Cultures of Liberalisation: Between Raj and Raja of the 1990s

Between Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Raja Babu, the Indian middle class had two versions of liberalisation to choose from – a metropolitan and a provincial.

I read Mukul Kesavan’s marvellously written, insightful essay with great pleasure and nostalgia. Belonging to the same profession but a generation or a half younger (or must I say ‘junior’ to keep to the sentiments of the pre-liberalisation ‘language of respect’), I can still very easily relate to the change in the pace of life brought about by 1991.

Cotton nappies gave away to diapers. Rasna and Rooh-afza were superseded by Pepsi and Coke. The old neighbourhood vendors selling Golden and Kepiz ice creams lost their market to Kwality ‘bricks’. The memories of casual stargazing while laying on the iron-frame folding cot when an elder cousin retold the same story of a ghost encounter to either parade his (usually it was his and not her) bravery or to scare us off, or both, are too dear to forget.

Cultural parallels in cinema

Growing up in a provincial capital perhaps at least spared me the village- or qasba-based romance with the wood-frame charpoy, except when the (in)famous khatiya song of Govinda and Karishma Kapoor reminded everyone of its worth. It is apt to remind ourselves that the effect of liberalisation is mostly traced through the characters of Raj and Rohit played by Shah Rukh Khan, which have now become almost immortal in the history of Hindi cinema. Have we ever thought about what it meant to have a Raja Babu (the movie name featuring the song, released in 1994) around the same time?

Growing up in London, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge‘s Raj came to Punjab with his mandolin in 1995 to win over the love of his love’s family by adopting all sorts of tricks. It was okay to be an opportunist if your love was true and you had found love honestly. A small town charlatan, Raja Babu, on the other hand, faked all professions to win over the heart of his love. But his love was also true. Both were failures in formal education; three years into liberalisation, Raja Babu proudly claimed to be angootha chaap (illiterate). Four years into liberalisation, Raj could happily, a bit proudly and definitely repetitively flunk his A-levels. Both had family wealth to cushion their failures. Raj had a modern daddy to provide unflinching support who would also be his beer-drinking buddy; Raja had a traditional maa who blindly protected her son from a strict, traditional father. Nevertheless, that’s where similarities cease.

In his attempt to win over hearts, Raj came across as a ‘sweet, funny and loveable’ guy, both for his opponents in the film as well as to the audience. To the middle class who were slowly getting exposed to the new variety of programmes brought about by the liberalisation of TV channels, the flow between London’s Kings Cross station and a Punjab village railway platform appeared seamless. Raja Babu, instead, sang about khatiyas and became ‘crass and vulgar’.

A still from Raja Babu

A still from Raja Babu, with Govinda and Karishma Kapoor

I might be overstating the point in comparing two ‘cult’ movies of their times and might be blamed for being blind to the aesthetics of the craft. If Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge ushered in the era of movies made on and for the NRIs, then Raja Babu led to a new kind of ‘vulgar comedy’, which allegedly suited the first benchers in the cinema hall. If Dilwale led to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, then Raja Babu inaugurated the now forgotten series of movies ending with ‘No. 1’.

Versions of liberalisation

The middle class made its judgment. In their love and hate for Dilwale and Raja Babu, they made clear that there was one metropolitan version of liberalisation and another provincial version of it. Little was the audience aware that what seemed modern in 1995 was actually the beginning of a stream of paternalist, conformist depictions, more acutely projected on television. Raj resurrected the family and dead was the voice of the rebel, which Raja, in all his vulgarity and crassness, at least was capable of demonstrating – both to his father and to his village men.

If the content of films has changed, so too has the experience of watching them.  I recall the simple act of getting tickets.  If one had ‘contacts’, then it was a matter of one phone call to the theatre manager. ‘Family reservation’ with an emphasis on ‘ladies would come’ often worked. Otherwise, it was no less an act of bravery to stand in the unshaded long queue with a real threat of lathis coming down on us either by cinema hall henchmen or the police, whose help was sometimes solicited in cases of blockbusters.

Such was the scene in Patna in 1991 when Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahi was released. Reaching the cinema hall on bicycles with full determination, my brother, cousins and I managed to buy tickets in black, on which the cinema hall guard said something that even after 20 years is difficult to forget – “Pata nahi andar kya dikha rahe hai, bhagwan ko bhi dekhne itna bheed nahi aayega” (Who knows what is being screened inside, not even for God will such a crowd come).

Cycles driven by middle-class kids and teenagers have almost disappeared from the streets, their place taken by motorbikes and cars – and the accompanying road rage. The crowds in front of the cinema hall that needed to be disciplined have also disappeared. The pre-liberalisation period was indeed a different time. It also had a different culture of expression, which Kesavan aptly describes as one in which “scarcity was ideologically sexy”. The austerity in consumption had ideological moorings. It served the aspirations of self-sufficiency and some sort of nationalism and radicalism. Kurta-jhola appearances were not an economic choice. They were a political statement, an ideological fashion. This austere consumption and appearance also fitted into the Indic wisdom of ‘jitna lamba chadar utna paanv pasaro’ (cut your desires according to your means).

Yet, events make sense only when understood as a process. Blame it on ignorance or the same austere culture of consumption that camouflaged provenance, many a myths about brands were busted only in my later years. I came to know late in my life that Bata, Surf, Colgate and Nescafe were not Indian brands. The determined voice of the Surf aunty ji and the faith in the everlasting quality of Bata chappals made these brands look quintessentially Indian. In many provincial towns, there were small outlets called ‘imported dukaan’, which flourished. The same middle class that professed austerity also sought watches, calculators, vases and other things from these outlets. My first brush with a product from such a shop must have been in the mid-1980s, when one of my young uncles bought a Sony walkman. I was thrilled.

Products have fascinated people across time, societies and generations. The question is not what was available or not. Limited availability does not mean limited desire. But the real change is in the ideology of consumption. Austere forms of consumption did not kill the desire to possess new commodities. This desire, however, did not become excessive or obsessive. There was a feeling of embarrassment in displaying a new Titan watch to friends whose families we knew couldn’t afford one. Consumption wend its way through some moral compass. At the macro level, this translated into the middle class anxiety to save. Bachat khata was a vital part of conversations in those days.

These days things are different. Today, terms of credit attract us more than the rate of savings. My annual trips to Delhi and Patna confirm my views on people’s belief in the power of consumption and its confident display. Embarrassment’s ideological grounding has shifted, nay almost sunk.

But to come back to Raj and Raja, all this shift and change is firmly anchored in class divisions. The meaning of liberalisation, the cultural displays around it, the quick judgments that are made on brands we wear and the English we (do not) speak – they all go back to the overlapping but distinct trajectories of Raj and Raja. It is not a clash of India vs Bharat, of urban vs rural. Both Raj and Raja, and the social trajectories they represent, emerge from the same logic of liberalisation and popular consumption. They both feed into, rather than oppose, each other. The desire to secretly watch the newly-introduced fashion channel late at night did not kill the enthusiasm to watch the so-called crass comedyies of Govinda and David Dhawan. But markers of difference existed. At the same paan shops, where Rajas asked for Goldflake Small or Capstan, the Rajs puffed away on Goldflake Kingsize or Classics.

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin