Parampara (1993)

To her readership, Margaret once posed the question: “What is your favorite Yashji movie?” Shyly, I commented that, of all of them I had seen, I found Dharmputra the most moving. The statement was disingenuous. After all, if she had asked what I thought Yash Chopra’s best movie was, I would have to have said Waqt. The one that I had most often screened for friends? Kaala Patthar. To give my unshielded, non-redefined opinion on the question actually asked would have been, and is now, an embarrassment: my favorite Yash Chopra film is the one where Vinod wears all those awful sweaters. Behold! A. G. and Firoz A. Nadiadwala’s Parampara.

Upon confrontation with this image, you may think to yourself: “Perhaps Vinod is so darn old for this style of sweater—and by extension his apparent role—because we are shaping up for an intermission time jump, following which he will be left playing his own age.” Well, yes and no. To discuss this thing, one ought to have a reasonably complete picture of the plot up to that anticipated time jump. There is plenty of it.

Parampara follows the family of Bhavani Singh (Sunil Dutt), one of the stubbornest, most hidebound thakurs inscribed on film. Among the numerous peccadillos affronting his sense of dignity is a multigenerational land dispute with the banjara clan who live around the edges of his property. Bhavani Singh’s peaceable son Prithvi (Vinod Khanna, in sweaters) would rather simply make friends of the banjaras. Chieftain Gora Shankar (Anupam Kher, in vests), whose father1 the thakur dueled and shot dead back in the prologue, is skeptical of Prithvi’s earnestness only until he meets the man. Prithvi is soon spending what seems to be the entirety of his free time at the banjara encampment, doing manly, mostly horse- and firearm-related activities with Shankar. By some point, Prithvi considers himself promised to Shankar’s sister Tara (Ramya Krishnan) and the banjaras appear uniformly to be of the same mind.

The couple have barely gotten the chance to enjoy an unusually explicit rain song before Bhavani Singh—less ignorant of this situation than everyone has judged him—puts the finishing touches on a marriage alliance with another landowning family. Tara, Shankar, and Prithvi propose a dozen solutions among themselves, each of which their crisscrossing bonds of obligation render unworkable. Things fully break down once Bhavani Singh condescends to speak to Shankar face to face, a conversation in which he both threatens all the banjaras’ lives and implies that Shankar has deliberately pimped out his sister to force a claim on the thakur’s land. Insulted, justifiably nervous about his people’s safety, Shankar refuses to shelter Prithvi any longer; Tara, not wishing to jeopardize her relationship with her brother, declines a proffered elopement. All parties will ultimately render a notional, reluctant consent to Prithvi’s marriage with Rajeshwari (Ashwini Bhave).

You may, however, recall mention above of a certain rain song. News of Tara’s inevitable pregnancy spurs Prithvi to open rebellion against that titular yoke of tradition: he plays hooky from his own sangeet to legitimize their relationship via a good old-fashioned bloody-thumb wedding. Then he calls a secret conference with the mangeetar. Prithvi urges Rajeshwari to refuse the marriage and let him absorb the shame of their situation, but Rajeshwari decides that she would rather be a second wife than risk provoking revenge upon the banjaras. When news of Tara’s pregnancy eventually reaches Bhavani Singh, though, he goes back on his implied word and orders a band of goondas to raze the camp anyway. In a chilling sequence, Rajeshwari raises the alarm and then reluctantly gallops away from the burning settlement, carrying the newborn whom Tara has entrusted to her. Most of the banjaras, Tara included, do not survive. Shankar does, although the thakur soon has him imprisoned for (not unreasonably) getting upset and shaking a sword at him. He remains incarcerated as Prithvi wages a years’-long sit-in of silent protest against Bhavani Singh and Rajeshwari fights to maintain the peace of a bitter household.

Shankar emerges from jail when Tara’s son Ranvir is a young child and Rajeshwari’s Prataap barely out of toddlerhood. (They will grow up to be played by Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the latter in what IMDB believes to be his earliest adult credit.) Once freed, Shankar sweeps into the haveli demanding satisfaction against Bhavani Singh. Although confused as to why Prithvi insists on fighting on his father’s behalf, Shankar does not object; he wants nothing more than to die and presumes he can at least trust Prithvi’s Chekov’s marksmanship to see him out. In fact, we reach interval with Prithvi dead by his friend’s hand, Ranvir in Shankar’s care, Prataap in Rajeshwari’s, and Bhavani Singh reeling with impotent grief.

To watch this film sympathetically, one must be willing to entertain its central proposition: that this ridiculous extremity of patriarchal honor is the reality in which its characters live. Much though they might wish to escape, they feel that they cannot; even their rebellions are conducted mostly in deference to the thakur’s authority. That description may make Parampara sound like a throwback to what I privately think of as “the tragedy of manners,” a mode endemic to, e.g., Muslim socials of the early ’60s. In fact–although it’s not nearly as grimy–the closest analogue I can think of for Parampara‘s register is that bleak daaku-drama Kachche Dhaage. In contravention to the last-act laxity of many Yash Chopra movies, Parampara marches unfalteringly into a conclusion that feels hard-earned, cathartic, and inevitable.

