Sumati Panikkar is a freelance writer based in Delhi and also pursuing a Ph.D. at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be contacted at sumatipanikkar[at]gmail.com.
Of late, I have been thinking about it; what is love? What is it, really? What defines it, what constitutes it? In what form does it exist? In what form is it not allowed to exist in our society? Who has the liberty to fall in love and who does not?
A couple of days back, we got the distressing news of the separation of two lovers, Ilavarasan and Divya, in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, and ultimately the young man’s death. News of acid attacks on young girls by jilted lovers in towns across the country also continue to pour in regularly.
Then, I also saw Raanjhanaa. A film that most people are hailing as an ode to love in all its selfless, passionate, old-world glory. That is precisely the point that disturbed me about the film. Keeping aside all the absurdities the film represented in the name of JNU and radical student politics for another discussion, I want to talk about the idea of love that is being celebrated by many who saw the film.
It is not that Raanjhanaa is the first or the last film to represent or misrepresent love in mainstream Hindi cinema. Nor is it the first to glorify a certain problematic view of love. One can safely say that it is the Yash Chopras and Karan Johars of India who have contributed to such superficial, watery notions of love and attraction that two entire generations brought up on obsessive doses of Bollywood can be considered beyond repair. And then there are the David Dhawans, who have mastered the art of passing off vulgar abusive molestation and objectification of women as the rightful terrain of a man who lusts after a particular woman. I want to single out Raanjhanaa because it comes with the now-familiar pretence of ‘realistic, intelligent yet entertaining mainstream cinema‘. One of the reasons for this euphemistic tag is that both of director Aanand L Rai’s films (Tanu weds Manu and Raanjhanaa) have been based in small towns of north India with very witty and engaging dialogues that a large section of audience, fed up of NRI-obsessed Bollywood, finds relatable and charming. Besides, small town is the new flavour of the suspect new small-budget, ‘independent’, ‘intelligent’ cinema (all of these tags are debatable). After watching Raanjhanaa, I was truly boggled, because here was a film that pretended to be something so deep (whether it’s the statements about love or politics) and yet, it was so regressive (Recall last year’s Ishaqzaade, where inter-religious love in a small town blossoms but involves a hero who is strikingly misogynistic, deceiving the feisty Muslim female lead into a sexual relationship). Our largely feudal society has never let women define what love means, or should mean for them. The maximum that she can aspire for is still within the definitions that Indian films have set for them. You can choose between your stalker, or the one you have met twice and fallen for, either for his good looks or simplicity. And here was a film which reinforced these stereotypes and justified much that cannot be justified.
What was this diehard love our hero Kundan stood for? Follow her around to her school; to her house; stare at her, hold her hand forcibly. If she does not want to be with you, pursue and tire her into acceptance. Slash your wrists and force her to say ‘yes’ to you. If she does not want to be with you, she is plain heartless and vicious. Kundan’s love grows over a decade, but I was left wondering what it was based on for it to be considered so pure? Did he ever try to have a conversation with her beyond the ‘I love you’ talk? Is he shown even once trying to understand her mind and her emotions? Rai’s is not a simple portrayal of how things are in society, it is a plain glorification of the stalker pretending to be a lover. In some interviews, the director justifies this, saying that this is how love works in small towns. So let’s get this straight: in small towns, women can only find love if they relent to an idiotic stalker? For the director and the scriptwriter’s enlightenment, let us each pledge to introduce them to at least a couple of women friends from ‘small towns‘ who would never give in to something like this; who would instead stand for their right to love out of choice, and would gather courage to confront the stalkers and the romeos who masquerade their idiocy as love. Let us tell him endearing stories of ‘small town love‘ that entail dignified equality, mutual respect, mutual flirting and mutual chasing.
But how much sense of reality does it need to realize that an infinitely higher number of women are manipulated by men into unequal and violent relationships, than the other way around. Anyone care to represent that on cinema?
However, the truth is also, that even the bravest girl confronting stalkers can have acid thrown at her face, because she refused to accede to sheer harassment. Or have threats come her way each day; or be sexually assaulted by a ‘rejected’ man. Dhanush’s character was so well-performed that it is hard for the viewers to hate him or think that the ‘sweet innocence’ he portrayed so endearingly was akin to stalking or violent behaviour. But how is it any different from the behaviour and logic of the acid- throwers of our society?
After Raanjhanaa, I also went back and watched Tanu weds Manu again. And I was not surprised. Tanu is another attractive, spoilt, manipulative mahila. Manu is a sweet, simple engineer. An absurd man who fell in ‘love at first sight’ with Tanu while she was in deep sleep under sedatives: and while at it, also creepily plants a kiss on the unsuspecting unconscious girl’s cheeks. Mr. Manu continues to be a forlorn, committed lover, but Tanu turns out to be a deeply vicious ‘modern girl’ with a boyfriend or two. To add to it, she is outspoken, and drinks and smokes too. She manipulates our poor little Manu all the way, uses him, and leads him on.
Which leads me to the other thing that really troubled me since it stood out as so contrived in the script. The subtle demonizing of the female leads in both these films. The girls’ character being manipulative, whether Tanu or Zoya, is not a coincidence. It seems to me to reflect the writer and director’s subtle chauvinism. It does not make any sense to me why a girl (in both films) would ‘use’ the person whom she has rejected twice and thrice over to get her marriage and relationship issues sorted out? There can perhaps be hundreds of such women in real life, and it sure seems like Mr. Rai has met only such women. But how much sense of reality does it need to realize that an infinitely higher number of women are manipulated by men into unequal and violent relationships, than the other way around. Anyone care to represent that on cinema? Domestic violence, marital rape, emotional trauma that women undergo in marriages or relationships in our patriarchal society, whether in small towns, or big cities? I suppose demonic women make it easier to get a clap and whistle from an audience full of men.
