“Dearly beloved. Look how the distances have closed. I am here, I am here, I am here.” The opening lines for Veer-Zaara’s iconic “Main Yahaan Hoon” are enough to sweep me off into the past. The lyrics are flowery and poignant, and where once they might have felt cheesy, the years have now created a fondness for Bollywood songs and films, for the memories they hold and the emotions they evoke.
Growing up, they were a staple of the family life. Saturdays meant my cousins, uncles and aunts would come over to my house, we would spend a lot of time playing video games but our evenings belonged to a takeaway in front of an Indian film. Everyone loved Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham so naturally, being a rebellious contrarian teenager, I hated it even if I was secretly moved by most of the film.
I hated it because of what it all conveyed to me – that family would always have power over me, for better or worse, and my teenage self just wanted to sometimes escape from this. I had, at that point, been unconscious of what a gift my cultural heritage was, of what these films would eventually come to mean; those Saturday nights that I loved and hated would be the very moments I missed more than anything else later on in life.
The years rolled by and as childhood turned into adulthood, the complexities of life becoming abundantly clear, problems of the past suddenly felt welcome. The greatest impact on a family unit is the loss of a family member. Grief is an inescapable shadow that pursues relentlessly through all corners of life, there at day, waiting at night. Anger is rolled up with it, a fury churned out by the failure of answers to explain why someone you loved is no longer there.
Slowly, those Saturday family nights stopped. Once relatives died, the takeaways and Indian films ground to a halt; lost in their own handling on grief, people in my family dealt with their suffering very privately. Where there was the constant presence of company, the furious sound of buttons on a video console being smashed, Amitabh Bachaan’s graceful voice reverberating in the living room, now there was often just silence. Reminders of what was lost and what can never be retrieved again.
It was during this time period, that my sense of family became vitally important, almost as if my own life depended on it. I searched for treasures of the past to comfort myself, to pretend as if the realities of the present didn’t exist anymore. Nostalgia can be dangerous if you cling onto it too tightly, but sometimes it’s the rope that pulls you out of deep waters. I found myself watching once more the films of my childhood.
My favourites were always Veer-Zaara, Fanaa and Jodda Akbar. I watched Fanaa in Bangladesh and became obsessed with it because of Aamir Khan’s acting and the song “Chand Sifarish”. Jodda Akbar was my mother’s favourite film, and there was a point in 2009 when every day I would return from school to find herself watching it. After a while, I couldn’t help but love it too, however much I complained it was on too much.
It was Veer-Zaara though, which has left a stronger impression on me than any other film. Some of it is to do with how gracefully the film depicted the common values of a Pakistani family and an Indian one, showing that the differences are political and not cultural, that friendship and love can easily flourish across arbitrary borders. More personally, the film captivated me because although it was a family film, it felt very different.
The songs were more grounded, the plot less theatrical, and the acting was flawless by the immaculate Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta. When Rani Mukerjee’s character remarks of Veer and Zaara, asking “What century are these two from?” it is remarkably cheesy (you have to accept this with Bollywood films to see the magic) but in a good way. During the film, Veer and Zaara, in different locations, both accept their fates at the same time because they were prepared to sacrifice their lives and happiness for each other.
The other advantage of watching this years later, is that society today accepts men being attuned to their feelings and not so distant from what they’re feeling. The idea of a man laying his heart out and allowing himself to become nakedly vulnerable to someone else’s love was mortifying then. If I felt embarrassed admitting before that Veer-Zaara was emotionally moving, today I’m almost always telling people that it’s my favourite film.
The sense of this film belonging to a different time is captured by Preity Zinta herself. She posted on Instagram to celebrate its 15th year anniversary in 2019, remarking that “It’s not just a movie, but an era. A time of decency, dignity, love, respect, and honour… There will never be another movie and a story like this, music like this.”
In the broader sense, there is a sadness for how the Bollywood industry today is no longer thoughtful in what it produces and has been very submissive to the BJP government. Films such as Veer-Zaara and Main Hoon Na, which were relatively considerate in their portrayals of the relations between India and Pakistan, are unlikely to be produced in today’s climate. That in itself is mirrored in India’s dark journey away from democracy to violent populism. The nexus between Bollywood losing its creative thoughtfulness and general spine, and India veering away from what it originally stood for is a troubling one.
As a film, Veer-Zaara asserts the importance of family transcending everything, for better or worse, by showing how two lovers could lock away their feelings for each other to respect the wishes of Zaara’s family. I didn’t appreciate this then, and I could still contest it today, but at least now I understand it. Attachments and relationships are the nucleus of the human existence.
Our lives are enriched by the bonds we have, by the people we choose to spend our finite time on this earth with. It is why grief has to be a part of the human existence, and why by rediscovering these films and remembering what my loved ones mean to me, I can momentarily accept that though nothing lasts forever, people and memories can stay with you forever if you learn to savour them in the moments you did have with them.
Watching these films now doesn’t just fill me with a nostalgia, remembering a time when Saturday nights were family nights, it reminds me of just how good those nights were when we all settled down around the TV and watched Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta steal our hearts.