Bollywood’s eager to ask crucial marital questions

In Queen’s climax, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) meets Vijay, the man with whom she was once supposed to get married. She’s returned from their honeymoon on which she went alone when he suddenly called off the wedding the day before it was to happen and, now, Vijay and his mother show a renewed interest in her. When she finally comes face-to-face with Vijay, she quietly tucks an engagement ring in his palm. Her eyes light up in nervous excitement; she hugs him, and blurts, “Thank you.” At this moment, a lilting song kicks in, and Rani saunters out of his house. The song (Kinaare) emphasises her exhilaration (we had seen a similar liberating exit four years ago in Udaan, underscored by the song Azaadiyan in a similar context), which can be read as a pithy comment on modern urban relationships: if a relationship corrodes your sense of self, you are better off being alone. The very fact that Queen celebrates Rani’s breaking away — or her coming-of-age — is proof enough that Bollywood is waking up to the realisation that eternal companionship — symbolised by marriage at most times — is not the only desirable end for a film’s lead. And thank god for that: for decades, a large chunk of Bollywood films have obsessed over the protagonists’ collective identity, as if people in a relationship don’t have their individual identities. Which is why Rani’s final few strides in Queen feel so triumphant, because she’s managed to answer the question that often sneaks up on most urban relationships: what should one choose — an undiluted “I” or a compromised “we”?

Queen is a refreshing departure from Bollywood films’ hackneyed plotlines and simplistic ends, but it’s certainly not the only film in the recent times to examine the marital conundrums of young Indians. Consider the 2013 film Shuddh Desi Romance, where the perennially confused, directionless leads negotiate marriage as they would other life concerns: with a healthy mix of hesitancy, cynicism and fearfulness. Companionship makes sense to them; marriage does not. But then they also know that marriage alone has the power to certify their relationship, so they continually flirt with the idea of getting hitched. However, this need for external validation is fundamentally at odds with who they really are — buoyant drifters who only believe in the now, and any notion of constancy — be it professional or personal — gives them the jitters. But characters believing their own truths — or lies — are merely part of the picture, it’s also equally important how the film chooses to see them (and their decisions). Shuddh Desi Romance’s tone is unapologetic; the film revels in its chaos (even at the cost of coming across as farcical in parts), and lets its characters wander and stumble. A parochial middle-class mindset might even dismiss them as cruel: a bunch of people who can’t look beyond themselves. But the film doesn’t look down on them, constantly mitigating their brashness with humour. In the film’s climax, the two leads, Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra), run away from their marriage for the second time and, later, stumble onto each other. Contrary to what one would expect, their conversation is bereft of any awkwardness. In fact, both of them have finally resigned to and accepted their fears of settling down. Despite their reservations about getting married, the film ends on a happy note, debunking the conventional narrative that a romantic relationship needs to be fructified into marriage for it to be fulfilling or meaningful.

Kangana  Ranaut in a still from Queen

Living in constantly changing times, some recent Bollywood characters are also more aware of the uncertainty that rules their lives. This recognition of one’s confusion is vital because it frees the character: he (or she) can function outside the clichéd constrictions of Bollywood genres. Take a scene from Imtiaz Ali’s last film, Highway, where Mahabir, a conflicted abductor, chides Veera, the girl he’s kidnapped, asking what’s really on her mind. Does she even think about the future? What does she ultimately want — to raise his kids? An equally confounded Veera replies that she’s clueless about the future. She only knows about the now: that this feels right; that she likes spending time with him. Mahabir shuts up. After this point, they begin to confide in each other, gradually unveiling their true selves. They also know that marriage cannot be the next natural step for their relationship, and that’s just fine. Marriage is also no longer given an automatic free pass in Bollywood films. At one point in the recently released Daawat-e-Ishq, the female protagonist, Gulrez (Parineeti Chopra), is so fed up of dowry-demanding prospective suitors that she decides to not get married at all. Instead, she plans to swindle an avaricious family on the pretext of marriage, and use that money to pursue a degree in shoe designing in the U.S.

These films and their inventive plot points suggest that the identity of an average 20-something urban Indian is not solely defined by his (or her) marital status: he’s not obligated to do anything, let alone settling down. These films placate us by saying that it’s okay to be lost and not know what one truly wants, that it’s fine to perennially vacillate, that it’s okay to fuck up, and that it’s acceptable to first resolve one’s personal, deeper scars before gravitating towards marriage. Because who knows what really lies beyond the promise of a happily ever after?

An edited version of this piece was published at The Sunday Guardian

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