By Naomi Datta
Growing up in Shillong in the eighties, ours was the first family in the neighbourhood to buy a VCR. My parents were wonderfully irresponsible and let us watch whatever we wanted with no discrimination. I was a permanent fixture at the lending library which had the latest Hindi films on the day of the release. The deal was you rented a VHS tape for a day for the princely sum of Rs 25. Big releases like Amitabh Bachchanâ€™s comeback film Shahenshah were rented out on a three hourly basis â€“ the video parlour had a person posted at your house to pick up the tape the minute the film was done. â€˜Fast forward the songsâ€™ was the counsel given by an impatient but kindly video parlour owner.
Somewhere in the glut of potboilers that I watched on a daily basis (yes I know â€“ I need to chat with my parents about their cavalier parenting), a trailer had me intrigued. A young handsome boy steps out of a car and flings his arms out awkwardly â€“ a demure young girl in a salwar kameez runs into them. There is a pigeon hovering around too inexplicably. I was fascinated â€“ that minute long trailer struck a chord. And when Maine Pyar Kiya released in the December of 1989, I had already pre-booked my VHS tape. We didnâ€™t fast forward any of the songs â€“ and in Salman Khan, I found my first movie star crush.
But there was a slight hitch â€“ on repeated viewings I realized that in the video cassette an important plot detail was left out. Bhagyashree confesses to her love for Salman in an antakshri (song medley) which had been cut out off the video cassette. It was only there in the theatrical version. This could only mean one thing â€“ after years of watching films on video, we would have to return to a movie theatre. My pliant parents obliged and we watched a film in a cinema hall after years. The seats were uncomfortable, there was an odd smell in the theatre but when Salman Khan turned to look directly into my eyes, I realized I was short changing myself with the VHS version.
This was the first blow that Sooraj Barjatya struck for the return of the middle classes to cinema halls. But what he did five years later with the release of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun in 1994 changed the dynamics of the Hindi movie trade irreversibly. In the years since MPK, his leading man Salman Khan had a middling career â€“ he had followed up MPK with a string of hits, but then sank into box office indifference with disasters like Jagruti and Nischay. None of them â€“ even the hits had tempted me back to the musty, dank theatres of Shillong.
And then Hum Aapke Hain Kaun released â€“ I liked an odd sounding song called â€˜Didi Tera Devar Deewanaâ€™ but the film didnâ€™t catch my attention. I would watch it on video I decided. Except there was no video release - in an unprecedented move, Rajshri Productions delayed the video release of the film. The theatrical release too was in a limited number of movie halls â€“ suffice to say Dreamland in Shillong didnâ€™t make the cut. The producers insisted that if you wanted to screen the film, you would have to upgrade your theatre.
The film was initially dismissed as a long wedding video and written off as a flop â€“ but this reworked version of Nadiya Ke Paar suddenly caught the attention of an expanding, slightly richer middle class. (Liberalization had kicked in by 1991). Theatres in the country upgraded to bring in the film which went on to monster collections at the box office. By then I was quite sure my life would be incomplete without watching the film. We finally watched the film in Calcutta two months after its release â€“ the entire family including aunts and cousins dressed up for an evening out and bought dress circle tickets. Much to our excitement, each time a song played on the big screen, external dancing lights lit up the screen. At the end of the film, my father a hardened army man sniffed and said, â€˜I feel like we attended a close family memberâ€™s weddingâ€™. Assamese weddings are sedate and quiet affairs â€“ so I have no idea which family he was talking about â€“ but you get the gist!
Post HAHK, we went back to the theatres with a vengeance â€“ watching a film on video just didnâ€™t have the same charm. And clearly we werenâ€™t alone â€“ Hum Aapke Hain Kaun is the film held up by Bollywood trade as the film which changed the film distribution system in the country. It got the middle class with more spending power back to a dying big cinema culture. It was the precursor to the multiplex revolution which changed the way you and I watch films in this country.
So the next time you lean into that recliner chair in the multiplex and reach out for your cheese popcorn, remember you owe Tuffy. Big Time.
In a previous incarnation, Naomi Datta tracked the business of cinema â€“ it is a topic which continues to intrigue her. She is at Follow @nowme_datta)