For many of us Bombay films were central to our coming of age. As we went in and out of cinema halls in the seventies and early eighties, the hero who failed to make a deep impression was Rakesh Roshan, son of the famous music composer Roshan. He was a fairly competent actor but lacked a star presence and was largely notable because he wore a peculiar hairstyle that was rumoured to be a wig. So when he faded away none of us really cared even though, as is testified by his filmography, he acted in some ninety films. This was a time when the audiences’ connection to a film was forged mainly through its stars. By the late eighties and early nineties, film was beginning to be discussed as a multi-authored site and Bombay cinema was being seen as more than just trashy detritus. It was around this time that Rakesh Roshan was emerging as a promising filmmaker especially after he made the proto-feminist female vigilante film Khoon Bhari Maang (1988).
Inspired by an Australian mini-series titled Return to Eden (1983), Khoon Bhari Maang is a precursor to films like Anjaam (1994) and Mrityudand (1997) where women turn killers and vanquish their oppressors. In this film, the female protagonist played flamboyantly by Rekha occupies the diagetic space of the avenging hero and kills her ruthless husband in the same brutal manner in which he had tried to kill her which is to say that she throws him into crocodile-infested waters. Many feminists did not take kindly to the film because it shattered the myth about women’s pacifism and showed her as an agent of violence. But for thousands of other women, Khoon Bhari Maang was a milestone (like Thelma and Louise in the US) with a liberatory denouement. This was followed by the equally consummate Kishan Kanhaiya (1990), an engaging remake of Ram Aur Shyam/Seeta Aur Geeta. When Karan Arjun, an action thriller starring Shahrukh and Salman Khan was released in 1995, it was evidently clear that Rakesh Roshan was a force to reckon with.
Film biographies are powerful resources for gaining insights into the world of filmmaking but in India, the art and craft of writing film biographies has been confined broadly to journalistic modes of writing, structured around a ‘definitive’ cradle-to-grave narrative. To this has now been added the family ‘authorized’ biography which predictably tends towards the hagiographic. To Dad with Love about Rakesh Roshan is a gift from daughter Sunaina on his 64th birthday. The title sets the tone—it is a doting daughter’s toast to a father whom she loves and admires. However, I read the book with interest because Rakesh Roshan, box-office successes notwithstanding, has been one of Bombay cinema’s most under-discussed filmmakers even though his directorial repertoire is replete with dazzling cinematic innovations.
Deeply imbricated within the melodramatic mode of Bombay cinema, Rakesh Roshan’s films imaginatively rework the established conventions of Bombay cinema. Karan Arjun turns an implausible narrative of reincarnation into a riveting action-thriller. Kaho Na….Pyar Hai, his son Hrithik Roshan’s debut film, deploys the idea of doppelgangers without resorting to the tired trope of long-lost twins. Moreover, as Shahrukh Khan observes in the book, he took a huge risk by casting a rank newcomer as double-roles were always the domain of established actors. Koi … Mil Gaya was an experiment with the least-loved genre of Hindi films, science-fiction. The success of Koi … Mil Gaya led to the Krrish sequels that produced Bombay cinema’s first superhero. All three films set new benchmarks for cinematic innovations with the latter two taking action-sequences to new heights. Most importantly, his films created Hrithik Roshan, one of the most versatile actor-stars of the film industry.
Kaho Na … Pyar Hai broke all box-office records and made Hrithik Roshan overnight into an superstar. Writes Sunaina: ‘There was sheer Hrithik mania everywhere. Duggu [Hrithik] who until January 2000 was just another good-looking Juhu kid couldn’t even fetch himself a pizza anymore from the outlet next door. When he strolled into the Taj in Colaba for a cuppa with friends, the staff had to sneak him out through the back door. If he had a flight to catch, special permission was sought for the car to take him up to the tarmac. And, of course, he had to change his cell number.’ This is not a fond sister’s adoring description. The hysteria generated by Hrithik is corroborated by public memory, newspapers, film magazines, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) and interestingly, Anupama Chopra’s biography of Shahrukh Khan (King of Bollywood, New York-Boston: Warner Books, 2007). Hrithik Roshan’s ability to perform his own stunts set a new standard for action in Bombay films. What sets him apart from other action heroes, of whom several are highly skilled, is his expertise with wirework enabling him to execute high-falls, giant leaps and mid-air stunts. The full extent of Hrithik’s skill with wirework is evident in Krrish and Krrish 3 where he plays the eponymous superhero. To play the part he trained in wu shu under Tony Ching (Tony Ching Siu-Tung), the internationally acclaimed Hong Kong action-director. Rakesh Roshan had been so mesmerized by Tony Ching’s airborne stunts choreographed for Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) that he invited him to be action director for the Krrish films. Much of this information is not in the book but I wish it was.
So what is it that the book tells us? The book gives us a sense of Rakesh Roshan’s difficult journey towards success; his fluctuating financial fortunes, his family responsibilities after the untimely passing of his father, his deep disappointment at not being able to succeed as a hero and his paranoia around depleting hair. When he shaves his hair off to rid himself of the problem permanently, he reinvents himself, as it were. When he becomes producer-director, success finally comes to stay. The book generously acknowledges all those who helped to create both Rakesh and Hrithik Roshan. Rajendra Kumar was a surrogate parent who was responsible for Rakesh’s marriage to producer J. Om Prakash’s daughter. Sunaina graciously acknowledges that screenwriter Honey Irani (mother of Farhan Akhtar) has had a ‘huge hand in her brother’s astounding success’ as she has been scriptwriter for Hrithik’s films from Kaho Na… Pyar Hain to Krrish 3. Farhan Akhtar’s public image is so tied to his famous father Javed Akhtar that few care to recognize that he may have inherited some talent and inspiration from his mother.
Despite the affection with which the book has been compiled, there is a slapdash feel to the text which seems to have been written in a hurry. The publisher must take the rap for sloppy editing. Sunaina the author is a cancer survivor. The dust-jacket claims that she suffered from cervical cancer while the text inside claims it was cancer of the lymph nodes. An authorized biography has easy access to restricted materials so the book is generously illustrated with photos from the family collection. These photos, refreshingly different from the staged publicity images that now surround us, are undoubtedly the book’s biggest asset.
Shohini Ghosh is Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia