The Anatomy of Romance
M. K. Raghavendra
Romance is a key ingredient of Hindi popular cinema but its social implications have rarely been studied. This essay looks at the motif of romance and speculates about its meaning through examples. Speculating is difficult without examining the instances afresh and many of the well-known Hindi films discussed here are therefore described quite differently from the way they usually are. The motif of romance is closely associated with the family in cinema primarily because romance leads to marriage. Romantic love and the institution of the family are also logically linked and lovers are transformed into fathers and mothers and romance necessarily terminates in the founding of the family.
The family in cinema from Hollywood means the nuclear family while in Hindi popular cinema it represented the joint family until recently. The valorization of the nuclear family by Hollywood – which does not find correspondence in Europe where the institution of marriage is not as sacred – can be traced to the origins of America. As has been noted (Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America), in America social organization began at the smallest level. The township was organized before the county, the county before the state, the state before the union. The simplest kind of social organization led to more complex forms.
The individual and the nuclear family play a more significant role in the simpler kinds of social organization and there is an association between this and the mythical dimensions assumed by both the individual and the nuclear family in American popular culture. An appropriate illustration in cinema would be the westerns of John Ford (The Searchers, 1956) in which the nuclear family is the civilizing influence in a savage land.
The joint family assumes importance in India not only because it existed in fact till a few decades ago but because it is an ideal of dharma – people of the same genealogy or jati and the same hereditary occupation living together as a clan, with hierarchy being respected within the family. Although the joint family was not ubiquitous in Hindi cinema in the 1980s and 1990s (Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! – 1994 – was an exception) the presence of the parent still communicated the sense of dharma. In Lagaan (2001), although the father is not present, the mother is custodian of his memory and invokes it at the vital moment before the game. The mother is the moral agent in Awaara (1951), Mother India (1956) and Deewar (1975) but the father, even when he is absent, is crucial. In all these three films the father’s absence or estrangement causes a crisis or disturbance which has to be resolved. In Deewar, for instance, the father deserting the family causes the older son to shoulder his responsibilities prematurely and keeps him in a disturbed condition.
In the new millennium the rise of new economy businesses signals the moment when, at least in the metropolises, children no longer followed their fathers in their family vocations. This translates in cinema into the motif of children questioning the ways of their father or embarking on their own paths. One can find this motif in films like Rang De Basanti (2006), Bunti Aur Babli (2005), Guru (2007) and 3 Idiots (2009). All these films were multiplex successes; when the films are targeted on rural or semi-urban audiences, the family and jati still reign supreme as in Dabangg (2010).
Just as the joint family’s presence in not apparent in most films, neither is the arranged marriage which is another offshoot of jati – though it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘love’ within the same jati rather than ‘arranged’. Jati does not necessarily mean caste and has been interpreted in film to mean ‘station’; a ‘Sharma’ marrying a ‘Gupta’ should not be understood to mean ‘across jatis’ and hierarchical difference needs to become the issue. The probable reason is that jati as caste is locally operational while Hindi cinema is pan-Indian and needs to interpret the notion to make it widely acceptable.
Like the absent father who means so much in the three films cited earlier, the intra-jati marriage becomes noticeable only when station is violated, i.e.: when love happens across social barriers. As obvious instances of love across hierarchy, Bobby (1973) is about the son of an arrogant industrialist who falls in love with the daughter of a self-respecting small businessman. This film appeared when Mrs Gandhi was acting against the monopoly houses and courting small industry and business. Bombay (1995), which deals with the love between a Hindu man and a Muslim girl and the riots of 1992-93, is seen to posit a transcendental object of loyalty beyond religion which is the nation (Ravi Vasudevan: The Melodramatic Public). The city of Bombay had become the emblem for economically resurgent India after 1991 and the film is asking if people should not embrace a more inclusive identity than religion.
The above examples hardly exhaust the narrative possibilities of love across station. A different treatment is found in Awaara in which the protagonist is denied his rightful place in hierarchy because his paternity is doubted and his romance with a girl from the same station disallowed. ‘Dosti’ also invokes jati loyalty because it is surrogate brotherhood and is founded on hierarchy and station. The family/clan is a powerful object of loyalty and violating its sanctity can merit severe punishment. Baazigar (1993), for instance, justifies the murder of a trusting woman by the protagonist who is due to marry her – on the grounds that her father wronged his family. The girl’s father cheated the protagonist’s father out of his business empire – after swearing on his daughter’s life to be trustworthy; after the latter’s death he made improper advances to his widow. In some regional cinemas the notion of jati is made more explicit because they are local and not pan-Indian. In Kannada cinema up to the 1980s, for instance, romances and marriages are mostly endogamous.
