Is Raanjhanaa the tale of an irrational, impassioned, obsessive lover, or thinly disguised male supremacist storytelling?
All the articulate criticism about the glorification of stalking in Raanjhanaa has led me to some serious introspection and self-doubt. Have I become so corrupted by Bollywood that I’m unable to recognize problematic gender stereotyping and latent misogyny of the films I’m a part of?
Without prejudice to critical reviews, there is another possible reading of the film. Despite its gimmicky, populist and male favouring one-liners, the film may be interpreted within its generic context. Raanjhanaa is the tragedy of an irrational, impassioned, obsessive lover. Depicting such a crazed state-of-mind on-screen requires the lover doing things that go against ordinary and socially accepted expressions of love. Kundan’s wrist slitting is neither intelligent, nor advisable. It is a device that portrays the crazed intensity of his passion. Similarly driving his scooter into the Ganges with Zoya behind is a reflection of his shock and trauma upon discovering that she loves another man, not an attempt to murder.
Kundan is a deeply flawed character. He’s selfish, delusional, mercurial, thoughtless, hugely impulsive, self-destructive and bad tempered! However an easy rejection of him is difficult and he is rendered endearing in his naïve innocence. He actually believes that Zoya will remember and reciprocate his love in spite of differences of geography, religion, class, education and thinking. Writer Himanshu Sharma has created a hero harking back to the literary tradition of the intensely-passionate-deeply- flawed-self-destructive-tragic-male-protagonist, seen in almost every ‘great’ tragedy in literature be it Saratchandra’s Devadas or Shakespeare’s Othello. Sharma’s Raanjhanaa remains consistent with the generic patterns of the tragic form, as we are compelled to sympathise with this problematic male protagonist who mistreats the very women he loves but is redeemed by the author in a noble death.
In my eyes Kundan never becomes a serious figure of threat because Zoya is never shown to be scared of him. Her first response to his overture is a fearless confident taunt and a tight slap. Because Zoya consistently remains unflinching and unafraid, Kundan never fully becomes that sinister, threatening, figure of the dangerous stalker.
Raanjhanaa is an unapologetic celebration of crazy love. A story of how love makes otherwise rational people behave in a stupidly self-damaging manner. Why else would an educated and smart Zoya engineer a bizarre, Tughlaqesque and almost certainly dangerous charade of a having a Muslim boyfriend and marrying him with parental consent in a traditional ceremony? Why would the otherwise shrewd and ever-practical Jasjit play along? They act in sheer desperation to realise their love. Feisty Bindiya’s love is undeterred despite humiliation and beatings and it makes her pray to Gau-mata for Zoya’s death, but also participate the next moment in a plan to rid Zoya of an unwanted suitor. What except deep love for his friend would drive the otherwise eminently sensible and grounded Murari to participate in unrealistic plans to win an evidently unattainable girl. Kundan isn’t the only one eccentric in love.
Zoya’s character has been criticized for being manipulative, cold and heartless. To me Zoya was just a very human, and thus imperfect young girl dealing with confusing, contradictory and eventually very painful matters of the heart. What is so wrong with an adolescent 14-year old being flattered and responsive to the devotion of a young boy, being both curious and nervous about that first kiss, having her anger at Kundan’s lie dissipate into tears at his hysterical wrist-slashing? What is wrong if eight years later she has moved on? In fact Zoya’s character is not calculating but naive in trusting Kundan’s friendship, she’s honest about her lack of love for him, about her boyfriend. She’s perfectly frank and sensible when she asks him if he intends to ruin her life for that one childish mistake she made? And when she lies, it is to save Kundan the pain of realizing that Zoya in fact did not reject him because he was a Hindu, that she simply didn’t love him! With Zoya, Sharma taps another classic literary trope- the unattainable lady love, the mistress-on-a pedestal who the poet will never attain but continually pine for. Zoya is finally redeemed despite all her flaws when she says wretchedly in the climax to Kundan that ‘The world will spit on me if I fall in love with you, but I think I have.’ Zoya’s tragedy is that she must plot murder to prevent herself from falling in love with the very man who ruined her life and accidentally killed her fiancé.
Raanjhanaa, like Sharma’s earlier Tanu Weds Manu is a film generously laced with dialogue that reflects a male-dominated worldview, a stereo-type infested, though not hate-filled, folk wisdom and wry humour regarding gender relations and matters of the heart. Sharma’s characters speak the thoughts and language of the world where they belong- the largely socially conservative, patriarchal world of small town India. And so a 16 year old Bollywood buff Kundan reflecting the Bollywood influence on his generation says, “In UP tire or scare a woman into accepting you.” An unpremeditated inter-textual moment! And Murari similarly laments that doctors and engineers often steal the love of mohalla lads. In Sharma’s world men are indulgently helpless and harmlessly exasperated at women. Whether it is the inability of Manu’s father to check his vulgar ill-behaved wife in Tanu Weds Manu, or Raanjhanaa’s Jasjit lamenting that plans born of women’s minds cannot be trusted; Sharma’s men are bewildered at the ways of women. This may make them conservative but not misogynists. Both of Sharma’s screenplays depict the world as is. If Zoya’s parents are conservative Muslims, they will oppose an inter-religious marriage. If Kundan’s father is the head priest of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the family will live in a Brahmin ghetto with Brahmin neighbours. If childhood friends share a sibling-like bond they will not shy away from hitting and abusing one another. But Raanjhanaa is not the story of Muslim-Hindu relations in Benaras, nor is it a study of the social relations between the numerous castes that inhabit the city, and it is certainly not the story of some inaccurately and grandiosely imagined quasi-leftist student political movement threatening to sweep Delhi’s assembly elections. Raanjhanaa is the story of a boy who like the Raanjhaa of folklore fell obsessively in love with an unattainable girl. She loved someone else, and he despite initially trying to help the girl unite with her lover, on learning of her lie to him unthinkingly unleashed a tragedy that ruined the lives of everyone involved and found redemption only in death. A male-centric perspective? Yes. Politically incorrect? Indeed! Disturbing? Certainly! Emotionally compelling? Also! Misogynistic? I beg to differ.
(Swara Bhaskar is an actress based in Mumbai and her films include Raanjhanaa, Listen Amaya, and Tanu Weds Manu. She can be reached at @ReallySwara on Twitter)