"Before DDLJ and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, I hadn't even really heard of karva chauth," Kaveree says.
In this episode of The Sandip Roy Show, Kaveree Bamzai talks of her new book, The Three Khans, and how these actors influenced our lives.
Sandip: Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh, Salman, have they all played someone called Raj at some point?
Kaveree: I can’t claim to have watched each and every film. I think that would have taken me more than my lifetime. But I think they have. Not Rahul, but definitely Raj.
Sandip: If you look at the ‘Raj idea’, I mean, we can say in some ways that Raj replaced Vijay, who was Amitabh Bachchan, the angry young man. Who do you think Raj was embodying?
Kaveree: I think it would be Shah Rukh because he was the real poster child of the 90s. DDLJ was such a smartly made movie. And the fact that Aditya Chopra cast him was a very interesting choice because he was someone who wasn’t from the film industry, unlike the other two. He had come from another life, a full and different life in Delhi theatre, a missionary school, the whole inclusivity of the missionary school. It’s a very different ethos, and someone who actually completed school and went to college, unlike the other two. The kind of friends he had, the kind of parents he had, that sort of embodied the analogue generation in a way. The Rajiv Gandhi generation. That’s why I begin the book with Rajiv Gandhi, although it was a very, very brief moment in Indian history, if you look at it. But I think it had a huge impact on my generation, which is also the generation of the Khans, the changes that took place in society. We’re still feeling the after-effects of it. Everything, whether it was the opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid, whether it was lowering the voting age, whether it was deepening and widening the idea of local democracy, we feel all that even now, good or bad. And I think for us, in a way, Raj, played by Shah Rukh, helped negotiate all these.
I mean, we were going from one of everything, one car, one radio, one phone, to suddenly such a huge choice. And how neatly they fell into the cola wars as well. ‘Yeh dil maange more’ became Shah Rukh, ‘thanda matlab Coca-Cola’ became Aamir, ‘taste the thunder’ became Salman. So they literally, sort of, slipped in so beautifully into this world of consumerism. For each, I chose a movie (for the cover) that I think was a turning point for them. So for Aamir, I chose Lagaan; for Salman, I chose Dabangg and for Shah Rukh, I chose DDLJ because, with DDLJ, it was both consumerism, as well as this sort of soft kind of Hindutva, Hinduism, religion, karva chauth, wedding sangeet— all the rituals. Before DDLJ and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, I hadn’t even really heard of karva chauth. It was something that people from certain states did. But then it became like a national phenomenon, that whole idea of karva chauth and the man waiting for the woman till she eats. So Raj helped us negotiate these changes and still hold on to that idea of tradition.
Sandip: So in that sense, do you think the fact that in DDLJ, Raj doesn’t rebel against chauvinist people as much as win them over… was that what was reassuring to people, that this hero knew how to not be anti-establishment exactly, in the way Vijay was?
Kaveree: That was very important, I think, because liberalisation was an enormous change for India. We had lived through a socialist ethos for the longest time and we seemed to be quite happy with it. We knew there were inequalities and sort of accepted them. But certainly, with liberalisation, there was the feeling that we could do more, we could buy more, we could be more, and yet not lose out on everything. So this was what was reassuring. And here he was. The mother of the daughter is telling him to run away and he says, ‘No, I will stay’. And not only does he try to win over his prospective father-in-law, he even tries to win over the prospective fiancé.
Sandip: In that sense, you’re saying that the emphasis on rituals like karva chauth and all of that coming at a time when the movie is, at the same time, extolling a new sort of consumerist lifestyle that we were not used to, is not an accident. That one was done deliberately to help us negotiate the other?
Kaveree: I don’t know whether it was Aditya Chopra sitting down and deciding, now this is what I’m going to do. I’m sure it happened because that was his creative vision and that is what he believed in. As I remember, he was also very young when he made that movie. Popular culture validates us; it allows us to see things that we then feel comfortable doing or practising. So if Shah Rukh is doing this, it’s fine. If he’s waiting for his not-yet wife to eat before he eats on karva chauth, hey, that’s cool. It’s not emasculating to do it. And remember, shortly thereafter, you had the Indian film industry getting the status of an industry. You had Sushma Swaraj taking that whole delegation to the Cannes Film Festival. I think it’s not that someone sat down and said, ‘Okay, now let me tell Aditya Chopra to make this’. It all sort of happened at a time when everyone was obviously a little alarmed by the changes that were taking place.
If you notice, television also changed. We had the Taras and the wonderful Udaans and all these very, very progressive women. And then suddenly, all the women in 2000 went back into the home and they never came out. You had Tara, which was in the 80s, where all five of these women were living in this hostel and smoking and drinking, and having sex with people they were not married to. These were radical ideas.
Sandip: But when you look back, do you see that the Khans helped shape things? The way we looked at culture and the way we imagined ourselves, our identity, as it were, or did they just reflect it?
Kaveree: I think they helped shape it. And in this case, I would say the most deliberate shaping happened from Aamir, who after 2000, suddenly decided that he’s going to make very particular movies, movies that mean something to him, that say something to him. If you notice all his choices from Lagaan onwards, Dil Chahta Hai, even the less successful ones, they all have to mean something for him. Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots were hugely influential movies.
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The Three Khans: And the Emergence of New India