What are the images that come to your mind when you think of Bollywood movies of the nineties?
Mostly they would be a set of images: ostentatious, gilded homes, the hero and heroine singing amongst tulips or mustard fields, bright costumes, crashing cars, the hero deflecting bullets while smashing skulls of his opponents, or maybe a gritty shot set against slums if it was an ‘art’ movie.
And then came Dil Chahta Hai in 2001, which used a new visual language in Hindi cinema. It was Farhan Akhtar’s debut movie, and he had researched and fleshed out each character in detail. Clothes, accessories, locations, interiors, placement of articles, light, shadows, and camera angles were all used strategically to help the story unfold.
Dil Chahta Hai is a story of three friends. Their coming-of-age experiences in different trajectories, their relationships with women, and how their bonds of friendship get tested and evolve with time. The movie is based on Farhan’s diary of travels to Goa, a location which is used in the first half of the story to portray everything fun and light-hearted as three carefree friends, Akash, Sameer, and Sid, frolic and enjoy a life of affluence and no responsibilities.
The fun starts in a discotheque with the joie de vivre of friends at the threshold of leaving college. Saif Ali Khan, playing the naïve Sameer, wears glaring silver pants, setting the tone for a movie that uses design to add layers to each character’s story.
Styling and Space Design
The friends sport edgy haircuts, orange, purple and blue-green short shirts, and bright pyjamas on their boisterous trip to Goa. The iconic scenes of the trip, such as driving through the hill-cut roads, a fishing trip on a trawler, water scooter rides, and the friends looking pensively at a receding boat from Chapora fort, made Goa a part of the story and a symbol for friendship.
Akash, the 24-year-old lead character, is played by then 34-year-old Aamir Khan, who achieves the transformation through a fitness routine, arched eyebrows, a mischievous smile, and a daring soul patch. The cheerful summery shirts he wears on the Goa trip are replaced by fitting, elegant business attire as his character takes on responsibilities at work and goes through his first serious relationship.
Akash’s house displays affluence and sophistication. Contemporary design elements and a generous sprinkling of artwork around the house reflect a well-travelled and upwardly mobile family. The interconnected spaces and courtyards within the bungalow emphasize their status without resorting to elaborate portrayals. Akshaye Khanna, who plays Sid in the movie, sports a fresh look. He is an artist, a romantic, and an idealist. He wears loose linen kurtas that contrast with the youthfulness of his friends’ attires. Sid lives in an old-world Mumbai bungalow with his mother, a traditional, dignified woman trying her best to blend with the times, as shown by the tasteful interiors. Sid’s personality is more at home in his space, the studio with a profusion of colours and easels in various stages of completion.
Sameer is the guy in love. He believes in soulmates and happily-ever-afters, the only hitch being that he believes that every time he likes a girl. He carries off the madcap character in style with loose, floral summer shirts. Sameer’s house is more ornate, keeping with his portrayal as a Sindhi. There is a contrast between the richly decorated living room and his room, which is minimalistic and modern, portraying the difference between his family’s traditions and his aspirations.
Female characters in the movie were styled with implicit dignity. Dimple Kapadia, in her role as Tara, the successful Architect and alcoholic divorcee, dresses in flowing monotones; trendy but joyless. She enters the movie chugging a heavy suitcase and heavier emotional baggage, with only Sid to share her burden.
Shalini is quiet, understated, and yet impossible to overlook with her distinctive riot of curls and svelte dresses. Her space is never clearly defined because she does not have a home of her own.
Locations and Set Design
Shalini and Akash’s introduction happens in a background of bright lights and loud music and seems to end with a punch on the nose. Their romance sequence was supposed to be set in New York. The location was changed to Sydney to avoid the winter clothing and landscape at the time of the shooting. That was how critical the locales were to the movie!
The two explore their developing relationship in semi-open restaurants and celebrate their discovery of new horizons. A scene of diverging trains at a deserted Metro station shows the rising tension in the relationship. Shalini and Akash are separated by the transparent doors, shutting out Akash firmly as the train speeds away with Shalini. They reach the crescendo in resonance with the pathos of an opera playing in the palatial Opera house.
