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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

An atlas of impossible longing

To love is to battle in India, to come up against many walls. Our cities have no space for love, our politics discourages it. Why do our lovers persist?

Written by Ravish Kumar | New Delhi |
Updated: February 14, 2016 1:00:19 am
Can love transcend boundaries? (Illustration: Subrata Dhar) Can love transcend boundaries? (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

Not everyone is in love and nor does everyone have the courage for love. In our country, most people simply fantasise about being in love. I don’t know about other countries but in India, to love is to battle with innumerable social and religious barriers. Love is a forbidden subject within the four walls of our homes. How many parents ask their children: is there someone special in your life ? Do you like or love someone? Very few. With such limited social support, to love someone is not just to say, “I love you”.

We learn to imagine love through cinema. Movies sculpt and shape our passion and madness. Several generations of filmmakers, songwriters and musicians have expended their creativity in teaching us how to love. How to gaze at someone for the first time, or how to “accidentally” brush into them; these are arts taught by films. In this process, films have turned us sometimes into lafangas, sometimes into good lovers.

Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981) was a powerful film. For the first time in Hindi cinema, lovers surmount the language barrier and end up sacrificing their lives for an idea of a great India that is often a loud, empty boast. Rati Agnihotri and Kamal Hasan, playing that couple, can still make you cry. The film challenged the so-called notion of a composite India that we claim and believe resides within us. To write a song by stringing together names of Hindi films was not just talented; it was a way of saying that it is possible for a Hindi-wali to fall in love with a Tamil-wala. She can call out to him, using as endearments the names of the cities and districts of Tamil Nadu. She can talk to him and sing along with him.

But films have not always made us good lovers. Several Mumbai love stories ran into the unbridgeable wall between the rich and the poor. Ek dhanwaan ki beti ne ishq ka daaman chhorh diya/ Chandi ki deewar ne mera pyaar bhara dil tod diya (Vishwas, 1969). Rich women are always heartbreakers and disloyal. In many films, rich women leave everything to be with the love of their life, but the dominant narrative remained that in the world of love, the equivalent of caste is wealth. Everyone should stay within the confines of their caste and explore the possibilities of love. Pag ghunghroo bandh Meera naachi thee/Aur hum naache bin ghunghroo ke (Namak Halal, 1982).

Innumerable lovers of Hindi cinema have lit up the big screen. But on screen, they are just two beautiful bodies. They have no caste nor religion. The love that our filmmakers imagined was little more than make-believe. Lyricists have never penned a song where a young man encounters his lover’s social background. All heroes are upper caste, either Kapoor or Mathur or Saxena. Heroines have been either Lily, Mili or plain silly. It has often appeared that the heroine has dropped from the skies. Kisi shaayr ki ghazal, Dreamgirl. Kisi jheel ka kamal, Dreamgirl.

It is evident that countless stories of Hindi cinema have turned ishq into the service of the status quo, whereas in love you simply cannot be status-quoist. You have to first hop over the caste walls. Films which often preach Hindu-Muslim unity have deliberately steered clear of Hindu-Muslim love stories. I cannot recall a film where a Hindu woman held the hand of a Muslim man and said, “I love you.” No hero has ever abandoned his Kapoor family in pursuit of the love of a Dalit woman. Oh, I am now hoping for social change through films. Come on, Ravish.

Actually, our politics too does not allow us to imagine a love that smashes the barriers of caste and religion. There are some Muslim leaders whose wives are Hindu. There are some Hindu leaders who are married to Muslim women. These have been love marriages, but such couples do not display their love in public. They are wary and cautious about annoying voters. But is society like this? Yes, it is, but it is in such societies that love generates revolutionary ideas that enable lovers to break down walls of caste and religion.

