We’ve lost that loving feeling
Friday was a dark day for film reviewers. For the masochists who are fans of Bollywood, Imtiaz Ali’s lazy remake of his own film Love Aaj Kal (he couldn’t even be bothered to change the title) was released along with Mohit Suri’s Malang, which fails as a thriller but succeeds as an ode to Aditya Roy Kapur’s chiselled torso and Disha Patani’s waist-hip ratio. South of the Vindhyas, audiences got World Famous Lover, starring Vijay Deverakonda. All three were presented as romances, in the hope of capitalising on a Valentine’s Day release. Fun fact: Saint Valentine, after whom the day is named, is the patron saint of epilepsy. The jury’s out on what would be more pleasant – watching these films or suffering an epileptic attack.
As a genre, romances are dismissed as being trite and frivolous. Yet the fact is nothing makes us happier than seeing two beautiful people coming together. This is why practically every commercial film in India has a romantic angle. The hero’s ostensible purpose may be anything from revenge to saving the nation, but along the way, he must win a good woman’s heart. Malang, for example, is technically about fragile male egos, but to justify the violence that is unleashed, Suri adds a romantic subplot.
A few decades ago, when women could be depicted as damsels in distress who needed heroes to save them, love stories were clearly easier to write because we saw some delightful love stories in popular cinema. Tragic, comic, dramatic – whatever made you tick, there was something for you. In real life, falling in love is a less dangerous project today in India (despite the horror stories that are reported) than it was in preceding eras. Factors like greater individual freedom, improved social mobility and weakening of prejudicial social norms have made it relatively easier for people to act on their attraction. Yet, this new world of empowered individuals seems to be doing nothing for our filmmakers’ imaginations.
For example, the biggest challenge for Love Aaj Kal’s Zoe (Sara Ali Khan), a Delhi-based woman in her 20s, is balancing her career and a romantic relationship. In reality, this is hardly a concern for working women in metropolitan India (especially if they belong to Zoe’s age and demographic). Having a job and a love life, without one cancelling the other out, is normal. What is not normal, on the other hand, is a woman stripping her shirt as an act of bravado during a job interview. Also, if you can only show a woman respect by rejecting her sexually, then what you need is not the love of said woman, but an appointment with a therapist.
This struggle to make sense of contemporary gender norms is also at the heart of World Famous Lover (a title that is not meant ironically, by the way). Gautham (Deverakonda) is a writer and a slob, whose partner (Raashi Khanna) leaves him when she’s had enough of his narcissism. He reacts by writing terrible stories, bashing his own head in, getting drunk and sitting on a bench. Director Kranthi Madhav seems think the role of a woman in a relationship is to indulge her partner and be his maid and nanny. Net result, we get a story that’s less about love and more about a man’s bitterness that his partner temporarily developed a spine and self-respect.
In a society that still shies away from conversations about intimacy, on-screen romances are more than entertainment. They establish codes of behaviour and ideals that audiences imbibe consciously and unconsciously.
This is why well-written romantic comedies are not just excellent entertainment, but a social good. The best of them celebrate difficult women through heroines who turn character traits that are considered undesirable into elements of charm – like Sandhya’s pride in Dum Laga Ke Haisha; Geeta’s defiance in Seeta Aur Geeta; Shruti’s ambition in Band Baaja Baarat; Manju’s love for making mischief in Khubsoorat. Through heroes who are not threatened by these heroines, the films also set up codes for masculinity that are not toxic.
At this year’s Oscars, one of the producers of the Korean film Parasite, which won four awards including Best Picture, Miky Lee thanked Korean audiences for wanting better stories from the film industry and keeping producers and directors from being complacent. Moral of the story: Expect more, demand better – from life and cinema.