The same landmarks set against dusk fading into the night with blurred city lights portray Akash’s pain and turmoil once he realizes he loves Shalini but has lost her.
The guy who zips through scenic Goa routes in a convertible Mercedes leaves Sydney in a passenger cab, pensive, subdued, and humbled. He finally confronts his feelings and declares his love for Shalini against the backdrop of a typical, traditional wedding celebration.
Sameer and his girlfriend Pooja’s story starts with a traditional arranged marriage scenario. The empty spaces in Sameer’s room seem to come alive once they get over their initial awkwardness, and Pooja moves to the comfortable lounger. After a series of meetings, they get to act out their whacky relationship through a song featuring costumes and sets from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The movie starts with a scene at the hospital where Tara is on her last breaths. The blue-tinted walls close around Sid, as he calls Sameer. There is more light in the cold room as Sameer walks in, and then the screen fills up with color and music as the story of the three friends is revealed.
Akash, who had fallen out with Sid, is hesitant to come back, but a drive through familiar and iconic Mumbai landmarks and a glimpse of their old college while driving through city traffic brings him back to his friends.
The Role of Designers
The designers on a typical movie production team usually had a tertiary function. In Dil Chahta Hai, the designers were also the storytellers. Arjun Bhasin and Aki Narula spelt out the nuances and unfolded the transformation of the three friends through their use of colours and forms.
Adhuna Bhambani gave each actor a new identity through edgy hairstyles, making the Dil Chahta Hai haircuts a popular demand in salons across the country. Celebrated cinematographer Ravi Chandran remembers Dil Chahta Hai as the first movie where he collaborated with a gaffer or a light technologist.
Traditionally, costumes for the stars were designed by designers personally selected by them. In Dil Chahta Hai, the designers created cohesive designs for the movie and personalized those for the characters. The costumes and sets worked in sync. The colours were a visual relief, and the style and language were effortless.
The movie established the value of production design. Production Designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji signed Dil Chahta Hai as her first Hindi movie. She created distinct colour palettes and spaces for each personality. Her sets were so realistic that the refrigerator in Akash’s house held beer cans, while the bar in Tara’s living room had bottles of whisky.
The Dil Chahta Hai Effects
Besides making the spaces and the story so real, the design elements in Dil Chahta Hai had a lasting impact on movie-making in India. Set designers started paying more attention to use of spaces in a story. Cool, chic, customized interiors replaced the standard, stuffy, opulent décor used to symbolize the wealthy.
In the fashion world, very few movies have impacted men’s fashion the way Dil Chahta Hai did. It set off a trend of spiky haircuts, androgynous sartorial choices, and the goatee.
Twenty-one years after the movie was released, signboards for the Chapora fort call it the Dil Chahta Hai fort. Groups of friends trek up to the ramparts to peer out at approaching boats and promise to keep their bonds alive. The movie is an ode to aspiring designers and creative thinkers across domains.
India Today. 2012. Streetsmart look of Dil Chahta Hai heroes sets the trend for Indian urban males. [online] Available at: <https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/society-the-arts/story/20011126-streetsmart-look-of-dil-chahta-hai-heroes-sets-the-trend-for-indian-urban-males-774728-2001-11-26> [Accessed 22 September 2022].
Pathak, A., 2021. Friends. [online] Fifty Two (52). Available at: <https://fiftytwo.in/story/friends/> [Accessed 22 September 2022].
Ramesh, R., 2006. A matter of caste as Bollywood embraces the Bard. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/jul/29/books.filmnews> [Accessed 22 September 2022].
Ailani, R., n.d. 19 Years Of Dil Chahta Hai: 5 Fashion Trends From The Modern Coming-Of-Age Movie. [online] Askmen India. Available at: <https://in.askmen.com/fashion/1126556/article/19-years-of-dil-chahta-hai-5-fashion-trends-from-the-modern-coming-of-age-movie> [Accessed 22 September 2022].