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Seeing double: Twins and Hindi cinema

How a German novel written in 1949 influenced the oldest trope in Hindi cinema – twins separated at birth

Sonal Pandya

In 1933, Nazis burned the works of German author Erich Kästner who grew in fame partly because of his popular children's novels like Emil and the Detectives. His novel Das doppelte Lottchen (loosely translated to 'The Double Lottie'), a tale of twin sisters separated by their parents and written after World War II in 1949 has survived the test of time. It lives on in cinemas around the world from its native Germany to Hollywood and finally to Bollywood.

Disney cast Hayley Mills, the Juvenile Academy award winner from Pollyanna (1960), in one of their most popular films of the 1960s. Mills played teenaged twins, Sharon and Susan, who meet each other at summer camp. Co-starring Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith as their parents, The Parent Trap (1961) rested squarely on Mills' young shoulders. She delivered with a flourish. The song, 'Let's Get Together', sung by Mills even reached to number eight on the Billboard charts that year. 25 years later, Mills reprised her roles with a series of made-for-television films. And in 1998, Disney repeated the formula with a younger child artiste named Lindsay Lohan as twins Hallie and Annie who come together to reunite their parents in The Parent Trap remake.

Back in India, The Parent Trap was first remade into a Tamil film Kuzhandaiyum Deivamum (1965) featuring actors Jai Shankar, Jamuna and young child artiste Kutty Padmini as Lalli and Pappi. Following the success of Kuzhandaiyum Deivamum, the story was adapted into Telugu as Letha Manasulu (1966) with almost the same cast where it wasn't received warmly. The same directors as the previous two films, R. Krishnan and S. Panju, tried their story one more time in Hindi cinema with Do Kaliyan (1968) starring Mala Sinha and Biswajeet as the estranged parents and Baby Sonia in a double role as the young daughters. The film was a super-hit and Baby Sonia went on to have a successful career as an adult albeit with a different name, Neetu Singh.

In time, Hindi cinema changed and adapted this story to reflect more of its own cinema. Adding scheming relatives, kidnappers and street-smart allies, the narrative of the twins separated at birth moulded itself to the characters and tropes of Hindi films. In China Town (1962), Shammi Kapoor played two distinct characters, Shankar and Shekhar, brothers cruelly separated at birth. However, one brother is a gangster in China Town while the other an aspiring singer in a club. Dilip Kumar's blockbuster Ram Aur Shyam (1967) allowing the famed thespian to show a lighter side to his fans. It fetched his seventh Filmfare Award for Best Actor.

Buoyed by good fortunes of Ram Aur Shyam (1967), others decided to replicate its winning ways. Filmmaker Ramesh Sippy gave his take a gender switch and cast Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta (1972). She too won the top Filmfare Award for her performance. These double roles then became a vehicle for the top stars in the industry to show off their acting chops, so to speak. One of Sridevi's best performances as sisters Anju and Manju in ChaalBaaz (1989) brought her first Filmfare Award for Best Actress for her work in a Hindi film.

Directors Rakesh Roshan and David Dhawan too found prosperity with this twin genre. Anil Kapoor in Kishen Kanhaiya (1990) and Salman Khan in Judwaa (1997) led their films to enormous box-office success. Their double roles were the real draw of the films. The last real star vehicle of this particular trope was with Kajol in Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi (2001). Since then, the double role has expanded more to the existence of doppelgängers in the same universe in films like Om Shanti Om (2007) and Rowdy Rathore (2012). A Seeta Aur Geeta remake starring Katrina Kaif has long been rumoured to be in the works. The question now remains, which Hindi film star can carry a film with the same élan as either a Dilip Kumar or a Sridevi?