With the rise of the new economy love and romance have also lost the significance they once had. In the new Hindi cinema, loyalty to clan stands weakened; personal aspiration is a driving motive in most stories and that may account for this weakening. This ‘atomization’ of society – at least in the metropolises – may be welcomed by those who despise hierarchy but instead of building other loyalties (for instance, work-related ones), Hindi films increasingly promote the view that consumption (‘having fun’) can be binding as in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). Since consumption does not help build loyalties towards one another, romance itself has become more tepid.
The omnipresence of love
Hindi films are often described as ‘love stories’ but that is not a description – since all films are love stories. Romance is a motif in films across the world but in few cinemas outside India does it feature as such a staple of plot construction. I have elsewhere explained romance in Hindi cinema as a formal strategy by which to bring the narrative to closure (MK Raghavendra: Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema) but there are other (associated) reasons as well. If one studies plot construction across cultures it would appear that a story inevitably closes with a transition in the condition of the protagonist(s). The protagonist may have gained in experience or may have been defeated in an undertaking but the conclusion of a narrative must nonetheless signal a transition of some kind. A historical moment – like victory in battle – would be an appropriate moment of transition but since Indian popular film narrative does not attach itself to universal time, it uses only moments in the life of the individual for the transition. Even a war film like Haqeeqat (1964) is a romance which concludes with the lovers dying holding hands as they fight the Chinese. The culmination of a romance is a widely accepted concluding moment in stories because it signifies a transition from the unmarried or single state to a married state but the reason why it is virtually indispensible in Indian popular cinema needs enquiring into.
If once looks at the various acknowledged states in the life of the individual, those listed are childhood, the juvenile/ adolescent state, adulthood and retirement. The transition in the state of the individual in stories often focuses on an awakening or maturity of some sort which may be taken to imitate the transition from the juvenile state into adulthood. Marriage, although important, is not usually a key moment of individual transition in cinema and one can cite romantic films which continue after the wedding as in Sound of Music (1965). Moreover, romances also come to fruition after the lovers understand each other more deeply, indicating a growth in maturity – and a model may be Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. The romance culminates only when interpersonal issues are fully resolved and a stable relationship negotiated. Other kinds of individual transitions are also allowed as narrative conclusions but since cinema looks at the potential for drama, those like the one into retirement do not offer the same possibilities. Bicycle Thieves (1948), for instance, may be understood as concluding with the boy’s evolution out of childhood.
But when we look at the ‘ashramas’ or states traditionally acknowledged by Hinduism, we find that they are as follows (after allowing for a two year period of infancy): brahmacharya or the student/unmarried state, ghrihastha or the life of the householder, vanaprastha or the retired life and sannyasa, the life of renunciation. What is significant here is that there is no state corresponding to ‘adulthood’. The transition into adulthood, one may therefore gather, is not the way a popular Hindi film story could conclude and the closest available transition is that of the brahmachari into householder or, in other words, the culmination of a romance. In Hindi cinema we are aware of films in which a ‘romance’ also takes place after the marriage when other tensions are resolved as in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). But the important transition here is not into maturity (or adulthood) but into the life of the householder. Since ‘adulthood’ is not an acknowledged state for the individual, stories cannot revolve around notions like work and the transition can take place only through romance. It should be possible to have a story dealing with the transition into vanaprastha or sannyasa although one cannot think of appropriate examples at this juncture.
Romance is ubiquitous in Hindi cinema but, paradoxically, successful romances rarely contribute much to the drama. If we list out the most memorable melodramas in Hindi cinema we find that, rather than romance, it is the failed romance which contributes to the dramatic impact. The failed romance can be defined as a heterosexual relationship involving the protagonist, which does not or cannot culminate in her/his transition to householder. Devdas, the most durable of Hindi film characters, lives in people’s hearts because of his failed romance. Many Hindi films are remembered not as love stories but because they are about failed romances and one can cite Aadmi (1939), Andaz (1949), Mother India, Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Deewar and even Sholay (1975) as examples. Some of these films provide a parallel romance taken to fruition but the drama comes from elsewhere. In Andaz it emerges because the protagonist mistakes the feelings of the woman for love when her heart is given elsewhere. In Sholay it comes out of the unrequited feelings that Jai and the Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law Radha have for each other and not out of the story of Veeru and Basanti.
