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25 years of Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman: Rise of the commoner hero

Aziz Mirza's wonderful 1990s ensemble hit was a tale that encapsulated the rise of India's new aspirational middle class, led by a very ordinary lead pair — Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla.

Shriram Iyengar

It is fantastic to watch actors who aren't yet stereotyped or stuck in an image perform and become part of the story unfolding on screen. Examples range from Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973) to Aamir Khan in his first film, Raakh (1982), and Manoj Bajpayee in Satya (1998).

But few actors have gone on to make such an indelible mark on audiences with their early performances as Shah Rukh Khan. In Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994) and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), the actor created characters that were innocent, ordinary, and aspirational. As the Indian middle class has grown from talking at PCOs to making WhatsApp calls, Shah Rukh Khan has grown along with them to become the superstar reigning over the industry.

Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman was directed by Aziz Mirza, who had previously been associated with some iconic and pioneering television series like Nukkad (1986) and Circus (1989). It was in Circus that he first cast Shah Rukh Khan and recognized the talent within the precocious lad from Delhi. In an interview to rediff.com in July 1997, Mirza described his work as "my film tells you about people who are ambitious, yet manage to fall in love".

The India of the 1990s was literally at the cusp of a change. It was opening up to the world and entering economic teenage. Cinema itself had gone from the angry working class man to the sober middle-class culture.

Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, which is one of the earliest works the actor signed for, has parallels with another icon, Raj Kapoor's Shree 420 (1955). Like the RK classic, Mirza's film revolved around the life of an ambitious young man who arrives in Mumbai, then Bombay, in search of a job to fulfil his dreams. In Mumbai, he finds life a little more complicated, and grey scales of morality rather than clear black and white. The city uses his ambition to curb his innocence, and before long Raju is caught between the life he wants and the person he wants to be.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Shree 420 (1955)

In both films, the opposite poles of morality are represented by women. In Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, it was Juhi Chawla and Amrita Singh who played the modern versions of Nargis and Nadira.

While Khan was still a newcomer in the film industry, not fully trusted by producers, Chawla had already made a mark for her refreshing natural talent. The actress played the middle-class working girl who finds in Raju a caring, friendly companion who shares her dreams. The romance betweeen the two is another aspect that is captured beautifully.

The role of the vamp with a heart, played by Nadira in Shri 420, was replicated by Amrita Singh. As the boss of the construction company which employs Raju, she is the symbol of capitalism and corruption that seek to waylay the innocent but ambitous young man.

The conscience, meanwhile, was played by the irrepressible Nana Patekar. As the fearless but broken idealist Jai, who mentors Raju in the big city, he is the heart and soul of the chawl where he lives. The character remains one of Patekar's more memorable performances. He is the voice of a city that is consumed by its own material needs, not spiritual ones. It echoed Shailendra's immortal lines from Raj Kapoor's film that went 'Duniya ke saath jo badalta jaaye / Jo iske saanche mein hi dhalta jaaye / Duniya usiki hai jo chalta jaaye [The world bows to him who keeps step with it as it changes].'

The film was also known for its portrayal of unique 'Mumbai' romance. The struggle of two chawl-bred youngsters roaming the streets of Bombay looking for a quiet, secluded spot is one that echoes among youngsters till today. In 2015, speaking with The Hindu newspaper, Shah Rukh Khan said, "There are little moments and comments in it which are very sweet. Like I say in the film, 'Bombay mein jagah hi nahin milti hai pyaar karne ki [Bombay has no room for love].' This character takes his girl to the car showroom, acts as though he is checking out the car when he actually wants to kiss her. All because there is no place in Mumbai where you can kiss in peace."

It is moments like this that make Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman wonderful nostalgia of the 1990s. In addition, the film revolved around the corruption in the real-estate business. It is this corruption that remains at the heart of the problems in the unpalatable urban management of the city today.

Sample this scene, where the two flirt shyly while the whole chawl gathers around to share the gossip.

The scene also has a smattering of movie names, from Bandini to Madhumati to Dil Diya Dard Liya, a sign of the inextricable connections of movies and Mumbai.

As for the Shree 420 connection, both films arrived at the crux of a changing India. While Shree 420 portrayed Raj Kapoor as the symbol of a middle class fighting to retain its value system in a newly independent nation, Shah Rukh Khan was the icon of a newly economically independent nation fighting to retain its old values.

The film won Aziz Mirza and Manoj Lalwani the Filmfare Best Screenplay award. In an interview to rediff.com before the release of Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Mirza revealed: "I quit films when it became too commercial and got into the transport business. I did many odd jobs before making my serials. I learned a lot in that period. So I know what today's youth dreams of."

Twenty-five years since, the dreams have changed. But millions of young men across India continue to dream them with the same innocence and fiery ambition that made Raju a gentleman.