Editor's note: Since cinema is not only a form of entertainment but also an important cultural tool that has the power to shape opinions, we are reviewing classics and trying to see them through the lens of the current socio-political climate. The aim is to call out biases, misrepresentation and everything else that is problematic so that we can gauge our journey thus far and the road ahead.
Director: Indra Kumar
Cast: Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgn, Juhi Chawla, Kajol
In November, 1997, when Ishq had just hit the screens, it was everything that audiences could have hoped for. Ajay Devgn and Kajol's real-life romance was making tabloid headlines as the actors played lovebirds in the film. After several years, Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla were paired together and Anu Mallik produced soulful melodies in Virasat and was a club favorite for his foot taping numbers in Judwaa. Needless to say, Ishq was a smashing hit, despite critics not being too happy with it.
Anupama Chopra in her 1997 review of the film pointed out, "Ishq is a relentless assault on the senses and yet the director's conviction in his patently absurd tale glues you to your seat, wide-eyed and wondering, what next?"
However, re-watch the film today and you will realize that Chopra was just being polite when she called it an assault on the senses. It is, in fact, far worse. The film tries to end with the message that love conquers all. But, sit through the long cringe-inducing two hours and forty minutes of classist, racist narrative and you will seriously begin questioning all your movie favorites from the 90's.
For those of you who do not remember Ishq very well, here is a refresher.
Ishq is the story of two rich kids, Ajay (Ajay Devgn) and Madhu (Juhi Cahwla), and their love for Kajal (Kajol) and Raja (Aamir Khan) respectively -- who come from a poor section of the society. It begins with an unctuous voice-over that tells us how the rich perceives the poor - as vermin - and are ever ready to quash them under their richly clad feet. It goes on to introduce the ultra-rich businessman Ranjit Rai (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), (Ajay's dad in the film) and his friend Harbans Lal (Dilip Tahil) who detest nothing more than the poor. The houses they live in is as big as the ego of the filmmaker, Indra Kumar, who had clearly mistaken himself as the satirist of the century. Needless to say, that Ranjit Rai and Harbans Lal are the Machiavellian villains of Ishq, a film which leaves no opportunity to belittle the poor.
In almost every scene, poor people are denigrated by Ranjit Rai, degraded and humiliated, and generally made to feel like scum. Not just his character, the younger generation also -- especially Ajay (Devgn) and Raja (Khan) -- display a disregard for those in supposedly 'menial' jobs such as bank managers, clerks, servants and others in the service of the rich. In the end, the film tries to malign and ridicule the classist, rich villains, but fails miserably. If Ishq is meant to be a comment on our social structure and class differences, it clearly doesn't come across.
On re-watching the film it becomes clear that not only does it use crass jokes and unconvincing narrative but it is also problematic in its depiction of several unnecessary tropes.
Let's start with the colourism. Several times in the film, Ranjith Rai is shamed and mocked for his dark skin colour. When he rebukes his best friend for still being bald as in the old days, the friend hits back saying Rai is still just as dark as he used to be, implying insult that Rai adequately feels and expresses through facial cues.
The dialogue was supposed to be an affront, and it was. Problem is, being dark-skinned is not an insult, or a problem, or anyone's business to comment upon. But it was normalisation of colour discrimination in films such as 'Ishq', through inconsequential jokes that seemingly soften the blow with humour, that still finds its echoes in matrimonials and fairness cream advertisements.
The second appalling problem with the film was the mockery it made of specially-abled persons for the sake of some pitiable comic relief. In a scene in which the mischievous duo of Ajay and Raja dupe a bank out of Rs 5 lakh in cash, they try to escape the scene of the crime by pretending to be disabled. While nothing was said out loud, the actions of the two actors clearly implied that the two were caricaturing specially-abled persons, thus comically scaring the security personnel off with their 'weird' gesticulations, twisted faces and muffled sounds.
In another scene, a deaf and mute man is shown to act as another element of comic relief. For almost two minutes the man is written to make squelching, unintelligible sounds to depict his muteness while he mindlessly cuts through a water pipe that the heroes are hanging on to for dear life.
In yet another scene, a mercenary hired by the evil parents to kill Raja and Kajal, was depicted to be a man with speech disabilities. Why did the makers think the character, who was obviously an unimportant trope meant only for (again) comic relief, need to have a thick stutter? The character is humiliated and ultimately killed off as villains of his kind often are in Bollywood films.
Normalising aggression in the name of 'love'
If that wasn't enough, the film is suggestive of extremely problematic social behavior between men and women, especially Raja and Madhu. The couple is written to be a fiesty one, with both being pranksters who start interacting out of a mutual urgency to best the other's prank. The competition becomes psychotic with Madhu making actual attempts on the lives of Raja and even the innocent Ajay by putting them in a break-less car. Raja takes revenge by turning up later at night as a ghost and literally physically harassing Madhu, who is in her bedroom. The penultimate 'izhaar' or admission of love also grows out of an act of near-violence. After the last prank, Madhu apologises to Raja for her behaviour and is, in response, violently kissed by Raja on the lips in the middle of a busy market scene. There is nothing romantic about it, Raja does not seek Madhu's consent, he just kisses her to win the argument. Because that is always the best way to shut a woman up.
Further disturbing is the fact that Madhu, who is apparently oblivious to just being violated by a boy she had so far been fighting with, kisses him back in what is supposed to be retaliatory power - she kisses him harder and for longer, (again without his consent), thus equaling and even eclipsing Raja's grand kiss. The two instantly fall in love after this very confusing interaction.
Exploiting class conflict
While the points made so far are all relevant in normalising illegitimate behaviour toward certain people, what is most appalling about the film is how it exploits the poor. Right from the beginning, the film tries to portray exaggerations, in both its projections of the cruel fancies of the rich and the morose helplessness of the duty-bound poor.
It shows both Ranjith and Harbans Rai (Madhu aka Juhi's dad) as evil money magnates who are basically classist pigs that are taught a lesson in socialism by their kids. This projection is dishonest and the facade of satire quickly falls apart to reveal an ugly, elitist view of poverty and a disguised pandering to the rich. Till the very end, the two characters (and others) are seen abusing the 'poor' and the two are never actually faced with the gravity or magnanimity of their crimes. Their children marrying into poor families is seen as adequate 'punishment' for the two.
In the end, 'Ishq' boils down to a run-of-the mill 90's Bollywood boiler about star-crossed lovers who find a way to unite despite familial disapproval and class difference. The few truly comic elements of the film and Anu Malik's chirpy songs fail to hide the macabre reality of class inequality endemic to India. And the disability jokes add the rotten tomato on top.