“Is this the Bollywood version of Flowers in the Attic?” - My sister, after reading the synopsis of Yaadein on the back of the DVD.
Although Kareena Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan are riding high in box office popularity right now, that wasn’t always the case. Back in 2001, the two newly debuted actors co-starred in a film that wasn’t just a typical underperformer, it was a disaster - the kind of film that remains a punch line more than ten years after it releases, the kind of film that kills careers. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about Subhash Ghai’s Yaadein... or as most people know it That Movie With the Crocodile.
The perfect storm of disaster that was Yaadein (“Memories”) began brewing after the massive success of Taal in 1999. Director Subhash Ghai had long prided himself on living up to his nickname (“The Showman”) by making films that could pull crowds into the theaters, films like Meri Jung (1985) and Kalnayak (1993) - colorful and overwrought spectacles packed full of costumes, babes in tiny outfits, songs, outrageous sets, and every plot device in the book. (1) One doesn’t get to be known as the Showman without a keen eye for fads and Ghai, true to his nickname, is not a man to let a trend pass him by.
Bollywood in the early 1990s was in a state of flux, as the youthful Three Khans and their conservative middle-class romances began to take over from the earthier and more violent hero-giri of the 1980s. This new type of film - along with better distribution overseas - revealed a previously untapped market in the West, a market with a lot of disposable income and a desire to have a communal experience watching Hindi films in the theater. And spurred on, perhaps, by the failure of the revenge-driven masala of Trimurti in 1995, Ghai jumped right on the family-friendly glossy romance bandwagon with first Pardes (2) in 1997 (a hit) and then Taal in 1999 (a super-hit). In both Pardes and, especially, Taal, Ghai uses the same sense of spectacle and song which had worked in previous films but cloaked in the fads of the day - i.e. instead of themes of crime, punishment, and revenge, characters are shoved into complicated plots revolving around generational conflict, the anxieties surrounding the diaspora, and the expanding role of women in civil society. And Ghai’s new audiences were willing to pay to see it.
Taal’s super-hit status was driven mostly by this new overseas market, (3) so for the Showman it was only natural that his next film would be focused even more towards them. Ghai wasn’t just going to be making any film, he was going to make the most family-friendly, most NRI, and most generational-conflicted film he could. The story of a father with three attractive daughters, all struggling to find their place in this new topsy-turvy world. The story of Yaadein.
Aging hero and frequent Ghai-collaborator Jackie Shroff was tapped to play the father at the center of the film, though he was only about 40 at the time. Interviews from around the time hint that only the promise of a starring role could have tempted the handsome actor to even consider playing father to three women he might potentially have been paired opposite romantically. For the three beautiful daughters, Ghai signed on three unknowns - Avni Vasa, Himani Rawat, and (in the largest role) newly debuted star daughter Kareena Kapoor. And for Kareena’s beau, Ghai signed on another new debut - star son Hrithik Roshan. However, as fate would have it, Kareena and Hrithik continued to build in popularity between the time they signed on to Yaadein and by the time Yaadein began filming it was no longer a Subhash Ghai film or a Jackie Shroff film but Hrithik Roshan’s next film. And the Showman was not one to deny audiences anything. But where would that leave his old friend Jackie Shroff?
Yaadein begins in London. Where we meet Raj Singh Puri (Jackie Shroff) and his lovely wife Shalini (Rati Agnihotri). Raj is just your average, normal middle-class guy who lives in a giant Yash Raj Rich house and despite his greying hair, he is prone to acting like a kid and drinking his Coca-cola brand soft drink in the grocery store before it’s been purchased. His wife Shalini is a Sanskrit professor and during the aforementioned grocery store scene, helpfully reads her man-child husband some advice for raising children out of a greeting card, the gist of which is: Cuddle your child until the age of five, watch him for the next 10 years, and make a friend of him at 16.. Raj is skeptical that he can be a friend to his three daughters (because women are strange and foreign creatures) but Shalini is sure he can do it.
And luckily for the Singh Puri daughters, Raj received that greeting card advice just in time because as he and his lovely wife are leaving the grocery store (which is located in the Financial District of London for some reason) a (black) man running from the cops (of course) pushes past them. Raj and Shalini are caught in the middle of a gun fight (in the deserted Financial District of London) and Shalini is fatally wounded, later dying at the hospital.
Man-child Raj is now in charge of three grown-up daughters and with no idea of how to relate to them. His ultra-rich (4) friends the Malhotras (elder brother Amrish Puri, younger brother Anang Desai and his wife Supriya Karnick) are no help, since they’ve sent their son off to boarding school. Presumably so they can spend more time having morning tea on the lawn in front of their palatial home (in what appears to be February.)
