15 September 2016

Again and again and again

My Mirror column:

A plot-heavy romance uses time travel to look at love in the long term — which means the here and now.

Nitya Mehra's Baar Baar Dekho is the second Hindi film by a woman director to hit theatres in consecutive weeks - and it shows. Last week saw the release of Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, whose darkly comic provocations came lined with deep insight into how it feels to be human these days. This week's film is much more consciously 'mainstream' -- a love story between two good looking people with the predictably Punjabi Khatri names that Bollywood clings to with such tenacity. But the relationship between Diya Kapoor (Katrina Kaif) and Jai Varma (Sidharth Malhotra) is seen through a woman's eyes, and that makes it different from most relationships we've seen on the Hindi film screen.

There's a cool time-travel plot, which helps keeps things light. The future as a way to add visual interest -- Bahai-temple-shaped electric cremations and hologram-style projections of phone calls -- can sometimes seem lame, but it isn't too distracting. On a more emotional plane, Jai's recurring befuddlement at having been catapulted into some time he doesn't recognize makes sure that laughs are always around the corner. But make no mistake, this is a film with urgent, important things to say about love - not the sweep-you-off-your-feet, first-flush adoration that Hindi films have helped turn into our collective imagination, but the show-up-and-stay-around variety that seems to be as hard to find in life as it is on screen.

The characterisation isn't particularly subtle. So the cerebral man who wants to live his life 'logically' is represented by an actual mathematician-—frantically crunching numbers with his head even when it's his heart that's in danger. The absent-minded professor is so absent-minded that he actually 'forgets' large chunks of the life he's lived. Another man, another problem: the fellow who constantly inflates his class status goes from needing to deny to his best friend that he's travelling Economy Class to having to deny to his wife that he's actually flipping burgers for a living. Meanwhile the rich businessman father-in-law's large-hearted offers of 'support' are an obvious way of showing down his son-in-law's more limited income.

But what Mehra's film maps with warmth and insight is a relationship dynamic most middle class Indian women are likely to recognize all too easily -- and let's face it, subtlety might not work too well if the idea is to get the men in the audience to see it too.

So it's probably strategic that Baar Baar Dekho hits us on the head with its portrait of the checked-out husband. The sweet-faced, mostly even-tempered Jai seems like the perfect catch -- except that he seems to spend most of his life behaving like he's trying to escape.

He's the man who's always so preoccupied with the 'big things' that every other part of the couple's life together becomes relegated to 'small stuff'-- which somehow makes it the woman's sole responsibility. I mean the man who wafts along, letting his partner take charge of all decisions about their everyday domestic arrangements and social life, because he really couldn't be bothered -- until he suddenly, angrily, is. You know, the man who all his work colleagues would agree is a nice guy, and hardworking too -- except he never seems to see that relationships at home need niceness and hard work, too.

Among the other things the film does with comic finesse is to highlight how wrong men get it when they try to define what being a good partner is. Even at the very last calamitous moment, when faced with the question 'What can I do to fix my marriage?' the always overwhelmed Jai can only come up with a negative injunction to himself: 'Don't have an affair'. Which isn't exactly wrong, Mehra's film seems to say -- but it's very far from being enough. Because being a good husband, as every woman who has ever beaten her head against her partner's incomprehension knows, can't just mean not being a 'bad' one. It isn't just about not beating up your wife, not cheating on her, or not endangering your children's lives. A healthy, happy, loving relationship needs positive words and actions—and not words and actions that are wrenched from you after seventeen reminders, but voluntary things that you do because you want to be in the relationship.

Being there for someone can't just be a theoretical thing in the back of your head, which you're sure you'll do when the time comes. Being there in a relationship means being there every day. Not just because that keeps it alive and well, but because once you stop doing it every day, you'll find you don't even notice when the time does come.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 Sep 2016.

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