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How Hum Aapke Hain Koun was way ahead of its times

Updated: May 8, 2022

On the occasion of Madhuri Dixit’s birthday weekend, a look back at how this landmark movie of hers is subtly but surprisingly bold even by today’s Bollywood and web-series standards

Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!
Madhuri Dixit was also the first to be credited in the star cast of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!

Image: Screengrab of video by YouTube channel Bollywood Classics

I was a clueless seven-year-old when my parents dragged my sister (a four-year-old then) and me to watch the 1994 Bollywood movie Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! at Chembur’s Basant Cinema (now revamped as the plush Cubic Mall and Movie Time Cinema). Thrice.

They were also planning a fourth trip to Liberty Cinema, where the movie ended up running for 2½ years. Thankfully, the idea didn’t happen.

I never understood the hype about this movie. As a matter of fact, I never even understood the movie.

How could I? I was just seven at the time.

The only memories I have from all three outings are of the crispy, golden samosas from the theatre’s non-AC canteen. Of the malai kofta and butter naan that we had for our post-movie dinner at the nearby restaurant ironically named Shreedevi (now Shreedevi Mélange). And of the onion-sized blue bulbs bordering the screen that would light up and dance around when Madhuri Dixit would.

Death was still an unheard-of concept for me, so I had no idea what happened to Renuka Shahane’s character, Pooja. It took me over a decade to realise that Nisha (Madhuri) and Prem (Salman Khan) were a romantic couple and not just two random people gallivanting on screen. I failed to grasp during my childhood why the film’s climax was such a big deal. What were our parents possibly thinking when they took us for this Greek-and-Latin colourfest and expected us to understand it?!

I do get it now, though.

In 2016, I plunged into the world of screenwriting, thanks to destiny playing its cards, and a year later, I began penning PiKu & ViRu (buy/download, read, and review it here). Watching movies became both work and education for me. And so, one day, I decided to make sense of this enigma of a film.

Part of the decision to (re)watch HAHK also had to do with a thread of tweets on my timeline that brutally trolled it, so I was curious to find out whether the film truly deserved the critique.

So, did I like the film?

I have to admit, ever since I watched it in October 2020, it’s been haunting my mind. I can’t get it out of my head.

I now know why I never understood the film as a kid—that’s because it was way ahead of its times.

True, the plot revolves around Nisha and Prem’s romance and how their alliance faces a threat following the death of Nisha’s elder sister, Pooja, who’s also Prem’s sister-in-law. (Watch Pooja’s brutal death scene below.)

The film is so much more than that, though.

There are so many metaphors and symbolisms hiding there in plain sight. Plus, there was some clever and smart filmmaking at play, and the execution married the writing very well (pun unintended). I don’t think my parents ever realised what was going on in it (though they were hooked because they sensed there was something special about the film that they couldn’t put a finger on).

To illustrate my point, here are 5 factors that made Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! a bold and experimental movie for its time. Rewatch and take note. I’ve also included writing exercises at the end of each point. Go, hone your creativity with this guide!

It disobeyed several filmmaking rules

Take a look at any mainstream commercial fiction movie of your choice. Chances are 99% that it follows the traditional 3-act structure of filmmaking, which requires specific plot points to be placed at specific timings in the film.

If you’re watching HAHK, poised with a pen and paper to catch the plot points at those designated timings, you’d be stumped—like how I was.

The 3-hour film’s first plot twist comes at the 2½-hour mark, instead of the first 20 minutes, and it’s the last half hour of the film where all the drama happens.

Did the director, Sooraj Barjatya, do it deliberately?

I’d say yes.

Take a look at these shots.

The left image shows readings of Pooja’s pulse rates when she’s battling for her life after her spine-chilling fall down the stairs. Meaning, how much life she still has in her. The right depicts her pulse rates following her death.

Now, why did the director have to use this prop? What role is it playing here? Surely the scene would have still made sense without it.

But here’s the point he seems to be trying to make: Happiness is boring. And flat. Just like the Disneyesque first 2½ hours of the film. Dead.

Life needs peaks and valleys to be interesting—just like the last hour of the film. Barjatya took a huge risk with filmmaking rules so he could probably make this simple statement. No wonder distributors seemed sceptical.

That the movie was such a star-studded affair speaks volumes of the cast and crew, who placed all their faith in the director and what he was attempting.

Barjatya did keep those 2½ hours interesting enough to engage our attention. For those of us accustomed to drama and emotion in cinema, these could have never sufficed. It was a huge gamble taken here.

Writing exercise #1: Experiment with the timing of your story’s plot points. Is it necessary for the inciting incident to take place in the first 15–20 minutes of your film? Focus on the overall story and the central idea you’re trying to convey and find out what’s right for your story.

