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Chiffon dreams RIP

"I can't believe you liked that film." Have you also had to hear that after watching Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, asks Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2006 03:45 IST
THIRD EYE | Barkha Dutt
THIRD EYE | Barkha Dutt

‘I can’t believe you liked that film.” Have you also had to hear that after watching Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna? Some people look at you with the disapproval that’s reserved for the depraved. Though I am allergic to gender generalisations, I have to concede that this outrage emanates mostly from women. These are the mothers and daughters who come to the movies to find the cinematic equivalent of their favourite Mills and Boon romance. Instead, they find that their chiffon dreams of love have been thrown into a washing machine, spun around in the roughness of real life, and then, hung out to dry. What they are left holding is not the soft, pastel pink of dream sequences, but the sturdy gray of everyday life.

Others, and these are mostly my friends, are caught up in the craft of the film. Too long, too tedious, too confused: that’s their verdict. When I tell them that I enjoyed the film, they look at me with the disdain reserved for girls who are first, ditzy enough to read Cosmopolitan and then, quote chapter and verse from ‘How to keep your Man’. In short, they think I’ve lost it.

But here’s the truth. Not only did I have fun watching KANK, I actually thought that for a mainstream film, it had at least a few moments that challenged convention; moments that cajoled us out of our comfort zones.

By now, even those of you who haven’t seen the film probably know the story. It’s a tale of two marriages gone wrong for no apparent reason — no abuse, no malevolent mother-in-law, and no infidelity (to begin with). Yet, one half of each couple feels an acute emotional alienation and a sharp sense of drift within their relationships; and they begin looking for love outside their marriages. Presiding over this universe of chaos is ‘Sexy Sam’, a philandering patriarch played by Amitabh Bachchan.

In many ways — and depending on your point of view, this can be good or bad — the film is still trademark Karan Johar. So, as always, it’s a world peopled only by the super-rich. The houses are palaces; the women are wrinkle-free; the car can only be a Ferrari. Central Park may as well be Lodhi Garden because, in Johar’s imagined New York, there are only Indians (and a few white blondes to drape themselves around the brown men). In this wonderland, women wear Versace to vacuum-clean their floors and lipstick to brush the lint off their sofas.

But remember, this is a filmmaker who virtually created the persona of the Urban Conservative. His earlier films have always glamorised tradition and chosen duty over desire. The entire plot of his second film revolved around an authoritarian father who stopped talking to his son for daring to marry the woman he loved.

It’s ironic that it was Amitabh Bachchan who played that dictatorial parent because, in this film, his is the voice of gentle tolerance. His character has the wistful wisdom of a man who has lived long enough to understand the innate complexity of human relationships. Amitabh’s Sam catches his daughter-in-law cheating on her husband. Yet, in the final moments before he dies, he gently encourages her to walk out on his son, her husband; otherwise, he says, she will be depriving them both of a chance of genuine fulfillment. There’s no judgment, no recrimination, just sadness at the inevitability of it all. That one scene, I thought, was pretty radical not just for Johar, but for popular cinema anywhere, anytime.

Sure, there are problems with many of the characterisations and plot resolutions. For a film that claims to be all about the conflict between passion and friendship, the director seems far too defensive about setting the stage for the adulterous affair. And eventually it’s not as if the grandeur of love obliterates the duties of domesticity — neither lover walks out of their marriages; instead they are thrown out and left with no option.

But, for God’s sake, it is a Hindi film, with its usual share of melodramatic absurdities. Why should it be otherwise?

If you don’t go looking for ponderous art, you may find yourself surprised by many of the moments. There’s the embittered darkness of the Shah Rukh Khan character who vents his anger on his child; there’s his feisty wife who is so consumed by her career that she forgets to show up for their son’s school functions; there’s the illicit relationship of the couple who check into a motel for sex; and at the end of it all, instead of judgment, there is forgiveness and friendship.

On a recording of We the People, Shah Rukh Khan made an interesting point: he said he had chased other men’s wives in more than 35 films, so he couldn’t understand why this film has evoked this kind of scrutiny. He wondered if it was because KANK isn’t just about the greedy, perennially hungry, male libido and the ever-suffering wife. Were we all so hot and bothered, he asked, because we weren’t quite ready to believe that the wife could be just as restless and dissatisfied?

Listening to the other panelists on the show, I wondered if the film was somewhat confused in its resolution, precisely because we too are confused. Writer Shobhaa De, for instance, argued that infidelity was a “non-issue” for today’s generation, but the institution of marriage was just as entrenched as it ever was. Others proclaimed on national television that “everybody cheats”. And then there were the husband and wife who said they still held hands after 25 years of marriage, and that was, quite simply, good enough for them. Needless to say, there was a collective sigh of envy and the show ended with only one conclusion — there is no singular truth that defines our relationships anymore.

Modernity has simultaneously created more freedom and more fear; we like the space to write our own rules, but sometimes wish we had a roadmap for life; we shun social norms but still look for security; and we like the adventure of a restless life but still want to be rooted.

One in every hundred marriages in India ends in divorce. But the search for a suitable boy is still a national pastime.

And somewhere in the conflict zone between the head and the heart lie all our lives.

The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

First Published: Aug 19, 2006 03:45 IST