Raj is so out of his depth that it leads to a shouting match with troubled middle daughter Sania (Himani Rawat), in a pivotal scene, when she comes home at (*gasp*) 3am after being at a party where she was (*double gasp*) drinking wine. Though she appears to be well into her 20s, Sania’s curfew is 11pm and Raj had been driving around looking for her since then. He is so furious at her late entry that he makes as if to smack her and instead of being a good girl and taking it, Sania threatens to call the police. At this, Raj is defeated. Who is this strange 20-something year old woman that won’t accept a beating, drinks wine, and finds 11pm ridiculously early for a curfew? Has the West completely warped his family?!
The next day, youngest sister Isha (Kareena Kapoor) gives Sania a smack in place of her papa. “Are you going to call the police on me, too?” Isha demands. Sania is cowed.
Raj decides to take three daughters back to India to live in an isolated haveli, far from bad influences like “other people” and “child protective services,” where he makes his adult daughters swear to an agreement that they will let him have the final say on their husbands. (5)
At this point, it’s time to introduce
Despite their 20 year age gap, Ronit is best friends with Raj and makes the trek out to the haveli to visit and to show off his super-slick website that will “scientifically” (i.e. magically) select one’s perfect mate from it’s database. After a display of flashy graphics, Raj approves of the computer-selected mate for eldest daughter Avantika (Avni Vasa) and decides to get her married off right then and there.
Meanwhile, Ronit is trying to start some sort of flirtation with Isha, who is decidedly against all forms of romance - to the point where she gives him a speech about how women like her only make history, not love stories. Ronit smirks at her, as if to say, “We’ll see about that.” At which point director Subhash Ghai pops up in a cameo to literally say, “We’ll see about that.” Just to drive the point home.
Ishq-wishq whatever, history-making Isha is off to Malaysia to compete in a bicycle race. But who turns up to keep an eye on her but... Ronit! Ronit tries and succeeds at making Isha jealous by flirting with a lithe Jennifer Kotwal in a cameo appearance but Isha is not one to give into petty emotion after handily defeating all her challengers in the bicycle race, she decides to celebrate by taking a boat over to Tuba Island. Unfortunately for Isha, she’s not the only fan of Malaysian foliage and while our champion is sightseeing, a (painfully plastic) crocodile lumbers out of the woods with (if the music is any indication) sinister intentions. Quick thinking Isha throws her sweater over the crocodiles face, blinding it, and makes her escape. Up a tree. Where she promptly goes into a coma. For some reason.
When the boat from Tuba Island returns without Isha, Ronit goes into Hero Mode and decides he is going to rescue her singlehandedly, which he does. Riding his boat over to Tuba Island and then hauling the comatose Isha down from the tree. Alas, difficulties with his boat mean that Ronit must swim back to mainland, dragging the boat containing the still comatose Isha behind him. Using a rope. Held in his mouth.
Isha wakes up in the hospital and when she discovers that it was Ronit who rescued her and that same Ronit is now in a coma (or something) himself, her heart melts and she immediately falls in love.
With eldest daughter Avantika happily settled with her computer-selected husband, it’s Sania’s turn to get married and she wants to get married to a guy that she has been dating. Raj is unhappy with this choice telling her that choosing a life-partner is a serious business. “This is your life we’re talking about,” says Raj. “My life is my life!” she yells at him, while ominous music plays in the background. Sania gets married despite Raj’s misgivings.
Because he is more invested in marriages than a Jane Austen character, Raj negotiates a match for his best friend Ronit and the ditzy daughter of a rich industrialist whom we had previously been introduced to a party scene in which she proclaims, “Shaadi, how boring,” whilst drinking a Coca-cola brand soft drink. This is to be a surprise for Ronit because who doesn’t love being surprised with a spouse you haven’t given your approval to!
Sania discovers her in-laws are awful human beings and wants out of her marriage. Raj does not approve. Raj is now convinced absolutely for sure that love matches are bad news.
Unaware of either of these things, Ronit and Isha decide to get married because they are in love.
The rest of the film is an increasingly tedious march towards the wedding, with occasional detours to Crazy Town (Ronit threatening to cut his own heart out) and Self-Sacrificing-Ville (the infamous crying scene in which Isha refuses her own feelings) and, my personal favorite, Inexplicable Jim Carrey Impression-burg.
By the time the finish line is crossed, 193 minutes of your time will have passed and you will resent Subhash Ghai taking every single one of them.
