- Sahmi Chowdhury
Five 90s South Asian Movies that Shaped the Way We Love
If you grew up during the 90s, you know that movies were an essential in planning a fun weekend. Chances are you’ve had your fair share of Friday nights that started off at your local BlockBuster, either arguing with your brother who wanted to watch Ghayal for the hundredth time, or scanning the shelves for a slasher flick to watch with your significant other while your parents thought you were sleeping over at your best friend’s house (don’t worry, we won’t tell baba and ma). Or maybe you and your cousins took a trip to the movies to catch the latest glossed up film that promised to be 10% dialogue and 90% plaid outfits. Either way, 90s culture was all about the silver screen, so it’s no surprise that films carried a massive impact when it came to developing our opinions, beliefs, and aspirations, especially when it involves matters of the heart.
We’ve put together five South Asian movies from the 90s that helped shape the way we love—for better and for worse.
Playing on the fear of being followed and watched, Darr follows the psychological unraveling of an obsessed stalker. Starring Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla as Rahul and Kiran respectively, this Bollywood blockbuster brought us the tropes of obsessed stalker, damsel in distress, and love triangles across the span of 177 minutes.
While the film makes it clear that Rahul’s fixation on Kiran is dangerous and undesirable, it did not do so by emphasizing Kiran’s right to her own personhood and ability to actively deny an unwanted romantic pursuit. Rather, the film perpetuates the equally dangerous belief that the only reason one man’s violent desire for a woman is deemed reprehensible is because she already belongs to another man. Sunil, Kiran’s love interest in the film, doubles as the hero, given that he is the one who ultimately frees her of the deranged Rahul. In a less extreme scenario, brown girls/women—and girls/women in general—see this male centric dynamic play out anytime they’re looking to get away from unwanted attention at the bar, Mandir, family wedding: She tells the guy she simply isn’t interested, he doesn’t back down, and instead, becomes more forceful with his pursuit. She tells the guy she has a boyfriend/fiance/husband, and there’s a much greater chance the guy backs down immediately.
Watching Darr in the 90s and you couldn’t help but to shutter at Rahul’s aggressive nature and swoon at Sunil’s dedication to keeping Kiran safe. But if you watch the film with a more modern lens, you realize the true horror is that Kiran has little to no agency regarding her physical and psychological safety.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994)
If you watched South Asian films during the 90s, chances are you’ve seen Hum Aapke Hain Koun, or at the very least, know of the film’s iconic song “Didi Tera Devar Deewana” in which multiple characters are in drag throughout the performance. Starring the incomparable Madhuri Dixit alongside Salman Khan, the film is centered around the budding romance between Nisha and Prem. However, the film’s plot is also heavily influenced by the love—and sacrifice—of Desi sisterhood.
After Nisha’s older sister, Pooja, tragically passes away, leaving behind a young son and grieving husband, Nisha steps in and serves as a motherly figure for the boy as a way to honor her sister’s memory. Nisha’s effortless connection with her nephew leads the parents of Pooja’s late husband to arrange a lawful marriage between their son and his sister in law. Nisha, of course, is horrified by this given that she is not only in love with another man, but that man just so happens to be the younger brother of her soon to be husband. However, Nisha is willing to suppress her feelings for Prem in order to do what is believed to be best for Pooja’s son, and by extension, Pooja. It is only by accident that their hidden love is revealed to Prem’s brother—in part due to a necklace Pooja had gifted Nisha, promising to coordinate her marriage to Prem—that the couple is able to finally be together.
While we can celebrate the love and devotion Nisha has towards her sister, and tries to do right by her even after death, we also have to mourn the all too common self-sacrificing complex brown girls fall victim to due to familial pressures. Not to mention, Nisha and Prem’s relationship is yet another love story shrouded in secrecy, a pervasive aspect of South Asian coupledom, especially in contemporary Desi households.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
This mid-90s classic makes it onto every South Asian movie list, and for good reason. Affectionately known as DDLJ, it is the longest running film in Hindi cinema history and maintains a massive cult following.
The film tells the story of Raj and Simran—portrayed by Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol respectively—who fall in love during a trip through Europe with their friend groups. In true Bollywood fashion, their romance is, of course, forbidden, given that Simran’s father has arranged for her to marry the son of his best friend. The plot unravels into a mixture of secrecy, family drama, and bursts of intense romance that can only be captured by the young couple singing in a mustard field.
