By Jackie Thakkar May. 28, 2019
David Dhawan’s filmography includes comedies like Saajan Chale Sasural, Gharwali Baharwali, and Kyunki Main Jhooth Nahi Bolta, all of which to some extent glamourise men that cheat on their wives. 1999’s Biwi No. 1 is no different.
Back in 1999, Bollywood’s three Khans were going through an unusual experimentation phase: Aamir Khan was trying to shed his chocolate boy image with the gritty cop drama, Sarfarosh. SRK starred in Abbas-Mustan’s campy Baadshah. And then there was Salman Khan, who instead just decided on doing the bare minimum: filling in Govinda’s shoes in Biwi No. 1, the David Dhawan infidelity comedy where one of the actual dialogues is “Aish nahi, Sush”.
The film revolves around Prem Mehra (Salman Khan), an ungrateful husband who, despite being married to the sanskaari Pooja (Karisma Kapoor) and fathering two kids, decides to leave his family for Rupali (Sushmita Sen), a model. After much tomfoolery and Pooja pulling out all the stops, the good wife eventually “WiNs HeR MaN BaCk”.
Say what you will about ’90s Bollywood, but they didn’t hold back with tired tropes like star-struck models whose only goal in life is a husband with a “aalishaan bungalow and shaandaar gaadi”. In fact, Biwi No. 1 dealt in two extremes: On the one hand, Prem’s blatant misogyny is established with dialogues like, “Main iss ladki ko apne ghar pe naukraani na rakhu,” which he utters while looking at pictures of aspiring models. And on the other, Pooja’s sanskaar is driven home by the fact that she sings bhajans every morning.
And yet I remember Biwi No. 1 acquiring an integral place in my life that year. Not only was it one of the first movies I saw in a theatre with my parents, but my sister and I were also immediately taken with the soundtrack. For most of that year, we played the songs on our walkman and did regular renditions of “Chunnari Chunnari” at family get-togethers. My seven-year-old brain saw nothing wrong with Biwi No. 1. It was after all, like most David Dhawan outings at the time, the kind of film that families watched together.
Two decades later, that seems baffling, considering Biwi No. 1 is marred with sexist sub-plots like Anil Kapoor’s Lakhan encouraging his best friend’s adulterous ways by covering for him when his wife first gets wind of it. And Prem’s mother coyly advising her bahu, “Tu uski premika bann, biwi nahi” (Be his lover, not his wife) as a justification for her son’s shitty behaviour. If that isn’t creepy enough, she goes on to give a sermon about “mardo ki fitrat”, implying that all men are overgrown hormonal teenagers who need someone on the side and bhartiya naaris should just deal with it.
There are multiple moments in Biwi No.1 that suggest that women like Pooja will be deified and the Rupalis of the world will be vilified.
It’s slightly disconcerting now to remember that my aunts and uncles who enjoyed Biwi No. 1 at the time, didn’t think of questioning the very reductive messages the film conveyed. They unanimously laughed at Prem’s double-timing ways — even the one reprehensible sequence that has Prem excuse himself from dinner with his wife to go have a quick tryst with his side-chick drew uproarious laughter. As did the scene where Prem almost slaps Pooja for implying that she should have also had a boy-toy. I get that it might be unfair to look at my family’s decades-old reactions to Biwi No. 1 through a 2019 lens, given that almost every film of that time was drenched in some degree of sexism. In fact, David Dhawan’s filmography alone is marred with infidelity-themed comedies like Saajan Chale Sasural, Gharwali Baharwali, and Kyunki Main Jhooth Nahi Bolta, all of which glamourise the idea of male infidelity as comedy.
Perhaps, what is even more alarming, is that despite the progressive stance that Hindi cinema has adopted since then, remaking Biwi No. 1 in 2019 isn’t quite a far-fetched idea, especially given Varun Dhawan’s fetish for rewriting history by starring in every remake of his father’s film that is humanly possible. And if 2018’s Judwaa is anything to go by, the father-son duo have no qualms in recreating the same regressiveness that made their films so popular in the ’90s. For example, they cut off the one strong female character from the original film, and Varun Dhawan’s Raja openly endorsed groping and smooching girls without their consent.
More than anything, Biwi No. 1 mined its comedy from the misadventures of pitting two women against each other: Pooja, the dainty housewife versus the bold other woman, Rupali. Even when Pooja decides to extract revenge, it’s not on her cheating husband, but instead on the other woman. That too, by sending her kids and mother-in-law to live with the other woman. Prem’s dickish behaviour is barely called out, but obviously, there are multiple moments in the film that suggest that women like Pooja will be deified and the Rupalis of the world will be vilified. And rewatching Biwi No. 1 recently got me thinking: If that reboot were to happen today, would we have rooted for Prem the way our parents did back in the ’90s?
Probably, yes. After all, how much difference can 20 years bring about in a nation’s collective mindset about women? Luv Ranjan films still thrive on the same archaic portrayal of women as vamps and damsels, and are wildly successful. But if I was given the choice, I’d end the 2019 edition of Biwi No 1 at the interval of the original — where Pooja kicks her cheating husband to the curb. Prem should drive himself straight into some much-needed therapy and Rupali can continue being the awesome, self-driven woman she was always meant to be. As for 2019 Pooja, she should just take the alimony and live the rest of her days having multiple fancy cars, diamond rings, and orgasms.