Honey Irani’s story also diverges from available models in that it never argues a thesis for why these people are so thoroughly, irretrievably screwed. The characters themselves do proffer explanations, of which my favorite is the notion that the hill and the haveli are themselves evil—having developed, as the opening song tells us, a taste for the blood of innocent men. This idea does not track. Prataap, after all, grows up in the haveli as a floppily pleasant, bighearted kid. Despite being raised in deliberate peace by a penitent Shankar, Ranvir is the one whose personality betrays some worrisome reflections of his grandfather’s. Nor is it the thakur’s personal wickedness that is to blame, or tradition itself; both lose much of their potency in the second half. Propriety certainly drives wedges through these relationships, but it is ordinarily wielded by a premeditative human hand. When Shankar asks Prithvi to start calling him “sardar” again, Prithvi immediately answers in “tum” as though that’s going to save them; later, Prithvi uses the title “thakur” to legitimize Tara’s relationship with him, but to sever his own with Bhavani Singh. Much later, the thakur will plead, “Call me ‘father’ again, just once” to a vision of his son.

As abstract tragedy, I find Parampara deeply affecting. It takes a hard turn after interval, when we begin to follow Ranvir, Prataap, and their love interests (Raveena Tandon and Neelam Kothari) through a lighthearted school setting. Over that college comedy hangs the threat that there will be guns again, that we will see these kids on the dueling hill, too. The task of holding both halves together falls mostly on Sunil and Ashwini, their characters being the only ones who do not have to navigate some major change over the time jump. Sunil’s investment of dignity prevents Bhavani Singh from coming off as simply insane: I can buy him as a person who considers it a failure of courage not to have personally skewered baby Ranvir. His gradual unpicking by grief is believable, too. How would a person like this mourn? The only possibility is implosion. Ashwini matches him step for step, painting Rajeshwari as tenacious in her own understanding of social order. I particularly love her chemistry with Ramya Krishnan; the latter I have never seen elsewhere, but am given to understand that she does mostly Telugu.  

There is not a song I do not enjoy. The music is by Shiv-Hari with lyrics by Anand Bakshi of precisely the type for which I appreciate him, poignant but deliberately simple. “Aadhi Raat Ko,” set during a blackout at the college, is the one I relisten to most often. My real favorite is “Mujhe Ishq Ho Gaya,” one of the lamentably few recordings that Aslam Sabri has made for film. One does savor a theoretically joyful, contextually painful qawwali. It embraces a significant span of plot, opening during the major confrontation between Prithvi, Tara, and Shankar and continuing all the way into Prithvi and Rajeshwari’s secret meeting. Clarifying dialogue is heard at several points in the film version; the music video version linked above excises that. I find the action perfectly legible without and, that way, speech does not disrupt the accelerating pace of the song. Finally, I confess that I find “Saawan Mein Pyaas Piya” unusually tender—in part because it is not ashamed of Vinod’s weary, blobby body. Tara kisses Prithvi’s bare chest not because, as would have been the case in the same scene in 1975, we would otherwise feel cheated. She kisses his bare chest because she desires him enough to want to see and touch him, paunch and all; although one imagines Vinod might be embarrassed to be seen by an audience, Prithvi smiles at being seen by her. It feels kind.

It’s also possible that I permanently imprinted on pre-Rajneesh-hiatus Vinod like an idiot duckling and he can’t not be attractive to me now; please don’t judge me.

Certain elements of Parampara admittedly fail to hang together. The age makeup ranges from okay (Sunil) to very, very bad (Anupam) to, for some reason, not even attempted (Ashwini). I have no clue how Shankar is meant to have gone from recently released inmate to competitive horse trainer—a profession with obvious, non-side-steppable start-up costs. Still, I consistently come back to Parampara when I’m in a mood to feel some strong emotions about imaginary people. It’s one of the best things out there for that.

1Also Anupam Kher, but in an even fancier vest. Certain of this film’s sweater sins are counterbalanced by vest virtues. Of Aamir’s insanely high-waisted trousers we shall not speak.

2 thoughts on “Parampara (1993)

  1. Hi!! I watched this movie again yesterday because I needed some silliness in my life and oh man it was so entertaining. The songs were great. The characters were ridiculous and there were sword-fights and duels. How can anyone not love this movie?!

    Also, the Hum Bangaran song is so addictive. I’m listening to it on repeat.


    1. Surely I have succeeded in life if somebody watches “Parampara” and thinks of me ( ; Others are entitled to their opinions, of course, but to me it is a feast for the eyes/ears/heart from which I never return hungry. Thank you for the sweet note, friend.


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