A film from Bollywood paying homage to the frenzy of unrequited male love does not exactly make for breaking news. The scenarios are too familiar: through his terrifying persistence, a ‘romeo’ eventually makes the object of his passion ‘fall’ for him, or in death, a stalker-husband is lauded for his great love by the very man who rescues his wife. Look closely at most such character types, and you find two underlying themes: the height of passion is usually directly proportionate to the sense of inadequacy and inverted ego experienced by the man for reasons extraneous to the woman; and, the love that the film celebrates is male love, be it of the obsessive lover (second lead) or the decent lover (hero), and the male bond between them.
Like a rogue gene, this theme surfaces with alarming regularity in our films. Of course, the treatment of this theme has changed over time. The somewhat slim plots of earlier decades have given way to more richly textured cultural backdrops, including locations and language, as well as detailed characterisations. But the black and white theme of unrequited male love remains undiluted, as evidenced in the recent Dhanush-Sonam Kapoor starrer Raanjhanaa (an allusion to Ranjha, lover of Heer in the epic Punjabi romance of Heer and Ranjha). Directed by Aanand L. Rai, the film is being feted on both sides of the Vindhyas, with many seeing in Dhanush’s portrayal the Tamilisation of Bollywood.
Raanjhanaa is set against the backdrop of Banaras, city of narrow, snaking lanes and a festive celebration a day, where people shift gear from a delectably earthy tongue to A.R Rahman’s tunes in a jiffy. The mundanity of existence is as stifling as the promise of salvation in temples and ghats is expansive. This is the backdrop of boy-man Kundan’s (Dhanush) all-consuming love for child-woman Zoya, with the stunted passion of a ‘roadside romeo’, displaying a level of obsession usually associated with stalkers. He slits his wrist, threatens to slit her wrist, badgers her to marry him, tells the rickshaw puller not to take money from his bhabhi, and grabs her routinely, and so on.
Proceeding in the same vein, Kundan gradually develops shades of greatness, wearing his golden heart on his sleeve. Just as surely, the female protagonist slides from being a childish airhead to an adult airhead not above leaning on him, finally turning into a villain. But even the final moment of vendetta is denied her, for that would turn the spotlight on her. No, it is Kundan, whose brittle self must always prevail.
There are two scenes which form the crux of the film, and they both involve the men who love Zoya. In one scene, Kundan tells her scornfully, “Loving you reflects my ability, not yours. Had it been someone else, I would have loved her with the same passion.” Some love. In another scene, a much injured Jasjit (Abhay Deol), Zoya’s adult interest, tells Kundan that it is love for a girl which has landed him in dire trouble and spoilt his plans for a shining political career (he is a radical student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University). Jasjit looks at Kundan with affection in spite of knowing that Kundan is the cause of his immediate misfortune. A tender bond of love and understanding sprouts between the two men, which is clearly far superior to the love they feel for their colourless beloved.
Of course, the title of the film itself signals that the narrative would uphold the perspective of the male protagonist. What one had not bargained for was the very anti-thesis of the spirit that the name Ranjha brings to mind. Over the past few centuries, the saga of Heer and Ranjha, popularly called ‘Heer’, has been written, recited and sung by countless Punjabi Sufi writers and poets. In these narratives, Heer speaks of becoming Ranjha in the very act of uttering his name, indicating a merging of the self with the beloved.
In Raanjhanaa, there is no beloved except the self. Not only does our Ranjha think of imposition as love; he has no qualms telling his ‘beloved’ that it is his ability to love which is special and not she who is special. In doing so he is only echoing routinely reported scenarios of women traumatised by such a special male ability and sense of entitlement.
It is well known that Bollywood and its counterparts have always been on the side of the male lover, be it the boyish hero with his ‘impish’ pranks verging on hounding, or the obsessive lover. But there was at least a semblance of a moral universe in which the obsessive lover existed. As the negative character he had to pay the price for his misdeeds. He could be the lead but only as an anti-hero, like Shah Rukh Khan in Anjaam and Darr. The viewer felt nothing but an unambiguous emotion of fear and revulsion.
In Raanjhanaa, the director’s sleight of hand lends Kundan’s character a ‘cute’, underdog look to glaze over his suffocating male antics, and ends up creating a halo around him, and that is worrisome. More so, considering that this core aspect is masked by lavish and tactile layers of sets and ambience, an interesting cast of characters, and witty dialogues. Each lush layer invites the viewer to absorb the sensations they like, not necessarily look at the film incisively or in its entirety. The fact that Dhanush essays the role competently is also part of the problem.
However, the film inadvertently makes room for reflection. The narrow lanes shown in the film remind you that across India there are socially prescriptive settings rife with stifled and stifling passions, unburdened by any thoughts of being self-reflexive. In the light of harsh reality, these characters do not have the cutesy touch of a Dhanush bestowed on the character by director Rai. For, there is one thread running through the narrative of so-called individual crimes of passion, socially sanctioned ‘honour’ killings, and a paralysing aesthetic of violence in public space and political domain. It is the notion of release of pent-up feelings – unrequited male emotions — through socially sanctioned, aggressive role models of masculinity. This notion of masculinity is complemented by a patriarchal society’s loud and clear signals sanctioning violence against women — from son preference and female foeticide to the idea of justice demonstrated by many a court in advising women to marry the men who had raped them.
There can be many reasons why Raanjhanaa is a hit, but clearly, none of them can be very comforting.
(Chitra Padmanabhan is a writer based in Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)