25 January 2015

The big, bad Indian wedding

Today's Mirror column
Even as we (and much of our cinema) continue to bask in the reflected revelry of the band-baaja-baaraat, a few films are beginning to suggest that something is rotten in the state of the shaadi


When we first meet the eponymous heroine of Dolly ki Doli, she seems sweet as saccharine, pushing her Jat boyfriend away with convincing good-girl-ness as he moves in for a kiss, even as she bats her eyelashes jauntily and eggs him on to confront her ex-army dad. Within twenty minutes or less, the full family drama has unfolded, the shaadi has taken place, and the groom and his parents are waking groggily up to a house emptied of all its valuables. Because Dolly is not what she seems - she may tailor herself perfectly to play the part of the sundar susheel agyakari bride, mildly tweaked to fit different families, but she is actually on the Delhi Police 'Wanted' list under the tag of 'Looteri Dulhan'. 

The film starts well but gets repetitive, Sonam Kapoor tries but really just isn't capable of providing interiority for a complicated character like this one, and there are liberal loopholes in the plot. But what I'm interested in here is the fact of why the idea of a bride-who-wasn't feels like such a particularly good one. 

Nearly a hundred years after Margaret Mitchell created Scarlett O'Hara, there's still something powerfully subversive about a girl smart enough to reel in the boys hook, line and sinker, simply by letting them think they're smarter. But what makes Dolly's triumphs so astonishingly satisfying is watching her sheath her claws as the ostensibly obedient, repressed creature a good bahu is meant to be, only to let it rip at the mummyjis when the time comes. And unlike real life, or a saas-bahu serial, there isn't half a lifetime to wait: in every case, payback time is just the morning after. 

But wait, they haven't done anything to Dolly, so what is she paying them back for? Aren't these boys and their families just innocent dupes? Ah, therein lies the rub. The success of Dolly ki Doli, like Habib Faisal's Daawat-e-Ishq (2014), depends on it being commonly understood that marriage in India is a market, and a market loaded so heavily and unfairly in favour of the bride-takers that the bride-givers are being driven to illegalities. 

Daawat-e-Ishq established the unpleasantness of Indian bride-takers with its very first scene: the sour-faced mother-in-law-to-be demanding unpayable amounts of dowry, even as the grotesquely out-of-line son quizzes his prospective bride (Parineeti Chopra) about her sexual experience. 

To our great joy, Chopra's feisty Gullu kicks that lot out of her house, and several other arranged marriage parties. But when a boy she's actually in love with turns out to be no better than the rest, Gullu decides that hereon, she's going to be the one doing the duping. This leads up to the film's most entertaining sequence, as the lower middle class mall salesgirl and her law clerk father (Anupam Kher) pretend to be a Dubai-returned heiress and her millionaire dad - fictitious prize bait, in effect, for greedy dowry-seekers. 

Faisal's film succumbed to a love story as its resolution, pitting the angry-at-the-world Gullu against the genuinely in-love-with-her Taru (Aditya Roy Kapur) and forcing Gullu to melt. Dolly ki Doli doesn't do that, but it does serve up a half-baked back-story about having been stood up by a bridegroom as part-explanation for Dolly's life as a trickster. There is a faint echo here of Queen, another film from last year where being ditched at the wedding mandap ends up being the trigger for a till-then-innocent young woman to turn her life around. 

Queen is probably the most well-conceived of these films, perhaps because it doesn't set out to have a sting in its tail -- and so we're not disappointed when all Kangana Ranaut's Rani does to her prospective mother-in-law is to tell her she isn't coming along to join the stuffy life of her stuffy household anytime soon. 

Dolly, unfortunately, is made to mouth much more radical sounding lines as "I'd rather be in a real jail than in your shaadi ka jail", which Sonam Kapoor doesn't quite make believable, even when the film steers successfully clear of a romantic copout ending. 

Daawat-e-Ishq deprived us of an individual villain in the end, by gifting Gullu a young wealthy man who loves her for herself. But like in Dolly, there was some uncomfortable laughter in the cinema as people watched their money-grabbing, son-inflating, bride-taker selves held up to ridicule. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of Gullu and Dolly, Hindi cinema is onto a malaise that's real. And laughter might be what makes the medicine go down.

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