It had plenty of Freudian exchanges going around

Part of the reason I couldn’t discern the romance between Nisha and Prem for a good number of my growing-up years was that there was barely any chemistry between them.

In fact, Nisha had more flirtatious exchanges with her brother-in-law and Prem’s brother Rajesh (Mohnish Bahl). The jeeja–saali poem by Rajesh is all the proof needed.

Likewise, Prem shared more tactile interactions with his bhabhi Pooja than with Nisha.

The jeeja–saali angle was definitely a ploy Barjatya injected to up the tension in the climax. Will Rajesh act on Pooja’s last wish, spelled out in Nisha’s letter, and bow out of his wedding with Nisha? Or will he simply let the wedding continue, given his eyebrow-raising exchanges with Nisha in the past?

My stomach still does a belly-flop imagining Rajesh pocketing the letter and acting as if nothing’s happened. Or maybe it’s just my pessimistic side, I don’t know.

As for all these aforementioned scenes, there cannot be any other interpretation for them!

Writing exercise #2: How would you have Rajesh react to the letter if you were the screenwriter? If you think the film’s ending is perfect, how would Rajesh’s life—as well as his son’s—play out from that point on? BTW, what would you name the son? Keep working on these, and you could have a terrific fan-fic spin-off or sequel in your hands!

It showed an older woman–younger man romance

Nisha was clearly older than Prem. Take note of these lyrics from the male version of the song Dhiktana.

“Kab tak rahoon sabse chhota, aaye koi mujhse chhota.”

Someone chhota refers to a baby here—Pooja and Rajesh’s kid, to be precise. That means Prem isn’t expecting his life partner to be younger than him. And if he’s envisioning a future with Nisha, she has to be older than him.

This age difference is probably why it didn’t cross the elders’ minds to get Nisha and Prem hitched together. It wasn’t really thinkable back in the day to have a woman marry a younger man.

Okay, you may argue about the “computers” scene, where Nisha reveals her course of education, which could make her younger than Prem, who’s an MBA. I would take this scene with a pinch of salt, though. Both computers and MBA are fields that can be pursued at any age. I wouldn’t really gauge the two characters’ ages on the basis of these academic details.

There are several Bollywood romance films where the woman is older than the man. HAHK is among the few from its time that hinted at this age difference, even if through a song. There’s also Wake Up Sid and Ki & Ka, but these came after nearly 15 years from HAHK and are still very rare instances. Hope pronouncing such age gaps more directly becomes a regular trend in Hindi cinema.

Writing exercise #3: Work out a romance story where the age difference between the two main characters is a key source of conflict, especially due to societal taboos surrounding it. Because there are several movies and TV shows with similar plot lines out there, you’ll need to add a USP of your own.

It hinted at an open marriage

Pooja and Nisha’s parents (Reema Lagoo, Anupam Kher) appeared to have been in an open marriage. The samdhi–samdhan song has some implicit details.

Here’s my guess about the backstory involving these characters. Kailashnath (Alok Nath) had a crush on Reema Lagoo’s character during their college days. But then he must have learned about his best friend Siddharth’s (Anupam Kher) feelings for her. Kailashnath may have sacrificed his love for this reason. The death of Rajesh and Prem’s parents may have further compelled Kailashnath to devote all his time to familial responsibilities and never marry. And when Siddharth must have found out the truth after a few years, he may have wanted his wife—who probably liked Kailashnath—to go her own way, but she obviously decided to stay in the marriage. To assuage his guilt, Siddharth may have asked her to keep her options open in case she changed her mind. Something similar was about to play out years later when Nisha’s wedding is fixed with Rajesh following Pooja’s death, but then he intervenes in time. Please note this is a mere surmise of mine, nothing more :)

Writing exercise #4: Try your hand at working on this backstory. See if you have other ideas or theories about the same.

It highlighted the lack of mental-health awareness

Rajesh goes into a state of shock after Pooja’s death. Gradually, his condition deteriorates into loneliness and melancholy. And Dr. Khan’s (Satish Shah) Rx for these issues is to get Rajesh married another time! Seriously?!

Moreover, when Nisha faints after discovering who her real groom is, the doctor dismisses her case as “fatigue”. Nobody could fathom what was going on with the poor girl. If they would have, the movie would have taken another course.

These scenes didn’t feel like they belonged to another age. They very much appeared sarcastic in nature. The director’s ingenuity lies in the manner in which he seamlessly wove this issue into the larger tapestry of the story.

Writing exercise #5: Normalise having doctors prescribe counselling and therapy to your characters. Make your characters seek out professional help for their mental health, without the need to keep it a secret.

HAHK does have its share of flaws—for instance, it has been accused of normalising patriarchy through its storyline. But in the larger scheme of things, the film stands out for its daring nature, where the director chooses to make his point subtly without ruffling any feathers. Even in this era of bold digital content, there are very few movies like this one.

Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.


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