Sunday, September 21, 2014

‘LOVE JIHAD’, INTER-COMMUNITY ROMANCES & BOLLYWOOD / FILM FATALE: COLUMN PUBLISHED IN HINDU BUSINESSLINE

‘LOVE JIHAD’ AND BOLLYWOOD

Most inter-community romances in Hindi cinema feature a Hindu man with a woman from a minority community. Is this a coincidence? Or closet patriarchal-communalism at work?



He’s not known for making cinematic references. The past month, though, has been an exception for Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav. Taking a potshot at the Sangh Parivar’s ‘love jihad’ campaign, Yadav asked at a public function whether Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and Bollywood actress Hema Malini was promoting ‘love jihad’ through the Indian-Afghan romance in her film Dharmatma (1975).

Is ‘love jihad’ actually happening? Let’s set aside that question for the moment to examine Yadav’s misplaced choice of film. Statements from the Sangh Parivar and from BJP leaders, in particular, define ‘love jihad’ as a conspiracy to lure Hindu women to Islam by getting Muslim men to feign love for them. In Dharmatma though, it was the man (played by Feroz Khan) who was a Hindu.

Yadav would be hard-pressed to find the reverse happening in any Bollywood film. For the truth is, most fictional inter-community romances in Hindi cinema have featured a Hindu man with a woman from a minority community. Is this a coincidence or closet patriarchal-communalism at work?

The answer comes from real life. Those who speak of ‘love jihad’ always speak in terms of Hindu women (in some cases, Christian and Sikh women) being drawn to Muslim men. Why isn’t a gender reversal regarded as equally worrisome? Primarily because of our society’s deeply patriarchal notions of identity and religion, where a bride ‘leaves’ her family and — in the case of a mixed marriage — even her community, to adopt her husband’s name, faith and people. The resultant loss of a woman to another religious group, especially a much-hated one, wounds the community ego. For people who count the numbers in their fold too, it means a loss because she and her womb (for that is all a woman is worth to some people) are automatically assumed to now belong to the ‘other’. With prevailing proprietorial attitudes, a woman’s ability to choose a partner is considered questionable; her right to choose her partner or her religion is ignored. 

In the real world, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians find themselves on the same side of this battle, possibly because (let’s not mince words here) a majority of them view Muslims with fear and even greater suspicion than they view each other. Hindi filmmakers, however, seem focused on offering reassurances to their Hindu audience alone while telling inter-community romantic tales.

Nearly 30 years after Dharmatma, Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004) narrated the story of the Hindu Indian boy Veer Pratap Singh (Shah Rukh Khan) and the Pakistani Muslim girl Zaara Haayat Khan (Preity Zinta). Couched in fluttering chiffons was the fact that Zaara moves to India, where the lovers are ultimately re-united. The film was a box-office success, and it’s hard not to wonder how most Indian viewers would have reacted to a mainstream commercial film in which an Indian Hindu girl moves to Pakistan for her Muslim lover.

The Hindu-boy-Muslim-girl liaison was a constant in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), not a Bollywood film but dubbed from Tamil, Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007), Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (2007), Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade (2012) and pretty much every fictitious Hindu-Muslim romance that comes to mind.

Not for a moment is this column suggesting that these directors are communal. Evidently though, they are playing it safe to cater to the overt or covert, conscious or subconscious, perceived or real patriarchal-communalism of majority community members in the audience. Clearly, most Hindi filmmakers consider a Muslim-boy-Hindu-girl romance too hot to handle. When they do portray inter-community romances, they opt for subtle populism, reassuring communal viewers — and even non-communal ones weighed down by subconscious prejudices and fears — that they need not worry: ‘our girl’ is not lost to ‘them’; instead ‘their girl’ has come over to ‘us’.