You must have noticed how often I have used the word “wall”. That is the tragedy. In India, there is no love without a wall. Love may be possible without a mehboob, but it is not possible without a wall! Love means coming up against many barriers and surmounting them. Love turns you into a rebel, it makes you crazy, a bawla. There is so much tension that, as in Hindi cinema, you want to escape into a fantasy sequence. Your trousers and shoes are suddenly white and shining. Your lover wears a long, white gown and runs towards you in slow motion. You embrace before the song starts. May se na meena se na saaqi se na paimaane se, behelta hai man mera aapke aa jaane se. We learnt from this song from Khudgarz (1987) that one’s lover can also be a replacement for entertainment. There is no good song playing on TV. You have fought with your father. Forget all that, sing a song. Let’s get it written by Gulzar or Anand Bakshi. Escape is the only space for love in India.

Our cities have no space for love. For us, parks are places where marigolds and bougainvillea bloom, where a few elderly, retired people come to jog. If a couple of lovers venture in, they will be stared at by everyone else. For them, there is no place to sit and converse.

Ishq ke liye jagah bhi chahiye. Without this space, lovers in our cities can be seen leaning against pillars in super-malls for hours on end. Or hiding behind tinted car windows like criminals, defying the world with their love. Or holding hands in a cinema during a “dark scene” and hastily letting go when the lights come on. Lovers have never really told anyone of their plight. They have not even written about it on Facebook. Milon na tum toh dil ghabraaye, milo toh aankh churaye, humein kya ho gaya hai. When you hear this song from Heer Ranjha (1970), do you not feel like asking, in all this talk of meeting, could you please tell us where we could meet?

But hats off to all the lovers of India. There is no place to meet, yet you do the impossible. You pull down the curtain in auto-rickshaws, you squander your entire pocket money on auto fares. In search of empty cinema halls, you raise the box-office collections of trashy films. Despite glares from passers-by, you let your head rest on your lover’s shoulders. The hours you struggle simply to spend a few moments with your beloved transform you from lovers to activists. If I were a neta, I would have ensured a love park in every city and would have happily lost the next election. Clearly, society would not have approved of my plans.

Do get out of this ‘Ishq koi rog nahi’ syndrome. Where is the space for love? Demand this space. Sixty per cent of India, all of you young people under 35, you are not here to just make nuts and bolts for machines or open shops. Your youth will one day demand to know: how much time have you wasted in work, and how much have you spent in love? If you have just loved work, then of what use is life ? If you never felt maddened by the need to look for hours into your lover’s eyes, then what have you seen?

You might measure the dowry you get as much as you want, but you will not find a mehboob in there. Society does not want to lose control over the dowry economy, and that is why it does not easily yield space to love marriages. The girl is the first commodity whose price gets settled, by taking the boy’s value into account. Money along with a bride. After all, the bride is the dowry herself. Doob maro mere desh ke yuvaon!

Ishq makes us human. It makes us responsible and slightly better human beings than we were before. All lovers are not ideal humans, nor always nice, but the one who is in love does imagine a better world. When you are in love, you discover the many nooks and corners of the city. In some places, you hold hands as you walk. In others, you walk alongside but slightly far apart. Lovers want to transform the city into one of their imagination. The city of their memories is not one of Ghalib’s poetry. Woh sheher ko jaante bhi hai or jeete bhi hai. They know the city as well as live it. Within them, the spirit of all the seasons finds a resonance. Those who are not in love, they do not inhabit the city.

Jis tan ko chhooa tune us tan ko chhupaaoon/Jis man ko laage naina, woh kisko dikhaaoon (Rudaali, 1993). We cannot even allow this feeling of love to express itself. Meera, you are from this country, aren’t you? Love makes us a little weak and circumspect. And if a human being is neither, he can turn into a monster. To love is not to just say “I love you”. To love is to know someone and, for that, one has to know oneself. It is the month of February, but don’t waste all your energies in hunting for a lover. Look for yourself, too, and your city. Hunt for those dreams, too, which you want fulfilled for someone else’s sake.

Not just eco-friendly, we must make our cities ishq-friendly as well. We have to make a space where we can spend a few restful moments. Where cops don’t knock their lathis about or where the minute you start a conversation, the moongphaliwala doesn’t appear. It’s fine that the space for love is in our dreams and fantasies. In our films. But then how is it okay that our cities don’t have them?

Translated from Hindi; read the original on

Ravish Kumar is a television journalist and the author of Ishq Mein Shahar Hona.

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