1992 saw the release of Meera Ka Mohan, headlined by Avinash Wadhawan, featuring the chart-busting disco-devotional O Krishna You Are The Greatest Musician of the World. Keeping the cine-goers glued to the theatres also was Kumar Sanu crooning In The Morning By The Sea for Ronit Roy and friends in Jaan Tere Naam. The year witnessed SRK doing one of his earliest roles as a hero in Hema Malini’s directorial debut Dil Aashna Hai. Then there was Amrish Puri singing Shom Shom Shamo Sha while playing a trumpet, sitar and drums in Anil Sharma’s Tehelka. Govinda and David Dhawan found each other with Shola aur Shabnam, and Madhuri Dixit discovered her breasts with Dhak Dhak Karne Laga in Beta. For people with more discerning taste, Meenakshi Sheshadri referred to Chiranjeevi as Tota Mere Tota in Aaj Ka Gundaraj, Rahul Roy became a tiger in Junoon and Salman Khan wore a golden colored wig to pirouette with his inner Thor in Suryavanshi. Obviously, some of us had fun growing up.
1992 was also the year of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.
The brilliant Mansoor Khan’s second cinematic outing offered a straightforward story. Sanju is a happy-go-lucky boy, smoking cigarettes and bunking classes, leading a carefree life with his carefree friends in Dehradun. His father Ramlal is the sports teacher at the lowest-on-the-rung Model School. There is a clear class divide between the hill town’s elite schools and their local counterparts – nowhere more apparent than the bicycle race on which the movie hinges. When Ratan, Sanju’s elder brother, has a near-fatal accident while preparing for the inter-college race, it becomes Sanju’s responsibility to take over and compete against Shekhar Malhotra, the flashy champion from the flashy Rajput College. Sanju feels the combined agony of his father and brother, turns around, prepares for the race, wins it, and in the process, discovers himself. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. End of story.
But despite this very basic storyline, Jo Jeeta… is perhaps the only movie from 1992 to have survived the test of time 30 years since its release. If you happen to watch anything made that year, you will be taken to a world that is distant, jagged, and often embarrassing. The stencilled heroes waltz between the plastic and the profane, flaunting a rather coarse machismo challenging Mr Richter. The heroines wear conical bras, their Saroj-Khan-nominated cleavages heaving extra hard to seduce them heartless heroes and their ripped muscles. The villains are odd, outlandish, and over-the-top, and perhaps the most entertaining architectural remains of the era gone by. The films speak a language that is totally different from anything around or about us at present.
NOT Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.
Tag it with the “Smoking is Injurious to Health” warning, cut Deepak Tijori’s hair short, ignore some of the fashion faux pas that are the vestiges of the horrible ’80s, and hell, it will pass off as the real deal even now! It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was then. The simple story, the key messaging and its aftereffects, the lovely everyday characters, the bonding and affiliations, the victories and defeats, the joys and sorrows, the aspirations and ambitions… all of it is universal and identifiable. Now, and perhaps even 30 years from today!
In the multi-layered backdrop of teenage yearnings, of silent, unrequited and failed romances, of the angst stemming from class divides between the haves and have-nots, Khan recreates the world of The Archies in an Indian avatar, sans any artificial pompoms and cheerleaders. Just a dash of Farah Khan and Jatin-Lalit freshness, the velvety voice of Udit Narayan, the vulnerability and innocence of Ayesha Jhulka, Aditya Lakhia and Deven Bhojani, and, of course, the charm of Aamir Khan as Sanju.
Sanju is vain, selfish, and twisted. He exploits Anjali, his best friend, because he knows she is secretly in love with him. He takes Maqsood and Ghanshu, his close confidantes and partners in crime, for granted while playing their ring leader. He consciously cons Devika – the shimmering, sizzling Pooja Bedi – into believing he is the son of the multi-millionaire Thapar. He actually instigates a fight at his father’s cafe and gets it totalled. Sanju is everything a hero should not be.
But there is something about Sanju that only heroes can be. He is a non-conformist. The defiant cry of Jo Sab Karte Hain Yaaron, Woh Kyon Hum Tum Karein is inspiring if you don’t subscribe to the thought, and comforting if you do. Your heart beats for Sanju because there is a little bit of him in all of us. Or there is a little bit of Sanju that all of us want to be. Precisely why you feel sorry for him when he gets exposed in front of Devika. Or when Thapar yells at him in the presence of all of his guests. Or when Ramlal throws him out of the house.
