By Pragyan Mohanty May. 21, 2019
Purists may dismiss Sooryavansham as one of Amitabh Bachchan’s mediocre offerings, but two decades later, this sappy family drama has found itself a diverse and an ever-growing fandom: Some watch it for cheap thrills, some out of habit. The movie’s perpetual telecast has inspired legions of jokes and memes.
In Hindi cinema, “kheer” has long been the sacred symbol of a doting mother’s love for her child, often competing with the hot favourite, “gaajar ka halwa” for the honour. The humble, harmless dessert was also drafted into a lactose-heavy jingoistic war cry against the enemy in the Sunny Deol-starrer Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2002). But the dessert achieved its moment in the sun when it became an astounding pop-culture prop in EVV Satyanarayana’s Sooryavansham. In the movie, an unsuspecting Thakur Bhanu Pratap Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) consumed “zehreeli kheer” that resulted in the most dramatic projectile blood vomit in the history of Bollywood.
Released on this day 20 years ago, Sooryavansham has since acquired a cult status among Bollywood fans, partly due to its perpetual Sunday afternoon telecast on Set Max (now Sony Max). The channel’s inexplicable fixation with this sappy family drama continues to inspire legions of jokes, memes, and even serious reportage. Despite the fact that the film – a remake of the Tamil blockbuster Suryavamsam (1997) – casted Bachchan in a double role of father and son, it ended up having an unremarkable run at the box-office. And yet, two decades later, this family melodrama has found itself a diverse and an ever-growing fandom: Some watch it for cheap thrills, some out of habit and there’s also a significant segment that genuinely believes that Sooryavansham is a quality film about Indian family values. But whichever camp may one belong to, everyone vouches for its wildly entertaining and baffling plot lines and characters.
Leading the pack is Thakur Bhanu Pratap Singh, a principled and powerful village head. His aristocratic “Sooryavanshi” lineage is harped with a mawkish opening song that goes, “Hum sabke tirath dhaam ho tum/ Iss kalyug ke Ram ho tum.” Bhanu Pratap is the kind of man who evokes the same fawning glances from his family and villagers as Deepika Padukone does from her dotting hubby at every award function and movie screening And why not? He is a visionary philanthropist, a learned man who rattles off sections of the law faster than you can say IPC, and is a molester’s worst nightmare. The only dampener in his illustrious resume is his youngest son Heera (Bachchan).
The black sheep of the clan, Heera might resemble Bhanu Pratap physically, but doesn’t warrant respect of any kind, unlike his famous father. While his brothers are educated and hold prestigious jobs, Heera remains illiterate due to a stupid childhood mistake. He never goes back to school after hitting his teacher in the face with a… tiffin box. Yep, you read that right. So naturally, Heera grows up to do household chores and is constantly rebuked by his siblings and their spouses. A meek man with self-worth issues, he is basically an overgrown Cinderella with no godmother or ball in sight.
A meek man with self-worth issues, he is basically an overgrown Cinderella with no godmother or ball in sight.
Yet irrespective of his lowly status in his own house, Heera idolises his father and is persistent in his attempts to get back into his good books. But his attempts are turned down by Bhanu Pratap with epic burns like “Tum humare khoon ka sabse badnaam qatra ho.” It’s the kind of fathering that only Tywin Lannister would approve of.
Eventually Heera, rebuked by his childhood sweetheart, marries Radha (Soundarya). An IAS aspirant, she arrives as a guest at Bhanu Pratap’s house and instantly throws a fit, bullies Heera, and makes him do silly stuff. But because Sooryavansham, like every sexist potboiler, needs a bratty heroine to establish the hero’s humility, Radha is completely transformed after learning about Heera’s unfortunate past and declares her love for him. It’s really the stuff of dreams.
Countering the Sooryavanshi swag is the crafty Kevda Thakur (Mukesh Rishi), the legendary villain who is perennially hatching plans to bring Bhanu Pratap down. Kevda Thakur is your classic Bollywood baddie – a lech who lives in a huge mansion filled with strange-looking artifacts and life-size portraits of his ancestors, delivering kickass one-liners like “connection de kar fuse nikaalna.”
Even as it was a product of 1999, Sooryavansham suffers a massive ’80s hangover: flying bikes, songs with painted earthen pots and colourful bullock carts, and goons getting thrashed by the hero who has risen from the dead. It’s a grand combination of both boisterous and corny southern masala sensibilities, and is the antithesis of subtlety: Bhanu Pratap’s wish for a free hospital in the village is fulfilled by Heera with one aptly named Thakur Bhanu Pratap Singh “Muft Aspataal”’ and Heera accepts Radha’s marriage proposal by sending her sindoor, bangles, and mangalsutra on leaves in a water stream. What an idea sirji!
For discerning viewers, it’s the mind-boggling mystery of two singers – Bachchan and Sonu Nigam – singing for one character in the same song.
Then, of course, are some very bizarre filmmaking decisions. For example, how difficult is it to get actors as old as, if not older, than Amitabh Bachchan to play his elder brothers. It’s hilarious to watch the middle-aged megastar, playing the obedient chhota bhai to actors half his age. Even his onscreen mother is younger than him. For discerning viewers, it’s the mind-boggling mystery of two singers – Bachchan and Sonu Nigam – singing for one character in the same song. It’s this unintentional hilarity that truly is the hallmark of Sooryavansham.
The movie has all the ingredients of a great guilty pleasure watch: delicious drama, blustering dialogues, and some hammy performances. While purists may dismiss Sooryavansham as one of Bachchan’s more mediocre offerings, it’s stunning that a whole generation would discover the superstar through this film and its pop culture might.
While seasonal flavours like the IPL and the Avengers come and go, Sooryavansham on Set Max is forever because Heera hai sadaa ke liye.
There’s Master Bittoo, there’s Master Raju, and there’s Master Rajoo — who is not Master Raju and is Master Bittoo’s big brother. The writer lives for random film trivia like this.