Befikre and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: How Bollywood films dealt with romance and promiscuity in 2016
This year has been important for Bollywood for a variety of reasons but one not taken much note of is that two of the biggest names, with landmark films to their credit – Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar – have returned to direction after concentrating on film production for several years. Aditya Chopra gave us the evergreen Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) but refrained wisely from getting into Dilwale (2015) which was founded on the vain hope that it could replicate DDLJ’s magic. He has just come out with Befikre which tries to reignite the possibilities of the youth romance for today’s generation. Karan Johar who gave us milestones like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) has now made Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM).
Why the two have been reluctant to direct films despite their successes is uncertain but it could be on account of the realisation that the director is not a key figure in Bollywood any longer. The days of Mehboob Khan, Kamal Amrohi and Raj Kapoor who made distinct contributions as directors are apparently over; cinema stands reduced to a mere sub-category in the entertainment industry. The audience (through its desires/dreams) is perhaps increasingly the creator of any film, with the director merely a willing tool. But it is this involvement of the audience as co-creator which gives popular cinema its value because, by interpreting it, we come to understand public attitudes not accessible otherwise. Interpreting the romance can be especially productive since has been one of the mainstays of Bollywood.
Foreign locations have figured prominently in romances in the new millennium and the two films this piece is about fall into this pattern. There are several advantages in foreign locations and one of those often cited is that it keeps stars chained to shooting schedules. Another is that it reaches out to a globalised public accustomed to foreign travel.
But foreign locations have yet another function: they act as sites allowing ‘non-traditional’ behaviour. Early in the new millennium, Hindi cinema featured a number of films about adultery – from Jism (2003) to Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006). It is significant that these films were mostly set in foreign locales or Pondicherry/Goa deliberately filmed to look foreign. The logic was that since adultery is ‘against tradition’ it can only happen in spaces distant from the nation; any kind of conduct can be expected with the moral nation absent, was the insinuation. Abbas-Mustan’s Race (2008) used the same strategy to portray two brothers locked in murderous rivalry – departing from the traditional norm of dosti or brotherly love. Befikre and ADHM also use the ploy but this time it is to deal with promiscuity in the lifestyles of the young.
Both Bollywood and Hollywood traditionally enshrine monogamous heterosexuality as an ideal, but in altogether different ways. In films from Hollywood, ‘true love’ can be associated with family formation and the mythology around the nuclear family, a building block of the American nation constituted by people migrating westward and setting up new settlements in which the family unit played a key role. Contemporary Hollywood allows promiscuity; but after numerous conflicts between lovers, film stories still conclude with the ‘ideal pairing’, which alone produces the family. The break-up of the family (which happens occasionally) is a deviation from ideal behaviour; a family with an absent parent is like an unstable entity seeking associations. Spielberg’s ET (1982), one recalls, shows the fatherless family as unstable and ripe for the admission of the alien child. In Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), the parents who are separately in unstable relationships remain ideal parents to the boy. These instances illustrate the notion of the family as the fundamental site of stability in the social fabric and ‘true love’ is usually the first step by which this stability is attained.
But where the sense of the suitability of the partners for each other in Hollywood is reinforced through conflict and its satisfactory resolution, Bollywood virtually sets out by announcing the ideal nature of the pairing – so nominal is the conflict between the two in the most celebrated love stories – and the obstacles in the path of the union of lovers are also external to them. Given that the family in Bollywood does not have the sanctity of the one in Hollywood (today’s films often treat it as a hindrance to aspiration) we may propose that romance has a different significance in the Indian context.
When one looks at the history of Indian popular cinema, one finds that the culmination of a romance to leave the couple right for a wedding is the most common ending but there is also the family reunion (in south Indian cinema). There is also the occasional film in which the family does not include a female presence, as in Kaante (2002) in which man and (surrogate) sons are united – although this is in flashback. One may, therefore, propose that the successful culmination of romance is simply a way to bring the narrative to closure. Romance adds little to the content unless there are other elements (usually obstacles) alongside. In Devdas (1936) it is the obstacles placed by the protagonist’s father in the path of love that gives the film meaning and not the love itself. Many Hindi films are remembered not as love stories but because they are about failed romances and one can cite Devdas, Andaz (1949), Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Aradhana (1969) and even Sholay (1975) as examples. In Sholay, the most moving thread is the story of Jai and the Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law Radha. Since ‘love’ is ubiquitous and closure strategy rather than subject matter, to call a film a ‘love story’ is not to describe it, except perhaps to say that it is not dominated by other generic elements like action or comedy.
