15 years of Bunty Aur Babli: An Ode to Small-Town India Before It Was Cool

Bollywood

15 years of Bunty Aur Babli: An Ode to Small-Town India Before It Was Cool

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

It was 2005. I was eating Hajmola candy and my weekday evenings were occupied by Pokemon on Cartoon Network. The word “friend” wasn’t a verb yet and we were allowed air travel with our own water. I was trying to convince my mother to allow me to crimp my hair and to let me wear asymmetrical crop tops and low waisted jeans à la Poo from K3G. Like most young girls I was taking cues about what I considered “cool” from Bollywood. My daydreams of happily-ever-afters were set against the Manhattan or London skylines that I had seen on screen. Little did I know that Bollywood’s favourite formula for cool was soon going to undergo a sea change, thanks to Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli.

Rani Mukerji was the golden girl of the 2000s, fresh off a slew of successes including Black and Hum Tum. Abhishek Bachchan was coming into his own, riding high on breakthrough performances in Dhoom and Yuva. Bachchan Sr too, had successfully redeemed himself from his nightmarish ’90s stint and was on the come-up with Mohabbatein and Baghban – and the ubiquitous baritone echoing, “Computerji iss jawab ko lock kiya jaye” through our living rooms.

In the YRF production, Bachchan Jr and Mukerji essayed the titular roles of small-town swindlers with starry-eyed ambitions while Big B breathed life into JCP Dashrath Singh, a gutka-chewing, gamchha-wearing UP-wallah cop entrusted with bringing the dubious duo to justice. In many ways Bunty Aur Babli, with its lovable Bonnie and Clyde-esque anti-heroes, pioneered the “desi-cool” genre of movies that now seem to be everywhere on our screens.

At a time when we expected our heroines to be “modern” but still sanskaari, all while being dressed in designer clothes, Babli in her collared kurtis armed with her red jhola and a penchant for saying “behn de takke” shook the status quo. We all remember the poignancy of Preity Zinta delicately sobbing next to Brooklyn Bridge in Kal Ho Na Ho. Contrast this with Mukerji’s Babli, who after having her Miss India dreams crushed, wails out a “hum koi select-velect nahi hoin hain”, and spontaneously dissolves into ugly-crying at a station platform. Similarly, when we expected our leading men of big budget cinema to be effortlessly suave, Bachchan’s Bunty with his nerdy schemes and “Tata-Birla-Ambani” dreams was a refreshing change.

Bunty and Babli personified the aspirations of billions of Indians who flocked to cinemas as a release.

Bunty and Babli were authentic, relatable characters. Most importantly, they personified the aspirations of billions of Indians who flocked to cinemas as a release. And for the first time, these people felt seen. The potent force of individualistic ambition that B&B represented, reverberated with the masses.

This was Bollywood’s first taste of a new success formula: the wholesome, quirky small-town romance. Stories that not only embrace salt-of-the-earth “desipan” but also celebrate them. Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Shudhh Desi Romance (incidentally, another Jaideep Sahni screenplay), Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan, Stree… the list goes on. But Bunty Aur Babli chose to tell such a story at a time when movies like Salaam Namaste and Kal Ho Na Ho, with their NRI or big city-centred brand of storytelling, were the norm.

The screenplay, written by Jaideep Sahni, was apparently inspired by his own experiences of college days in a sleepy town named Bidar. Numerous sequences and jargon in Bunty Aur Babli make this inspiration amply evident. There are timeless dialogues like, “Yeh jo world hain na world, usemin do tarah ke log hote hain…” which felt earthy not only because of the unapologetic Hinglish and rustic pronunciations, but because you were far more likely to hear them at your nukkad paanwallah. And suddenly, that was aspirational, even to the snooty, urban junta.

Through these little homages, Sahni not only encapsulated the intricacies of small-town India, but also of how globalisation and the aspirations to “live the dream” affected the first generation that grew up in the 2000s.

Post-liberalisation, as urban jungles of India shone bright, they gave hope to the rest of the country for prosperity and glossy lifestyles via their blurry cable connections. The film also addressed that often, small-towners were pushed to the extremes to live out the cut-rate Indianised version of the Great American Dream. Bunty’s startup ambitions would have perhaps yielded results if he were born in Friends Colony instead of Fursatganj. The hunger to escape the humdrum life of the good daughter turned into a good wife, and the good son with a steady job with “izzat” and “imaandari” was severe. It was all about grabbing an economic opportunity and running with it.

Bunty Aur Babli also addressed that often, small-towners were pushed to the extremes to live out the cut-rate Indianised version of the Great American Dream.

And then there were the little touches with costume and accents, which were a nod to globalisation on the rise in our country. Babli in her brightly-coloured, heavily sequined, collared Haryanvi kurtas and Bunty with his “Nikee” T-shirt and sneakers told a story of western influence and consumerism percolating down to the masses. This “Babli effect” is attested to by our wardrobes from the time – just reach far back into your cupboard.

When I received the news that a Bunty Aur Babli reboot is in the works with Rani reprising her role and Saif Ali Khan stepping in to play Bunty, I wasn’t entirely enthused. After all, this is a classic, and Bollywood has a shoddy track record of doing justice to remakes. While I dread a Love Aaj Kal 2-style botch-job may be on the horizon, the optimist in me hopes that Bunty Aur Babli 2 will benefit from this pump of new blood in the form of Siddhant Chaturvedi of Gully Boy fame and debutante Sharvari.

Now there is only one thing left to really worry about: Even if the filmmakers manage to retain the writing, acting, and tone of the original, one thing is inevitable… a cringey Tanishk Bagchi remix of “Kajrare”.

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