Thursday, November 25, 2010

Baroque Bollywood Part 2

A continuation of Baroque Bollywood Part 1, tracing the parallels between Baroque opera and Bollywood:

Love triangles: Love triangles in Baroque opera can get quite, er, baroque. In Vivaldi's Ottone in Villa (1713), for example, the Roman emperor Ottone loves Cleonilla, who has a crush on her male page "Ostilio," who is really a disguised woman named Tullia, who has come to court seeking her former lover Caio, who abandoned her and now loves Cleonilla. Got all that?

A similarly tangled love plot features in Handel's opera Serse (Xerxes, 1738): Atalanta is in love with Arsamene, who loves Atalanta's sister Romilda, who loves Arsamene in return, but finds herself also subject to the amorous attentions of Serse.

This double triangle—two sisters in love with the same man, two men in love with the same sister—is uncannily similar to the plot of the Bollywood movie Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart Is Yours, 2002). In that film, Mahima Chaudary loves Arjun Rampal, who loves Mahima's half-sister Preity Zinta, who loves Arjun in return; meanwhile, Preity's childhood friend Jimmy Shergill has secretly been in love with her for years. The complication in DHT is that Preity so desperately wants her sister to be happy that she asks Arjun to marry Mahima, and for Jimmy to pretend to love herself. To do so, of course, he has to pretend that he doesn't already love her. This sort of delirious perversity is what makes DHT one of my favorite love-triangle movies, but I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who values their sanity.

Among my other favorite love-triangle Bollywood movies are Baarsaat Ki Raat (One Rainy Night, 1960), where both Madhubala and Shyama love Bharat Bhusan; Katha (1983), where quiet, shy Naseeruddin Shah loves Deepti Naval, who is infatuated with the heartless cad Farooq Shaikh; Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998), where Kajol falls in love with her college classmate Shah Rukh Khan just as he's falling in love with new girl at school Rani Mukherjee, then years later Shah Rukh discovers that he loves Kajol after all—but only after she's become engaged to Salman Khan; and Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), where Shah Rukh Khan teaches Saif Ali Khan how to woo Preity Zinta, the woman Shah Rukh himself has fallen in love with. (A man acting as a go-between for the woman he loves and another man is also a subplot Handel uses in Serse.)

Some other plots that are common in both Baroque opera and Bollywood:

Revenge: A son who must revenge his father's or mother's humiliation or death is central to Baiju Bawra (1952), Amar Akbar Anthony (1978), Rocky (1981), Khal Nayak (The Anti-Hero, 1993), Karan Arjun (1995), Trimurti (Trinity, 1995), Koyla (Coal, 1997), and countless other films. It's also a subplot in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724). Sesto, the son of the Roman general Pompey, must avenge the murder of his father and the imprisonment and attempted seduction of his mother at the hands of the treacherous Greek-Egyptian ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy). Sometimes, as with Tolomeo, the evil done by the villain is so profound that justice can only be served by his death. This is also true of the bad guys in Koyla, Trimurti, Karan Arjun, Khal Nayak, and many other Bollywood films.

But in Baiju Bawra, when the moment of truth arrives for the son, he finds himself unable to carry out his revenge. And this is another common plot element in both Bollywood and Baroque opera:

Forgiveness: In Bollywood, tyrannical fathers and other authority figures who transgress against those under their power are often forgiven, no matter how outrageously they've overstepped the bounds of justice. In Ishq (Love, 1998), for example, the fathers of Ajay Devgn and Juhi Chawla will stop at nothing to get their children married to one another, even though Ajay loves Kajol and Juhi loves Amir Khan. The fathers force their children to unwittingly sign false marriage contracts, deceive them into thinking that Kajol and Amir are lovers, have both Kajol and Amir attacked by goons and Amir brutally tortured, and blackmail Kajol and Amir into leaving India entirely. But in the final five minutes, as Kajol and Amir are boarding a ship into exile, there is a tearful confrontation on the dock, the true lovers are reunited, and everyone forgives the two fathers.

Ishq may be way—way—over the top. But Baroque opera got there first. In Handel's Rodelinda (1724), the villain Grimoaldo invades and conquers the kingdom of his neighbor Bertarido, imprisons him and sentences him to death, attempts to seduce Bertarido's wife Rodelinda, threatens to kill her child if she doesn't marry him, and abandons his own former lover Eduige. However, Bertarido escapes, and in the last five minutes of the opera saves Grimoaldo's life, forgives him, reunites him with Eduige, and reinstates him as the ruler of the neighboring kingdom.

