If Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ had to find an Indian filmy avatar, it would be Rajshri films. They have been trying to make India great again for decades. The films have been signalling that things were more beautiful and pure in another era and that we are losing it rapidly.
Rajshri films, from the 1970s to now — Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye (1977), Sunayana (1979), Chitchor (1976), Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999), and Vivaah (2006) — are all a nod to people who like to say “we lived in simpler times”.
The trope of “simpler times” is what is today called ‘sanskaari’ films by Sooraj R. Barjatya. These enduring, quintessential Indian values can be defined in a thousand ways. The Barjatyas have their own definition — they place the Indian family at the centre of the plot. Large or joint families are a thing; demure, blushing young women who love to cook and feed; moralistic men and women who serve and sacrifice; small-town purity; and of course, ‘it’s all about loving your parents’ (much before Karan Johan adopted it).
Rajshri films are what you can watch with your family. When Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) was released, L. K. Advani went to watch it with his family, and it made news.
Now, Sooraj Barjatya’s latest release Uunchai — starring Amitabh Bachchan, Boman Irani, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa — is trying to stay close to the core while stepping away a wee bit.
In an era when watching Titanic (1997) with parents was a shared trauma for millenials, Rajshri films were ‘clean’ and you could safely watch them with no hesitation. Love them, hate them, or make memes out of them — Rajshri films of the ’90s were an institution.
Homemaker Priya Sethi in Jaipur remembers how watching a Rajshri film every Sunday was an unwritten rule in her joint family. Actors like Abha Parmar have said that the films made sanskaar a part of Indian ethos, and their impact is undeniable.
The Prem quotient
Even without big stars and the quintessential lover boy ‘Prem’ — played by Salman Khan, mostly — Rajshri Productions has delivered films such as Chitchor and Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se (1978) that were not just big hits but acquired cult status too.
The production house was started by Tarachand Barjatya in 1947. It was on the verge of shutting shop in 1990 — its Bombay office was about to be sold off to pay the company’s debts. That was when Sooraj Barjatya, then merely 21 years old, took over the mantle and produced iconic films with Salman Khan as Prem — Maine Pyar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and Hum Saath-Saath Hain. These movies were massive grossers and saved the sinking ship. Like the ‘extra K’ for Ekta Kapoor, the name ‘Prem’ became the lucky charm for Rajshri Productions.
In fact, the last hit that the production house registered was the 2015 Salman Khan-starrer Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. That year belonged to Salman — with Bajrangi Bhaijaan also ranking as the highest-grossing film of the year at the box office.
Vivaah (2006), starring Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao, made on a budget of Rs 8 crore, was a hit with earnings that reached Rs 49.6 crore. Subtitled ‘A Journey From Engagement to Marriage’ , the film became popular among youngsters despite receiving criticism for promoting the ‘fair is lovely’ idea. Amrita Rao’s jal lijiye scene — where she offers a glass of water to Prem (Kapoor) — became a popular meme in 2021. That the groom stood by his bride after an accident left her with burns on her body was also much appreciated.
Riding high on the word vivaah, Ek Vivaah…Aisa Bhi, starring Sonu Sood and Isha Koppikar, was released in 2008. But it bombed at the box office and could not even recover the production budget.
Films such as Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003) and Uuf Kya Jadoo Mohabbat Hai (2004) failed spectacularly despite trying ‘something’ new. Even Kareena Kapoor, Hrithik Roshan, and Abhishek Bachchan couldn’t save Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon.
Going back to the tried and tested formula, Barjatya roped in the OG Prem, Salman Khan, for Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and the film delivered.
“What I show in films is somewhat similar to my life, but we show it in an aspirational way,” said Barjatya in an interview with The Indian Express. Uunchai, however, seems to be a departure from tradition. It has been shot at real locations as opposed to the on-set shooting or the occasional small-town locales that Barjatya’s films are usually shot in.
Toward the ‘sanskaari’ ideal
Over the years, aided by the repeat telecasts, these Rajshri films became ‘sanskaari’ entertainment. In fact, memes and jokes are based on the extreme and unrealistic depiction of Indian culture — be it in terms of love, relationships, or marriage. However, Anupam Kher, a regular in Rajshri films since his debut in Saaransh (1984) dismisses the idea. “They have always made a film that they believed in, which is about the culture they believe and practice. So much so, at a certain point, I think some uncool people decided to slot them as sanskaari (traditional) because they could not deal with it,” he said in an interview with ETimes.
Bhagyashree Patwardhan, who became the nation’s favourite heroine with Maine Pyar Kiya, says that the film would be a flop if made today. “I don’t know if value is seen in waiting and sacrifice today,” she told Lehren. It is less the values and more the patriarchal outlook that would tank the film today.
The films always showed upper-class Hindu families with business backgrounds, surrounded by supporting characters belonging to other religions. When Mohnish Behl and Tabu go on their honeymoon in Hum Saath Saath Hain, they take the whole family with them. That’s the power of family in Barjatya films. Vegetarianism, of course, was also a given. Even in Vivaah, Amrita Rao’s sister Choti is chided by her mother Rama (Seema Biswas) for her skin colour and is constantly worried about who would marry her. Marriage was the be-all and end-all for every ‘good’ girl in Rajshri films. And these women limited themselves to kitchen work most happily. Salwar-kameez or saree-clad women were considered ‘ideal’ bahus and anything else was a no-no. The heroines were also young with no prior romantic experiences. Be it Suman (Bhagyashree) in Maine Pyar Kiya who is all of us at 18 or Nisha (Madhuri Dixit) in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, women would sideline education and marry impulsively despite being initially shown as bright students.
Talluri Rameswari and Zarina Wahab were favourites in the 1980s. They represented the de-glamourised, ‘girl-next-door’, marriage-material type of Indian woman. They stood for status quo, did not threaten Indian culture and ways in an era dominated by Westernised icons like Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi and Tina Munim.
All the three hits of the ’90s, and even Vivaah later, were primarily about family over individual. Every son had to be part of the family business, and any departure was temporary. There was no self without the family, and all forms of sacrifice were justified to keep it intact.
In light of this, Uunchai seems to be simultaneously a return to the pre-Sooraj Barjatya era that dealt with social realism or youth like in Chitchor, Saaransh, or Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se. It will be a nod to the fact that bloodlines do not necessarily make up families. In exploring a lifelong friendship between four men who rely on each other in their ’60s, Soorja Barjatya seemed to have finally shifted the lens of Rajshri Productions.
Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. Read all the articles here.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)