1988. Rajshri Productions, which had made a name of itself by producing slice-of-life films in the 1960s and 1970s, is fraying at the edges. A string of their films have come a cropper at the turnstiles. Video piracy, which has invaded the industry in the 1980s, has sounded death knell for them. Families, their staple audience, now prefer to watch movies at home on the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR).
Amid the gloom, Rajkumar Barjatya asks his 24-year-old son, Sooraj Barjatya, to make his directorial debut with a love story. Sooraj, who had earlier assisted Mahesh Bhatt on 'Saaransh', manages to zero in on Salman Khan after much ado as the lead male actor of his movie. In search of a lead female actor, he goes to an acting school and casts his eyes on a girl. But he is left heartbroken when the girl's mother tells him that she would only give her nod if the film is helmed by Yash Chopra, as a director, and has Anil Kapoor as the leading man.
Once Bhagyashree is selected as the female lead — after many tribulations — she gets married to Himalaya during the shoot of the film. Meanwhile, Salman makes his debut in a short role in flop 'Biwi Ho Toh Aisi' and churns out an abysmal performance.
Raj babu, as Sooraj's father was fondly called, shows immense faith in his son and puts in all the resources in his debut film. 'Maine Pyar Kiya' is going to be a make-or-break film for his banner.
But fate throws another spanner in the works. Their seasoned sound technician asks Raj babu to rope someone else to dub Salman's voice in the film. He is categorical that Salman's voice is too shaky and fragile for a leading Bollywood actor. But Raj babu digs his heels in and refuses to let someone else dub Salman's voice.
'Maine Pyar Kiya' hits the screens on December 29, 1989 and defies all pre-release predictions. A movie starring newcomers and produced by a fading banner grips the nation with frenzy and emerges as the biggest blockbuster of the 1980s — the last released film of the decade turns out be its biggest and also a bellwether. The silver screen that bled gore and grime in the decade before now oozes with the fragrance of romance.
While 'Maine Pyar Kiya' made Salman an overnight phenomenon and resurrected the sagging fortunes of the Rajshri banner, it also heralded a change of guard in the industry. As the 'Angry Young Man' Amitabh Bachchan walked into the sunset, love stories took over the cinematic horizon. In 1990, 'Dil' became a big hit, and Aamir and Salman became poster boys for romantic films. They were joined by another Khan - Shah Rukh - in 1992 and the troika ruled Bollywood for the next three decades.
Meanwhile, Sooraj was still scouring for ideas to base his next film on. The pressure of expectations after the historic success of his debut film weighed so heavily on him that he was admitted to hospital for a few days due to stress-related issues. His father once again came to the rescue and told him to remake the old film of their banner — 'Nadiya Ke Paar' — on a grander scale.
Released on August 5, 1994, with just 29 prints, 'Hum Aapke Hain Koun' (HAHK) was panned by the critics. Due to limited prints, the opening was also comme si comme sa. But after the weekend, the extremely positive word of mouth spread across India like a wildfire. Families, in particular, started storming theatres and the number of prints went up to 500. 'HAHK' became an even bigger blockbuster than 'Maine Pyar Kiya' and notched up Rs 72 crore (net) at that time.
To grasp the magnitude of its collections, the next biggest grosser at that time was Sholay, with a life-time total of around Rs 20 crore. Sholay's record had stood unrivalled for 19 years and 'HAHK' outstripped it by a huge margin — by more than 250%. Also, before 'HAHK', ticket prices had remained stagnant for many years and cinema halls were in a shabby condition as footfalls had dried up.
‘HAHK’ ran for 25 weeks in 150 cinema halls and brought back the audiences in droves. The 1995 National Readership Survey reported that number of people who go to the theatre more than once a week more than doubled after ‘HAHK’. As the money poured in, cinema owners started upgrading and embellishing their theatres with state-of-the-art infrastructure and facilities. Ticket prices and footfalls saw a massive spurt.
'Aankhein', which released a year before HAHK was the highest grosser of 1993 at Rs 13 crore net. 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge', which released a year after HAHK, netted Rs 54 crore to become the highest grosser of 1995. That's how exponentially the business of Bollywood movies swelled after ‘HAHK’. In terms of footfalls (number of tickets sold) and inflation (adjusted), it remains the biggest blockbuster of Bollywood after 'Sholay' and 'Mughal E Azam'.
‘HAHK’ not only revolutionzed the Box Office idiom of Bollywood but also inspired a new generation of directors. Both Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar have gone on the record to say that their cinema was heavily inspired from the family ethos of Barjatya. Johar, in fact, says he decided to become the director after watching ‘HAHK’. From being snubbed by the mother of a girl he wanted for 'Maine Pyar Kiya' to being chased by every leading female actor of Bollywood, Sooraj had taken the kind of leap in just five years which no director before him had managed.
Saif Ali Khan claimed in an interview that all gorgeous actresses used to barge into the sets of 'Hum Saath Saath Hain' and try to woo Sooraj so that they could be cast in one of his movies. Even the veteran superstar Rekha used to visit the sets. Distributors and cinema hall owners threw themselves at his feet urging him to sell his upcoming movie to them so that they could save themselves from the drought of flops. Barjatya was the undisputed emperor of Bollywood in the 1990s — bigger than any male superstar.
Saif Ali talking about the monumental power & stature of Sooraj Barjatya in 1990s. All top actresses, including Rekha, came to sets & touched his feet. Distributors threw themselves at his feet, begging him to save them. Only Salman had the cheek to pull Sooraj's leg.. @rajshri pic.twitter.com/htLjRG7poV— Navneet Mundhra (@navneet_mundhra) November 13, 2019
With 'Hum Saath Saath Hain' in 1999, Sooraj completed the rare hat-trick of blockbusters and also became the first director in the history of Bollywood to reel off highest grosser of year three times on the trot. All his first three films became highest grossers in their respective years of release. He also remains the only director to deliver highest grossers of two separate decades. 'Maine Pyar Kiya' was the highest grosser of the 1980s and 'HAHK' was the highest grosser of the 1990s.
After the dizzying heights of the 1990s came a shattering jolt in 2003 as his next film 'Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon', starring Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor, was spurned by the audience. In an attempt to modernise his film, Barjatya threw his customary style to the wind and tried his hand at a love story with risque undertone. But its resounding failure gave him a life lesson he would never forget.
He sallied back with 'Vivah', starring Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao, in 2006 which opened slowly but had a long run at the ticket counters. After that he started focusing on setting up the television branch of his production house.
In 2015, he joined forces with his favourite Salman once again and crafted 'Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo' which became a super-hit despite lukewarm reviews. In fact, it was the second biggest grosser of 2015 after 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan'. 'Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo' notched up Rs 215 crore (net) in India with around 2.27 crore footfalls.
Overall, of his 6 films, 5 have been big hits. With Salman, all his four films have been massive grossers with each one hoovering up over 2 crore footfalls. The footfalls of 'Maine Pyar Kiya' and 'HAHK' are, in fact, over 5 crore.
In an era of splintered families and fragile relations, Sooraj continues to believe strongly in these institutions and his cinema is reflective of that. The fact that his films have been lapped up enthusiastically in four different decades is a testament to the fact that, though family dynamics may have changed over the years, the sanctity of the institution is still very much intact.