A star is born: Anupama Chopra looks back at how Hrithik Roshan’s debut set the bar high for future newcomers
Twenty years ago in January, Hrithik Roshan redefined the Bollywood debut. Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai wasn’t just a blockbuster. It generated a hysteria comparable to Beatlemania. There were sobbing fans, frenzied crowds at theatres, fawning journalists and reams of gushing headlines. Hrithik, with his burnished good looks and jaw-dropping physique, was the Platonic ideal of the Hindi film hero – he could act, fight, romance and dance. He could be the vulnerable boy-next-door and also the irresistibly cool rock star in that see-through black vest. Even middle-aged women melted. My favourite story is that a few days after the film released, Hrithik was standing on a street in Juhu talking to a friend. A group of girls, who were driving past, saw him and crashed the car into a tree.
In the decades since, there have been thousands of debutants but none have matched Hrithik’s outsized impact. And I wonder now, is it even possible? Hindi cinema today is a many splendoured thing. An Article 15 and Housefull 4 are part of the same ecosystem. Slice-of-life, realistic, rooted narratives contrast sharply with the larger-than-life, fantastical popcorn entertainers. It’s a time of creative churning – directors seem unsure of how to handle lip-sync songs. The Khans, who have shored up the industry for the past 25 years, are at a crossroads. Women are taking the lead, both in front of and behind the camera. And a new generation of stars – Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bhumi Pednekar among them – are reworking stardom itself.
These are exciting times. I love the dazzling variety. Hindi cinema has become Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – when you enter the theatre, you never know what you will get. But I hope that in this great mash-up of genres and sensibilities, we keep a place for the old school Hindi film – one that like, Kaho Naa.. Pyaar Hai, manages to serve an artful blend of drama, romance, action, comedy, song and dance and create stars. It’s fashionable to dismiss the masala movie but they are exceedingly hard to do well. It isn’t easy to create a potpourri of emotions that have broad appeal. You only have to look at Salman Khan’s last few films (Dabangg 3, Race 3) to see how easy it is for the formula to go rancid.
Director Anubhav Sinha aptly calls masala, “cheese.” He described it to me like this – “In those stories which can alternatively be made as films that will be very dry, I put some cheese.” So in the grim, caste-bashing, police procedural Article 15, he inserted a rousing shot of the protagonist (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) carrying the victim in his arms heroically. He said he knew the visual was out of place in a film like this but he put it in to make the narrative more accessible. The masters – Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Ramesh Sippy among others – were skilled at the art of sprinkling cheese. Others like Manmohan Desai, David Dhawan and Abbas-Mustan created blockbusters from cheese itself.
In Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai, Rakesh Roshan got the elusive cocktail exactly right. It was the perfect material to showcase a talented newcomer – which is why two decades later, it remains the debutant gold standard.