Writer Jaideep Sahni has written eight films in the past twenty years. Two of his early films—Jungle and Company—feel more like Ram Gopal Varma films but his other remaining films have a sense of his unique style. In any form of storytelling, it is conflict that drives the narrative. The great philosopher Aristotle postulated that the hero must have a conflict to sustain an interest in the story. All conflict can be typically summarized into a few categories—man versus man, man versus self, man versus society, man versus nature, and man versus technology. Many of these conflicts are quite apparent in Sahni’s oeuvre but there is also often an element of David versus Goliath in them where a weaker opponent takes on a stronger adversary.
In Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla, written by Sahni, the conflict arises when an avaricious businessman Khurana (Boman Irani) usurps the hard-earned plot of a middle-class man Kamal Kishore Khosla (Anupam Kher). After all the conventional pleas fail, Khosla’s younger son Cherry (Parvin Dabas) devises an unconventional route to get back their land. He takes the help of Bapu (Navin Nischol), the manager of a theater group, to act as a wealthy businessman and trick Khurana by selling him some fake real estate. Khurana is fooled and pays a significant sum to Bapu, and the Khoslas use the same money to repurchase their land from Khurana. It is like David versus Goliath battle where the simple Khoslas are able to defeat the all-powerful Khurana and pull off the hoax without him getting any whiff as to who is behind it. At an early stage in the film, Kamal Kishore Khosla and his elder son Bunty (Ranvir Shorey) visit Khurana to request him to leave their land. Khurana’s office has the look of a villain’s lair. In the wall right behind Khurana’s seat, there is a painting hung where a tiger is attacking an antelope. It is not quite subtle but it is a representation of Khurana’s predatory nature. But as it turns out, the antelope is able to fool the lion and get his revenge. The predator becomes the prey.
In Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai, Boman Irani played Lucky Singh, who like his character Khurana from Khosla Ka Ghosla, is another unscrupulous businessman wanting to unethically take over the property of others. He lays his eyes on ‘Second Innings House’, a bungalow where a bunch of senior citizens lived together. Lucky Singh throws them out of their house when they all went on a vacation. Taking a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, Munna (Sanjay Dutt) launches a non-violent protest against Lucky Singh to help the residents get back their home. Lage Raho Munnabhai found widespread acclaim for its rediscovery of Gandhi. But there was a Gandhian element in Khosla Ka Ghosla as well. There is Bapu who is not anyone’s father but is called so by everyone. In the sense, he is like Gandhi who was also affectionately called Bapu by the people of India. Like Gandhi helped India get independence from the mighty British using non-violence, Bapu helps the Khosla family get back their own plot, releasing it from the clutches of Khurana. Bapu is the new-age Gandhian, who also loves to smoke and drink. In contrast, there is Khosla, the old-age Gandhian, who is ashamed to even bring home a bottle of whiskey. In Brave New Bollywood: In Conversation with Contemporary Hindi Filmmakers, Dibakar Banerjee described Khosla as “Gandhian-era man.” He says, “You take the outward package of social turmoil of a Nehurvian, Gandhian-era man fighting a new, modern, liberated India kind of a villain called Khurana where greed is not only open but is actually good as Gordon Gekko says in Wall Street.” In fact, Khosla Ka Ghosla also opens with Khosla listening to Vaishnav Jan To which was Gandhi’s favorite bhajan, adding to some other Gandhian-elements in the film.
A year before Khosla Ka Ghosla, Sahni had written Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli. The film credits the story to Aditya Chopra and the screenplay to Sahni. Bunty Aur Babli depicted the aspirations of the middle-class small-town India that was struggling to break free. The film opens with a voiceover that brings to the fore the theme of another conflict, this time between two different Indias. The first is India that is bright and shiny; where dreams come true; where people find fame, power, and success. The other is India that is mired in dirt and dust; where dreams can be seen within the boundaries of one’s reality; where people have to struggle for even the basic necessities. Rakesh (Abhishek Bachchan) of Fursatganj and Vimmi (Rani Mukerji) of Pankhi Nagar are two such individuals who belong to the second India and dream of moving to the first one. After facing trickery and rejection when they set out to fulfill their dreams, Rakesh and Vimmi end up disappointed but then decide to choose the same path in their life to get success. They join hands to become Bunty and Babli, and con people to make money. They become famous for their multiple acts. They also manage to sell the Taj Mahal to a gullible foreigner. Two ordinary individuals are able to hoodwink the entire system and no one even gets to know their real identity.

