By Kamayani Sharma Sep. 24, 2018
For all of Manmarziyan’s feminist pretensions, its lead Rumi is a cipher, waiting for validation from the men in her life. Where are the fun, confused young women who end up by themselves and become stronger because of it? Where are the women who bid their orthodoxies goodbye and try to fly solo?
There’s a scene in Manmarziyan in which fiery Rumi tells her new NRI husband Robbie that she’s not a virgin, if that’s the reason he came all the way home to find a bride. He turns the statement back on her – “I’m not one either.” Her declaration is meant to be brazen, his reassuring. And yet, more than halfway into the movie, this seems to be lazy shorthand for how unconventional these people are, without giving any sense of how or why.
The proposition at the heart of a film as exuberant and busy as this is the rather insipid observation that young Indian women have enough relationship experience to be able to make a choice, and Indian men are getting used to it. I’ve argued before that the figure of the Manic Pixie Desi Girl in Bollywood reflects the patriarchal appropriation of what passes as “sexual liberation” in India. The free-spirited woman is a cipher, not a fully developed person, designed to cater to male fantasies about sexual availability and emotional self-sufficiency.
Manmarziyan badly wants to explore what it really means to be in love in a world where Tinder and arranged marriages co-exist in the same reality – an ostensibly interesting premise. Unfortunately, much like the real-life scenarios it’s based on, it ends up taking a deeply conservative and status quoist turn, succumbing to an idealised – and unchallenging – model of companionship.
Obviously, one cannot expect radical politics from popular cinema. But when a film affects a feminist accent and makes a fetish out of the supposed conflict between the love that a woman chooses and that which she is expected to accept, you can no longer wish away the context in which these love stories are set. There was a time, up until the early 2000s, when Bollywood romances were feudal affairs in which familial disapproval and the spectre of violent punishment were staple tropes. These melodramas were sexist and formulaic and recent films have made a virtue out of supposedly challenging these depictions of women and their agency. But increasingly, the superficiality of their treatment of gender has become obvious by their refusal to touch the one aspect that determines the viability of love in this country – caste.
What is at stake in Bollywood romance? We live in a society in which death is the consequence of falling for the wrong person, especially if they belong to a more powerful community.
Arranged marriages in India are meant to ensure caste “purity”, a way to consolidate capital and strengthen the hierarchies that keep the many oppressed. For Rumi, Robbie, and many upper-caste Indians like them, the option of a readymade match is always present as a Plan B, insurance against a life of loneliness and self-reliance. Where is the effort, the work, the insistence that goes into determining who will accompany us on the journey? The uncertain pleasures and pressures of making love last are shrugged aside for the relatively less onerous option of settling down with someone picked out by the family.
In In Praise of Love, the philosopher Alain Badiou comes down on what he terms “zero-risks” love. He argues that love is actually a process by which a random chance encounter, an event that could as easily never have occurred, becomes the basis of a lasting bond, of a truth that becomes necessary to the lives of two people. Badiou is dismissive of the Euro-American practice of online dating aimed at securing love, without putting anything at stake, and asserts that, metaphysically speaking, this is not love at all. He likens it to arranged marriage: “Not done in the name of family order and hierarchy by despotic parents, but in the name of safety for the individuals involved, through advance agreements that avoid… any existential poetry, due to the categorical absence of risks.”
What is at stake in Bollywood romance? We live in a society in which death is the consequence of falling for the wrong person, especially if they belong to a more powerful community. Manmarziyan’s opening week alone saw two Dalit men murdered for marrying upper-caste women. This is how risky it is to love IRL. And yet, for an industry obsessed with love, Bollywood can’t tackle its deepest aspects at all. Stories that are actually about this are bowdlerised – Sairat’s anti-caste charge was completely neutralised when it was remade as Dhadak. Occasionally, when this subject is explored by replacing caste with class through the usual “rich girl/poor boy” cliche, the protagonists court dishonour and pay for it with their lives. But even when that’s not the entire, tragic point of their story, upper-caste protagonists of Bollywood romances are untroubled by a far less lethal risk – the possibility that they will not be loved by someone deemed suitable.
