Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Premarital sex and Shuddh Desi Romance

Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) in Bobby

In Indian cinema premarital sex has often had severe, and sometimes fatal, consequences. What follows is a brief history of premarital sex in seven films from five decades (with mild spoilers):

Aradhana (Adoration, 1968): After a night of passion with local beauty Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), dashing Air Force pilot Arun (Rajesh Khanna) is killed in a plane crash. Vandana soon discovers that she's pregnant. Unmarried,* and rejected by Arun's family, Vandana must give her son Suraj up for adoption. To stay close to Suraj, she goes to work as a servant in the household of the wealthy couple that adopted him, but must keep her true identity a secret. Attempted rape, a killing, prison and years of separation follow…

Bobby (1973): Rich boy Raj (Rishi Kapoor) and poor girl Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) fall passionately in love. Raj's father, though, angrily rejects the proposed match and engages him to another bride. Raj and Bobby elope, but are pursued by their angry parents, kidnapped and beaten by goons, and plunge off a cliff into a raging river.

Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From Doom to Doom, 1988): Raj (Aamir Khan) and Rashmi (Juhi Chawla) fall in love, but their feuding families won't agree to their marriage. So the lovers elope and live in blissful happiness together—until hired killers are sent by Rashmi's father to murder Raj.

Kya Kehna (What Is There to Say? 2000): Priya (Preity Zinta) falls hard for the daredevil charms of college hero Rahul (Saif Ali Khan). When she discovers that she's pregnant, she is spurned by Rahul, ostracized by her family and her community, and has to fight to keep her baby.

Salaam Namaste (Muslim-Hindu Greetings, 2005): Radio DJ Ambar (Preity Zinta) and aspiring restaurateur Nick (Saif Ali Khan) move in together, but when she becomes pregnant he tells her that he isn't ready for fatherhood, abandoning her to deal with the pregnancy on her own.

Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days, 2009): Meera (Deepika Padukone) and Jai (Saif Ali Khan), unwilling to let their 3-year-long live-in relationship interfere with their careers, separate to pursue their dream jobs. They both become involved with other people, but when Jai is badly beaten by muggers, he realizes that he truly loves Meera—who, in the meantime, has married another man.

Cocktail (2012): Party-girl Veronica (Deepika Padukone) and flirtatious Gautam (Saif Ali Khan yet again) sleep together, but think of themselves as free agents. Veronica comes to realize, though, that she is truly in love with Gautam—only, he has fallen for her new roommate, the demure Meera (Diana Penty). Stumbling down the street in a haze of alcohol and grief, Veronica is hit by a speeding car.

It's hard not to view these movies as cautionary tales about the dangers, emotional and physical, of premarital sex. Krishna and Radha may be held up as models of passionate love, but those who follow their example are regularly forced to endure Sita-like trials.

Which brings us to the latest entry in this series:

Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure Indian Romance, 2013)

Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) hustles tourists for a living; he's also a wedding guest for hire as part of the crew of wedding planner Goyal (Rishi Kapoor). On the overnight bus to his own arranged marriage, Raghu expresses his last-minute doubts to Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra). She's equally skeptical about arranged marriages:

That's India for you. No love. No romance, nothing.

She's been hired to play the role of Raghu's sister, and (she tells him) has had several boyfriends. This evidently makes her more attractive to Raghu, and they exchange a few tentative kisses.

At the wedding ceremony the next day Raghu panics just as he's about to be garlanded by his bride Tara (Vaani Kapoor), and runs away. He later explains to Gayatri that it was because of their brief encounter on the bus. Gayatri is wary, but also attracted to him. They start sleeping together, and eager Raghu is soon ready to move in.

What's wrong?

Of course, we wonder about Gayatri's judgment. But perhaps it's precisely Raghu's publicly demonstrated fear of commitment that attracts her. With him, she's safe from impulsive marriage proposals—or at least, she's free from having to take his impulsive proposals seriously. We learn that her last boyfriend dumped her after she became pregnant; she's understandably distrustful of Raghu's promises and leery of making her own commitments:

And love? Cooked it, tasted it, done with it.

Despite Gayatri's uncompromising talk, one drunken night she accepts Raghu's proposal of marriage. At the ceremony, though, both have second thoughts, and this time it's Gayatri that runs away (sensing, rightly, that Raghu was about to do the same).

As a hired guest at another wedding, Raghu bumps into his jilted bride Tara, who inexplicably slips him her phone number. When they meet later on at a cafe, she asks him a question that stuns him (and us):

Will you be my boyfriend?

This raises a question that the film is unable to answer:

What do women see in you? Why do they come back?

When Gayatri re-enters his life, Raghu is faced with a choice between the two women. But it is the women, of course, who really make the choice...

Shuddh Desi Romance is ultimately unsatisfying, though not because the right couple isn't united at the end (the aimless and evasive Raghu is lucky to be in a relationship with anybody), or because the characters are punished for having sex out of wedlock (unless you count Gayatri's pre-film pregnancy and abandonment). But Jaideep Sahni's script is so busy setting up clever parallelisms in the story that it doesn't allow the characters to grow, change, or achieve any insight into their own feelings. Perhaps the spectacular scenery of Rajasthan can allow us, and them, to overlook this—at least for a short time:

The music is by Sachin-Jigar with lyrics by Sahni; the playback singers are Jigar and Priya Saraiya.

By the end of the film, the characters' reflexive avoidance of marriage seems like a negative choice, not a positive one. While they claim to be rebelling against marriage as a corrupt and increasingly empty institution, it's clear that it's their anxieties and not their principles that are driving their decisions. Complementary emotional wounds—fear of commitment on his part, and fear of rejection on hers—don't seem like the healthiest basis for a sustained, or even temporary, relationship. In Shuddh Desi Romance, marriage may be in trouble, but life without commitment is hardly a viable alternative.


* In Aradhana and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the couples perform their own private marriage ceremonies. They're "married in the eyes of God," but not in the eyes of their families or the larger society.

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