Knights in broken armour

At the ripe old age of 23, I rescued someone. She wanted to give up on life. The only way to save her, I reasoned, was to accept her when she thought nobody would. So we dated. We lived together. Just like that, I became the good guy. The messiah. The noble soul. The God. The firefighter. But extinguishing the flames of her rubble often meant dousing the torch of our foundation.

No forevers

A year later, she walked out the door. I had expected a “forever”. I had expected commitment and mutual togetherness. Perhaps that was the problem – I had expected. It’s natural to. But I expected things from her, and for us, in return for what I had done. Somewhere down the line, my daring leap of personal faith had assumed the pressure of a divine favour – a prelude to every breath we shared, every mistake we made. My expectations weren’t an extension of the future I wanted, but the future I thought I deserved.

I had internalised this conditionality, and found myself nodding vehemently at the essence of Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Tani (Anushka Sharma), a young girl struggling to fathom the crippling generosity of her older husband (Shah Rukh Khan), has an epiphany eventually: “humans can be abandoned, but how does one abandon Rab (God)?” She didn’t leave him, and respected him despite his over-ordinariness, and I loved this part. It lulled me into a false sense of security. That she stayed was in fact more the device of being a mainstream – and hopelessly Indian – movie. The mandatory happy ending simply sought to subvert the perception of the archaic tradition of arranged marriages.

In transition

The truth, though, unconstrained by the shackles of culture and convention, is that ours was destined to be a Blue Valentine-like tale. When God-loving isn’t a religion, it becomes a transaction. Because of the way we united – me “settling” for a little heartbreak and she grasping her last parachute – it was already lopsided. An equation commemorated with the plaque of obligation is rarely an ideal one.

In Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, Dean (Ryan Gosling) gives us an early glimpse of his personality. As a muscled packer in a Brooklyn moving company, he goes beyond the call of duty. He decides to arrange the furniture of a new resident at a nursing home. When the retired war veteran is wheeled into the room, he is visibly moved. His photographs transported to a wall, his things organised with such thought, even some naïve creativity. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, he squeezes the younger man’s hand, thanking him earnestly. He is in transition, at the twilight of his life. Dean seems to have affected him in his most vulnerable phase.

The thankfulness in the old man’s eyes makes Dean forget, momentarily, that he is a slacker. That he atones for this lack of “real-man” traits by being a benevolent human. This feeling of being in the stronger position, of acquiring the higher moral and emotional ground from the get-go, is what forms Dean’s core. Seconds later, he meets Cindy (Michelle Williams), the girl he is going to marry, for the first time. This core is tapped into again. She, too, is in transition, at the dawn of her life.

Seconds earlier, Dean had philosophised about the genders of modern love. Guys are romantics, he tells a colleague, because they choose the only girl, the only option. Whereas girls choose the best possible option. Cindy chooses Dean because she needs him. He is her reaction, her best possible option: a knight in simplistic armour, in a world full of toxic masculinity. Her jock boyfriend gets her pregnant, and her father mistreats her mother.

And there’s Dean, an ambitionless chap who sings funny and talks slow, who doesn’t mind rearranging her life’s furniture and painting her gloomy walls, who thinks she’s the kind of special song to which “you just gotta dance”. He agrees to raise another man’s child with her. Immediately, he is already her hero. And the pressure of treating him as one smothers all the love between their crevices. Even though he doesn’t seem mindful of his throne, she starts as the villain; everything she does henceforth will be an act of compensation disguised as partnership.

Unravelling love

Cianfrance juxtaposes the heady pre-marriage scenes with post-marriage saturation — periods separated by five years. The filmmaker doesn’t want to be sure of what happens in between.

But I’ll tell you what happens: they move in together. His job is done. He rests on his laurels. She is obliged to accept him the way he is, because he did the same. She hopes the debt in her eyes soon translates to passion. She hopes a lot. He is unperturbed about his inability to conform to the ideals of manliness. He thinks he’s a proud beta male, but he’s actually an omega male. Being a nurse helps her realise the preordained authority of caregiving. She resents the fact that he is a good father without being a useful one. When they have sex, she wishes he were less respectful so that she has a reason to hate him. She wishes he were abusive so that she didn’t feel guilty for wanting to leave him. He turns to the bottle. He sees in her eyes what he saw in the old man’s: gratitude, before the end. He wants to be loved, not appreciated. He wants to be wanted, not accommodated. He drives her up the wall – the wall he had assembled and decorated. She is a single mother without him; he is nobody without her.

Breaking it down

Blue Valentine beautifully communicates the generic breakdown of a specific kind of relationship – one that results from a crisis, one that begins as a solution and not a feeling, and one that forcefully compromises the nature of the caregiver-receiver dynamic. Dean, a man-child accustomed to being cared for, has to reverse his status to attain Cindy. It is an unfamiliar role for him. And Cindy, a natural caregiver, evident from the way she tends to her grandmother, is forced to play the victim when they marry. Over time, they return to their default settings. Her disillusionment stems from the fact that he embraces his exalted status as a full-time receiver, after the initial switch-up. And his disenchantment stems from the fact that she may not need his kind of care anymore. And that her care to him is mundane and patronising – eons away from the intense cradle-in-lap type of desperate custody-care the film’s poster evokes. The poster of my relationship, too, was only a shot from our first act. It wasn’t who we really were. That I allowed myself to become the receiver came down to what I perceived to be the bond-forming moment, when it was really a bond-altering one. Like an Indian parent retiring after finishing his duty, I let this rest period linger for too long.

For months, she looked at me with eyes that thanked me. She held me like she owed me. She loved in return for the healing. If her feelings had a currency, I behaved like I had just won the lottery. Until we ran out of money. And it took a film, made seven years ago, eternal in its account, to educate me about a withdrawal I made seven years ago. At 23, I rescued someone. And then she broke free.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 12:51:47 PM |

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