Tanu is so ‘selfish’ that you would hate her for being so assertive, and sympathize with the quiet romeo, Manu. Zoya is so ‘manipulative’ that after being ‘used’ by her twice, Kundan twists her hand, grits his teeth and tells her: it is not she that is special, but it is his love for her that is magnanimous (So, I suppose she should be thankful to him for stalking her). And his hurt ego also vengefully promises her that he is ready to marry a bitch, a kutiya on the same day as Zoya’s wedding to a person she loves. It is not very soothing to know that the kutiya he chooses for his revenge is his childhood friend Bindiya, a girl in love with him, who he beats up and uses over and over. Never mind that Kundan’s manipulation and mistreatment of Bindiya is always portrayed as comic and justified, not as mean and vicious which is reserved for Zoya alone. The worst and completely unnecessary dialogues come when Abhay Deol’s character Jasjeet, beaten to a pulp after the most ridiculous attempt at inter-religious marriage, and Kundan, the one responsible for him being beaten up, in a touching moment of male bonhomie share their grievances against Zoya. “In ladkiyon ke dimag ke hisab se kuch karna nahi chahiye,” says the student leader. Kundan replies holding his head in distress, “Haan, main bhi isi chakkar mein maara gaya”. Someone please enlighten me how the ladki here was responsible for all the selfishness and insensitivity and violence that Kundan indulged in towards herself as well as her boyfriend? Oh I forgot, galti toh hamesha ladki ki hoti hai! Throughout the film I was cringing at the blatant violence of it. This ‘love’ that so many women in our society have been at the receiving end of. In this film, Zoya did not relent, but it is never portrayed as her legitimate right. It is portrayed as her selfish betrayal of Kundan.
Post interval, Kundan does get introspective, but that would surely not have happened had Abhay Deol’s character not died. On its own, Zoya’s discomfort does not become a reason for Kundan to feel guilt or remorse. His penance also comes by following her to her university, intruding in all her spaces. In the end, Kundan is given the death of a selfless hero, someone who died for love and whose love killed him.
Rai’s love stories also happen entirely in and among Brahmins. Aren’t we tired of the Sharmas, Trivedis and Mishras? (and also the Malhotras, Kapoors and Khannas of YashRaj). Even the Muslim and Sikh characters in Raanjhanaa are upper caste (‘Radical’ student leader Abhay Deol’s family lives in a palatial haveli in Punjab). This is again not solely Rai’s problem, but I cannot help but ask, where is the rest of the population, the majority? Does your glorified small town consist only of upper castes?
On the other hand, Ilavarasan and Divya’s distressing story reveals to us what film makers like Rai, so concerned about ‘true love’, will never talk about, because their universe is peopled with the upper castes- whether rich, poor or middle class. Ilavarasan, in an interview just a few days before his death, spoke poignantly about realizing “ the horrendous nature of caste and the heinous things it is capable of after falling in love”. Almost all Dalits realize the horrendous nature of caste right from their birth, through their education, to every aspect of living and surviving. Ilavarasan, if he had somehow managed to escape the intensity, bumped into deep caste-hatred after his relationship with Divya, who hails from a caste only marginally higher than his own. Ilavarasan said that the two of them had never imagined that their marriage across castes, which blossomed over meetings in the bus on the way to college, would lead to riots that saw 300 Dalit homes burnt and looted in a well-planned and instigated attack. They thought that the angry families would calm down with time, and accept them. Yet, the couple had to live in hiding for months. Divya was under immense pressure by the powerful within her community to leave her husband; and eventually Ilavarasan’s body was found on railway tracks – murder or suicide is anyone’s guess. Love brought them together, caste separated them, and caste alone killed Ilavarasan. Yet, we know that theirs is only one among the innumerable such cases occurring every day in our society.
Bollywood does not need to do much. Even these writers and filmmakers who claim to represent the small town only need to open their eyes to what is happening around them. Read the newspapers, if nothing else. Acid attacks on women by rejected stalkers, lovers separated by feuding families, lovers killed by khap panchayats, inter-caste lovers committing suicides, Dalit lovers killed by upper caste partner’s families. Why is none of this spine-chilling, everyday truth reflected in Bollywood, the so called ‘merchants of love’? (In recent times, I can only recall Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha making a stinging critique of the Yash Chopra variety of caste-less, class-less bubble gum love when two lovers are hacked to death by the girl’s family. Banerjee also manages a slight reference to caste, with the boy presumably being a Dalit). Between candyfloss romance and feudal macho love, where is the space for real and substantial feelings? Or, the very real enemies of love that exist in society?
Love in our society is not breezy. It is not easy. But that is not because a lovelorn stalker does not get attention from the woman he is attracted to. It is because love between two people does not get the right conditions to flourish. It is suffocated, or forced to be hidden. It is up against casteism, gotra-ism, sub-casteism. It exists in a society where who you can or are likely to fall in love with is already circumscribed by caste, class divisions and religious hierarchies. Women are already in much less a position to choose who they love, or to define what is love for them. Women also face molesters, stalkers and harassers every day, whose sick notions of love is inflicted upon us on a regular basis. To expect Bollywood to reflect social reality, or to creatively represent what ought to be, might be too much to ask for, what with rape-rapper Honey Singh becoming the highest-paid pop artist in Bollywood, and rape being normalized as legitimate (we only need to remember popular songs like ‘jora jori chane ke khet main‘). The least they can do is to not pass off selfish violence against women as passionate, selfless love.
Originally published on