22 September 2014

Of Dowries and Denouements

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Dowry had almost vanished from our cinema, even as it continues to rock real lives. Daawat-e-Ishq takes on a messily difficult subject, and despite many misses, hits upon some inconvenient truths.

A still from Daawat-e-Ishq (2014)
The trailers of Daawat-e-Ishq were intent on making us believe it was a film about food and love. The film, on the other hand, is intent on making us believe that it is a film about dowry. Depending on how sympathetic you are to the imagined pressures on a fine filmmaker like Habib Faisal (and how susceptible you are to the imagined pleasures of a fine biryani), you might accept Daawat-e-Ishq as both these things - or neither. 

If you intend to watch the film, this paragraph contains spoilers. Parineeti Chopra stars as Gulrez "Gullu" Kadir, a Hyderabadi "school topper" who works as a shoe salegirl and dreams of training in the US as a shoe designer. Gullu and her court clerk father (a marvellously subtle Anupam Kher) spend the film's first hour or so dealing with the humiliating dowry demands of largely unsuitable boys. Then Gullu devises a two-birds-with-one-stone scheme, with which she will both fulfil her American dream and take revenge on the male species. Father and daughter assume fake identities as Dubai-based millionaires, and head to Lucknow to find a rich bakra whom Gullu will first marry and then file a dowry harassment case against, under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. But the lamb to the slaughter is restaurant-owner Tariq "Taru" Haider, a rather winsome fellow who turns out not to be the money-minded brat they'd set out to phansao... you get the drift. 

In the much-maligned 1980s, when filmmakers did decide to make a film about dowry, at least they didn't beat around the bush. Anwar Pasha's Dulha Bikta Hai (1982), for instance, cast a woebegone Raj Babbar as a cash-strapped elder brother who marries off two sisters without dowries by pretending that he will marry the sisters of both grooms. When the hapless girls are turned out of their marital homes, and Babbar must now raise money by selling himself as a groom. It is a heavy-handed drama with a bizarre denouement, but as with many other 1980s films, DBH does not shy away from depicting the nastiness and violence of the Indian family. One sasur maligns his daughter-in-law's morals and beats her up with a cane; another mother-in-law is actually shown trying to set the daughter-in-law on fire. Of course, we were as invested in happy endings then as now, but filmmakers seemed to trust us with digesting some brutal stuff along the way. 

A still from Dulha Bikta Hai (1982)
This seems no longer to be the case, at least not in mainstream Bollywood. Think back to the Hindi movie weddings you've watched in the last few years. Even if one sets aside love marriages, where let's assume dowry plays no role, we've had quite a variety of views of arranged marriages, from wedding planners (Band Baaja Baaraat) to the paid fake baraati (Shuddh Desi Romance). Intentionally or not, these films provide a pretty good sense of the economics of weddings. But dowry almost never comes up. (I'm not counting the ridiculous - eg. Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya, with an entire plot driven by Alia Bhatt's quest for a Rs 5 lakh wedding lehnga.) 

Before Daawat-e-Ishq, I can think of one film this year that dealt with dowry: coincidentally another Alia Bhatt starrer, Two States. There Bhatt got to do a bit of grandstanding as the feisty TamBrahm who shows the money-minded Punjabis how not to behave. I'm all for showing down dowry-seekers, but making it seem that dowry figures only among rapacious Punjabis belies the fact that dowry harassment cases are high (and rising) all across India, including Tamil Nadu. (In 2013 alone, Tamil Nadu recorded 118 dowry deaths, and 6,008 women in the state filed harassment petitions against their spouses with district collectors, police and dowry prohibition officers, under the Dowry Prohibition Act.) 

Daawat-e-Ishq doesn't have that problem. As anew-age Muslim social (the second this year, after the charming Bobby Jasoos), it seems keen to both create a recognizably Muslim universe and simultaneously have it pass as pan-religious. So, for instance, we have a whole film about dowry among Muslims - like BJ, D-e-I chooses not to have non-Muslim characters - without any mention of meher: the mandatory gift of money or property given to the bride by the groom in a Muslim wedding. The meher can be a token amount, or it can be a significant sum, but either way, director Habib Faisal appears to want not to distract audiences with such complicated facts. 

One wishes Faisal, whose previous work includes the middle class comic gem Do Dooni Chaar and the flawed but memorable Ishaqzaade, wasn't trying so hard to be uncomplicated. Because the dowry issue isn't. For one, dowry takers and dowry-givers aren't as clearly separable from each other as we'd like - as Dulha Bikta Hai's 'exchange' solution showed, the same family might be a chest-thumping recipient for their son, and revert to supplication when it comes to their daughter. All of society is in on the game. 

Daawat-e-Ishq tries to take a more consciously woman-centric position, grounded in a view of our society as skewed against women. The film's understanding of 498A is muddled, and tragically misinforms its audience. But by showing the frustrated ladkiwale consciously choosing to abuse a legal provision created to safeguard women against domestic violence (including but not limited to dowry-related harassment), it unwittingly reveals how the law is often treated as another weapon in the sad battlefield of Indian marriage.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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