Contrasting Countenances: The overt chasm between 1980's and 1990's Indian cinema

A dozen years of social and cinematic change divide Shakti and Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, and the host of technical and thematic alterations bred in that gap of time render one film wholly unrecognizable to the other. A shift in attitude has occurred that, while fundamental, is not merely underlying. The new paradigm flaunts its charms overtly, and the contrast is manifest from the outset of each film in the very countenances of the characters. Shakti (1982) opens with a pensive Ashwini recounting the family history to his grandson. The camera performs a slow zoom to Ashwini's eyes, revealing the sadness brought on by the recollection. (Figure 1) This sobriety of expression will pervade the entire film; each characters' experience is overwhelmingly painful, and the audience sees Vivay and Ashwini crack a smile only once or twice, usually in a song and dance sequence (which are in fact noticeably rare in this film). Happiness, however, is only presented as the necessary counterpart to grief; positive familial bonds are only explicated in order to draw attention to the strife caused by their subsequent strain and violation. Ashwini's only smiles come in the first few moments of the film, when in a song-and-dance sequence, we see him as the delighted father of a newborn son. The sequence serves to ground Ashwini's humanity, informing the audience that his later subjugation of family ties is not the cold action of a sociopath, but rather produces inner conflict. It establishes and evidences a genuine familial bond, a real emotional sinew that will be tested and tortured by Ashwini's dedication to the law. Vivay's frowns are just as constant; even the lovemaking scene with Roma is intensely sober.(Figure 2) As they sit in front of the fire in the twilight, they embrace cautiously, not passionately. A concerned expression overtakes Bachchan, evidencing a distrust of the intimacy he is compelled to seek. Because even this moment is permeated by sober expression, it is clear that in the world of Shakti, no relationship can be anything but perilous and ultimately painful.

Figure 1 - The sadness is revealed in Ahwini's eyes early in Shakti

Figure 2 - Sobriety even in passion. Bachchan looks concerned in Shakti

Figure 3 - A different type of countenance in Hum Aapke Hain Koun!.

Figure 4 Pooja smiles and reassures Lalloo

Hum Aapke Hain Koun!

There is little sadness in Hum Aapke Hain Koun!. Opening not with a painful recollection, but instead with a romp on the cricket field, Hum Aapke Hain Koun! is frivolity from the outset. Smiles seem to be cemented securely to the actors' faces; unshaken but for a fleeting moment. For the first hundred and fifty minutes of the film, the most significant threat to the grinning bliss appears when Lalloo, the servant, is accused of wrongdoing. The situation appears dire only for a instant, before magnanimous Pooja relieves the momentary tension with a vote of confidence, and the smiles return. (Figure 4) Even in the mourning of Pooja's death (which fills relatively few minutes of the film), Hum Aapke Hain Koun! never descends to anywhere near the level of gloom that consumes Shakti. Pain is anecdotal in Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, as joy is in Shakti. In fact, the two types of emotional experience occupy the same rhetorical space, with opposing function. In Shakti, convivial bonding is shown briefly only to inform the experience of loss, and grief is minimally referenced in Hum Aapke Hain Koun! only to highlight the strength and gloriousness of familial bonds. In direct contrast to Shakti, the relationships shown here are fundamentally innocent and intrinsically inviolable. The accusation of Lalloo provides for a show of benevolence by Pooja, and the death of Pooja provides for the affirmation of the strength of the family to comfort and unite in the face of tragedy. Even the seemingly tragic betrothal of Rajesh to Nisha serves only to highlight Rajesh's moral integrity and his father's gratitude for the quality of his son-in-law. The traditional filmic elements of tragedy and loss do not have an independent existence in Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, instead they servants to affirmation. Negative happenings do not threaten to undermine the aims of the protagonist as in a traditional narrative. Instead, the psuedo-conflicts are nothing more than enablers of the bliss. In this way, Hum Aapke Hain Koun! is a fully utopian bacchanalia, a nonstop revelry in the wonders of the contemporary Indian upper class. A movie without conflict is certainly a completely new species; nothing could be more foreign to it than the violent strife of Shakti and the angry young men of the 1980's. Unlike many shifts in social attitude, this one is not subtle. The message of a new attitude is presented directly and immediately, through the uncomplicated tone and jovial characters, and perhaps, even more flagrantly, through direct address.

The title and credit sequence to Hum Aapke Hain Koun! may be the most telling glimpses into the core of the altered attitude. Who Am I to You, may be a direct, ironic invitation to the viewer, a moment of postmodern self-reflection where the audience is acknowledged and invoked. According to Lalitha Gopalan, “The opening credit sequence has both leads, Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan, looking straight at us singing 'Hum aapke hain koun?'/'Who am I to you?'; asking us to reflect on our relationship to cinema, the film draws us into a triangular economy of desire, making us an integral part of its love story.” (Gopalan, 3). In this new territory we can explain the form, function, and intent of Hum Aapke Hain Koun! in the same terms. Hum Aapke Hain Koun! is borderline pornographic (both in its otherwise empty depictions of the fantasy, and its fantastic unreality) in regards to family life, but it is not only comfortable with this status, it aims for it. Shakti presents a narrative where the audience is voyeur to the action. The plot is to be consumed under the naïve assumption that the events in the film are completely separated from the viewer, and independent happenings are to be digested and criticized like a real-world event, viewed with privilege on-screen. Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, on the other hand, urges the viewer to engage and understand the film in the context of the medium of film and enjoy it for what is is–entertainment. It is not meant to be received as a representation of something real, but as a the film in itself. “…by calling attention to our viewing habits within the diegesis and naming it love, contemporary Indian films have closed the gap between the screen and spectator.” (Gopalan, 3) But what impetus could there be for the reorientation of film's relationship to its audience? Perhaps, the answer is proximity. 1980's films were replete with the type of violent conflict and discord that is fully absent in 1994's Hum Aapke Hain Koun!. These films contain depictions of the social injustices and problems that were inescapable and immediate for the viewer. The critical eye fettered to the same system grows increasingly despondent; the more familiar a system, the more fault to be found in it. The 1990's introduces a burgeoning externality in Bollywood audiences. This sense of externality is both physical, as in the non resident Indian who's perspective is now distanced, and ideological, as in the Indian citizen, whose own culture is externalized by a reorientation to globalism. In either case, a comfortable distance is established. At a distance, criticism feels less necessary, and nostalgic revelry becomes more appealing. This new audience's desire for an affirmative cinema, coupled with a self-awareness of their role in the creation of cinema, leads to a cinema released of the fear of self-reference and the shackles of naïve literalism. Hum Aapke Hain Koun! So the distanced Indian, NRI or not, is the driver of a new attitude in the form and content of Indian film.


Gopalan, Lalitha. Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema. London: BFI, 2002.

Vansee Juluri. “The reception of Hum Aapke Hain Koun.” European Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 2 (1999): 231-248.

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