The cult romantic film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai has just completed 25 years this year. When it released in 1998, it was an overnight hit. Its portrayal of aspirational (to the makers) romantic expression for millions of young people — especially those in early college years — formed an essential part of the higher education experience in India. In my case, far away from my provincial hometown, I was in the throes of late adolescence, making the awkward transition to adulthood and all that it stood for.
At the time, having romantic relationships, primarily and overwhelmingly, with members of the opposite sex and endlessly placing them side-by-side with the experiences of character in films like KKHH, was much more routine, commonplace, expected even, than might appear ‘normal’ in today’s changed times.
Yes, the Anjali Sharma of KKHH, played by Kajol, was your typical ‘tomboy’-ish character, who dresses up ‘like the guys’ but wants to be liked as ‘the epitome of feminine beauty’. She has a massive ‘crush’ on Rahul Khanna (Shah Rukh Khan), her college buddy, who treats her more or less like a lad. Enter Tina Malhotra, played by Rani Mukherjee — ultra feminine and the subject of teenage admiration and lustful imaginings for a majority of boys in the college.
Through his portrayal of these main characters in KKHH, director Karan Johar had made it clear that he stands firmly on the side of propagating stereotypes. Stereotypes of gender, attire, relationships and man-woman politics. Where you can be attractive only if you conform to certain accepted norms around attractiveness. If you play basketball, swear like the boys and generally act ‘tomboy’-ish, there’s no chance in K-JO heaven of ever being given a second look, let alone considered attractive, by someone like Rahul Khanna. You see, Rahul fancies Tina, the Über-feminine ‘hot chick’ of the college, who gives the current cinematic heart-throbs a run for their money through her stylish (read size zero figure-hugging), monotone clothes made out of satin-like material. While purportedly studying at a college, in India.
Then, of course, comes the inevitable heartbreak for Anjali, as she realises Rahul is never going to even remotely consider her as anything more than a ‘buddy’ as long as he has Tina in his life. Enter Anjali Junior, Rahul’s pre-teen daughter, who makes it her life’s mission to ‘re-unite’ Rahul and Anjali, because her Mom (Tina) made it her lasting wish.
Why is that a problem you ask? Well, for one, the ideal of feminine beauty that made Rahul fall for the glamourous Tina continues to be perpetuated in the second half of the film. It almost seems like the makers were sending across a subliminal message to all the girls watching KKHH in 1998 with stars in their eyes that unless you are sari-clad (or wearing bodycon dresses), have long, luxuriant hair and a propensity to mould yourself according to the expectations of the male ideal of beauty, you have zilch chance of finding the love of your life, ‘settling down’ in a heterosexual universe and caring for your progeny and your partner till the cows come home and the sun sets over the Bollywood horizon of swaying wheat/mustard/sugarcane fields, to the sound of happy violin music.
I still remember the feeling of aspiring to achieve the impossible — KKHH-style love, marriage, happily-ever-after — while getting dewy-eyed and weak-kneed at the thought of finding my own Rahul and Anjali variant of a heterosexual, romantic relationship.
I wonder how different the self-image and self-esteem of scores of young, collegiate women would have been had we not been bombarded by subliminal messaging about love, marriage, family and physical attributes endorsed by those who produce, watch, admire and swear by films like KKHH.
It is my firm belief that had we invested more in holistic education, choosing a career where we get paid for doing something we love and progressing through life (marriage and children included) by placing more faith in our self than trying and failing to become the popular/majoritarian version of feminine perfection, we would have had a different kind of society and concomitantly nation, than the one we appear to be saddled with today.