Mukti

Stranger things

Posted in Bollywood, culture, movies by jrahman on January 22, 2017

If Shakespeare was writing it today, Hamlet might well have said to his friend Horatio that there are stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.  Strangers in strange lands, that is how many of us feel about the world we live in.  Being a quantitative, analytical person using well established frameworks and models to make sense of the world, I can not possibly think of a stranger thing than the reality of President Trump.

No.  That’s not right.

I can think of far stranger things.  Stranger things that are far more uplifting than politics.  What is strange but that which is difficult to explain?  What is then stranger than how people fall in, after failing in and falling out of, love?

Falling in love, that’s dime a dozen, though romantic tragedies are bigger hits than happily-ever-afters.  Falling out of love, that’s rarer, definitely not quite your standard traditional Bollywood fair.  Love outside loveless marriage — that only used to happen in arty stuff starring Shabana Azmi.  Except for that Big B vehicle to extricate himself from a real life triangle, how many mainstream Bollywood pics  about extramarital affair can you think of?

Of course, traditions change.  Bollywood changed forever with Dil Chahta Hai.  And what better way to show that than through how love and marriage are treated in two Karan Johar directed Shah Rukh Khan starrers named after yesteryear hits?

It’s been well over two decades since Khan acted as the big-hearted who took the bride.  I guess it’s a sign of my age that I use the word ‘classic’ to describe a mid-1990s film, but surely it’s a classic if even Barack Obama couldn’t help himself … you know what I mean.

The movie emphasises the classic Desi ideals — not the star-cross’d lovers of the west who defy family, but a love that is sanctified with parental, or is it paternal, blessing.*  Khan scored big in that movie not because he elopes with the girl, but because he shows up during her wedding preparation, to another man, and seeks approval of the patriarch.  His own father tells him to run away with the girl, as does the girl’s mother.  But he refuses.

Full disclosure here — I have never watched the whole movie in one sitting, am not really fond of SRK, and none of the women I have been with has particularly approved of the movie’s message.  And yet, as a Desi youth of that era, I can say quite confidently that standing firmly but respectfully before her dad — guys wanted be that guy, because girls wanted a guy like that.  Khan’s character’s transformation from a beer swelling brat to the embodiment of Desi tradition — why, there is something distinctly Gandhi about it all, as is the scene towards the end where he is beaten, but refuses to strike back.

Yes, I can see a sort of point to it all.  Some kinda moral courage.  Or something.

Well, that was then.  Over a decade later, and slightly over a decade ago, Johar had another huge hit with Khan.  But Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna makes a very different, as evidenced by its promotional tag A love…. that broke all relationships.

Okay, let’s not get carried away here.  This is still a big budget Bollywood melodrama, by which I mean it isn’t sure whether it’s a comedy or a serious drama.  As the NYT review put it at the time: the rainstorms are a little rainier than real life; the wind machines are cranked up an extra notch; the close-ups get closer and linger longer than usual….  You get the idea.  Khan is still Khan — playing the same stuttering idiot he plays in countless other films before or since.  And there is an entire sub plot involving Amitabh Bachchan that, while consistent with the issues covered in the film, never quite gels with the movie’s main story.

And what are these issues?  The movie asks what makes or breaks a marriage, and how do we fall in love.

Let’s take each one at a time.

Arguably the film’s most important character is not played by Khan, but Rani Mukherji, married to Abhishek Bachchan.  Bachchan is a jovial fellow who seems to genuinely love his wife, but knows very well that something is wrong because, well there is no spark in bed — yes, they actually show this — and he understands that she married him because it was the socially expected thing to do — the least worst option, a samjhota, as he points out during a fight.  And, oh, she can’t have kid.

She meets Khan, first on her wedding day, then years later.  Life had been unkind to him career wise, and his wife Preity Zinta is the breadwinner.  They do have a kid, and it would appear that he needs to do more on the child rearing front than many Desi dads would be accustomed to.  He is always angry, clearly resenting Zeinta, and life in general.

It’s quite clear why these marriages are loveless.  If we are inclined to think in terms of goodies and baddies — as Bollywood would typically want us to do — then perhaps we would expect Mukherji to learn to love Bachchan over time, or Khan to work on his anger and see Zeinta not as emasculating him, but as his hardworking partner.

The Johar-Khan of DDLJ would have made a movie where Khan and Mukherji strike up a friendship, and help each other fix their marriages.  And for a while, that’s exactly what happens.  They talk to each other about their problems, suggest solutions — for her to spice things up, for him to relax and breath.  They even try to implement these ideas.

But then they realise that it is to each other that they are attracted.  And very unusual for any movie, we actually see the process by which they fall in love — not at first sight, but over many, many conversations through which they learn about themselves.  By the time we see them in love, we realise that the tag line is all wrong — it’s not their love that broke the marriages, rather they could only fall in love because the marriages were already irreparably broken.

Without giving away the ending — though, if you’re reading this then you probably won’t care about spoilers for a 10-year old Hindi film — this is not a movie where old school goodies vs baddies trope holds.  And this is best realised if we do a mental exercise where the couples are switched.  Suppose Mukherji is married to Khan and has a kid.  But she still married him because of social expectations, and he is still angry and resentful about life.  Meanwhile, suppose Bachchan-Zeinta are unhappy because the two want different things in life — he is happy to be in the moment, she is driven to achieve professional success.   In this alternate setting, if Mujherji and Bachchan struck up a friendship, could love have blossomed?

What ifs on a Bollywood movie — now that’s meta!  Let’s get a bit more grounded.  The movie argues, emulating DCH, that we only have one life, so we shouldn’t hang on to something when it clearly isn’t working, we shouldn’t force ourselves to cherish something just because we have it.  Rather, we should live our life, and let life unfold — maybe it will bring something you will cherish.

Dear reader, there really are stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.  It’s never too late to talk to someone, for friendship, for making love on a rainy day.

Let life be.

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*Update

My special friend notes that Khan’s approach is indeed quite sexist.  The bride’s father’s approval is needed.  Why?  Isn’t the mother enough?  My friend goes on to note that a cool (and progressive) movie would have SRK working hard on the girl’s mother’s approval while the father encourage the couple to elope.

She is right, of course.

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