Indian movies are embracing the fact that real relationships can be messy because individuals are.
Late last year, there was a movie that left some audiences confused, others stunned. Is this really from Karan Johar, they asked. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was a surprising departure for Johar from his own oeuvre. He made a significant distinction in the movie, between the aashiqs and dosts in life, a distinction that he had never touched upon in his previous films. Pyar mein junoon hai, par dosti mein sukoon hai (Love has pain, friendship has contentment), says Alizeh, the film’s female lead, played by Anushka Sharma. But her dost, Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor), wants to be her aashiq, giving her much dard in the process. He shoves, lashes out, and blackmails her in between meting out some unconditional support. He leaves, comes back, only to find nothing has changed in how Alizeh feels about him. She loves him, but it is a love without the desire of sexual expression. Much of his behaviour borders on abuse, but Alizeh accepts him because she feels they share something precious. It was a powerful portrayal; the narrative went beyond reciprocal love, usually initiated by a man who wills the woman into it. Here, instead, was a woman with agency, even someone who realised that she has an affinity for destructive relationships. She makes that choice actively.
When Ae Dil Hai Mushkil released, I was afraid to admit I actually liked it. It embraces the fact that real relationships can be messy because individuals are. There is no glory in this; only a crushing truth. It also inadvertently conveyed that when women don’t conform to gendered roles in romantic relationships – keeping the peace and hence holding back their own feelings – there is conflict. What was of concern, however, was how the audience was going to read it. Were they going to see this is as a championing of such a relationship? Would they see Kapoor’s actions as legitimate because there is such a thing as male entitlement? Or were they going to see in Sharma a reflection of every woman who ruined a man’s life by “leading” him on?
Just a few months before the movie released there was an incident in Chennai where a woman was hacked to death at a railway station by a man she had allegedly spurned. Several social media responses, to my shock, vilified the woman. She had somehow conjured up the devil within him, he was barely culpable, they suggested. There continue to be acid attacks on women from jilted lovers, hardly leading to any remark.
In such a social context, how does a movie like Ae Dil Hai Mushkil sit with its audience?
Darker realms of experience have found a relatively safer home in literature. There’s a nuance that characterises great work, resistant therefore to allegations of advocating the harmful. In Shashi Deshpande’s Small Remedies, she writes about a 15-year-old girl who has sex with her father’s friend. The man initiates, she reciprocates. In her own words, she was not a victim but a participant in the act. Later, unable to bear the shame of what had transpired, the man commits suicide. The girl carries the baggage of that experience well into adulthood, unable to make sense of it because what felt natural to her was deemed a crime by society. The novel tries to make the point, subtly, that there are experiences that don’t fit within society’s moral framework. Some are above its perception. Art hence cradles these outcasts.
Film is, on the other hand, a mass medium that speaks a visual language. It takes a discerning eye to understand it, and when layered, becomes vulnerable to sometimes dangerous interpretation. In Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai, another recent movie on a romance gone awry, almost until the intermission it seemed to be romanticising an abusive relationship. It took much longer for me to realise it could as easily be seen as mocking tropes of romance in Indian cinema, in whose repertoire hurdles to love are embodied in a villain who has no redeemable quality. Love triumphs over external barriers – family, society, psychopaths with ulterior motives. The devil, then, was never within. So what happens when it rears its ugly head once the rituals of love are over – the flying, the dancing, the flattery (all pretty literal in Kaatru Veliyidai)? How do two flawed individuals – a narcissist and an empath in this case – negotiate each other?
Commercial elements of the film failed to convey the shrewd parody behind them. If there was an underlying critique of the deep sexism behind the imagination of female characters in mainstream cinema, that too suffers given the confused narrative and shoddy execution. And the ending? What are we to make of that? Is it blind conformity to the template of romance in Indian cinema, or is it a continued mockery of it? There is little reason given for us to believe VC (the male lead) is a transformed man, and if there is, it is hidden under many layers that need to be purposefully peeled.
More profoundly, I asked myself, is Ratnam making the point that women do continue to stay in abusive relationships?
The problem with commercial cinema is its license to portray morally ambiguous themes risks social consequence from problematic interpretations of it – of unintentionally validating these choices in a social context where women already endure violence. And if it does take these subjects up (and I think it should), it needs to salvage them with filmmaking that is packaged with astuteness – embracing complexity but still conscious of the context in which its audiences are situated.
It is fascinating though that at a time when feminism is intervening on every possible platform to call out sexism, misogyny and inequality, there are stories turning to a difficult realism that upset the cause. This is the tension between social reality and artistic exploration. Among the many questions, those we must be asking are why the Leelas or Alizehs – strong, independent, self-aware women – making the kind of choices they do? Do we know them in our lives? The answer to this question may lie in the complexity of a life lived and not just in a social movement, however virtuous its ideals.
Niharika Mallimadugula is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. She writes on books, gender and occasionally, sport.