The Rumi-Vicky-Robbie triangle is devoid of any sense of what the perils of 21st-century love in India might be – young people sleeping around and changing their minds is hardly the stuff of epics. Which would be fine if the film weren’t setting itself up as one, with the angsty ballads, overripe landing moments and hyperbolic character reactions.
As Rumi changes her mind again and again, you are alerted to the convenience of it all – if not Vicky’s passion, then Robbie’s care.
This mismatch between the tenor of the film and its banal mise en scene is most evident when Amrita Pritam’s “Main tenu phir milangi,” written for Imroz, her partner of 50 years, appears in the film, ironically revealing how inappropriate it is for the on-again/off-again adolescent drama of Rumi and Vicky’s dalliance. They are meant to be kids playing at being lovers in a world of adults: nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in which Rumi rides over to Robbie’s house (on a Bullet, you guys!) on the night before their wedding to inform him that she’s going to elope, which is followed by him sabotaging her plans by speaking to his nemesis Vicky’s parents. Rumi is infantilised and reined in by the man later presented to us as her great ultimate choice – a husband so magnanimous he doesn’t react too badly when he discovers his wife possibly cheating on him with a man he knew he was separating her from.
There’s something disquieting about a man clearly much older than this woman in her early 20s being so utterly besotted by her for no reason than that she’s “feisty” in the most stereotypically filmy way possible. We never really understand why – she has wild hair and once played hockey, that’s pretty much it. We never discover what else she is finally striving for except being validated by a man, or what her hopes and dreams as a human being are, apart from being the object of someone’s love. She isn’t allowed to be young in the sense that Vicky is – erring and maturing and leaving to make a life elsewhere on her own. Her coolness and youth is meant for the consumption of a man – sexy and vulnerable and to be controlled by love.
For all the saucy realism that the current crop of genre romances peddle, they are unable to confront that which makes love worthwhile – risk. And this completely undercuts all the pretensions to feminism that Bollywood tries to sell. The risks are notional – love is guaranteed. There is never the fear that love will fail, people will break up, upset their clan or not have a white knight immediately waiting in the wings.
Where are the fun, confused young women who end up by themselves and become stronger because of it? Where are the women who bid their families and their orthodoxies goodbye and try to fly solo or find an alternative support system? They are uncommon in the real world, indeed, but if the whole point of Hindi romantic dramas is to present to us “feisty”, “fearless” special snowflakes who “aren’t like other girls”, they had better deliver on those promises and not have us applauding their specialness for nothing. It is one thing to present the story of Rumi as something that happens all too often and to explore that experience on its own terms – but to elevate her dilemma and give her this epiphany that she is in “grown-up love” with the man chosen for her links her coming-of-age with the realisation that her elders knew best all along.
On the surface, Manmarziyan, following a handful of films like Queen, Dear Zindagi (neither of which are love stories) and Shuddh Desi Romance, rejects heteropatriarchal marriage in a move towards embracing empowered female characters who exercise their agency. But for this rejection to be anything more than a symbolic flourish to accord the movie the imprimatur of being progressive, there has to be an acknowledgement that there exists a reality of a long, possibly terminal singlehood, a period of learning from misjudgements, the dangers and joys of living with just oneself and one’s mistakes. Hell, even the fraught world of dating multiple people, whether at once or serially, would allow for some thoughtful reflection on what intimacy even is for youth gadding about in a world of home-delivered sex endangered by the paranoia around ghar ki izzat.
As Rumi changes her mind again and again, you are alerted to the convenience of it all – if not Vicky’s passion, then Robbie’s care. Sure, she makes her own decisions but what are the choices before her in the first place? If anything, Manmarziyan gestures towards the complicity of upper-caste women in the gilding of their own cages. It doesn’t matter who she picks because Bollywood ensures that in order to have a happy, feel-good ending befitting the tone of the film, “love will follow”, as the homily about arranged marriages goes.
In many ways, this certainty is what makes true love – Badiou’s “tenacious adventure” – so difficult in India onscreen and off it. The question that Marmaziyan wanted to ask but couldn’t is how can we love in a society designed to prevent bodies from bumping into each other and rearranging the world they move in?
Kamayani Sharma writes on visual culture and teaches philosophy to undergraduates. She contributes regularly to artforum, The Caravan and ART India. In her spare time, she makes elaborate lists of things she would like to do in her spare time.