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Raja Hindustani at 25: A handbook on misogyny, gender insensitivity and misrepresentation

As Raja Hindustani completes 25 years of release, reassessing Aamir Khan, Karisma Kapoor’s objectionably problematic blockbuster. 

Pratishruti Ganguly
Nov 15, 2021
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If you are abreast with your current socio political environment, chances are, you find it difficult to believe that much has changed in the past few decades. If anything, it seems with every passing year, we seem to regress a few more steps as a society. We routinely fail the marginalised and to take stock of our own privileges, we exploit existing power dynamics for our own gain, or we revel in our wokeness behind computer screens. But sometimes, life throws surprises at you, that makes you grateful for some changes, insignificant as they may be in a grander scheme of things, have taken place over the last few years.

Raja Hindustani is one such surprise. Released in 1996, Aamir Khan and Karisma Kapoor’s romance saga went on to become the highest grossing film of the year, and the fourth highest grosser of the decade, behind Sooraj Barjatya’s version of “It's all about loving your family Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, and Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s funny-yet-schmaltzy romantic dramas Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. While all the three movies come with their share of problems, director Dharmesh Darshan’s Raja Hindustanti stands out particularly for how an audaciously brusque, insensitive and cringeworthy film could resonate with such a large section of the audience. The male protagonist in this film is unsettlingly sexist (he has ‘Hindustani’ as part of his name, in case you didn’t notice), all characters are raging homophobes, the women are either gold-diggers or treated as doormats, and class conflicts are portrayed with the broadest strokes possible.

Aamir Khan is Raja Hindustani, a cookie cutter entitled Indian male, who is rude to people around him until he spots fluttery eyelashes and luscious lips. So when he sees Aarti’s (Karisma Kapoor) poker straight hair flowing in the wind, he can’t help but escort this woman to Palankhet’s most desirable staycation villa — his friend Balle’s (Johnny Lever) humble abode. The simplicity of this abode is hammered home, drawing a contrast with Aarti’s affluence. She stays in a lavish Mumbai mansion with her father Bakshrath Sehgal (Suresh Oberoi) and stepmother Shalu (Archana Puran Singh), who sashays down spiral staircases in bejewelled attire on special occasions, and, well.. that is all the development Karisma’s character gets in the film. She looks pretty, but is infuriatingly dumb and passive to the point of being infantile. 

In order to convince the only cab driver in Palankhet, Raja Hindustani, to drive her two queer chaperones and her to the hotel, Aarti continues to feebly offer more money. After a few inane exchanges of creepy glances, which includes Raja adjusting his rear-view mirror to stare at his customer, Aarti and Raja fall in love. In between is rampant misogyny, when Raja gaslights Aarti for her sartorial choices. In this now-iconic scene, Aarti buys a red dress that she spots at a shop window. Raja expresses his abject disapproval, turning her into an embodiment of the ‘bad western influence’. He then proceeds to victim shame Aarti, and by extension all women, for titillating men into harassing them. For a second there, Aarti does exert her autonomy once when she retorts, “How dare you! Who are you to tell me what to wear and what not to?” To this, Raja replies, “Yes, who am I to tell you anything?” — it’s manipulative how Raja conveniently evokes audience sympathy by using the poverty bait to its damndest best.

There is a curious nexus between westernisation and poverty in Raja Hindustani. The filmmaker often juxtaposes the piety and purity of humble Hindustani-s with the moral corruption of the rich and affluent. Thus, Shalu reeks of classism, not just with words, but also with her clothing. She also sports western clothing, has short hair and is irrationally dismissive of towns and the rural populace. She is the evil stepmother figure that Sarabhai vs Sarabhai perfectly parodied in Ratna Pathak Shah’s Maya Sarabhai. Shalu is also the prime antagonist of Raja Hindustani, who takes particular pleasure in causing friction between family members for no apparent reason. Or perhaps the moolah. But with all the caricaturish eye-rolling and teeth clenching, it’s impossible to remember her motives by the end of the film’s exhaustive run.

The characterisation of the supporting cast is also blatantly objectionable. If there were ever to be a course on stereotypes, Raja Hindustani could fare as an apt handbook on how not to do the same. Balle is a turban-wearing Sikh who screeches, exclaims and breaks into Bhangra every few minutes. He is also ruefully unaware of the concept of consent. Hence, he forces himself on every person he perchances on, and then cracks insensitive jokes on their sexuality. Kamal "Kammo" Singh (Navneet Nishan) and Balwant Singh (Veeru Krishnan) are ambiguously gendered characters whose sexualities are predictably mined for comedic effect — usually through the cis-het men who are confused about their “actual” sex. Masculinity and femininity are represented as either sides of the spectrum, where Raja Hindustani, a beacon of traditional working class India, is aggressive and fosters a misplaced sense of self pride. The phallic aggression is celebrated most notably when Raja admonishes Aarti for accepting her father’s gift. On the other spectrum is Aarti, who progressively becomes more Indianised in her attire, signifying her transformation into the homely, pious and passive ‘traditional’ Indian woman whose only response to affection is echoing manic giggles. Oh, she is also slapped by the hero in one scene, to ‘school’ her. Move over Kabir Singh, because Raja Hindustani takes the cake for the most toxic male protagonist in Bollywood.

Raja Hindustani is a grating experience after 25 years. Nearly every scene leaves you gasping for logic and nuance. The climax has Aarti, her father, and Raja yo-yoing a newborn, but by this time, nothing seems out of bounds for this film. Yet, two and a half decades later, the writer could not be thankful enough for the lack of such miserable films asserting its box office dominance. The Times, They Are a-Changin', ain’t they?

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