A wise man once told me that change cannot be inflicted upon people – it must be infected. A head-on confrontation will invariably face resistance from those who are set in their ways; for change to truly occur, it must be seeped in gradually, pushing the envelope one inch at a time.
I was reminded of this last weekend, when I was watching the delightful Shuddh Desi Romance. This is a film that, even if it doesn’t create change, will certainly create ripples. This essay is not a review – rather, this is a discussion about films (and this one in particular) as a barometer of changing attitudes amongst young Indians. Films are often said to be a reflection of society – but films need not limit themselves to mere reflection. When done correctly, they can lead, they can teach; they can force society to think, to believe, to question and sometimes even change.
WHY THIS FILM MATTERS
This film is remarkable for the way writer Jaideep Sahni and director Maneesh Sharma create a world in which daring, revolutionary events occur, but so subtly and casually do they take place that instead of affronting sensibilities, they seem like the only natural course of action. Mr Sharma had shown sparks of this earlier too, in his near-perfect Band Baaja Baraat. In that film, Anushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh play business partners from lower middle class Delhi who run a wedding planning agency together. In an almost throw-away scene, she calls her mother after a hard day’s work and casually informs her that she will be staying over at Ranveer Singh’s house. They eat while watching TV, after which she promptly goes to sleep next to him in his bed. And that’s it: there is no drama created about what people will think, no scandalised reaction shown from her mother, no palpitations on sharing a bed, not even a “you sleep on the bed, I’ll sleep on the floor” discussion. The act itself was a big deal considering the social strata they were dealing with, but what made it all the more interesting is the steadfast refusal by all the parties to not create any fuss about it.
What is special about Shuddh Desi Romance, beyond the fine writing and pitch-perfect direction, is its insistence on not succumbing to the traditional behaviour and pay-offs associated with most Bollywood cinema. Prima facie, this is a film that deals with live-in relationships – which is hardly revolutionary new ground. An increasingly common phrase being brandished about today by mass media, advertising and TV serials, live-in relationships were introduced to mainstream Bollywood seven years ago, via a reasonably entertaining rom-com called Salaam Namaste. It was the story of a couple who were in a live-in relationship simply because, due to their different work schedules, they had no other way of spending time with each other. Since then, many films have shown couples who chose this lifestyle out of willingness, not as the last resort. However, Shuddh Desi Romance pushes this to a whole new level, and in the process challenges a lot of the classic Bollywood conventions – as well as those of the traditional Indian mind-set.
LIVE IN. DRAMA OUT.
Live-in relationships in this film are approached with a refreshingly frank casualness. This becomes doubly important because this story, unlike Salaam Namaste, is not set in Australia. It is not even set in Mumbai or Delhi. The story takes place in a very middle class neighbourhood in Jaipur. The couple embarks on this living arrangement with an incredibly nonchalant attitude, wasting no time in bunking together literally from the second time they meet, and not for a second are they concerned about society, parents, etc. Sure, he is officially still introduced as her ‘brother’ in order to not offend some social fabric, but the film acutely observes that this fools no one; while simultaneously pointing out that the couple do not let the society comment on or intrude into their living arrangement. It tells us two things: living in is only as big a deal as you make it, and society will only matter if you let it.
MARRIAGE IS NOT THE ONLY HAPPY ENDING
The film is traditionally mainstream in that the characters eventually do succumb to love and progress towards a happy ending – however, these characters don’t necessarily believe that their happy ending should be the same as yours, or any of the ones we have been fed by films. Once all the romantic complications are resolved and the central couple has decided to settle down with each other, the film casually, almost inevitably, threatens to veer towards a ‘they-get-married-and-live-happily-ever-after’ conclusion – and then, in a reassuringly, blessedly confident ending, it shuns the entire notion of marriage as the only eventual destination. This is behaviourally consistent with these characters: after all, both the parties in this commitment-phobic couple have run away from weddings earlier, and the film thankfully does not try and accommodate a traditional happy ending by piling on a last-minute reversal of beliefs for them. This modern couple sees no reason for a marriage – they are in love, they are together, they are happy: where is the need for a big, exhibitionist wedding or the impositions of a marriage? If it is argued that the eventual aim of a marriage is to live together happily, then this couple is already doing that, without all the other unnecessary trappings.
The boldness of this ending cannot be understated. In all the films that have ever depicted a live-in relationship, it is viewed almost as an apologetic precursor to the eventual wedding. However, to this couple, and perhaps to many urban lovers in India today, living-in is not a rehearsal for marriage: it is the real thing; an equally valid life choice. The argument is simple: get married because you want to, not because you have to.
WHY THE FILM-MAKER MATTERS
It must be remembered that this film comes from the house of Yashraj Films. Yashraj Films, in the world of Indian cinema, is effectively the embodiment of the establishment. It is a company which, for over thirty years, has fed us one wedding video after another. It is impossible to go to any wedding today without feeling like an actor in a ‘Best of Yashraj’ music video. Then again, it was this company that also brought us Salaam Namaste.
People often believe that Hindi Cinema will change because of the wild, experimental film-making of the outsiders in this industry: the Anurag Kashyaps, the Dibakar Bannerjees, etc. But that is a misconception – these film-makers live on the fringes on the industry. Those on the fringes can never bring change at a mass level. If an industry must change in anyway, change has to happen at its fulcrum, by people with substantial mass, and who can genuinely affect things – people like Yashraj Films. The fringe players at most are the missionaries – their task must be to convert, to infect; they must inspire change at the fulcrum. Arguably, this is starting to happen – not only are their films starting to affect the films of the Goliaths (be it in terms of actors, technicians, subjects or story-telling techniques) but the fringe players are increasingly collaborating with the latter to create change at the fulcrum. In fact, Dibakar Bannerjee’s next film is a co-production with Yashraj Films, starring Sushant Singh Rajput.
Thus, rather than the harbingers of change, the fringe players and the outsiders must be the missionaries – because real change will only happen when those in the fulcrum have been infected.
Someone told me that for a film that is so eager to severe ties with the conventionalities and coy-ness of the traditional Hindi film romance, it is ironic that the film is called Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure, Indian Romance). Perhaps. Perhaps it was intended as irony. I see it as extremely acute: when India is changing, why should the definition of the pure Indian romance stay the same?