In Chak De! India, Sahni teamed up with director Shimit Amin to deliver a fantastic film on hockey in a country crazily obsessed with cricket. A captain of the Indian hockey team Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) misses the penalty shot in the final minutes of the India-Pakistan match leading to accusations of match-fixing. Called a traitor by his neighbors, Kabir is forced to move out of his house. Years pass by and Kabir returns as the coach of the women’s hockey team leading their campaign for the world cup. Kabir instills a sense of unity and a shared vision in a team heavily factionalized into state-based cohorts. No one had given the team a minuscule chance of winning even one match but they proved everyone wrong. The team goes on to clinch the championships defeating the strongest of teams in the competition. Chak De! India is not just the story of the triumph of the underdog but it is also about the victory of a man fighting against the system to redeem his lost stature.
In Anil Mehta’s Aaja Nachle (written by Sahni), a New York-based choreographer Dia (Madhuri Dixit) returns to her hometown Shamli in India to fulfill the wish of her late dance teacher. He wanted Dia to save the city’s Ajanta theater from being demolished as the government planned to make a shopping mall in its place. Dia requests the town’s member of parliament Uday Singh (Akshaye Khanna) to not demolish it. Uday refuses as he believes shopping malls are necessary to give the people of the town a means of livelihood. People cannot eat art and dance, he says. Dia argues that art is also a critical part of the life of the people. “Toh sirf pet bharna zaroori hai, aur kuch nahi chahiye hota logon ko,” she replies. This is the principal conflict in the film which has become more common in the real world in the last few years as more countries embrace the path of rapid economic development. Uday challenges Dia that if she can prove to him that the people of Shamli still want the theater, he will not demolish it. She proposes that she will do a show of Laila Majnu at Ajanta within two months and if it is appreciated by people, he should be able to see that people of the town prefer arts and culture over shopping malls.
Dia faces an uphill battle in her quest to save the theater. She had to find participants for her play but the people of the town are wary of her because of her past. Years ago, she had abandoned a groom at the altar and escaped to America—something that was still frowned upon by the city folks. She had to face the might of the local politicians and other middlemen who have their self-interest in building a mall. But she convinces people to join her fight, stages a successful show, and manages to save Ajanta. She is able to prove that art brings out a plethora of emotions that people can and want to connect with their life. Like Kabir, Dia emerges victorious against a heavily-loaded establishment. Apart from the central conflict, Aaja Nachle also comments on the conflict between Western- and Indian-culture, between the past and the future, between being tied to your roots and flying away to distant lands, and between naach-gaana and nritya-sangeet.
A David versus Goliath battle is again seen in Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (written by Sahni) where a novice salesman Harpreet Singh Bedi (Ranbir Kapoor) takes on an industry veteran Sunil Puri (Manish Chaudhury) in the field of the computer business. A young Harpreet joins At Your Service (AYS) after his graduation but is shocked by the unethical business practices being followed at the firm. The company that claims to serve the customers is only interested in fleecing them. After an incident where he complained against a powerful client who asked for a commission, Harpreet is humiliated by his bosses and banished by his coworkers for daring to disrespect prospective customers. A disappointed Harpreet decides to take charge and starts his firm Rocket Sales with some other disgruntled employees stealthily while using the premises and the resources of AYS. He is gradually able to grab the market share because of his company’s superior customer service, while AYS struggled to catch up with the better offerings of a new competitor. There is a moment in the film when Harpreet and his grandfather are watching the scene of the battle of Ram and Ravan in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana. Essentially, a similar battle was fought between Rocket Sales and AYS. Like Ram, Harpreet starts all alone, but along the way, he makes partners who help him grow his firm and take on the Ravan-esque Puri. and defeats him A small firm Rocket Sales emerges as the winner over a behemoth AYS.
In Maneesh Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance, Sahni writes a story that questions the very concept of marriage in society. A local tourist guide Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) and an English teacher Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) have cold feet before their wedding and run away. The conflict in the characters arises when they are not able to see unable to see themselves in a committed relationship all their life. While other films of Sahni have a visible victory moment of the underdog, Shuddh Desi Romance ends up with the Raghu and Gayatri’s acceptance that they are not suited for marriage at all. They triumph over society’s rigid stance that traditional marriage is the ultimate goal of a romantic relationship. Raghu and Gayatri end up with the decision to live together with an open-door policy, not bound by the restrictions of a formal marriage, something still rare in the society. In a hilarious scene in the film, Panditji, who is picked-up by Raghu and Gayatri, sits behind in the car and does not say a word. He is of no use to the film’s characters. Traditional marriage literally takes a backseat.