These examples epitomize the cream of Hindi cinema and on scrutinizing them we find that station (or jati) appears implicated in the failure of each romance. In Andaz the failed romance is between a rich woman industrialist and her manager – because she is engaged to someone of her own status. The key motif in Mother India is Birju’s wildness; Birju carries on a flirtation with the moneylender Sukhilala’s daughter without it leading to romance. At the climax of the film he abducts her and is gunned down by his mother. The observation here is that the relationship between Birju and Sukhilala’s daughter is kept on the verge of impropriety – which cannot be unrelated to their respective stations. The difference between Birju and his brother Ramu is also emphasized when Ramu contracts a legitimate romantic relationship within the permitted social range. Deewar is a film partly modeled on Mother India and also has two brothers involved in separate heterosexual pairings. Here again, Vijay’s sexual relationship with a nightclub hostess is contrasted with his brother’s conventional romance which is mediated by the girl’s father. A point to be noted is that station or jati is rarely made explicit and other circumstances are usually arranged alongside to account for the failure in love. In Sholay it is nominally as though the romance between Jai and Radha is disallowed because Radha is a widow but it is Radha’s position in the Thakur’s clan which prohibits the relationship – much more than her widowhood. Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog (1982), as a counter-example, permits a widow’s romance under other circumstances.
The man and the woman
The non-recognition of ‘adulthood’ as a state has repercussions for the kind of characters which can inhabit any film. In the first place it means that it is difficult to conceive of protagonists outside the domain of brahmacharya since the only transition allowed would be for them to become householders. If this argument is conceded, the options available for male and female characters are both limited, with female characters being much more so. Each character’s role has to be subordinated to the central drama which only involves the transition (or non-transition) of individuals into becoming householders. Hindi cinema has traditionally had peripheral slots for characters like ‘hero’s friend’ (derived from the traditional vidhushaka and played by comedians like Mehmood) but none for ‘heroine’s friend’ – just as there is no feminine counterpart of ‘dosti’. The reason for friendship being an all-male affair is perhaps that it imitates brotherhood; women who marry become members of their husband’s household and sisterhood cannot be as enduring.
Given the factors that I have tried to bring out about the narrative constitution of Hindi cinema, a question that needs to be asked is how one should understand recent films like The Lunchbox and Queen which, given their treatment of heterosexual attachments, appear radical exercises. My own sense is that these films fit well into the formulaic structure I have just outlined. The Lunchbox has three characters but the transactions between the characters is not three-way. Sheikh, who is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqi, in fact occupies the position of the ‘hero’s friend’ although the traditional role has been altered to exceed comedy. As regards the central relationship, the fact that the two are not unmarried does not mean that they are ‘adults’. Both of them have had one chance at being householders and after its failure are waiting for another. The complications arising out of the woman having a daughter and a husband are deliberately underplayed and the possibility of the two transitioning again to the state of householders is suggested through ‘open-endedness’. A second romance, it must be noted, had been allowed in Hindi cinema much earlier, as in Andaz (1971).
Queen is a different case and the issue is whether the heroine moves into adulthood through her ‘failed romance’. The film, as the reader may be aware, is about a girl dumped by her fiancé on the eve of her wedding who decides to go on a ‘honeymoon’ to Europe on her own. One is tempted to see Rani as emerging as an ‘adult’ in Queen but I do not think she progresses into any kind of maturity – because of the care taken to see that she steers clear of sexual/emotional entanglements in Europe. There needs to be a mind-altering emotional crisis of some sort for her to move into adulthood and a sexual liaison might have provided it. But this does not happen and she is, in effect, retained in a state of ‘brahmacharya’ so that she is fit to become a householder at the appropriate moment. It would seem, therefore, that popular Hindi cinema has not yet moved out of its traditional territory – in which the states that the individual passes through are dominated by the defining event of matrimony.