हम आपके हैं कौन…!
Dir. Sooraj Barjatya
Note: Hum aapke hain koun...! was one of the first Hindi films I ever saw; I had very little perspective or understanding at that time, and the post that occupied this space reflected that. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I decided it was time to give it a more more proper and thoughtful review, with some perspective. What you read below was written in August 2014, despite the date at the top of this post.
I first watched Hum aapke hain koun...! in 2005; quite late by desi standards, but very, very early on in my own education in Hindi films. In fact, it was the very close to the first mainstream Hindi film I ever saw, chosen after watching several art films and taking an interest in Madhuri Dixit after seeing her in Mrityudand. I can't say I fully understood what I was watching, that first time I encountered Hum aapke hain koun...!, but I can tell you this: I loved it to bits. And I still do, a number of viewings later.
As popular and enduring as Hum aapke hain koun...! is, I seem to know as many people who decry it as excruciatingly dull as who adore it and watch it over and over. I've written before about movies that seem to separate desi from firang, movies that Indians cherish but that leave those of us who didn't grow up with them scratching their heads. But Hum aapke hain koun...! is something different. For one thing, I adore it, whereas I tend to come down squarely on the firang side of that divide. But too, plenty of desis today have nothing nice to say about Hum aapke hain koun...!, whether they ate it up as kids or not. And I get why some people can't stand it. For sure, it is a stupid movie, three hours and 14 songs in search of a plot, full of idiotic jokes, exaggerated characters, and eyeball-searing fashions.
But it is also lovely, joyful and very sweet. The universe of Hum aapke hain koun...!, in which families love each other without conflict and gather for celebrations without tripping one another's neuroses, is a pleasant universe to visit, and its inhabitants are fun people to spend time with. And for much of the film, that is what we do - we just hang out with this sweet and happy extended family as they celebrate the joyous events surrounding their elder children's marriage and the birth of their first child. It's the kind of family gathering many of us wish we could have - one where grandpa and dad don't renew any age-old feud, where grandma doesn't say anything nasty about your weight or the color you've dyed your hair, where you don't have to worry about being left alone with that one creepy uncle. It's the anti-Monsoon Wedding.
At the center of all the fun, of course, is the incandescent smile of Madhuri Dixit. It's hard to get enough of her. Scene after scene, and song after song, she is velcro for the attention. I can certainly understand how she won audiences and kept them coming back to the theater, week after week, for years. Who needs a plot when you have Madhuri? Really, I could watch her do anything; watching her smile and dance and look gorgeous for upwards of three hours is easy. And as a newcomer to Hindi films, just for the first time starting to appreciate how star-driven and charisma-driven they could be, the experience of enjoying a stupid, objectively pointless movie almost entirely because of one actor's amazing presence, was significant. Later, I would choose films based entirely upon their cast (Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Asrani, and Bindu, and Manorama? This is going to be awesome!), with full appreciation for the power of charisma. And I would see many dreadful movies made tolerable only by Madhuri's contribution; such is the power of Madhuri Dixit, to make bad movies watchable and elevate good movies into great ones. Hum aapke hain koun...! would be a vastly different (and presumably far less enjoyable) experience with anyone else playing Nisha.
There is a special joy for me, too, in watching Madhuri flirt with a cross-dressing woman in “Didi tera devar deewaana”. There is not a whole lot of expression of female queerness in Hindi films, and I relish such subtexts wherever I find them. (Some day I will do a post about all the marvelous instances of cross-dressing women I have seen in Hindi movies.) Whether intentional or not (I tend to give filmmakers more credit for awareness of plausibly deniable interpretations than some), these expressions are meaningful and compelling, and not just for me for whom they are merely interesting, but that much more for queer desi women, for whom they may be vital. Fun, and socially significant; the stuff of fantasies and food for the brain - the song is satisfying to both feminist analytical serious carla and lesbian horn-dog carla.
I often say that I have an unaccountable soft spot for Salman Khan, but it isn't really unaccountable at all; it owes everything to Hum aapke hain koun...! Salman Khan was just plain cute in those days; his gentle eyes held such appealing guilelessness and sincerity. There is no swagger here, only sweetness. And while he wasn't exactly a 98-pound weakling, Khan had not yet bulked up to the extent he would in the following decade or two, and even had a rather dancerly grace to him, as evident in “Pehla pehla pyaar hai.”
I've read about how Hum aapke hain koun...! influenced fashions – not to mention the wedding industry. I can only imagine how seductive its colors and the grandness of its festivity would be, how compelling it might be to reproduce its scale of joy for those who have the means. And boy, would you need the means. Part of the Hum aapke hain koun...! fantasy is the escapism of a world where money is no object; where homes are enormous enough to house dozens of guests, where laddoos pile shoulder-high.
And so when a little plot does develop, finally, in the film's last act, it is resolved on the same sort of fantastical terms, by an act of God delivered via the instrument of a sentient dog, that heals an injured family and returns the briefly faltered quotient of joy to appropriate, cloyingly overwhelming levels. If you surrender to the aesthetic, roll with its many varieties of WTFery, and let the waves of its superficiality and sweetness bouy you along, Hum aapke hain koun...! is a fun ride. To critique it is to take it far more seriously than it warrants (except, arguably, as a cultural phenomenon, which I leave to people who understand its context and influence far better than I); better just to enjoy what is enjoyable about it. In most aspects, Hum aapke hain koun...! may have little more nutritional value than candy. But you know what? I really like candy, and I can eat a whole lot of it before I've had enough.