Apart from the conflict, there are other common themes that are present in the cinema of Jaideep Sahni. His characters have a distinct voice of change. In Khosla Ka Ghosla, Cherry hates his official name Chirauonji Lal given to him by his parents and wants to change it as is too antediluvian for his personality. Likewise, there is Raghu from Shuddh Desi Romance whose full name is Raghuram Sitaram but he is also a bit embarrassed by it and prefers to be known as Raghu. In Bunty Aur Babli, Rakesh’s father works as a ticket checker in the railways and wants his son to do the same job that he has done for thirty-five years. Rakesh is aghast at the idea of having such a boring job all his life. There is Vimmi in a similar position who dreams of becoming a model but her parents only want to get her married at the earliest opportunity. Rakesh and Vimmi want to have their own identity rather than follow what others tell them to do.
In Chak De! India, Kabir Khan also tries new methods to train the hockey players, discarding the old ways, earning the moniker of Tughlaq in the process. The senior players initiate a mini-rebellion against him for his ways but Kabir persists and brings freshness and vigor to the team that had even accepted defeat before playing. Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year also depicted that those who do not embrace change end up on the losing side eventually. Sunil Puri started his firm as a young entrepreneur and won accolades all over. With time, he and his firm became arrogant of their success and started believing that they will always remain at the top, leading to a decline in their service levels. A new firm crops up and changes the entire dynamics of the industry.

In Bunty Aur Babli, the first meeting between Vimmi and Rakesh happens on a train platform. Vimmi wants to go to the toilet but she is afraid of going there alone due to the dark. Therefore, she approaches Rakesh, who is sitting nearby, to accompany her to the toilet located at the end of the platform. This scene is resonated in Shuddh Desi Romance when Gayatri wants to go to the bathroom and asks Raghu to come with her because she cannot go alone. She says, “Akeli nahi jaaungi main. India hai yeh.” Toilets are a running motif in Shuddh Desi Romance. Throughout the film, the characters keep going to the toilet at crucial points. There are many scenes that are shot where the characters break the fourth wall while sitting on a toilet seat.

Call of Unity
In terms of structure, too, a central figure starts alone and then slowly adds more members to the team in Sahni’s films. In Chak De! India, Kabir faces initial resistance from the players but he unites them by bringing their loyalty to the Indian team instead of the state team. Gradually, all the players fall in line. In Aaja Nachle, Dia starts her battle to save Ajanta all by herself and gradually adds more members to participate in her play Laila Majnu. A similar strategy is adopted by Harpreet in Rocket Singh to fight Puri and his methods. He starts his company alone but adds more ‘partners’ assigning them roles according to the strengths to grow his company. Additionally, many of Sahni’s characters talk a lot about honesty.

Reading the time
In Chak De! India, a Muslim man’s loyalty to his country is questioned. He is labeled a gaddar; something that has played out in reality in the past few years. In Shuddh Desi Romance, the wedding organizer Goyal Saab (Rishi Kapoor) wonders if marriages will completely stop happening in the future. Notwithstanding the pandemic, most people are increasing;y choosing to delay their marriages, or not even marry at all. Concepts, such as ghosting as shown in the film, have become common. And, my favorite is the moment in Bunty Aur Babli, where Rakesh decides that he no longer wants to live in Bombay. He realizes that he does not have the ability or the inclination to become the next Ambani. His only aim in life was to be famous. As his name is published in newspapers all over, he is satisfied with his fame. This is again an astute reading of the present-day social media where fame has become the ultimate endpoint. Jaideep Sahni’s work has shown that he understands the human psyche. The issues in his films are still relevant and, in some cases, gave an indication of the sign of things to come. His work has withstood the test of time and that is one of the best compliments for a writer. I am looking forward to what he does next.
1) Harpreet Singh Bedi’s eyes in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.
2) I love this shot from Bunty Aur Babli which is seen when Vimmi runs away from her house; a broken window to represent her escape from the idleness of Pankhi Nagar, or a shattered glass to signal that her dreams will soon be shattered, too.
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