(Editors note: For those concerned with spoilers, there aren't any in this piece. The parts of the plot that are described below are from the first half of the film.)
Here's a summary of the part of Raanjhanaa that's supposed to be the emotional heart of the film. A boy sees a girl and falls in love with her. Shy and painfully aware of the many barbed wire fences of convention that stand between them, at first he watches her secretly. As he follows her around, noticing the sweetness of her smile and the affection she casually lavishes upon those around her, he starts thinking that her innate goodness would surely see past the social markers that slot him into the category of "unsuitable" and see the real person within. So he approaches her. Unfortunately, the worst happens. She makes it very clear she isn't interested in him. It's obvious to her that they are too different.
He doesn't give up. Instead, he keeps following her and it becomes something of an obsession. She isn't a secret anymore; she becomes the embodiment of all the social attitudes that belittle him and mock him. That's why he must win her over. When good cheer doesn't make her heart go pitter-patter lovingly, he pulls out the brahmastra in his arsenal: he slits his wrists.
In Raanjhanaa, Kundan the hero (played by Dhanush) has two means of wooing the object of his affections: stalking and scaring. If she won’t be charmed by him trotting behind her like the Vodafone pug, then best to scare her into being with him by making her feel responsible for his suicidal behaviour. To some, this incomplete story sounds like an unfolding Shakespearean romance (though from what I remember, Shakespeare's romantic heroes were known for their cutting wit, not cutting veins). To others, it's a dated Bollywood trope from the '80s and '90s, when declaring your love for a woman meant putting a blade to the your wrist so that tomato sauce or red paint may ooze out of a cut that was never made.
I’d like to hope that for present-day audiences, Kundan’s behaviour will seem ridiculous, though that’s probably why director Aanand L Rai has set the film in Raanjhanaa in Varanasi. As far as urban Indian audiences are concerned, all sorts of mindless violence can happen in the Technicolor heartland of India. (Remember Ishaqzaade, Gangs of Wasseypur, Singham etc?) So we have Kundan, the Banarasi Romeo, who judging from his readiness to slit his wrists has clearly watched entirely too many bad Bollywood movies. Or he’s seriously disturbed and needs a shrink more than he needs a girlfriend.
It's changing a little now, but for the longest time, we turned to popular films to figure out what being in love meant because it was the stuff of stories, not reality. Sure, everyone knew Bollywood wasn't precisely realistic but when there aren't real life examples, what do you do? Today we’re slowly becoming more open about relationships and emotions. We also draw a lot from television programming in which love stories are recurring motifs and some foreign shows seem marginally more realistic than dahlias bumping and grinding or men threatening to kill themselves.
Until cable television entered our worlds, romance was glimpsed in gossip about someone who eloped or a man who couldn't pick himself up after rejection, or it was seen in films. In real life, generations of married couples behaved with a platonic courtesy that made it impossible to imagine the duo could have ever had sex, their brood of children notwithstanding. Social convention stipulated arranged marriages and women were brought up not to fall in love a man, but with the belief that if a man professes love, she is obliged to reciprocate. It's as though a man falls in love with a woman while a woman falls in love with the notion that a man is in love with her. The assumption here is that women are narcissistic and they'll feed on the sense of power that comes from holding a man's beating heart in their taloned clutches. They don’t seem to be capable to feel love in a way that isn’t power play, unless it’s for their child. (Nothing like labour pains to bring out feelings of selfless love.) Men, incidentally, are the precise opposite. They’re usually wretched fathers but when single and available, they’re all about love and tenderness and threats of suicide.
Bollywood would also have you believe that the maniac who threatens to kill himself will disappear the moment his lady love says, "I love you too". In films, he magically becomes the ideal partner. Except if it's not an affectation, then such behaviour in real life is a dangerous part of one's personality and it won't vanish because she said the three little words. If it is an affectation, then the relationship is definitely doomed.
The real problem, of course, is that because suicide as a wooing tactic is just a device in a plot for Bollywood, it simplifies the matter. It's very easy to draw blood in a film. It takes incredible determination and conviction to slice skin deep enough to bleed, to break your body so that the wound kills you. Watch it happen in Bollywood, and you get no sense of how desperately unhappy one has to be to even try to kill themselves. You don't understand how so much of a person's self-esteem is wrapped into the figure of the woman they think they love. Bollywood doesn't show you any of this and neither does it show the self-centredness of the act or how horrifying and infuriating it is to be a witness and forced to take responsibility for something that is not your fault.
Since the 2000s, our eagerness to be Westernised and urbane in our films led to some silliness, like incomprehensible English accents and pretending European palaces were regular upper middle-class homes. But it also meant that romance became fun instead of being traumatising. The last time Bollywood managed good romantic comedies, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was making films. Since then, love has been tormented and tormenting. But since the 2000s, we've seen films like Cheeni Kum, Jab We Met and Band Baaja Baaraat. In them, a man and woman fell in love because they chattered, squabbled and enjoyed each other’s company. From those romances to Raanjhaana’s attempt to simplify suicide and revive it as a romantic gesture… it almost makes me want to slit my own wrists.