Rensil D’silva’s Kurbaan (2009) was uncommon and seemingly revolutionary in this regard since Kareena Kapoor played a Hindu girl who falls in love with a Muslim (Saif Ali Khan) in the film. Kurbaan even featured a wonderfully frank conversation between the girl’s father and the boy regarding the old man’s reservations about his daughter marrying a Muslim. The scene brought into the open the actual concerns such liaisons would invite in most Indian families. And then Saif’s character turns out to be a terrorist. If you view the film in isolation, that’s perfectly acceptable. If you look at it in the context of Bollywood’s track record in this matter, you will see why the writer here deemed it acceptable — even necessary — to make an exception in this film, and make the woman the Hindu partner in the relationship for a change. 

Hindu-Christian Bollywood romances are as rare as Hindu-Muslim affairs, but these too have stuck to a formula: Hindu–hero, Christian–heroine. Think Bobby (1973), Julie (1975), Ankhiyon ke Jharokon Se (1978) or, more recently, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani (2009), Cocktail (2012) and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012).

It would be easy to pretend that this trend is a mere coincidence, or to cite exceptions to counter the argument being made, or to accuse columnists of a cynical over-analysis of innocent entertainment. Let’s not be naïve or lie to ourselves, please. Bollywood and its viewers would do well to introspect about the patriarchal-communalism evident in these ‘coincidences’. The last thing this country needs is for its film industries to unwittingly support off-screen bigots.

(Anna M.M. Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)

(This column by Anna M.M. Vetticad was published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on September 6, 2014)


Saturday, September 20, 2014

REVIEW 291: DAAWAT-E-ISHQ

Release date:
September 19, 2014
Director:
Habib Faisal
Cast:

Language:

Parineeti Chopra, Anupam Kher, Aditya Roy Kapur
Hindi
Daawat-e-Ishq is the most irresponsible film to emerge from mainstream Bollywood this year. No, Habib Faisal, it’s not okay to trivialise issues as serious as dowry and Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, in your bid to appease those men who think it’s being widely misused while you stay on the side of political correctness to please women too. Brides have been murdered, families have been driven to despair and debt over this horrific custom. It’s one of the reasons cited by Indian parents who kill off their daughters before birth.

No doubt 498A has been abused by some people (is there a law in this world which has not?) and of course such women should be severely punished, but their numbers are being greatly exaggerated to divert attention from the plight of the majority who suffer this practice. In such a scenario, if you do wish to discuss misuse of this law, then at least have the gumption to cite a genuine, realistic, condemnable example. It’s disappointing that you of all people Mr Faisal, you who wrote the wonderful Band Baaja Baaraat and directed Do Dooni Char, should write and direct a half-baked film on 498A. My heart broke a little when I realised the writer of BBB had directed the frighteningly regressive Ishaqzaade. The remaining bits were crushed this week.

Daawat-e-Ishq’s idea of ‘misuse’ of the law is in itself undercooked and terribly contrived, seemingly driven by the fact that the writer wanted to make a point about it and yet not demonise the heroine, thus leaving enough space for romance-shomance, luv-shuv and naach-gaana between pretty girl and pretty boy at pretty locations, in a film that does not seem to know what it wants to be or what stand it wishes to take. Gulrez Qadir (Parineeti Chopra) of Hyderabad is tired of being rejected by dowry-hungry families of prospective grooms. She’s smart, a great student, good-looking and working while studying, but to ladkewaalas, all that matters is that her father can’t afford to pay big bucks to buy a boy. The story up to this point, which is about half an hour of the film, is clear, concise, believable and nicely handled. The film goes downhill though from the moment Gulrez a.k.a. Gullu decides to turn confidence trickster, and hatches a far-fetched plan – I won’t describe it here – to pull a fast one on a dowry-seeking family.

Along the way, she meets the handsome restaurateur Tahir Haidar (Aditya Roy Kapur) in Lucknow. With two bright sparks playing the leads, you would think that half the director’s battle is won. It’s impossible not to be taken in by those glowing lamps Parineeti has for eyes. Aditya with his mischievous smile is also a charmer. They look like they could have good chemistry, but he enters the picture more than half an hour into the film, and then too he does not get to spend that much time in conversation with her; they’re sent off to sing and dance instead.

