Anxieties of Watching ‘Veer-Zaara’ in 2021

Behind the carefully constructed Mubi facade of frames from half-watched films of Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and David Fincher, I am still very much rooted in Hindi cinema. Hindi films are what I grew up with and it was only in my early 20s that I discovered world cinema – which I very much enjoy – but nothing, in my opinion, feels more home than a good melodramatic, colorful, emotionally intense commercial Hindi film that tugs at the strings of your heart every time it has a Shahrukh Khan delivering dialogues you know you will never be spoken to in your entire life. Yet, the make-believe world feels very much a part of this existence.

2021 has been a year where I had to turn to the cinema of my growing up years. I was desperately looking for refuge from the grim reality of the second wave that engulfed us all and took a few too many along. Every few nights I found myself searching for film titles from my childhood and adolescence to relive moments of hope and love and happy endings – something that was so nowhere to be found in the real world. I found catharism while sobbing over the hospital scene in the ending of Kal Ho Na Ho and discovered perseverance in the lyrics of zindagi ki yahi reet hai, haar ke baad hi jeet hai (Such is the cycle of life/There is victory to be found only after loss) in Mr. India.

Hindi cinema – not the Rohit Shetty kind high on testosterone cinema – has perfected the art of giving us happy endings, sometimes even against all logic. So here I was, using one Hindi film after the other to tell myself that everything will fall back into place and all magic will be restored to the world in due time. However, there was one film that filled me with anxieties even though it ended on a rather happy note.

It was Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara.

I was 13 when the film released in 2004. Chopra was coming back to direction after a hiatus of seven years with a star ensemble that was at the peak of their careers.

YouTube was still a thing of the future and one had to wait patiently on TV to get teasers of the film and whatever little was revealed would be discussed during lunch breaks in school. We dissected every little detail: exquisite Lucknowi kurtas adorned by Preity Zinta, the absolute thrill of watching Shahrukh Khan in uniform, and the music – from beyond the grave of Madan Mohan, which perhaps had used orchestra with all its richness for the last time in Hindi cinema.

In the run-up to the film’s release, I tried to convince my parents to allow me to watch the film in the theatres but my mother disposed of my wishes saying, ’Why do you want to watch a melodramatic love story? Padhai pe dhyaan do. No Shahrukh will be coming from across the border to pay your bills when you are older.’ My pragmatic mother shot me down but I nevertheless watched the film as it played over and over again on cable TV.

Also read: On SRK, Bollywood’s Love of Urdu and What It Means To Be a ‘Deewana’ in New India

Like my mother pointed out to me, Veer – Zaara in 2004 was just a melodramatic love story which had us crying our eyes out. In 2021, on the other hand, it’s a dangerously political film which might not have seen a theatrical release had it been made in these times. When I watched the film this year, I still sobbed but not at the tragedy of the protagonists but at the tragedy of this country, of what was promised and what it became. Veer-Zaara was made a year after Manmohan Singh was sworn in as the Prime Minister with President APJ Abdul Kalam administering the oath. It was the first time an independent India was led by people from its minorities – something that the country was so proud of that it even made it to dialogue in an Akshay Kumar film: a Sikh Minister, a Muslim President and a Catholic woman in charge of the political party in power. This is not to say the country was a safe haven for minorities – the wounds of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom were still fresh and, the people of Kashmir and parts of Northeast India were still languishing under the draconian AFSPA. But, condemnation of these grim realities would not earn oneself the batch of an ‘anti-national.’

I was growing up in a tolerant India or perhaps an India, which was at least not proud of its intolerance. The fact that a mainstream Hindi film made by a director – who was not known to dabble too much political subtext – would not be made in the present day, says a lot about how little creative freedom is left for filmmakers in the country. Watching the film reminded me of the not-so-recent past when Karan Johar was forced to change the storyline of his film Ae Dil Hai Mushhkil by altering the nationality of the film’s female protagonist played by Anuskha Sharma who was intended to be a Pakistani national who falls in love with an Indian man portrayed by Ranbir Kapoor. The film also marked the end of Fawad Khan in Hindi cinema after his role was significantly shortened in the film which was only allowed to release after an emotional Johar apologised for casting ‘a talent from the neighbouring country.’

When compared to Veer-Zaara, the storyline of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil isn’t centred around the nationality of its leads nor is it used in any way to further the narrative of the film – Alizeh, the female protagonist, might as well be Romanian or Japanese. Yet the film faced relentless opposition and almost got banned. Veer-Zaara, on the other hand, showed an Indian Air Force officer who resigned from his duty after he falls in love with a Pakistani woman as defense personnels are not permitted to visit Pakistan during service. Chopra delicately uses the conflict between the two countries without falling into the trap of ‘conniving Pakistanis’ and ‘selfless Indians’. The characters are shown in conflict with each other due to their circumstances and not just their nationality. Even Zaara’s fiance – Raza Shirazi played brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee – acts against Veer not because he is Indian but because he feels outraged after Zaara publicly embraces Veer in presence of Raza and his other family members. As the audience, Chopra allows us to hate Raza, but not because he is a Pakistani but for wrongly framing Veer and coming between two people who are deeply in love.

If today, Shahrukh Khan played Veer, a character that chooses love – that too of a Pakistani woman – over national duty today, he would be trolled and threatened mercilessly. His courtroom monologue which was just seen as heart-wrenching poetry then, would perhaps invite sedition charges in today’s India.

In the monologue, Veer starts with lines describing how the land on which he has been wrongly imprisoned for over two decades, brings back all the fond memories of his own motherland. Even after being wronged, Veer is not bitter or hungry for revenge or is shown to harbour hate for the neighbouring country, he is just happy to be set free to live the rest of his life with Zaara.

The more I dwelled on each aspect of the film, I realised how the film has metaphorised from a simple love story into a deeply political narrative on love, acceptance and tolerance. Will it be allowed to get a theatrical release today? Will a filmmaker even attempt to make a film like that? Perhaps not, but I am grateful to have lived through the times when it was made, released and loved by a country that held the hope for peace closer to its heart than the yearn to avenge.

Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai, India.