HAHK film had tapped into the nostalgia for the joint family and traditional way of life at a time when India was being bombarded by the MTV culture, and globalization was rapidly changing lifestyles. HAHK was no means superior cinema, but a case of the right film at the right time.
Now 12 years and two failures later, Barjatya attempts a return to the same formula, but this faces a different kind of audience, looking for a different kind of entertainment. His Vivah may still appeal to a family audience, to small towns and to NRIs whose well of nostalgia still hasn’t run dry, but blockbuster status might evade it.
Today’s youngsters will find the story—the little there is—quaint. The character of Prem (played by Shahid Kapoor), a rich Delhi dude (he is introduced with a squash playing scene), seems incredibly virtuous. He is shy with girls, and despite studying abroad, still retains a purity that’s tough to believe. He goes, en famille, to ‘see’ a girl in a nearby town, and flips for Poonam (Amrita Rao) at the first meeting. She is over dressed, over-made-up and exceedingly coy.
Small town India has changed over the years, but in Barjatya’s conservative world, girls accept proposals with bowed heads, and immediately start practising the role of ideal wife and daughter-in-law. They are not allowed to have any personal ambition, they may, however, help in the family’s office till such time as they give birth to children. After that, they are supposed to stand and serve the men, and discreetly nag their husbands. The only thing that is slightly modern in this scenario is that the daughters-in-law are not hidden behind foot-long ghunghats.
For that matter, the men also join the family business, do international projects and agree to arranged marriages without demur. Such people undoubtedly exist, but need to be pulled by their bootstraps into the present, the audience need not be pushed into feeling all gooey-eyed about a feudal patriarchal past. (When was the last time we saw a real Munimji in a black coat and cap?)
In Barjatya’s world, there may be a wicked aunt, who hates her niece for being prettier and fairer than her own daughter, but that’s as far as evil goes. There is no dating, not a hint of pre-marital sex; young boys and girls are obedient to family to the point of appearing archaic. Even after they are engaged, Prem and Poonam are always surrounded by family, and to snatch a few moments alone (for a chaste hug) requires furtive planning.
After all the songs and family picnic-ing, the drama happens way into the second half, when Poonam is caught in a fire, and Prem accepts her scars and all—though her face is miraculously unscathed. Noble though the gesture is, you can’t help thinking that if it was the groom in the bride’s place, there would be no question of the girl backing out. Just as in HAHK, it is taken for granted that the widower will remarry.
Barjatya may be portraying a traditional lifestyle as he knows it, but these days, with so-called ‘Indian values’ being hammered into our heads from television soaps, it’s difficult to say where tradition ends and regression begins. For all its syrupy sweetness, Vivah is dangerously close to being regressive. One thing to be said in its favour is that the conservatism seen in the film is not as fake as the Balaji brand—where all rituals are faithfully portrayed, but in attitude and behaviour the characters are neither Indian nor Western. In that sense Vivah is far less offensive and far more watchable—mainly because of Shahid Kapoor’s lovable Prince Charming character.