The emphasis on magnanimity, of course, is intended to legitimate a system in which the father/ruler wields all the power. We've just spent three hours watching that power being employed arbitrarily, selfishly, and unjustly, which might tend to make us question its very basis. But both Baroque opera and Bollywood want it both ways: they want to move us with the plight of characters who are experiencing unmerited suffering, and reassure us that the father/ruler will ultimately be reformed. Because the supreme value of both forms is the...

Happy ending. As Shah Rukh Khan's Om Prakash says so memorably in Om Shanti Om (2007), if the ending is not happy, then the movie is not over, my friend. There are a few exceptions: Devdas (1935, 1955, 2002, et seq.), Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960), and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From One Heartbreak to Another, 1988) are tragedies, and the later films of Guru Dutt, such as Khagaaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Mistress and Servant, 1962), also have dark endings. In Baroque opera, too, there are the rare works that end unhappily, such as Blow's Venus and Adonis (1684), Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689), or Handel's Tamerlano (1724).

However, in both Bollywood and Baroque opera the imperative that the ending be a happy one, and that a happy ending necessarily means the union or reunion of the main couple, can lead to some pretty wild plot contortions. Baroque operas went so far as to rewrite myths to make them conform to the need for a happy ending. The original Orpheus myth, for example, ends with Orpheus' wife Eurydice imprisoned forever in Hades and Orpheus being torn apart by the Maenads; but Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) ends with Apollo reuniting the couple in the heavens.

So in both Bollywood and Baroque opera there can be a mad scramble in the last five minutes to tie up all the loose threads of the plot, forgive all transgressions, and unite the correct couples. For Bollywood, Ishq is a particularly egregious example, but last-minute reversals are legion. The "wrong" groom or bride realizes in the middle of the wedding ceremony that their bride or groom loves someone else, and steps aside so that the true lovers can be married (hello, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (What Am I To You?, 1994), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Mujhse Dosti Karoge! (Will You Be My Friend?, 2002), Dil Hai Tumhaara, and Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (I'm Crazy About Prem, 2003)). Or the woman who has spent the entire film trying to unite with a distant, absent, or estranged lover realizes that she's fallen in love instead with the steadfast nice guy who's been helping her out the whole time (stand up, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To You, 1998), Kya Kehna (What Is There To Say, 2000), and Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007)). But a special prize has to be awarded to Lajja (2001), in which the happy ending is the loving reunion of a husband with his wife...the wife he has spent the previous three hours trying to kidnap and murder (!).

But again, Bollywood was simply following the well-worn path of Baroque opera. In Alessandro Scarlatti's Griselda (1721), Gualtiero tests his wife Griselda's fidelity by pretending to have killed their daughter, renouncing Griselda, forcing her to work as a slave in his household, promising her in marriage to one of his courtiers, and finally pretending that he is going to marry the young ward of a neighboring prince (really, his and Griselda's daughter). In the last five minutes of the opera Gualtiero reveals his deceptions, and restores the faithful (and still loving) Griselda as his wife.

Sometimes, perhaps, forgiveness can go too far, and the happy ending can seem instead like your worst nightmare.


  1. A very informative and interesing post, le, for me atleast coz I know nothing about Baroque opera and have learnt a lot from ur article and the very interesting parrallels to hindi films.

  2. Filmbuff, the parallels between opera and Bollywood are pretty striking. 17th- and 18th-century opera is definitely an acquired taste, but if you're interested in trying out a tuneful opera that has a resemblance to Hindi movies, you might want to take a look at Domenico Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage, 1791).

    It's another double love-triangle: The impoverished young clerk Paolino has secretly married the rich merchant Geronimo's daughter Carolina. Paulino, though, has caught the amorous eye of Carolina's aunt Fidalma. Meanwhile, the jaded Count Robinson has arranged a marriage to Geronimo's elder daughter Elisetta, but once he meets the younger daughter he decides he prefers Carolina. As Wikipedia has it, "much scheming and amorous intrigue" ensue.

    There's an excellent DVD of this comic opera filmed in 1986 at the gorgeous restored Baroque theater at Schwetzingen, featuring David Kuebler as Paolino and Georgine Resick as Carolina. It's available on Netflix, should you be interested.