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Love and Marriage in Indian Popular Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on June 26, 2013

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Indian films, especially those made in what is popularly termed Bollywood, have become increasingly available to UK audiences in the last few years. Many are screened in urban areas, including in multiplexes. If there is not such an exhibition centre available locally, both the growing range of DVDs and the enlightened screening seasons on Channel 4 provide a worthwhile substitute. Three films, covering common themes, became available this way in 2003. These films all deal with what we commonly term ‘star-crossed lovers’. The crosses they bear stem from family relations and traditions, and most notably, the stern, unyielding demands of the family patriarch or father.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G for convenience, 2002) is a blockbuster that cost about 450 million rupees (or around £6.5 million, very large by Indian standards). It was a ‘superhit’, in India and overseas markets in the UK and North America (the NRI or ‘Non­Resident Indian’ markets). It held the record for an opening weekend in the sub-continent, 13.5 crores [135 million rupees]. In the UK it took £2 million, second only to Amélie (France 2001) in the Foreign Language Box Office that year. It was a repeat success for director Karan Johar, and shared genre features with his first film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (India 1998).

Much of the budget was spent on stars. Amitabh Bachchan is the multi­millionaire with two sons, the adopted elder Rahul (Sharukh Khan), and the younger blood son, Rohan (Hrithik Roshan). These three actors represent different generations of Bollywood leading men. Rahul defies his father and tradition by marrying Anjali (Kajol), from the other side of the class and religious track. This is presented in the first part of the film through Rohan’s extended flashback. Then, after the Intermission, Rohan sets off London to find Rahul and reunite his family. There he also discovers love, with Anjali’s sister Pooja (Kareena Kapoor). Unity is achieved, following the funeral of the parents’ mother, back in India.

The extended London sequence is becoming a familiar trope in modern Bollywood films. It provides an alternative setting to the family home, which privileges tradition and the role of parents. The English capital provides a focus for pastiche, but also the opportunity for stylistic and sexual displays out of keeping with Indian family values. This allows the film to indulge the audience with the spectacle of the exotic and foreign West, whilst re-affirming the traditional values of Bollywood. The film also uses Indian family rituals at regular intervals, three of which are the occasion for some of the most lavish song and dance numbers in the film.

Whilst the father causes the family conflicts by his intransigence, he is also the centre of both family and film. The mother, Nandini (Jaya Bachchan), worries and cares for the sons, but has little impact on the fathers’ attitudes and actions. What drives the two brothers, apart from their mutual affection, is the desire for family and fatherly approval. Their wives completely conform to this: Anjali herself prays at the house shrine to her in-laws. Pooja s a good-time girl in London, but transformed into a dutiful Indian daughter on return to India. And it is the father’s embrace that provides closure and satisfaction for both sons and audience.

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Alaipayuthey (Waves, 2000) was produced, scripted and directed by Mani Ratnam. He has put the Madras, Tamil language film industry on the national map with his earlier hits Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995). He is generally accepted as one of the few popular filmmakers working in India today whose films look at the problems facing India’s large, and growing urban middle classes in a realistic and tender way. This approach distinguishes this film from K3G. It is also clearly a lower budget film, with

a smaller roster of stars. But it does have Ratnam’s excellent production team and the music of India’s premier film composer, A. R. Rahman. There are exciting dance numbers, stylish choreography and some fine staging and camerawork.

The film follows the love and marriage of Karthik (Madhavan, male model turned film star), who is from a wealthy family, and Sakthi (Shalini), whose family is lower middle class. The film does not end with their marriage, but presents their life together as a couple. Much of the conflict in the story stems from the realities of married life

rather than the stereotypical attitudes of the parents. The film is plotted in a fairly complex flashback structure, as Karthik waits at the railway station for the missing Sakthi. The flashbacks trace their romance, her medical studies, his attempts to start a computer firm, and the realistically motivated family opposition.