Ramlal is a strict father. He is also guilty of playing favourites. Which explains Sanju’s continued insubordination and insolence. The father is the system, the man. Sanju is the rebel, while Ratan follows the norm. To such an extent that when Sanju leads the pack in the Sheher Ki Pariyon Ke song, the elder brother voluntarily plays the second fiddle. The love between the siblings is not cardboard, melodramatic, or overtly emotional. And yet, when Ratan is admitted to the hospital, Rooth Ke Humse Kabhi tugs at your heartstrings and tears the ventricles out.
The rich-poor divide and the continuous hostility toward the poor – the pajama chhap – is a recurring theme in the film. Khan chooses a rather interesting cinematic device to reveal Sanju’s poverty to Devika. A dance sequence featuring a Chaplinesque Sanju, complete with tattered clothes. But you see the light at the end of the tunnel when you hear the Model School team mouthing the lines, Yeh Maana Abhi Hain Khaali Haath, Na Honge Sada Yahi Din Raat, Kabhi Toh Banegi Apni Baat, Arre Yaaron, Mere Pyaaron. It is almost poetic, Devika’s changing expressions as Sanju lives up his penury!
Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar appeared at a time when the reforms that would result in opening up our economy had just been initiated. We were still reeling from the garishness of the ’80s, but the theme of class inequality that populated the films of the ’70s still endured. Jo Jeeta… was perhaps the first film that brought home class inequality the way many of us actually experienced it. Not the way Amitabh Bachchan did, raging against the machine and the system. You weren’t fighting for scraps on the streets or refusing to pick coins off the road, but you did feel a twinge of jealousy when you saw someone in a nice car you couldn’t own.
For an entire generation of cine-goers figuring themselves in the 1990s, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was, therefore, not just a film. It inspired us to stay happy, take risks, not follow the norm, know and appreciate the value of success, and, well, work towards it. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was, in many ways, a lesson in life. And one realises this even more so now, looking back.
POST SCRIPT: 1992 was also the year a numerically sound Ajay Devgan checked on the audiences’ Jigar, Sunil Shetty made his debut in Balwan, Akshay Kumar started playing the Khiladi, and Sanjay Dutt figured the joys of romancing the wet sari in Yalgaar. We were one lucky lot, clearly! :)
The summer months are always kind of muggy in Patna. In the early 1990s, they appeared sultrier than normal. The days would be hot and the nights would be dry. There was only so much one could do. And that ‘so much’ was never much, with those prolonged hours of nothingness blankly staring at us. Don’t know if the irregular load-shedding and the dark absence of electricity were the reason behind the dreariness. Or if one could point towards the abrupt kal shaam chhe baje phir mulakaat hogi endings of Doordarshan as the cause. Or whether the limited stock of antaakshari songs (despite the unending stock of holidaying cousins to play them with) was the prime suspect. OR perhaps it was just the mid-teen angst.
But the insipid monotony was real. And there was only so much one could do.
Those were also the days when Aamir Khan was doing snake movies, Rishi Kapoor was wearing his last set of sweaters around trees, Jackie Shroff was giving solo box office hits, and Vinod Khanna was cracking dudhu jokes looking at women in Farishtay.
Yes. There really was only so much one could do.
Or actually, there was. Buzz words like liberalisation and globalisation were just beginning to hover around, and private TV channels were soon to be an everyday fix as a positive fallout of the policy changes. Cable TV was slowly becoming the fashionable thing to do in small town India, a perfect middle class counter point to the safari-suit-and-pomeranian superiority practiced by the elite. My professor parents, of course, thanks to their world view and wisdom nurtured by Brahmanical leanings, had a strong point of view on cable TV or any other form of unsupervised entertainment. EXACTLY the reason why I readily agreed when Ramkailas ji, my trusted aide, and the family Man Friday, recommended that we steal the cable connection since the wires went through our garden.
Till then, our experience in thieving was restricted to pocketing raw mangoes of the awesomely juicy Maldah variety from the neighbours’ yard. So I was not too sure. Having said that, the lure of breaking the boredom and seeing content outside of the staid DD programming was too much of a temptation. The programming options were way too many, beyond the Krishi Darshans and Chitrahaars of the world. There was finesse and flair one wasn’t used to seeing on television. Plus, there was MTV. That thing that was meant to morally corrupt the youth of the nation.
