable life from now on. I’ll open a poultry farm’. Rawal displayed this same sensitivity in the role of Babu Bhai in Hera Pheri six years later, in a performance that exploded his career and rightly marked him as one of the finest comic actors of his generation.
Another thing that stands out about the film is its use of cutaway gags. When Amar is pleading with Sevaram for a room in the latter’s lodge, he says, “I must have a place to sleep tonight, or I’m sure to die. And if I die, my blind sister and widowed mother will be all alone”, and we cut to the pitiful picture of the said sister and mother.
There are many reasons this gag is impressive at both the character and technical levels. Amar correctly intuits that Sevaram’s piousness is only skin deep (because a truly pious person would not turn away a desperate person who came to them for help) and paints a stereotypical picture of poverty he knows Sevaram would not be able to resist.
This intuition is later borne out when he and Prem (Salman Khan) are able to convince Sevaram that they are long-lost brothers. Sevaram is moved to tears by their ‘reunion’, which reminds him of Ram and Laxman’s reunion on Ramanand Sagar’s TV show Ramayana.
The fact that Sevaram specifically mentions the reunion on the TV show and not the original epic poem shows the ersatz nature of his religious devotion. Both the mother-daughter and ‘reunion’ cutaway scenes are also technically impressive because editing equipment was still primitive in 1994, and unlike today when one need only move scenes around on a computer, Santoshi would have had to physically cut and paste portions of the reel to create the cutaway effect. Again, no one else was doing this in 1994.
Aamir Khan has rightly been lauded for his performance as the opportunistic and mercenary Amar. His expressions in the scene where Prem forces Amar to eat the horrific fare he has provided are unforgettable. It’s worth remembering that the technology to playback your performance after a scene was very expensive in 1994, and Andaz Apna Apna almost certainly did not have the budget for it.
This means that Aamir Khan pulled off those expressions without the safety net of being able to playback his performance. Although the gamble paid off, the strain on the actor (who has a reputation for being a perfectionist) must have been immense and was probably one of the reasons he never took on such an overtly comic role again.
However, despite Aamir Khan’s excellent performance, it is Salman Khan’s soft-spoken and dim-witted Prem who almost walks away with the film with his more subdued comic energy to match Amar’s manic intensity. He generously steps back and gives Aamir Khan the stage, which makes it a joy to watch his more subtle acting choices playing out in the background.
The ‘diarrhoea scene’ is now legendary, but it’s the smaller moments in Salman Khan’s performance that have stuck out to me. For example, in the ‘Yeh rat aur yeh doori’ song, when Amar disdainfully tosses a coin at Prem, he catches it and goes to throw it away – before quietly slipping it into his pocket!
In another scene where Amar and Prem arrange to meet Bajaj’s (Paresh Rawal) kidnapper, Amar demands that the kidnapper produce Bajaj before giving him the ransom money, and Prem adds a squeaky, barely audible ‘I agree’ in the background. When the kidnapper threatens to shoot them, Amar panics and yells at Prem to give him the money, and Prem cries, ‘Sorry, sorry’, in the same squeaky voice!
The climactic scene at Gogo’s warehouse is often cited by people as their favourite part of the film. However, I have never quite liked it as much. I think it goes on for too long, and its frenetic pacing upsets the carefully balanced and calibrated comedy that came before.
Having rewatched the film for this article, I found myself enjoying the little moments in the climax a lot more than the actual climax itself, like Teja quickly taking off his suspenders after seeing what Amar does to Robert with Robert’s suspenders, Amar’s look of sheer exasperation before he yells at Prem to throw away his empty gun, or the fact that Aamir and Salman Khan appear to have done most of their own stunts.
It is a pity that film appreciation is not taught as a serious discipline in India, especially comedy film appreciation, even though India has a rich tradition of comic films going back to the silent era. In the absence of citations to draw from, any serious attempt to explain the greatness of Andaz Apna Apna will remain incomplete at best. For the moment, therefore, one must again turn to foreign sources.
I started this article with a comparison of Conan’s and Letterman’s styles of comedy. Let me end it with a comparison of two different comedy shorts. The first one is Rabbit Fire, an acclaimed Looney Tunes short. The second is Tom and Jerry: Cat Concerto, by William Hanna and Joseph Barbara. The former short contains innovative and rhythmic dialogue, especially the legendary ‘duck season/rabbit season’ interaction between Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.
In the latter short, Jerry pesters Tom as he plays “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” on the piano, at one point replacing two piano keys with a mousetrap. The former is an example of ‘smart’ comedy, whereas the latter is an example of a comedy that’s as silly as it gets. Which one’s superior? If you think it’s Rabbit Fire, then Cat Concerto’s Academy Award would like to have a word with you!