While there are many attributes of DDLJ that can be credited for the film’s darling status, it’s “love wins in the end” message is definitely a fan favorite. But the lengths in which Simran and Raj must go through to finally receive her father’s blessing are troubling, and perhaps hold the most insidious impact on the idea of love within the South Asian community.
Despite her pleas throughout the film for the young couple to elope, Raj convinces Simran that if they are to be together, they must do so “the right way” and receive the blessing of her family. While this may appear to be a romantic, even valiant gesture on Raj’s part, the underbelly of his decision forces Simran to submit to a toxic family dynamic that denies the right of an adult woman to make her own decisions. Even more, Raj quite literally fights for Simran’s heart, as highlighted by the amount of physical violence he endures. Bloodied and bruised after taking on Simran’s fiance and his goons, it is only then does Simran’s father see the value in Raj.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
Known for making everyone’s mamu cry, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai tells the story of the most iconic love triangle in South Asian cinema. Following a group of college friends, Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), Tina (Rani Mukerji), and Anjali Sharma (Kajol), the trio’s relationship comes to an end when Anjali’s love for Rahul is unrequited. Instead, he falls in love with Tina and the couple gets married and welcomes a baby girl, whom they name Anjali. Heartbreakingly, Tina passes away post labor and Rahul must learn to navigate the hardships of single fatherhood. Eventually, he encounters a second chance at love when he reconnects with Anjali years later at his daughter’s summer camp where Anjali works as a counselor.
The film has fueled generations of hopeless romantics who cling to the movie’s plot of second chances in love. Rahul gets a second chance at falling in love; Anjali Sharma gets a second chance with the man she pinned for; and Anjali gets a second chance at having a mother. The idea that even the push and pull of time isn’t enough to stop what is meant to be. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai tells its audience: what is for you will come to you in the end.
But the film’s romanticization of second chances has inaccurately held Rahul to the status of heartthrob, and glosses over the million and one red flags that he has. For starters, when Rahul and Anjali reunite, she has completely shed her tomboyish ways and instead, carries herself with a feminine demure that can’t help but to echo the memory of Tina. Undoubtedly, her transformation is a result of the humiliation she felt when Rahul mocked her attempt of femininity during their college days. Instead of approaching her complete personality change with curiosity, Rahul is swept away by the fact that Anjali finally fits his ideal of what a desirable partner must be. And let’s not forget that Rahul completely hijacks Anajli’s wedding day—in which she is preparing to marry a man who genuinely cares and adores her for who she is—and confesses his desire for her in front of all her family and friends, placing her in a high pressure ultimatum: either she marries Aman or chooses Rahul.
Credited for reviving Akshway Kumar’s and Shilpa Shetty’s acting career, Jaanwar allowed us to close out the 90s with something we don’t always see within South Asian communities: a lovingly vulnerable depiction of fatherhood. The film is propelled by a plot in which a professional criminal, Badshah, comes across an abandoned child and decides to raise him as his own son. Through his journey of accidental fatherhood, Badshah commits himself to doing everything necessary to ensure his son has a safe and fulfilling life, which includes rejecting his life of crime. However, the past has a way of catching up to the present, and a number of events arise that threaten the chances of Badshah continuing to raise his son.
Toxic masculinity is a prevalent issue within South Asian communities and we have seen it play out in male leads within the film industry time and time again. Whether it’s the guy who uses women as pawns in his revenge against another man (Baazigar, 1993) or the non-negotiating father who refuses to accept the decisions of his adult son (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, 2001), male characters throughout the history of South Asian films have been defined by their fight against effeminacy. The beautiful part about Jaanwar is that Kumar’s character embraces effeminacy and finds redemption through this decision.
As a single father, Badshah is both father and mother to his son, and the film goes through multiple scenes in which we see the parent/child duo sharing moments of tenderness, specifically in the song, “Tujhko Na Dekhun To Dil Ghabrata.” From clips of bathtime to eating bright pink cotton candy at a carnival, the audience is provided with a non-popularized but desperately needed depiction of healthy South Asian father/son love.