Individually they’re clearly trying their best with the material at hand. In fact, Aditya let’s his hair down so completely that his artless, flirtatious, sensitive Tahir should rank as his best performance to date. It’s a measure of how charismatic these two are that one finds oneself emotionally invested in their relationship in the end despite the weak writing.

The title song, used widely to promote this film, had raised expectations that Daawat-e-Ishq would be a good food film, but even that aspect is inadequately treated. Just taking a camera into a restaurant or serving tons of food doth not a food film make. We needed to see the passion in the eyes and the artistic grace in the hands of the people cooking those biryanis and shahi tukdas, their fire reciprocated by the consumers of their creations. Food films are not a common genre in India, certainly not in Bollywood, but Faisal does have a couple of fine recent examples to follow, such as the lovely 2012 Malayalam film Ustad Hotel and those sensuous cooking scenes featuring Nimrat Kaur in last year’s Hindi-English The Lunchbox. Food makes for great visuals. Food spells romance. Daawat-e-Ishq fails to deliver any of the above.

Even Sajid-Wajid’s songs have been lazily chucked into the film. There is much to like here, especially the lilting undulations of the qawwali music in the title track (ah, Javed Ali and Sunidhi Chauhan!) and the near-devotional love song Mannat, but their quality is overshadowed by the mindlessness with which they’ve been thrown into the mix.

The best part of Daawat-e-Ishq is what you’re least expecting from it: the equation between Gulrez and her father (Anupam Kher in full form), between Parineeti and the senior actor. They are parent and child but also friends; she is a youthful live wire, he is bent with age; she is an unapologetic rebel, he is tradition bound and yet so so proud of his feisty daughter. The relationship between daughters and single fathers is not often explored in Hindi cinema. This one is enough to warm the stoniest hearts. Equally unusual for a Hindi film is the fact that the theme of dowry here has been placed within the Muslim community.

Some thought seems to have been invested in the film’s costume design too. Tahir’s kitschy shirts are amusing. It’s also interesting to see Gulrez’s smooth metamorphosis from being a practical, lower-middle-class Hyderabadi shoe salesgirl to the ultra-glamorous, over-dressed daughter of a Middle East-based Indian millionaire.

The good stuff, however, comes as individual elements that can’t conquer the hurriedly-put-together screenplay. Topping the heap of bad stuff is the flippant, unthinking treatment of a matter as grave as dowry. The final word from Daawat-e-Ishq seems to be this: not everyone who asks for dowry is a bad person; some ladkewaalas are just good souls blindly following reeti-rivaaz without any evil intentions. What on earth were you thinking, Mr Faisal? And why, dear Yash Raj Films, did you produce this film?

Rating (out of five stars): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

U
Running time:
124 minutes

Photograph and video courtesy: Yash Raj Films


Friday, September 19, 2014

REVIEW 290: KHOOBSURAT

Release date:
September 19, 2014
Director:
Shashanka Ghosh
Cast:


Language:

Sonam Kapoor, Fawad Khan, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aamir Raza Hussain, Kirron Kher
Hindi

It takes a brave man to remake a much-loved Hrishikesh Mukherjee classic. Director Shashanka Ghosh’s Khoobsurat matches the mood of the 1980 original, but he wisely borrows just the bare bones of the story to come up with something that’s uniquely 2014 and uniquely his own.

This Khoobsurat then is the story of a bubbly, guileless, kind, successful young Delhi-based physiotherapist called Milli Chakravarty (Sonam Kapoor) who is hired to treat a wheelchair-bound erstwhile Rajasthan royal. ‘Maharaja’ Shekhar Rathore (Aamir Raza Hussain) is a tough nut to crack. Milli is his 40th doctor so far but she soon realises it’s his spirit that needs reviving, not his legs, for reasons this review won’t reveal. The Rathores live a strict, regimented life in their lavish palace overseen by the propah disciplinarian ‘Maharani’ Nirmala (Ratna Pathak Shah). Making up the rest of the family are their son, the dashing but boring workaholic ‘Yuvraaj’ Vikram (Pakistani actor Fawad Khan), and conflicted school-going daughter Divya.  