I was ready to be corrupted.
All it took was a pair of garden cutters and some ingenuity, and we were a cable TV household between 10pm and 5am, every day. Opening gates to a world unseen. The firang accent, the cool graphics, the smart promos, the interesting shows… they were all from a distant land. There was Star Plus with its Crystal Maze, Donahue, Oprah and, oh, those kissing cousins in The Bold and The Beautiful. Or the cigarette smoking Tara in the eponymous series on Zee TV, and even the obnoxious Mohan Kapoor on the channel’s Saanp Seedhi, and also Rajat Sharma, giving birth to a different breed of journalism in Aap Ki Adalat. This was all different. New. And real.
And then there was, of course, MTV. All different. New. And surreal.
With its funky graphics, bizarre spots and fast pace. Smelling like teen spirit. With Michael Jackson and Madonna. With Guns N’ Roses, a paradoxical co-existence that could well define MTV. With Right Said Fred declaring his sexiness and Phil Collins his inability to dance. With Pearl Jam, Megadeth, Metallica and innumerous such bands that us small-towners had no knowledge or clue about. I saw images I never thought existed. I saw people I never could be. I saw love. I saw debauchery. I saw a display of colours, commotion and camaraderie. It was culturally alien, unfathomable at times. But it was all eerily eye opening. I could never be them, I knew. And yet, I wanted to know more about them. Every day.
I saw possibilities. And I am not just talking television. I am talking life.
For that Hindi medium boy from Bihar struggling with Itihaas, Bhugol and Nagrik Shastra in school, it was almost like him creating his own itihaas every night. By unshackling himself from all that was around him. By thinking beyond the books and the course material. By taking those fantastic flights to nowhere. I never did stop thinking in Hindi. I did not develop an accent. I never could appreciate Pearl Jam, Megadeth or Metallica. I did not try becoming a different person with brand new reference points. Only, my perspectives changed. I started seeing things differently. I did not know where did I want to go, but I knew what it would be like.
We were caught soon enough by Papa. He said all that we had to do was ask. He was, obviously, very upset. Major mud on our face. But I wasn’t complaining. It was worth the trip. It was not as if it suddenly changed my persona or that I could see doors opening for me. But this entire visual experience, day on day, made me realise that there were so many doors that existed.
It was not just economic liberalisation at work. Or just liberalisation. It was liberation!
It changed my outlook. It made me more confident. It made me more audacious. It allowed me to dream differently. That gawky teenager, son of academicians, started looking beyond Engineering and Medicine as a career. As did many of us from similar backgrounds. Everything in the world, hitherto unseen, was now around us. And everything was achievable. We did not have to travel to foreign lands to broaden our horizons. The world had come to us. Very soon, the world literally was around us in the supermarkets. In form of Camay soaps and Hershey’s chocolates. As brand new malls and multiplexes. In the queues at McDonald’s. Buzzing in pagers and mobile phones. Surprisingly, none of it made me feel poor and deprived at any point of time. It kept egging me to have a deeper resolve to become better off. Read rich.
In retrospect, that was the bawdiest, and yet the most important, contribution of liberalisation to the small town India, and not just me. We stopped feeling guilty about earning and spending monies, something that Papa would have so not approved. We were okay to let go of our middleclassery. Of course, that came with its own set of struggles. Mumbai, the city I had chosen to move to, gave me its perfumed indifference, showing me my place in the 8:11 local. I gave it my unadulterated confidence. Very soon, we reached a compromise, and the city was home.
Fate brought me to MTV in 2000. And MTV gave me the confidence to change MTV. It had made me embrace its globalness, I made it embrace my Indianness, being a part of the team that made it desicool. I worked with them for ten long years. Fancy designation, et al. Little did MTV know about the role it had played in my life. Even when it was on mute. :)
Meanwhile, we got Ramkailas ji a job as a peon in Delhi. His family continued to be in a remote village in Bihar. We sponsored the education of his son who is now sixteen. The boy uses a smart phone and knows how to Whatsapp. I suspect he also knows how to order mangoes online. Only, he aspires to follow the career path of his father. Become a peon.
Twenty-five years later, I wait for another round of liberalisation.
– first published in Indian Express Sunday edition Eye as a part of their special issue on 25 years of economic reforms –