You have probably been in a similar condition to me when I first watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! I was laid up on the couch with an injury that prevented me from doing my work (life tip: use the guard when you use a mandoline if you want to keep your thumb intact), feeling immensely sorry for myself. Like most people raised in capitalist societies, I conflate self-value with production. If I’m not being “useful,” even if it’s because searing pain that brought tears to my eyes was shooting up my right arm, I’m nothing.
So, I did what any pitiful person who wants to wallow in how pathetic she is does: I laid on the couch for days watching Netflix.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! is a seminal Bollywood film from 1994. It was the highest grossing Bollywood film at the time, launching the career of Salman Khan (which, uhh... he certainly did something with that) and cementing the fame of Madhuri Dixit. It is also three hours long, which makes it perfect for a day you’re not going to be moving.
This rom-com has everything: rollerskates, mandolines, cross-dressing, love, family, and a dog, Tuffy, who is a cricket umpire. It follows two families who are old friends, and come back together for the arranged marriage of their children, Rajesh and Pooja. Prem (Khan), Rajesh’s brother and Nisha (Dixit), Pooja’s sister, start to fall for each other as the marriage is planned, and struggle with how to acknowledge their feelings while being dutiful to their families. I know, it sounds a little dry but, would you please just watch this video in which Tuffy wears sunglasses and a Walkman and dances in a field full of flowers, after emerging from a Jeep that has “I LOVE MY FAMILY” written on the side?
(Fun Fact: Tuffy was so beloved that a bunch of actors from HAHK came back to make a fake documentary about the dog.)
The movie relishes these mundane scenes surrounding the wedding and the life of the newlyweds. Boys break into the girls-only part of the engagement party. Pooja’s parents come to stay for a week once Pooja and Rajesh’s child is born, and the whole family plays parlor games. Prem and Nisha have fun being an aunt and uncle together. Everyone plays cricket. Upon recent rewatching, friends pointed out that nothing bad really happens to anyone, until something really bad happens. (But don’t worry all is saved by the spirit of Krishna.)
I didn’t care about the half hour of drama. I cared about the two and a half hours of watching a happy family thrive and new love bloom. Yes, they were all rich and pale and straight, and that probably contributed a lot to their happiness. But, unlike a lot of other rich, pale, straight people, their priorities seemed to be in the right place. Work is rarely mentioned. Rajesh goes on a business trip once, and Prem opens a new car factory or something. It’s minor, it’s not important. What is important is Pooja’s parents getting to know their grandchild, or Pooja supporting Nisha’s romance.
Maybe it was the pain meds, but this completely undid me. What do you mean you’re supposed to find Prem attractive because he’s a devoted brother and uncle? That these characters’ value wasn’t signaled by how hard they worked? I was reminded that I was lucky enough to have a spouse to take care of me, and friends to check in on me. That was success enough. That’s what all the work was for.
I didn’t know HAHK was the cultural juggernaut it was when I put it on, because I am often one or two steps removed from Indian culture. My Indian friends will sometimes say things in Bengali or Hindi, or make references to movies or songs that are mainstays in Indian households, and I have to quickly Google everything and pretend I got it all along. I know it doesn’t make me less Indian, but it does lend itself to feeling like I missed school that day, or year.
It wasn’t just that HAHK presented a world in which work exists to serve love and family, and not the other way around. It was that it felt familiar. I felt I got it in a way I rarely get Indian things on the first go. Watching three hours of a family see each other through good times and bad without turning on each other didn’t feel like a departure for me. It felt like what I always wanted movies to be. In HAHK, stress comes from outsized, hand-of-god tragedy, not from miscommunication and petty grievances. Life is dangerous enough. Why would you do anything to add to it?
HAHK is corny as hell, if you haven't gathered by now, but that seems to be the way our tastes are shifting. The most popular things on Netflix right now are earnest rom-coms. This one's about as pure as they get.