A lover, a model and a nose

Posted on August 1, 2015


Remembering ‘jhankaar beats,’ the nineties, and ‘Aashiqui,’ which turned 25 this July.

If you were the cassette-buying type in 1990, you probably remember this image. A white background with horizontal, equidistant lines – like a page from a ruled notebook. A boy and a girl in what appears to be an embrace – only, we don’t see their faces. The boy is pulling a jacket over their heads. And around them, butterflies. Plus, this funny-sounding slogan: “Love makes life live.” I refer to Aashiqui, of course. My most favourite part of the cassette cover design is the fine print underneath the movie’s name: “Romantic Film.” I suppose this clarification was necessary in the event that – after that image of lovers, after those butterflies, after that slogan, after that title – someone mistook the boy for a vampire burying his fangs into the girl’s neck. The film completes a silver jubilee this year. Its music remains undead.

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In a rediff.com interview a couple of years ago, Rahul Roy, the boy on the cassette cover, said, “Within three days, all the songs were a hit… We had only one television show to promote our songs and that was Chitrahar. Today, there are thousands of channels available across various media platforms. But after 23 years, people still remember the songs from Aashiqui.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the songs are classics. It just means that, sometimes, music isn’t just about notes and instruments and singers. It’s also about the time it’s from. A time the T-Series label was just beginning to be recognised. A time we thought Madhuri Dixit could never top Ek do teen, and she proved us wrong a couple of years later, dressed like a fisherwoman, belting out Humko aaj kal hai intezaar. A time when young lovers could look like anything from Salman Khan and Bhagyashree (Maine Pyar Kiya) to Manoj Kumar and Rekha (Clerk). A time Hindi cinema was beginning to sound like Kumar Sanu’s nose.

I watched the film again recently. It’s the kind of film you can watch on one browser window as you’re surfing on another – even so, there were things I’d forgotten about it, things that surprised me. I’ve always remembered this film as the one where Mahesh Bhatt put aside his angst and went all commercial, all hit songs and nothing else – but the Bhatt edge is very much there, right from the meet-cute, which is hardly cute. Hero sees heroine when he lands up in jail after destroying property at the venue of his father’s second marriage.

The film, thus, begins with the breakup of a relationship. And for a while, the focus is on Rahul Roy’s mother, played by Reema Lagoo. Her first scene has her bundling up her husband’s things so she can get rid of them. Among these things: her mangalsutra. She tells her son she wants to bury her “dead” love and live again. Even in his selling-out phase, Bhatt had this way of extracting characters from the amber of archetypes. The archetype here is Long-Suffering Mother, but the Lagoo character doesn’t exist simply to wipe her eyes and feed her son gajar ka halwa. She doesn’t want to be a burden. She wants to work. She wants to find herself. And she isn’t wearing castoffs. She looks glamorous. Along with actresses like Beena, Lagoo was redefining the look of the hero’s mother. He might have said: Mere paas maal hai.

Lagoo’s character finds echoes in the heroine, played by Anu Aggarwal. (She’s called Anu in the film too, though Rahul Roy keeps calling her “Annu.” His character’s name, too, is dashingly imaginative. He’s called… Rahul.) Anu has been raised in a Gothic atmosphere – an orphanage with a seething Tom Alter going on about sin and penance. And when a besotted Rahul rescues her, she says what his mother did. She wants to become something before becoming his wife. She becomes a successful model for the prestigious Parisian couture house known as “Jean Kardin.” Rahul’s mother likes Anu. She likes that she’s made something of herself. And so that Rahul can succeed too, she asks Anu not to give in to Rahul’s demand to get married. He will pressure you, because you’re successful and he’s scared of losing you… But a relationship can succeed only if it’s between equals. In 1990, these words were still somewhat unusual in a mainstream movie.

Of course, the film doesn’t veer too much into these psychological avenues. Its priorities are different – it just wants to showcase a bunch of Nadeem-Shravan songs, beginning with Saanson ki zaroorat hai jaise… Rahul Roy holds a guitar (like most Hindi-film heroes, he doesn’t actually play it) and Kumar Sanu takes over the soundtrack. I don’t care too much for this number, but I watched it with a vague kind of nostalgia. Again, it’s about the era. Anu’s belt with its loose end angling downwards, a style found on many overdressed heroines on the Cine Blitz and Movie covers of the time. The ‘I love you’ scene followed by the ‘I hate you’ scene. The hero and heroine, after a separation, finding their way to each other through a song (Jaan-e-jigar jaan-e-man). The jhankaar beats. The airport climax.

Watching pop-culture milestones from another era can be entertaining in unintended ways. Look at this man smoking inside an airport, while buying a ticket… Look at Rahul and Anu in an escalator during the Nazar ke saamne number (one of the songs I like, along with Mera dil tere liye and Ab tere bin), a couple of years before Rajinikanth, in Annamalai, would feature in the definitive escalator scene… Look at Deepak Tijori, doing that hand gesture that’s now been enshrined in two books, Arnab Ray’s May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss and Diptakirti Chaudhuri’s Kitnay Aadmi Thay. (This is how it goes: raise forearm to forehead level, use wrist as pivot, and swivel hand from side to side.) And look at how completely awkward the leads are. Rahul’s awful hairstyle and his awful way of singing, the mouth contorted as if in pain and in the throes of a primal scream. Anu’s pouting and posing.

By a freakish coincidence, as I was writing this piece, a book landed on my desk: Anusual – Memoir of a Girl Who Came Back from the Dead. It was by Anu Aggarwal. (The universe, clearly, was leaving no stone unturned in prodding me to write about Aashiqui.) In the book, Mahesh Bhatt calls her and says, “Aashiqui is based on your life, Anu, will you play Anu Varghese, the lead, in it?” In other words, Anu Aggarwal, the top Indian model, would play Anu Varghese. In the film, Anu is faced with a choice between a lover in India and a modelling career in Paris. The real Anu faced a similar choice: To do Aashiqui or hurry back to “Laurent the art dealer and restaurateur in Paris who had aroused me?” In both cases, Bollywood romance trounced the city of love.

The chapter on Aashiqui is short but fascinating. I spluttered at the bit about Bhatt asking Anu to prepare for this tinselly part by reading Love in the Time of Cholera – but it does sound like something Bhatt would do. He probably thought he was making a timeless romance, and she probably bought it – they do come across as two people on the same wavelength. In a Hindustan Times interview from a couple of years ago, Anu said of Bollywood, “I think its universe had opened its bathrobe for me. I saw everything that there really is to see.” Bhatt has taught her well.

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