20 July 2014

How Retro Are Our Romances?

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Our supposedly spunky heroines can't even summon the courage to become someone's dulhaniya. And they've been trying for a very long time.

This week, I watched Bollywood's latest feted love story, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, which many critics have said is a 'sunny', 'winning', 'knowing' tribute to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

In both movies - one released in 1995, the other in 2014 - a young woman on the brink of an arranged marriage takes a final trip with friends and finds herself falling hook, line and sinker for a winsome young man she meets on said trip. But neither Ms Heroine nor her mischievous but golden-hearted lover-boy are willing to abandon their commitment to good-Indian-values to bring their romance to fruition. In both movies, the golden-hearted lover-boy must prove himself worthy by romancing not the girl he loves, but her ogre of a father. In the immortal words of the tag line that characterised the 1990s, at least according to Bollywood: "It's All About Loving Your Parents." 

This is not a film review, and so I will not evaluate Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya - suffice it to say that it's well-acted for the most part, and is good fun while it's being frothy. 

But what emerged loud and clear for me was the fact that nothing has really changed in two decades, except that the spunkiness of our spunky heroine is now proven by: 

(a) being able to guzzle down more bottles of beer than our hero (and not be drunk, thus subverting the famous waking-up-after-drunken-night scene from DDLJ) 

(b) being quite calm about sleeping with a boy she's attracted to, without making a hoo-ha about love or marriage (or babies in a baby carriage), and 

(c) being willing to do absolutely anything - con, burgle, blackmail -- for love... of a lehenga. 

Yes, that's right. A lehenga. To be precise, a designer lehenga. One that costs double what her friend Gurpreet claims to have spent on her wedding lehenga: five lakh rupees to Gurpreet's two and half lakh. And before you ask: no, there is absolutely no sign that writer-director Shashank Khaitan, or anyone in writer-director Shashank Khaitan's intended audience, thinks Kaavya's mission is funny. It is, apparently, exactly this sort of spunk that makes boys like Humpty fall in love with girls with Kaavya. And the friends and fathers of boys like Humpty hand over their life's savings to the Lehenga Contribution Fund of a girl who's marrying someone else. 

But alright, let's leave Mission Mehenga Lehenga aside for the moment. Let us, instead, consider the contemporary coolness of our Kaavyabai Ambale-wali. Drinking, dancing, stealing, wandering around town with boy she's just met, sleeping over and sleeping with aforementioned boy: this is no shrinking violet. And yet she is apparently incapable of speaking up for the love of her life. Even when their romance has been stamped with a five-day expiry-date, she continues to pout and be princessy rather than DO anything. 

I watched a 10pm show of Humpty, and the morning after, while still trying to make sense of why the film annoyed me so, I read this acute piece of film criticism: 

"And what does Ms. Heroine do? She's a literate, educated girl. She knows the problem and the situation confronting her. She is confident enough to spend the night in the same room as a stranger... She then roams the streets with this man. Could she not have fought for her rights, a woman such as her? She could have found a job and truth be told, taken in her lover and supported him. She does nothing. She is afraid, we are told. Of what?" 

I felt vindicated. The writer of the piece continued: "I'm told [it] is a film about society. No doubt it is, because the word "society" appears in it. And perhaps because it addresses the aspect that a woman who has been married off to the wrong fellow should be allowed to romance another man. I'm in favour of this, but I want to see a war being fought for such rights. Some stuff should be broken in anger. A hammer taken to hand and smashed on the problem... Opportunities have to be created to resolve a problem. Why wait for the solution to drift towards your boat?" 

I was thrilled. Someone was finally getting what was so irritating about a film like Humpty. 

Except that the film critic I've been quoting at such length is Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and the film he's venting about is PC Barua's Zindagi, starring Kundan Lal Saigal and Jamuna, and released in 1940. 

Reading Manto on Zindagi, it seems that the only striking difference between the Hindi film heroine of 1940 and 2014 is that the 2014 one can sleep with her boyfriend. But there her rebelliousness ends. Don't get me wrong - I am not suggesting that all filmi heroines must be rebels. Not at all. As in life, so in movies - it takes all sorts to make up the world. But if a film sells us this great rule-breaker, then for God's sake, can we get something slightly more substantial than this pouting girl who - tragedy of tragedies - sells her jhumkas to buy a lehenga? And then waits for her father to have a change of heart and refrain from "ruining her life"? 

As Manto said of a rather similar heroine, rather long ago, "Could she not have fought for her rights, a woman such as her?"

Note: Some typos in the published column have been corrected in this version.

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