Given these aspects of romance in popular cinema, how is one to regard the motif of ‘promiscuity’ in recent films? The directors of the two films being dealt with are apparently catering to a youthful public familiar with multiple relationships but true-love-as-closure can hardly be jettisoned as a narrative strategy. What both Befikre and ADHM do is, therefore, to describe a milieu in which promiscuity is common, deal with relationships which begin as fleeting but eventually solidify as ‘true love’. If Befikre is a disappointing film it is because it does nothing more than confirming the pairing (Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor) that the audience expects — because of the billing of stars in the titles. No obstacles are placed in the path of the protagonists and nothing (except mutual non-recognition) can stop the lovers from designating each other as their only love. The playful promiscuity in Befikre, therefore, emerges only an attendant detail in a conventional romance. Paris being the location rather than India is a safeguard against audiences having to imagine their country as a site of depravity!
ADHM is a much more interesting film than Befikre, at least for its ingenuity — although it also stays clear of India to locate its story in and gets its ‘tension’ by the same ploy of ‘true friends’ discovering they love each other. But where it chiefly differs is in its placing of genuinely threatening obstacles in the path of love. All the major characters in ADHM are given Muslim names but the religion plays no part in their day-to-day dealings. To those unfamiliar with the story, Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) meets Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma) accidentally when their lips are locked in a wild kiss at a party. Both of them already have other partners – with whom they soon break up – but only remain ‘friends’, although Ayan loves Alizeh. It is important here that neither person is given defining characteristics (family relationships, social connections, a vocation or responsibilities) which might have made us see him/her as a credible fictional character; what we respond to is simply an onscreen relationship between two Bollywood stars.
Keeping the two apart (as ‘friends’) is a tantalising ploy – even as the audience waits for their pairing off. Into the scenario just described comes a DJ named Ali (Fawad Khan) whom Alizeh was once involved with. Ali’s arrival, I propose, is threatening because it relies on an Indian’s awareness that Fawad Khan is Pakistani; an Indian star in the role would hardly have carried the same threat. What the spectator is confronted with is, therefore, the possibility of an Indian woman star being grabbed by a Pakistani interloper. The giving of Muslim names to the characters removes the possibility of Hindu-Muslim tension within the plot and the tension is restricted to an Indo-Pakistani conflict in which a ‘hated foreigner’ is appropriating a much-loved Bollywood star, who should be rightly paired off with an Indian star like Ranbir Kapoor!
The reader may wonder whether this reading is not an imposition on my part, whether Karan Johar could have intended it this way. Still, in another development, Ayan has a relationship with Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), a poet, and this carries another kind of threat, which is that Aishwarya Rai is known to be older to Ranbir Kapoor and a married woman. To enhance the tension, the film introduces Saba’s ex-husband Tahir Talyar Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and the chemistry between the two is unmistakable. The audience is therefore invited to imagine Ranbir Kapoor, whose natural partner is Anushka Sharma, entering into an unorthodox liaison with a Bollywood star from an older generation, whose natural partner is Shah Rukh Khan, someone who willingly surrenders her to the younger man. This ploy is made possible by the deliberately weak fiction in the film, which allows us to see stars in the story instead of the fictional roles they are purportedly playing. To substantiate this reading, the dialogue and songs in the film constantly use references to older films, as though the film were not about a real world — however fancifully conceived — but about Bollywood itself, its stars and its mythical relationships. Within the framework of Bollywood mythology the film’s effects may even be described as transgressive.
Both Befikre and ADHM only have ‘love’ as their focus with no attendant details like social obstructions in its path and, based on the arguments hitherto, can be described as being without any subject matter of the social kind. Befikre suffers on account of its social blankness but not so ADHM, which has apparently found a clever way out. I suggested earlier that the audience was part ‘creator’ of the film and what this implies is that the intelligent filmmaker is he/she who understands the audience’s needs/desires and not someone who with a personal vision of the world. Both films describe lifestyles of greatest interest to the global Indian; they include bits of English-language dialogue and are evidently targeted at multiplex audiences in the metropolises. The social vacuity of the films may, therefore, reflect on the global Indian who is increasingly removed from the social engagement at any level, even that of wish-fulfilment. Where films like 3 Idiots and Bunty Aur Babli catered to fantasies of the aspiring Indian, these two films perhaps address Indians so benumbed by their situations that their fantasies do not revolve around their own lives but around Bollywood and its stars, leading Bollywood to turn its focus increasingly upon itself and its deliberate myths, rather than the social world outside.
The author is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016).
Updated Date: Dec 24, 2016 11:51:47 IST