A basic Google search about Baghban will tell you two things: first, an entire generation of critics seemingly loved it, and two, most people that watched it on television growing up seem to really like it as well. The family drama was a big hit back in 2003, and has only increased in popularity in the following years, during which it become a staple on the satellite circuit. Baghban has a 4.7/5 rating on Google (the Taj Mahal has a 4.6) and a 7.4/10 rating on IMDb (the Coen Brothers’ final movie together, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, only has a 7.3). It would be logical, therefore, to describe it as a mostly beloved film.
But throwing words like ‘logic’ around while talking about Baghban is like broaching the subject of feminism while discussing a Sandeep Reddy Vanga movie. It’s a foolish idea. The film completes 20 years this week, which seems shocking, because watching it again on what seemed like a bootleg version on Prime Video — it’s like they ripped a VHS and uploaded it in 480p — Baghban felt positively ancient to behold, both in its thinking and technique.
Those who complained about Blonde being cruelty porn should be subjected to this nonsense for three hours; Amnesty International could conceivably classify it as a torture device. Baghban is a propaganda movie; but it was given the illusion of mainstream acceptability by the presence of the icons Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini, and the reputable name of BR Films.
Baghban is an interesting cultural artefact, but it’s a far more interesting case study of how culture is appraised. Watching it now, it seems almost impossible that that anybody could’ve tolerated its ill-conceived, one-note drama for even 10 minutes back in 2003, which, to be clear, isn’t that long ago. This was two years after Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, a full five years after Satya, and eight years after Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. And yet, Baghban feels like it belongs in the Stone Age, which makes sense, because it feels like it was made with sticks and stones and not technology.
The film depicts perhaps the most toxic family committed to screen before the Roys of Succession took over that mantle. Everybody is in it for themselves, including the elderly Raj Malhotra and his wife Pooja, who decide one day, seemingly out of the blue, that they will give their children the pleasure of their eternal company after retirement. Raj Malhotra (Bachchan) hadn’t secured his future despite having worked his entire life, it seems, at ICICI Bank. And so, when it is time for him to hang up his boots, he assumes that one of his four sons will take him and his wife in.
He presents this idea as a loan salesman would a money-making scheme, which is ironic, because he doesn’t have a penny to his name, which is double-ironic because he seems to live in a mansion as big as Jalsa. But because he literally thinks of his children as ‘fixed deposits’, he assumes they’d be happy to upend their lives and simply have him and Pooja (Malini) start living with them. The four children and their wives are no saints, but they have a valid point when they say that they aren’t equipped to deal with two extra people. Especially two people who, by their own admission, weren’t exactly the best parents.
Raj readily admits that he was largely absent for their childhood, while Pooja was so blindly subservient that she never felt it necessary to remind him that he should spend more time with them, and perhaps consider being less ‘dominating’. What this probably did was create an atmosphere of resentment within the household, which no amount of song-and-dance numbers can cover up. Instead of simply turning down their parents’ proposal — they can’t because the movie would end — the children huddle up and concoct a scheme. They propose a rotation policy, with Raj moving in with one of them and Pooja with another for six months, and then switching to the younger sons for the following six months. The idea of living separately would be so unbearable to them, the children believe, that they’ll refuse immediately. But they agree, because if they hadn’t, the movie would’ve come to an end.
This is the exact scene after which every character in Baghban starts behaving like a prisoner at a Russian gulag, even though they’re free to do as they please. In one moment, Raj is strolling along the park and making daily trips to Paresh Rawal’s coffee shop — he even finds time to sing a song on Valentine’s Day — but in the next, he is so helpless that he cannot even get his broken glasses fixed by himself. Pooja, on the other hand, continues behaving like a model in a Tata Tea commercial; she doesn’t have much to do but mope around.
Baghban is less a movie than a series of mean-spirited scenes stitched together by a visually impaired tailor. Every moment is designed to tell you how cruel Raj and Pooja’s children are to them, and in effect, how saintly Raj and Pooja are themselves. But they’re obviously suffering from a case of victim complex. Even though it’s clear they’re not wanted, they go ahead with the plan only to feel terrible and then have a valid reason to complain about it (which they never do in public, by the way). They just feel sad privately, and write letters to each other in the year 2003, even though the movie has established that they’re aware of telephones and have used them many times (to talk to each other!) in the past.
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A little after the halfway mark, Raj and Pooja decide to stage a jailbreak. Again, they were never actually prisoners. But this is when their adopted son Alok, played by a sleepy Salman Khan, literally wanders into the movie and rescues them from their self-inflicted elder abuse. Neither Raj nor Pooja had any idea that he was back from overseas (and had apparently got a job managing a Ford dealership?) and the movie lazily explains this by pretending that they’ve all forgotten that phones exist, again. Director Ravi Chopra falls back on this narrative crutch this time and again when he feels he’s backed himself into a corner. This is a great lesson for young filmmakers all over the world. When in doubt about the internal logic of a scene, just pretend basic tools of communication haven’t been invented yet.
In any other reasonably evolved culture, a movie like Baghban would’ve been swiftly condemned and immediately forgotten, failing which, it would’ve been deliberately burned. But for some reason, we think it important enough to be put on a pedestal and be granted ‘cult status’. The film is not only a blot on the careers of everybody involved, but also on those of the people who praised it in broadsheet newspapers 20 years ago. Everybody should issue a written apology.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.