Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge to Befikre: Is India’s romance with NRI films over?

Indian films shot abroad have come a full circle. From travelogues that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, we moved to “NRI nostalgia” films in the 1990s and 2000s which acted as a bridge for NRIs with India, and also fuelled resident Indians’ aspirations for a better life. But now such films are declining in number and influence, only to be replaced by other genres.

Let’s rewind to the early 1960s. Around this time, Indian filmmakers first started exploring two fabulous and exciting new trends — colour films and foreign locales.

For example, An Evening in Paris (1967): Indian viewers hadn’t seen anything like this before. Shammi Kapoor romancing Sharmila Tagore all over Paris, that too in colour!

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge to Befikre: Is India’s romance with NRI films over?

Shakti Samanta had already used colour film to great advantage in Kashmir Ki Kali in 1964, with the film showcasing Kashmir in all its splendour.

Cut to 1967. Inspired perhaps by Pramod Chakravorty’s 1966 hit, Love in Tokyo (starring Biswajit and Asha Parekh), Samanta decided to go West, and selected the mega city of Paris for his story about finding true love in a foreign land (Sachin Bhowmick wrote both films). The cherry on the cake was Sharmila Tagore water skiing in a swimsuit, even as Shammi Kapoor crooned Aasman se aaya farishta, wearing a robe and hanging from a helicopter. The swimsuit created a storm in a tea cup. (Remember that Samanta had an eye for the exotic, having earlier introduced Burmese beauty Helen with the popular song Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo in Howrah Bridge in 1958). It was enough to boggle viewers’ minds and leave them craving for more.

Next came Aankhen (1968). Ramanand Sagar’s spy caper was set in several international locations including Beirut and starred Dharmendra, Mala Sinha and Mehmood. Dev Anand followed suit, shooting in hitherto virgin locales of Europe in Prem Pujari (1970).

These films had something in common, other than exotic locales. All these were tales of intrigue, with lead actors being involved in spying (Prem Pujari and Aankhen), murder or treachery (An Evening in Paris).

Shakti Samanta made more spy thrillers such as the Amitabh Bachchan-Zeenat Aman starrer The Great Gambler (1979), which was set in exotic locations such as Venice and Cairo. Ramanand Sagar was not far behind, with his super hit Dharmendra-Hema Malini blockbuster Charas (1976), set in Rome and Malta. All these films left three generations of Indians fantasising about travelling abroad.

It was Dev Anand who broke the mould of this fantastic, exotic world of blockbusters shot abroad. The flamboyant filmmaker was the first to portray the ugly side of the immigrant dream on screen, in Des Pardes (1978). Set in London, this film was a sordid tale of a murder most foul, of an innocent Punjabi man Samir Sahni (played by Pran), who migrates to London with a dream of opening a pub.

Dev Anand plays Samir’s younger brother Veer who exposes the murder as well as the illegal immigration racket. It may be noted that nowhere in the film did the director badmouth the British. The bad guys were Indians who were exploiting their own brethren. There was no exploiting of patriotic sentiments, no tear-jerking songs or scenes comparing India with Britain; just a quiet commentary on the immigrant dream gone wrong. Instead of homilies about ‘Bhartiya sanskriti’, you had Dev Anand advising his shy heroine Tina Munim (in her debut) to shed inhibitions, with Rajesh Roshan’s ditty “Jaisa des vaisa bhes, phir kya darna”.

In a way, Anand’s narrative was the exact opposite of Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim(1970), where the misguided heroine Saira Banu is shown to have been corrupted by Western ways, comes back to India with Bharat Kumar and attains salvation by transforming into a sari-clad ‘bharatiya nari’.

Des Pardes was set in the 1970s, when there was a mad rush in Punjab to move to London, the city about which it was said that “the streets were paved with gold” (to quote from the 19th century tale of Dick Wittington and his cat).

By the early 1990s, Indians were flourishing abroad; they typically owned petrol pumps, cabs, motels and grocery stores everywhere from Southhall, London to Queens in New York City.

The second generation of Non-Resident Indians were earning well, and were now focussed on preserving their culture. Hindi films were an important bridge with India.

Aditya Chopra, scion of a major Indian production house, Yash Raj Productions saw a window of opportunity open, and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995) was born — the first of the soppy ‘mera bharat mahaan’, kind of ‘NRI nostalgia’ films. Where hypocrisy was a way of life. Where Simran (Kajol) wears short dresses outside home, but slips into a salwar kameez at home, singing bhajans loudly as soon as Babuji (Amrish Puri) is within earshot. Where she romances her beau all over Europe, but agrees in a minute to marry a ‘son-of-the-soil’ from back home who she has never met — because Babuji says so.