Like Maria in Sound of Music, Manju (Rekha) in the old Khubsoorat (different spelling) and other films in a similar mould, we know from the start here too that Milli will win everyone over by the end. It matters not, because the journey to that point makes for a sweet romantic comedy.

This may seem blasphemous to Hrishida’s fans, but if you set aside those rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia for a moment, you might agree that Manju/Rekha’s antics in her sister’s marital home, especially her loudness when she first entered there, defied believability. Milli’s exuberance never once resembles Manju’s early idiocy and is, therefore, more credible. This is a chirpy girl brought up in a happy, informal middle-class household by supportive parents, her convention-defying Punjabi mother Manju (Kirron Kher) and her quiet Bengali father (Kaizad Kotwal). Thrown into unfamiliar environs, Milli refuses to put a lid on her joie de vivre yet never comes across as being unaware of her surroundings or of how she sticks out like a sore thumb.

Sonam here does something she should do more often: she does NOT play a designerwear-addicted ultra-glam shopaholic and/or spoilt rich kid whose on-screen character mirrors her off-screen persona; quite the opposite and she looks stunning despite that. To find her Milli though, she reaches not into a wardrobe but into her self for that X-factor we saw in Saawariya’s Sakina, to deliver effusiveness and innocence tempered with sensitivity and wisdom.

Fawad’s staid Vikram is a perfect foil to her effervescence. It doesn’t hurt that he fits well into those suits and gives us a glimpse of a sexy torso in his bedroom one night, without strutting around like a peacock as some Bollywood heroes do these days. The supporting cast is strong, and the sweet chemistry between Ratna and Aamir merits a mention.


By now Kirron Kher could probably do the over-wrought Punjabi mom with her eyes closed. It’s to her credit that despite the burden of playing a cliche, she manages to be funny.

For the most part, Indira Bisht’s screenplay is consistent and realistic. One major grouse: the writing of Vikram’s character. We see him a lot, meet him often, yet don’t get to know him much. It’s easy to understand why Vikram falls in love with Milli. It’s also easy to see why she would be sexually attracted to him – c’mon, he’s cute! – but what evoked love? Can’t quite tell.

The writing does get occasionally lazy, with one particular situation of convenience being drawn up just to fit plot requirements. I mean, how likely is it that a royal Rajasthan household would offer a room with one bed to two guests, one male and the other female?

Early on in the film, another hard-to-believe scenario is unthinkingly thrown in to establish Milli’s egalitarianism. I can imagine a woman like her being kind to household staff, but how likely is it that the crazy-yet-sensible Milli would party, drink and dance wildly with them without stopping for a moment to wonder if the male employees might misunderstand her, considering the gender segregation prevalent in so much of traditional Indian society?

The film also unnecessarily slows down in the last half hour, feels stretched in Vikram’s interactions with Milli’s family and could have done without the generic song Abhi toh party shuru hui hai accompanying the end credits. The spotlight is almost entirely on Sonam in that number. Unfair to Fawad? Yes. But her family is co-producing the film and well, this is what Bollywood’s male stars do to heroines in entire films most of the time, so therefore ergo...

That song apart, Sneha Khanwalkar’s pleasant compositions with lyrics by Kausar Munir are unobtrusively stitched into the story; they are not lip synced but play in the background. The chosen locations show us a Rajasthan beyond sand dunes, and DoP Tushar Kanti Ray delivers eye-pleasing visuals without trying to impress with the grandeur of natural scenery or palaces.

Besides being fun, this is a sensible film. It’s non-judgmental towards Nirmala Rathore despite her harshness. The humour is never raucous and often used to convey an important point: note Milli’s response to Nirmala’s confusion on discovering that Ms Chakravarty considers herself a Punjabi. Except for some rough patches I’ve already grumbled about, this is a well-told story. There you go Sajid Khan, frothy does not have to mean foolish. Khoobsurat is proof of that.

PS: (1) Nice opening credits with visuals of the characters in gilded frames, against the backdrop of what looks like jacquard silk. (2) Is Manju named thus in a bow to Hrishida’s heroine?

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):

U/A
Running time:
130 minutes