Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Befikre: What the latest Bollywood fare misses about ‘modern love’

The focus is on protagonists own struggle with love and relationships; there is little or no involvement of parents or for that matter even society.

Written by Swati Saxena | Updated: December 25, 2016 6:52 am
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(Spoilers ahead). The similarities between ADHM and Befikre released within months of each other are many. These are both set outside India, in the cosmopolitan microcosm of present day London and Paris. The focus is on protagonists own struggle with love and relationships; there is little or no involvement of parents or for that matter even society. This is to an extent that Alizeh’s and Ayan’s parents are virtually absent from ADHM and Dharam’s mother is not even invited to his wedding towards the end of Befikre. Money is not an issue; how these protagonists are able to sustain the extravagant lifestyles and apartments are never fully explained apart from some hint towards parental contributions.

The assortment of jobs: tour guide, stand up comedian, aspiring singer etc. do not match the extravagance or the setting. For instance, Saba in ADHM is by her own admittance not even a famous Urdu poetess, and yet she lives in Vienna (for inexplicable reasons) amidst luxury. The men are versions of man-child who would presumably grow up when the right woman comes along. The women are various versions of manic pixie dream girls (a term coined by Nathan Rabin) which basically describes a shallow, flirty, chatterbox whose sole purpose in the film is to help the men embrace life or lead them in their bildungsroman- the journey from innocence to maturity. Thus, the relationships that these pairs make, the contrived dialogues that they speak, the unreal situations that they find themselves in, are often unbearable. However the biggest bone of contention with these movies is their purported claim of representing a modern version of romantic relationships, a modern understating of love and to some extent friendship. This is problematic on several levels.

Firstly the relationships in the movies are not rooted in context. The filmmakers brush the concept of inter-caste and inter-religious relationships- presumably with the understanding that these issues are not relevant anymore. This is simply not true. Young, educated and well-travelled couples continue to struggle against the larger societal norms particularly with respect to love that seeks to transcend the barriers of caste and religion. In fact it is in this struggle, in its acknowledgment and then in surmounting it, lies the very essence of modernity of the relationship. In other words, a young couple seldom exists in a bubble, even if outside India geographically, and in seeking to break caste and religious barriers through their love they affect the society, set a precedent, and define the new age love.

Secondly, the foundation of modern love is not based on how much crazy the lovers can sustain together. It is based on deep shared ideological beliefs and intellectual equality. More than similar interest in cinema, it is similar understanding for instance of the role of women, thoughts on work life balance, and even political leanings that make for enduring love. This love doesn’t need to frantically run across cities and countries, finding things to do- giving dares or taking dance classes, exaggerated role playing or incessantly chattering inanities. In fact it finds comfort in silence, work conversations and mundane daily life chores. Such love is not an escape from life but rooted in it.

Thirdly, these movies completely sweep the idea of work and finances under the rug. However discussions around work-life balance as well as prioritising career over some things (and not others) drive a lot of conversations around the new age relationships. Careers of women are seldom secondary and negotiations around these are central. Often careers may mean long distance with virtual communications and a lot of travel. Young couples looking for independence begin with trying to find financial independence first. Parental funded lifestyles with minimal parental interference otherwise- like the couples in these movies- is rare in real life.

Lastly, and most importantly young couples of today do not exist in some isolated cocoon with only each other for company. They are able to, and they do, sustain a large number or friendships including close platonic friendships with members of opposite sex. Ayan’s constant sexist rant about being friendzoned by Alizeh, inability to accept no for an answer, and his clichéd claim that a boy-girl can never be just friends is not true. And the ridiculous conceit in Befikre of becoming such good friends with ex that a double wedding is proposed also seems unbelievable. It is expected that modern conception of relationships come with the emotional depth and maturity to sustain it.

One silver lining is that there is a deliberate effort to stop/condemn judgment on women’s sexual life. Even the sentence uttered on Shyra’s character in the beginning of Befikre is apologised for later. This is a positive trend and does speak of the terrain that young couples are treading in their relationships by side stepping the attempt towards slut shaming and embracing women’s liberation in every sphere, sexual included. Dear Zindagi, another latest movie does this beautifully, where the idea of multiple partners is linked to the positive concept of making an informed choice and not to the negative ideas of promiscuity.

As filmmakers attempt to tell the stories of young love they must explore the complexities of socio economic backgrounds, contexts, careers and finances, past relationships and present friendships, geography and resultant use of technology as well as broader concepts of feminism and liberalism. Idea of a liberated woman must go beyond clothes and live in relationships and talk about broader ideas of career and consent. Idea of being a global citizen and sustaining a cross border relationship goes beyond scenic tours of Paris and love in Vienna but necessitates an awareness of and engagement with culture and politics of the context, a deeper understanding of current events. Potential for such films is tremendous; it needs a focus on better vision and fewer visuals.

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