It’s been far too long since we last discussed an Indian snake movie on the Gutter, so today I bring you Tum Mere Ho (Hindi, 1990). In essence this is a tale of star-crossed lovers sandwiched in what Indian cinema calls a mythological, a story about deities, displays of their powers, and human devotion to them. The film opens with a man trying to steal a snake’s glittering crown—no explanation needed—killing it in the process, and the snake’s mother seeking revenge by killing the man’s child. The body of the child is floated down a river on a raft, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s not quite dead and is raised by a poor but noble snake charmer. He grows up as Shiva (Aamir Khan), fully trained in his adoptive father’s arts. Playing his been (when you think “snake charmer song,” this is the instrument) one day at the fair, he casts a figurative spell on Paro (Juhi Chawla), and the two fall in love. When her rich family finds out, they eventually reveal that she was married as a child but her husband died, so she is now a widow and must go live with her in-laws and never marry again.
The film now needs to resolve its love story within not only systems of supernatural retribution but also regressive, patriarchal earthly traditions. To keep this piece spoiler-free, just know serpentine vertebrae will be very useful for the contortions needed to meet those criteria.
Tum Mere Ho sits uneasily in the filmographies of its two leads. Chawla and Khan were already big stars when the film released and had previously starred together in a Laila-Majnu/Romeo and Juliet-ish mega-hit Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. This film, as the saying goes, is not that one. Snake films can have an inherent whiff of B-movie in the minds of audiences. Many big stars have made them in earlier decades—house favorite Rekha did one the same year this released—but in my opinion the younger generation of stars at this time, of which Chawla and Khan were shining examples, does not quite know how to convince audiences of the mythology on which the story depends. It takes some special combination of commitment, gleefulness, and gravitas. Today, Aamir Khan is a global superstar (his films regularly smash box office records in India and he is beloved in China too), and in his decidedly middle age he could probably carry off a patriarch or even tantrik type in a snake film should the desire arise. Juhi Chawla acts regularly in a range of Indian films (see her as a [relative] queer ally and divorcée in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, available on Netflix), and I can imagine her as the angry snake or grieving mother. But as young, bouncy, romantic leads, they can’t quite support the forces at work in Tum Mere Ho.
But to me, it’s the snake scenes and forces that lift this film above being just another Romeo and Juliet. Limited to well under half of the film’s run time, centered on a non-romantic character, and apparently lacking much of a budget, the snakey bits nevertheless provide anticipated genre pleasures. Following the manual for snake characters, The Filmi Snake Spotter’s Field Guide (FSSFG), let’s evaluate the film’s offerings and posit it in the larger phenomenon of subcontinental serpentine cinematic culture. In keeping with the scholarly tone of the FSSFG, we must now don our brainy specs and endeavor to sound erudite.
A majority of filmi snakes are female, as is the case in Tum Mere Ho, whose only significant snake character is the shape-shifting snake mother (ichchadhari nagin in Hindi). The film balances and contrasts this feminine power with the male snake charmers (Shiva and his baba), as well as with Shakti’s snake friend Naagraj (“snake king”), who appears briefly but takes significant action.
Kalpana Iyer as the ichchadhari nagin is classic casting. It is true that not only “item girls”—the term for women in mainstream Indian cinema who perform titillating musical numbers as characters who have extremely limited, if any, participation in the rest of the film—perform snake roles, but seeing an actor who is known for item roles does often add to the effectiveness of the snake performance. Iyer has performed many such songs in her film career, so it is no surprise to see her as a snake.
Tum Mere Ho’s snake is very modestly attired when compared with other snakes and item dancers. She has only one outfit throughout the entire film (except when impersonating a human character) and it covers almost all of her limbs and torso. The glittering sequins in black and gold allude to scales. The standout feature of this costume is the spiraling gold ribbon snakes that wind around her limbs, starting at her ankles/wrists and ending at thighs/shoulders. The leg decorations are flush against the body, but the heads of the arm snakes protrude several inches perpendicularly off her shoulders, with red tongues extended.
Her accessories include snake earrings and minimalist golden torque, a large rhinestone cobra tiara (from which dangles a smaller metal snake circlet of a similar style to the torque’s pendant), and snake-shaped makeup on her forehead and chin.
