As I watched Vikrant Massey dismember himself in the recently released Haseen Dillruba, the practical Patty in me started thinking of what else he could have done to save his beloved wife. In the meanwhile, the passionate pati and his pativrata biwi reunited, with two beating hearts and three palms between them. As I watched their Hindi pulp fiction inspired romance find its happily ever after, I started experiencing an enormous sense of deja vu. Hadn’t I seen this before?
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A passionate, bubbly, beautiful and/or rebellious girl falls in love with a handsome young man. He is usually a visitor, a neighbour, a guest, or the proverbial good-looking bad boy who makes her head spin round. Unfortunately, she either gets dumped, or is forcibly separated from him by her parents whose decision making is driven entirely by the concern of ‘log kya kahenge’ or ‘ladki ki shaadi nahin ho rahin’.
Enter the prospective husband. This man is the antithesis of the boyfriend. He is usually not conventionally good looking or in some cases is made to look deliberately drab like Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. But beneath the man next door exterior, beats the heart of a man who offers not a feverish passion, but forever wala love. Love that is formalised by sindoor, bound by mangalsutra and legitimised by society at large.
In so many Bollywood films over the years, the girl falling in love is just Act 1 of the story. It’s marriage that finally forces her to adult, come of age, and more importantly understand what ‘true love’ is all about.
From Swami where Shabana Azmi choses her husband played by Girish Karnad, to Woh Saat Din, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Rab ne Bana di Jodi, Tanu Weds Manu, Manmarziya and now Haseen Dillruba, we have seen numerous stories where the husband/ arranged marriage find, helps his wife realise the meaning of true love and turns her into a mature and considerate human being.
It’s quite the taming of the shrew tale with a generous dose of Stockholm syndrome, where the woman decides she has actually fallen in love with the man she never wanted to marry. Marriage is a major milestone in the Hindi film heroine’s journey, and female characters in mainstream Bollywood films often find their journeys defined by their matrimonial status.
Isn’t it time we started writing come of age stories where a woman achieves more than a husband?
Think about it. Men in Bollywood films find true love, a job, go through an existential crisis or discover a passion as they grow up, or in Bollywood terminology, come of age. Ranbir has been coming of age ever since he made his debut. But he managed to ‘wake up’ and become a ‘rockstar’ without ever having to say I do to anyone. On the other hand, in Queen, Kangana’s character only came into her own after she was dumped a day before her wedding.
Additionally, romanticizing post shaadi love, and glorifying the institution and its external symbols like sindoor and mangalsutra, only justifies the pressure put on women to marry a certain kind of man. Showing women fall in love with men whom their family has coerced them into marrying, sadly reiterates that marriage is critical to a woman’s happiness, and more disturbingly, emotional and intellectual development. Boyfriends are for silly young girls; a grown woman is mature, married and ‘well settled’.
Aishwarya picks Ajay Devgn because he apparently teaches her that true love is selfless. So, she chooses to be with him and not the man she is madly in love with. Anushka Sharma has an epiphany overnight that her husband is actually a gift from god. In Manmarziyan, I had hoped Taapsee’s character would take some time off to just figure out what she wants from life. But moments after signing the divorce papers, Rumi is shown sharing a moment with her now ex-husband, telling us that the two are ready to rekindle their relationship again.
The only exceptions I can think of are perhaps Chak De, where the women are largely not interested in marriage, Mary Kom where her husband is supportive but never a catalyst for self-improvement, Tumhari Sulu where she follows her dreams after years of seeking a passion, and non-mainstream films like Lipstick Under my Burkha or Margherita with a Straw where the women are exploring romance and their sexuality without a moral of story subtext.
Why is it so hard to imagine that Rumi, or any other woman for that matter, can be happy even if she isn’t married, or currently not in a serious relationship? It forces you to question why Bollywood films or even Hollywood films for that matter, find it so hard to tell a woman’s story without involving romance, marriage and matrimonial issues? While many men are envied and glorified for being bachelors who can date as many women as they want, an unmarried woman inexplicably makes people around her uncomfortable.
Why isn’t she married? Doesn’t she want kids? Isn’t she lonely? Doesn’t she want to get married so she can finally start her life and actually be happy? Entire families get involved to make sure ki ladki ki shaadi ache ghar mein ho, and unfortunately much of our cinema is only amplifying this obsession with by putting the institution on a pedestal through cinema being watched by mass audiences.
Love is wonderful, and marriage with the right man or woman can really change the course of an individual’s life. But neither marriage nor love are the key to a woman being happy, fulfilled or less self-absorbed. Marriage does not ensure a happily ever after, and single women can live very happily without ek chutki sindoor or saat phere.