20 April 2014

States of the Heart

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

The Punjabi-TamBrahm cross-connection has a long comic lineage in Hindi cinema.
Revathi, Arjun Kapoor and Amrita Singh in a still from 2 States
The protagonists of 2 States - Chetan Bhagat's apparently autobiographical novel in English, and the Hindi film adaptation of it that released last Friday - are an IIT-trained engineer from Delhi and an Economics topper from Chennai. They meet and fall in love in the hallowed precincts of India's Most Wanted educational institution, IIM Ahmedabad. They're wonderfully forthright about their attraction for each other, and it's fun to see them act on their attraction without coyness or melodrama. 

But Krish Malhotra and Ananya Swaminathan's tale of modern love is properly traditional at heart. Cementing their relationship means marriage, and marriage, it seems, means making their families fall in love. This is easier said than done, because the Malhotras and the Swaminathans belong not to two states, but seemingly to two different planets. 

The Punjabi mother insists - contrary to all evidence - that the 'Madrasan' is a dark chudail out to phansao her gora-chitta son, while the Carnatic-loving TamBrahm parents think the Punjabis are terribly uncultured. 

The Punjabis count cars and toss around dowry amounts, while the TamBrahms tot up the number of US-based engineers in the family. The arrows of parochial prejudice are aimed, but not sharply enough. And there's no real takedown of the prejudices either. There are occasional moments when you see what things look might like from the other side - such as when our misnamed hero (have you ever heard of a Delhi Punjabi called Krish?) remarks that 'South Indian' homes look like they've been burgled, with the thieves having left only the sofa behind because they didn't like it. Even here, though, the opportunity is missed to even things out: we never see how stiflingly crowded a middle class Punjabi home might look to the visiting Ananya. 

Though not quite as common as the rich-poor love story, and never quite as epic as love across religious lines, the cross-regional romance has enjoyed some space on the Hindi screen. And the Tamil-Punjabi cross-connection seems to be a particular favourite of the genre. Just last year, we had Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone strike up a relationship aboard Chennai Express, and in 2011, there was the inglorious Ra-One, where Kareena's Sonia is married to Shahrukh's Shekhar Subramaniam, who displays his deep Tam-ness by eating his spaghetti with curd. But the most well-known example is probably K Balachander's 1981 classic Ek Duje Ke Liye, in which Kamal Haasan's TamBrahm boy and Rati Agnihotri's Punjabi girl fall in love in Goa. 

The Tamilians in Hindi movies must, it seems, be Brahmin. The only innocuous reason for this that I can think of is that filmmakers are keen on staging a veg versus non-veg culinary clash. Ek Duje Ke Liye, for example, opened with Haasan's father praying in his garden when the neighbours' eggshells land in his cupped palms. (Interestingly, Balachander first directed the same script in Telugu, about a Tamil boy and a Telugu girl. But I haven't seen Maro Charitra(1978), so I don't know if Haasan's Vasu is TamBrahm in the original.) 

The TamBrahm father and the Punjabi mother in Ek Duje Ke Liye spend a lot of time standing around trading culinary -- and linguistic -- insults. All that seems to remain of those middle class quarrels about garbage, rasois and food smells by the time we get to 2 States is a single awkward scene where Mrs Malhotra (Amrita Singh) makes the mistake of offering Mrs Swaminathan (Revathi) some five-star-hotel chicken, only to be frostily refused. Class, apparently, is not the issue. But in fact when Krish admonishes his mother for suggesting that Ananya's Sunsilk job might mean free shampoo supplies, it is by telling her not to display her middle-class-ness. And much of the plot revolves around the idea that only Punjabis are brash enough to demand and receive dowry. 

The most enjoyable TamBrahm-Punjabi romance I know of is also the oldest: Mohan Segal's New Delhi (1954), starring Kishore Kumar and Vyjanthimala. [See the video for a glimpse of it.] Kishore Kumar plays a young man from Ludhiana who pretends to be Tamilian because everyone in the multicultural national capital wants to rent only to a tenant from their own community. 

The film quietly extends the community question beyond the problems of one single couple - the divide of biraadari plagues the rental market as much as the office. Also, while TamBrahms may be invested in singing and dancing, and its Bengali may be a painter, the film refuses to give those stereotypes any sting in the tail. 

But New Delhi makes few claims to realism either - neither the bharat-natyam-dancing Janaki nor her Tamil-speaking father can apparently see through Anand Khanna's rather thin disguise as Anand Kumaraswamy. Later Janaki herself successfully masquerades as Punjabi, trading in her flower veni for a parandi and her bharatnatyam for bhangra. It's as if these external markers are all that matter. 

The film is an unapologetic comedy, it offers no grand critical commentary on the vexed subject of identity. But there's a minor character in the film whose business involves passing off vanaspati as pure ghee. He is shown carefully filling it in tins from Porbander or Mathura, and he offers us this wonderful aside: "It's the labels that matter, who cares about the stuff inside?" I have yet to hear a more gently ironic comment on community identity.

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