Cult classics

Why no one can ever deny having watched ‘Sooryavansham’

The 1999 family drama, starring Amitabh Bachchan, has amassed a cult following through its relentless television reruns.

You have either watched Sooryavansham or are too cool to admit it. The determination with which the 1999 production has been repeatedly telecast on television channel Sony Max has spawned its own set of memes and trolls.

A family drama starring Amitabh Bachchan in a dual role, Sooryavansham was released at a time when the actor was trying to reinvent himself. After the success of Mukul S Anand’s Khuda Gawah in 1992, Bachchan decided to take a break from films. But his comeback release Mrityudaata (1997) flopped. Major Saab (1998) and Lal Baadshah (1999) too did not propel Bachchan back into superstardom.

Directed by E VV Satyanarayana, Sooryavansham is a remake of the Tamil blockbuster Suryavamsam (1997), starring Sarath Kumar and Devayani. Thakur Bhanu Pratap Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) and his son Heera Singh (Bachchan again) don’t see eye to eye. Pratap Singh is the head of the local panchayat. Heera is an uneducated young man who has no calling in life.

Radha (Soundarya) falls in love with Heera and marries him against the wishes of their families. Heera is thrown out of his house. Radha and Heera work hard to prove themselves. Soon Heera is the head of a transport company and his wife becomes the district collector. Pratap Singh realises his folly and welcomes them back into his family in the end.

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Sooryavansham (1999).

Sooryavansham is by no means a great movie, especially given Bachchan’s illustrious career, which is filled with such gems as Zanjeer (1973), Abhimaan (1973), Sholay (1975), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Don (1978), Silsila (1981) and Agneepath (1990). The movie did not have a healthy theatrical run, but it has since amassed a cult following since its relentless reruns on television. Everyone has seen it, but no one remembers why. Sooryavansham is the kind of melodramatic entertainer that redeems itself by appearing on the idiot box, which is overflowing with inane content that is mostly unwatchable.

Could the film’s small-screen popularity have something to do with the Sony channel’s repeated broadcasts? Or is it because Sooryavansham is the kind of wholesome entertainer that brings the family together?

In May 2015, on the sixteenth anniversary of the film, Bachchan tweeted, “Many still watch this film repeatedly. It has a personal connect with many!”

Amitabh Bachchan as Heera in Sooryavansham (1999).
Amitabh Bachchan as Heera in Sooryavansham (1999).

The story is hardly unusual, and the father-son conflict has been a common subject of several Bachchan starrers. In Deewar (1975), Bachchan’s character Vijay has to live with the shame of having the words “Mera baap chor hai” (My father is a thief) tattooed on his forearm. As a result, Vijay neglects his education and turns into a hardened criminal. In Trishul (1978) and Shakti (1982), Bachchan plays characters who rebel against their fathers.

In Sooryavansham, the opposite idea is explored. Bhanu Pratap is ashamed of his uneducated son, who has to prove his mettle. The lack of an emotional bond between the two men gives the story its domestic resonance. The movie is redeemed by Bachchan’s sound and fury as the old man and his meek turn as the young man. Sooryavansham also has enough tearjerker moments to keep families glued to their television set over a weekend sit-down dinner.

Bachchan was 56 years old during the making of Sooryavansham. The fight sequences are brief, and the song and dance routine is kept to a minimum. Apart from Bachchan’s commanding presence as the patriarchy, the raillery between Kader Khan and Anupam Kher, in supporting roles for comic relief, keeps the drama from sagging.

Rekha dubbed for the voices of Soundarya and Jayasudha, who played Heera’s mother, in the Hindi version. Rekha and Bachchan had never worked together after Silsila. Sooryavansham gives moviegoers the cheap thrill of hearing her in double roles – as Bachchan’s wife and mother. It’s one more excuse to connect so many of the dots that fans love to form at the movies.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.