The overall effect is that while she is the only snake to appear in the film and wears a less complex, less ornate costume compared to other filmi snakes (see e.g. section 3d of the FSSFG), she is accompanied by at least 11 allies.
The ichchadhari nagin’s eye makeup, like her clothing and jewelry, is relatively simple compared to those of other filmi snakes. Her eyebrows and eyeliner are quite light, but the pearly lime green eyeshadow is very serpentine.
But they still communicate her identity and plays a key role in her facial expressions, namely, to quote FSSFG, “I am a snake experiencing murderous thoughts and I mean business.”
Our nagin has a musical number in which she impersonates Paro, so we see her in even less snake-like makeup, jewelry, and clothing as she tries to infiltrate the intimate space of a romantic song and bite Shiva.
Even without the help of elaborate costuming and makeup, her eyes still communicate malevolence.
In deviation from the norm, Tum Mere Ho never shows the snake in her divine/supernatural habitat. We do not see her in any kind of home; she is never in proximity of monumental architecture; and she is never depicted with any allies. They only interaction she has with creatures of her own kind is a fight in which Naagraj defends a human against her. She is shown only in human-made or -frequented spaces, such as the forest and fields near settlements or even in a public square. This indicates that our nagin leads an isolated existence, a feeling compounded by her two decades of grief for her lost child. The abundant snakes in her costuming thus become even more significant; the presence of so many figures from the sub-order Serpentes may suggest that nature supports her quest for revenge and affirms her moral righteousness.
6. Snake (Been) Music
Tum Mere Ho embraces this South Asian instrument with an almost reckless abandon. Its sound permeates the entire film, with Shiva demonstrating its attractive power repeatedly. Unusually, its effect is shown to have as strong an effect on human Paro as it does on the nagin. “Reaction to snake music is not always helpful in discriminating filmi snakes from filmi humans in that both snakes and humans will typically experience strong reactions. It is the underlying reason for the reactivity, however, that is the singular determinant in accurate identification. Snake music is often cacophonous to human hearing so they will often cover their ears as a deterrent to an adverse auditory stimulus,” says the FSSFG, but Tum Mere Ho bravely rejects this trope in favor of creating a human bond with snake-oriented music. Instead of using the been to emphasize communication and interaction with snakes, the film uses this music to connect a “normal” character to the snake-oriented world of Shiva, his adoptive father, and the “rustic” community of their village.
The nagin in Tum Mere Ho has a singular focus on her prey, and her time on screen is unadorned by dance, philosophical contemplation, reverie, royal court attendance, etc. Her appearances are dedicated to 1) carrying out revenge for her child’s death and 2) re-enacting this revenge when she discovers her initial attempt was unsuccessful. This second phase is accompanied by some combat with Shiva, in which she demonstrates typical snake powers such as taking snake form and flinging herself through the air like a dart before reemerging in human form some distance away. Because the story is not centered on her desires or worldview, she eventually must submit to Shiva’s superior snake-charming powers in the ultimate scene of conflict. Interestingly, she is forced to undo her own previously successful attack on Paro.
So in the end, how successful is Tum Mere Ho as a snake film? In the vast universe that is Indian popular cinema, not very, for it lacks many of the pleasurable embellishments that have made snake films popular for decades and perhaps even attracted some of the big-name lead women actors to play shape-shifting, revenge-taking, sexily-dancing serpents. But when considered as a project that uses snake tropes mostly for extra sparkle and dimension, rather than as essential components of the story, Tum Mere Ho gains more solid footing. It’s almost as though the filmmakers swapped in a nagin for the usual Bollywood comic relief track, a motif that appears here and there but is not the overall flavor of the film. The nagin also represents a dark side of the cinematic favorite trope of motherly devotion, as does Paro’s mother, who is complicit in the suffering brought about by the revelation of her daughter’s early marriage and widowhood. In the end, the film is about entirely human social norms and mistakes and not about the nagin or the world she comes from. But it does use her to link the two social classes of the characters and creates conflict that separates key players. Only when her arc is resolved can the human arc be resolved as well.
For a more holistic discussion of Tum Mere Ho, try this episode of the Khandaan Podcast, a show focused on the films and 30-year leading-man careers of Bollywood megastars Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, and Salman Khan, all of whom have appeared on the Gutter.