And if Aditya Chopra was here, could his friend Karan Johar of Yash Johar Productions be behind? Johar decided to polish the NRI film and shifted the location to New York.

From the bovine pastures of Switzerland, viewers were transported to the Big Apple. Where NRIs wore designer clothes and lived modern lives, but always stayed unabashedly Indians at heart, cursing goras under their breath in every other scene. Think of Kal Ho Na Ho,2003, where Jenny (Jaya Bachchan)’s Indian restaurant can only flourish and compete with its rival Chinese restaurant when it repackages its “Indian-ness”, with superficial changes to the décor, change of name from “Café New York” to “Café New Delhi”, with the most important garnish — of hoisting of the Indian flag . The quality of food was, of course, unimportant, typical of numerous sub-standard Indian restaurants that dot the landscape of America.

Unlike Dev Saab’s Des Pardes, many of these latter films defied logic. If one believed the world of films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, 2001, NRIs seemed to hit the jackpot as soon as they landed abroad, judging from the mansion that Shahrukh Khan lives in and the cars he drives, even after being disowned by the head of the Raichand family.

Remember Kajol running madly towards the stage, sari flying in the wind, when her son starts singing the Indian national anthem on stage in his British school in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham? That was the defining moment for tear-jerking jingoism in NRI films.

Chopra, Johar and Co. successfully continued to milk the patriotic sentiments of NRIs in several films that followed. So NRIs lived in London but the high point of their existence was Karva Chauth celebrations, with Kajol and Shahrukh becoming the NRI face of Karva Chauth celebrations (think of Kajol’s fasting scene in DDLJ , or the “boley choodiyan” song in KKKG).

For a while, it seemed like the NRI nostalgia film fest would last forever. These films were so lavishly mounted that viewers were left bedazzled.

Subhash Ghai’s unabashed patriotism in “Yeh mera India” of Pardes (1997), seemed uncool in comparison, yet it made money by milking NRI nostalgia.

For resident Indians, the NRI nostalgia films were aspirational, whereas NRIs seemed to revel in the traditional, bordering on regressive values that such films espoused, as they fought, in real life, against the ‘evil’ influence of their adoptive countries on their offsprings.

In the meantime, the air space over India had started opening up. By 2000, Indians were making weekend trips to Dubai, Singapore and Bangkok.

Suddenly NRI films lost their appeal, and came to be replaced by films like Chalte Chalte (2003), Hum Tum (2004), Love Aaj Kal (2009), Ek Main Aur Ek Tu (2012), Yeh Jawaaani Hai Deewani (2013) to name a few — all rom-coms which depicted well-to-do resident Indians partly living and working abroad. These films were outward looking; the typical NRI nostalgia and pop patriotism of the previous decade was not for them. These films successfully channelised the modern Indian’s thirst for travel and for discovering exotic new lands.

Cut to 2017. Somewhere down the line, the Big Daddy of NRI romances lost the plot. Chopra’s Befikre (2016) about two Indians making out all over Paris did not do as well as his other films; perhaps he needs to strike a balance between making ‘sanskari’ NRI films like DDLJ and “look at me, I-am-so- progressive-I-show-nudity-in-every-second-scene” kind of films (he should have learned from his previous dud Neal n Nikki, 2005).

In recent times, Tamasha (2015) shot on exotic locations abroad did not do well either, perhaps because of its muddled plot. On the other hand, we have Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), lavishly produced travelogues about resident Indians who travel for leisure, both directed by Zoya Akhtar and backed by strong plots and decent performances.

Hopefully, the NRI nostalgia fest will cease forever, to be replaced by real films about real Indians travelling or living abroad. And what about NRI audiences, you ask? Will they not miss films which satiate their longing for India? I believe, today, NRIs are as happy watching small films about the real, resurgent India such as Queen (2012), NH 10 (2015), Masaan (2015), Piku (2015) and Neerja (2016), as they are watching blockbusters such as Bahubali 2:The Conclusion (2016) or Dangal (2016).

Content is now king, as films with unconventional themes like Hindi Medium(2017) or the upcoming Toilet: Ek Prem Katha have shown. Lavish and exotic locales are neither sufficient nor necessary for a successful film. Perhaps then, it is time to give the ‘NRI nostalgia’ films the final rest it deserves.