Is it just me, or does the pace of cultural change seem to have accelerated of late? Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples. And over the past few years in nineteen states plus the District of Columbia, criminal penalties for marijuana possession for personal use have been reduced or eliminated. Fifteen years ago both developments were, if not inconceivable, then at least wildly improbable.
Judging by some recent Bollywood films, the U.S. isn't the only country where old prejudices and mores are being overturned. Of course, movies cannot be taken as a simple or undistorted reflection of the values and practices of a society. As we know, those values and practices are not monolithic or universal, but instead are highly contested. But (as they used to say in cultural studies classes) commercial movies are a major site of that contestation. As I wrote in "Having it both ways: Bollywood contradictions," the culture industry tries to shape popular consciousness, but at the same time in order to be successful its products must mirror the longings, aspirations and anxieties of its audience.
Movies featuring two actresses, Preity Zinta and Alia Bhatt, seem to exemplify some of these recent cultural shifts. Both actresses have tended to play young single women experiencing their first serious romantic relationships. But the differences in how their characters, actions and situations are portrayed are instructive, and say a lot about changes in attitudes over the past decade or so—at least among that segment of the Indian audience at home and abroad at which the films are aimed.
In Dil Hai Tumhaara (My heart is yours, 2002) Preity plays Shalu, who in a wrenching scene midway through the film discovers that she is not the biological daughter of Sarita (Rekha), the woman she thinks is her mother. Instead, she learns that her father was having a long-term affair, and that she was a part of his second family.
When her husband and his mistress were fatally injured in a car accident, Sarita unwillingly promised to raise their child Shalu as her own daughter. But Shalu is the living symbol of Sarita's betrayal and hurt, and Sarita can never fully accept her. As Shalu grows older, her rejection by Sarita embitters her. Only the unstinting love shared by Shalu and her half-sister Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) holds the family together.
Sarita is the mayor of the town, and is facing a re-election campaign against a corrupt and vicious rival, Mittal (Govind Namdeo). Mittal discovers the truth about Shalu's parentage, and uses the threat of exposure to try to blackmail Sarita into giving up power. Nimmi is engaged to be married to Dev Khanna (Arjun Rampal), the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Mittal threatens to tell the senior Khanna the "filthy truth" about Shalu's origins:
To preempt Mittal, Shalu bursts into the wedding celebrations for Dev, and, covered with mud from a slip on wet grass—literally and symbolically "filthy"—confesses her shameful origins in front of the assembled guests:
In Dil Hai Tumhaara, birth outside of sanctioned wedlock is a source of pain, trauma and disgrace.
Not so in Shaandaar (Fabulous, 2015). Alia (Alia Bhatt) has been raised believing that she is an orphan adopted by Bipin Arora (Pankaj Kapur) and his wife Geetu. Midway through the film she learns the truth of her parentage: she is really the child of Bipin and the love of his life, Prabha, and was conceived just before Bipin made his arranged marriage to Geetu for business reasons. Alia's reaction:
Birth outside of marriage implies, of course, sex outside of marriage. In two of her films Preity Zinta portrays women who have sex with their boyfriends before marriage, or even engagement. The consequences in both cases are devastating.
In Kya Kehna (What is there to say? 1998/2000), Priya (Preity) is infatuated with self-involved and unreliable classmate Rahul (Saif Ali Khan). When Priya discovers that she is pregnant, she is brutally rejected by Rahul, urged to get an abortion by Rahul and his mother, and expelled from her family and home. Even after her father is convinced to bring her back into the family, she is ostracized by the community:
The music is by Rajesh Roshan with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri; the playback singers are Kavita Krishnamurthy and Hariharan.
In Salaam Namaste (Muslim-Hindu greetings, 2005), Ambar (Preity), an NRI medical student and radio host, moves in with Nikhil/Nick (Saif Ali Khan again!), a self-involved and unreliable NRI architect and chef. In short order she's pregnant (wait—did she skip her classes on reproductive biology?). Nick urges her to get an abortion; when Ambar backs out, he breaks up with her. She is left alone to deal with her pregnancy and a child that may have a rare disease.
One would be forgiven for assuming that premarital sex results inevitably in pregnancy, rejection and suffering. Not so in 2 States (2014), made less than a decade after Salaam Namaste. Ananya (Alia) and Krish (Arjun Kapoor) meet at college, and despite their cultural differences—she is from Chennai, while he is Punjabi—fall in love and start sleeping together. Ananya, though, unlike Priya or Ambar, insists on using contraception: note the casual toss of the box of condoms just after the one-minute mark in "Offo":
The music is by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy with lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya; Bhattacharya and Aditi Singh Sharma are the playback singers.
2 States isn't the first Bollywood film where a young woman has premarital sex that doesn't result in pregnancy, ostracism or death. In Band Baaja Baaraat (Bands, horns, revelry, 2010), wedding planners Shruti (Anushka Sharma) and Bittoo (Ranveer Singh) cap the drunken celebration of the success of their first big job by falling into bed together. While mutual regrets follow in the morning and ultimately lead the couple to split up, it is because Shruti is wary of mixing emotions with business, and Bittoo isn't ready for romantic commitment. In Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) has the name of her gangster boyfriend Raja (Jimmy Shergill) tattooed on her breast, and it is strongly implied that they have had sex; this doesn't seem to dissuade NRI doctor Manu (R. Madhavan) from pursuing marriage with her. And in Shuddh Desi Romance (Pure Indian romance, 2013), Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) and Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) choose to live together. Although this isn't portrayed very positively—Gayatri has a fear of rejection, while Raghu has a fear of commitment—no one is punished. (Unless, that is, we consider Gayatri's relationship with the aimless and evasive Raghu as a punishment.)
One key difference between the earlier and later films is that the latter are almost entirely concerned with the dynamics of the couple and their families. Earlier films place much more emphasis on social context, and social stigma.
It makes you wonder what other taboos are about to become incidental, rather than traumatic (or entirely unacknowledged), in Indian cinema. Shaandaar may give a hint. Towards the end of the film, during the disastrous wedding ceremony for the arranged marriage of Alia's step-sister Eesha (Sanah Kapur) and her narcissistic groom Robin (Vikas Verma), a round of truth-telling ensues. Eesha defies Robin's fat-shaming, Alia reveals her parentage, and their favorite Uncle Vipul (Sagar Arya) decides that it's time he too revealed his deepest secret. He's not quite prepared, though, for the family's casual response:
For more on some of the films discussed in this post, see:
- Having It Both Ways: Bollywood Contradictions (on Kya Kehna and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge)
- Dil Hai Tumhaara
- Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu? The new Bollywood romantic comedy (on Tanu Weds Manu, Aisha, and Band Baaja Baaraat)
- Premarital sex and Shuddh Desi Romance