Thursday, December 03, 2015

Class and Love in Bollywood

Indian mainstream films have come of age when it comes to portraying romance between a man and a woman from different social classes. 

In general, a higher-status man finds no problem marrying a lower-status woman because that is a "dream come true" for the woman (ref the story/fantasy of Cinderella).  The problem arises when a lower-status man falls in love with a higher-status woman.

Due to socialized hypergamy, it is considered a grave affront by the man.  If not the woman herself, her family ensures that the union does not happen.

The factor of class in love was brilliantly handled in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda  (Shyam Benegal, 1993), but that film was more about how the lower classes can only dream of love talked about in poems, while the reality is more brutal.

One of the earliest films I remember seeing is Hero (Subhash Ghai, 1983), in which the hero wins the girl only by protecting her from a big bad evil man and his gang.  Typical of the era, but still the middle portion of the film is quite entertaining.  The ending is a happy one, of course.

In all of the following films, the ending is tragic.

Let us consider four recent films which tackle this kind of a romance:

Love, Sex and Dhokha (Dibakar Banerjee, 2010)

In the first segment of this film (Love), a lower-class man falls in love with a middle-class woman in North India, and the atmosphere quickly turns dark and tragic.

I found the juxtaposition of love (as a fantasy) and brutality (as a reality) remarkable.  I am still haunted by the final sequence.

Rockstar (Imtiaz Ali, 2011)

A talented young man, curiously named Janardhan Jakhar (Indian heroes in mainstream films almost always have upper class surnames), falls in love with an upper class college-mate.  Once again, the turn of events is not a happy one.  Though the acting of the female lead is atrocious, the films has an outstanding soundtrack and I enjoyed the depiction of the male lead's social background.

Raanjhanaa (Aanand Rai, 2013)

The best of the lot, this film contains a stand-out performance by the south Indian actor Dhanush, and not only does it tackle the class divide between the man and the woman, it defies convention and political correctness by showing the female lead as unapologetically and brutally hypergamous.

Highway (Imtiaz Ali, 2014)

Hackneyed in many ways, the worst of the lot.  But still, the fact that the ending is again tragic is a sign of the times. 

Indian films are becoming more realistic and the bombastic wish-fulfillment of the 70s and 80s is a thing clearly of the past.


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