There are a multitude of problems with Yaadein but by far the biggest is that it’s just an extremely dull film - despite a crocodile and two of the hottest young stars of the day. In the end, the narrative stakes raised are too small to justify over three hours of film and Hrithik Roshan threatening to cut his own heart out. Ronit and Isha are grown adults and they live in the UK. Ronit is a successful businessman. There is absolutely no reason that the two could not married if they really wanted to - a plot line later followed through by director Karan Johar in a film that came out a few months after Yaadein and also featured Kareena and Hrithik, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. (6)
Ghai fundamentally miscalculates his ability to mix his fast and loose style of filmmaking with the realism required by the diaspora audiences he was targeting. He took narrative themes from the successful diaspora romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge but then filmed them as if he was shooting an 80s masala potboiler aimed at the frontbenchers. Audiences complained that the film seemed long and aimless because the film was long and aimless. As Hrithik Roshan later said, “Until the day of the shoots, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. It was an experiment, I guess. He was Mr Ghai. I was a newcomer. So I just went along with it. I don't think I believe in spontaneous creativity any longer.”
The rest of these sins might have been forgiven if only the film had been more entertaining but, alas, since the dull plot line and treatment left plenty of time for contemplation.
One of the undertones I took the most issue with, on a personal level, was the regressive attitude towards women’s rights as human beings. This is a nasty undercurrent to quite a few films aimed at the diaspora but trust the Showman to not only pick up on it but to pop up in a cameo to make sure we all know that women don’t make history, they make love stories and they always do what Daddy tells them to. By the end of the film, the women in Yaadein have all been entered into relationships initiated by the men in their lives. Not one of them has a chance to do what she wants. Bicycle-race winning Isha gets the worst treatment, the film insisting that she go into a coma and be rescued despite it appearing that she had the crocodile situation well under control. In Subhash Ghai’s world, an Indian woman can’t solve her own problems or make her own decisions, no siree. (7)
And then there were the men. Having two heroes in a film should not have been a problem for Subhash Ghai, who managed quite well with young buck Akshaye Khanna and an older Anil Kapoor in Taal, but it’s incredible how creepy it is to have one hero of a two hero film also be the heroine’s father. A sexy song of the three sisters cavorting around becomes extremely disturbing once point-of-view shots are used. Normally, that point-of-view to be the hero/audience stand-in but when the hero/audience stand-in is the heroine’s father? Gross! And at certain times the necessity of having songs feature Jackie made it seem like he was the one serenading Hrithik and vice-versa. While Akshaye Khanna and Anil Kapoor could play off each other as rivals for the heroine’s affections in Taal, the dynamic between Jackie Shroff and Hrithik Roshan as best-friends, son-in-law/father-in-law was just extremely odd in Yaadein. Inserting Jackie into the young lovers drama not as an authority figure but as a friend just felt wrong.
The final sin of Yaadein is something I don’t generally pay attention to but in this case I had no choice. Ghai took the trappings of the Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar style of family drama but without the attention to detail in things like style and glamour that really helped to make films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai cultural touchstones. Nobody came out of Yaadein cooing over Kareena Kapoor’s outfits and that is the nail in the coffin for Subhash Ghai. For the Showman to make such a critical error in judgement really reveals the hubris behind Yaadein. As hideous outfit follows hideous outfit, one really begins to feel the lack of thought and preparation that went into this film - a lack of thought inversely proportional to the amount of hype that Ghai sold it with.
Yaadein ruined Subhash Ghai. It would be four years before he directed another film. Nobody would work with him. Not his favorites and not even Anything For A Paycheck Govinda. It says a lot about Ghai’s status in Bollywood that Kisna: The Warrior Poet, which was Ghai’s next film after Yaadein starred Bollywood outcast Vivek Oberoi. It flopped. Ghai produced a handful of middling successes (i.e. Kareena Kapoor-Shahid Kapoor starrer 36 Chinatown) before trying again in 2008 with two films: Black and White, a small scale film on terrorism that is (surprisingly) very well done, and Yuvvraaj, a soapy family drama that came ten years too late. It flopped horribly.
The curtain had closed on the Showman.
(1) And mostly remembered now for their highly entertaining song picutrizations.
(2) Please do read an amusing take on Pardes over at the Bollywood Food Club
(3) Along with some very real corporate sponsorship. Hello, Coca-Cola and satellite television.
(4) Unlike the just plain regular rich Raj Singh Puri family. It seriously took me half the film to figure out that these friends were supposed to be on a different and SUPER HIGH social status from Raj because they all seemed equally, ridiculously rich to me.
(5) Now what about that would say Flowers in the Attic? Oh, wait - it’s DISTURBING AND CREEPY.
(6) You might have heard of it. It was a box office smash.
(7) Though they do have it better than white women, who are all sluts.