Everything happens for a reason, goes the saying (and the Limp Bizkit song). And if there’s one movie in Hindi cinema history that is proof, it is Mr India. Shekhar Kapur’s 1987 superhero/sci-fi/action/drama/comedy/patriotic (take your pick, it is impossible to assign it to one genre) movie is synonymous with Anil Kapoor, to the point where even someone who doesn’t watch Hindi movies knows that it’s practically Kapoor’s middle name. But Anil Kapoor wasn’t the first choice for the role. He got it after megastars Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna turned it down.
Then, the movie’s most iconic line, said to perfection by a wonderfully creepy Amrish Puri, reportedly wasn’t even going to make the final cut, but Javed Akhtar, who had written the film with his long-time writing partner Salim Khan before they split, insisted on it. And thank god for that, because what even is Mr India without “Mogambo…khush hua”?
Even the film’s most popular song by far, Hawa Hawai, was actually supposed to be sung by someone else, with Kavita Krishnamurthy only dubbing for it. But the music directors, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, decided she was the perfect voice and decided, months later, that she would be the singer. Also, the song as we know it today actually has a mistake. During the recording, Krishnamurthy sang “jeenu toh tumne baat chhupaayi” when she was supposed to say “jaanu”. She wanted a do-over, but the composers loved the insane mood and magic of the original so much that they worried she wouldn’t be able to recreate it. And so, ‘jeenu’ is what we get – and we would never have been able to tell it was a mistake if she hadn’t told us.
But the one thing about this movie that was neither accident nor second choice, the one person who was always meant to be its star, despite the fact that she didn’t play the titular role, was Sridevi.
Producer Boney Kapoor has often told the story of how he had seen her in a Tamil movie in the 1970s and decided that he had to have her in his next film. He went to Chennai to meet her, but she was away in Singapore at the time. Kapoor waited for years, and eventually, when the time came to make Mr India, he was convinced that she had to be in it. She told him that her mother managed her career so he would have to meet her to negotiate, so it was back to Chennai.
Sridevi was already a superstar at the time, commanding a fee of about Rs 8-8.5 lakhs. Her mother began the negotiation at Rs 10 lakhs, thinking, perhaps, that they would settle at the usual fee. But she was shocked when Boney said he would pay Sridevi Rs 11 lakhs. He didn’t care, as long as she was the film’s lead actor. It was a few years later that the two began to see each other romantically, and married in 1996.
On more than one occasion in the movie, Sridevi’s Seema Soni, a bumbling, wispy-voiced journalist with mad spunk, courage and wits, is the one who saves the day with her quick thinking. In fact, people used to joke that the movie should have been called Miss India because Sridevi’s performance in it was such a show stealer. Even 33 years later, her Charlie Chaplin impression is hailed as one of the best comic performances in Hindi cinema history, and no one from my generation can look at a blue chiffon sari without thinking of how incredibly sexy she was in Kaate Nahin Kat Te.
Rewatching this movie in honour of Sridevi’s second death anniversary earlier this week was more than an assignment, however enjoyable. It was a pilgrimage back to my childhood and a homage to Hindi cinema. Mr India was the first movie I ever watched in my life, when I was four years old and we had acquired it on a VCR (and then watched repeatedly). It was my introduction to Bollywood, so I was nervous about watching it again, after many years. But you know what? It still holds.
Of course a 1980s Bollywood movie about a single man who doesn’t have a steady source of income but has adopted 10 orphans, and whose scientist father had created a bracelet that makes the wearer invisible except in red light, demands willing suspension of disbelief. Of course it makes no sense that Anil Kapoor’s Arun takes along one of the kids on an incredibly dangerous mission to find this bracelet, knowing perfectly well that his father, died because people wanted this device. Of course two hours and 51 minutes feels impossibly long. Of course Mogambo’s palace-like lair accessed by helicopter and then through a cave, is ridiculous.
But when Mogambo talks about how it’s so easy to rule India because Indians just keep fighting among themselves, you know it to be uncomfortably true. When Seema, a single, working woman living on her own is never once asked why she doesn’t live with her family or why she’s not married, you find it refreshing. When Tina, the baby of the motley crew of orphans and everyone’s favourite, goes to pick up a stuffed toy clown and ominous music starts to play, you still feel like reaching out and stopping her, and when the toy explodes with one of Mogambo’s bombs inside it, you still weep at her death like you did when you were a child.
And even today, when you’ve had a bad day at work, Javed Akhtar’s simple, sweet lyrics and Kishore Kumar’s cheery voice in Zindagi Ki Yahi Reet Hai will make you smile.