Whilst we may suspect tragedy, the audience only find out shortly before Karthik himself that Sakthi has been in a road accident. This leads to a melodramatic climax, as laden with emotions as in K3G. Those emotions have been fuelled just prior to this when Sakthi’s father dies. But the bulk of the film deals less emotionally with the changing mores of romance and marriage, changes that Ratnam sees going on around him. (Comments from the interview screened on Channel Four).

Alaipayuthey has as many songs and dances as K3G, (about a dozen), and includes familiar rituals and family scenes, but at the same time it offers a look at an area of family relations missing from the Bollywood film. Whilst in many respects similar to a typical Bollywood hero, Karthik is both flawed and criticised. Sakthi is also in many respects a typical heroine, but unusually she is central to both the action and its motivation. And their parents’ opposition is based in socially understandable behaviour rather than an overarching tradition. The key scene shows underlying class resentments ignited by condescension on the part of Karthik’s father.

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The third film, Zubeidaa (2001) is based on the story of a real life Indian Cinema heroine, who appeared in 1930s popular films, but then married a Maharajah. This immediately suggests the ghost of director Shyam Benegal’s earlier film, Bhumika (The Role, 1977). However, it has a very different feel from the earlier film, and in its use of song and dance, it is much closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, it is still in some ways ‘outside’ the familiar world of Bollywood, indicated most dearly by the unusual plotting of the story.

The plot follows Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor), a young woman from a wealthy Muslim family in Bombay, from her youthful interest in dancing, through marriage, pregnancy, divorce and then her second marriage to royalty. In this last stage she is second wife to a prince, and overshadowed by his role in the politics of the newly independent India’.

The plotting, in a series of flashbacks, bears some similarity to Citizen Kane (US 1941). The final revelation concerns not a sledge but a missing reel of film, (shades also of Cinema Paradiso, Italy 1989). The opening sees Zubeidaa’s motherless son watching, uncomprehendingly, the obsequies at her grave. Twenty-eight years later, as a journalist Riaz (Rajit Kapoor), embarks on a quest to discover her story, including the mystery surrounding her death in an air accident.

Zubeidaa lacks the critical edge with which Benegal examined the Indian film industry in Bhumika. The songs that accompany Zubeidaa’s idealised diary version of her romance have a touch of irony. But the film ends with her son and his surviving grandmother enjoying her sole surviving film. The grandmother remarks, with his concurrence, “she really was a fairy princess”.

The focus of the story does privilege the feminine over the more traditional patriarchal values. The journalist/son, is not a typical Bollywood hero and Zubeidaa is an untypical heroine. Her actions are central to the plot development and to other people’s actions. Her father is another autocratic patriarch, fixated on tradition. However, by the time of her romance and remarriage with the prince, he seems to have been rendered impotent. In one sense, Zubeidaa trumps Citizen Kane by providing a portrait, not of the famous public man, but of the woman hidden from view. However, there is no sense of a critique of the privileged world of the Maharajahs. And the politics of independence and unification get little space in the film.

All three films offer the improved production values that have developed in recent years in India. And, as with all popular Indian films, they depend on songs, dances and star faces. Zubeidaa, like Alaipayuthey, benefits from a musical score by A. R. Rahman. The latter film uses Tamil song and music; the former is dearly designed to evoke the music of 1940s Bombay films. All three films feature the singing of the greatest of Indian film voices, Lata Mangeshkar. All the films, to a degree, offer some melodramatic pleasures, though these are central in K3G, low­-key in Zubeidaa, and reserved for the final climax in Alaipayuthey. They are all also full of key rituals and mores central to Indian culture (both Hindu and Muslim). The important ones become clear through plotting and dialogue. With others, one guesses at the significance. For example, both Alaipayuthey and Zubeidaa emphasise the colour red. But in Zubeidaa a character tells her, and the audience, that ‘red is the colour of marriage’. One can then grasp the significance of the floating red sari that opens and closes the film.

The huge success of K3G would suggest that the traditional characters and values of Bombay cinema remain a firm attraction for audiences. It should be noted that a superhit like K3G has to appeal to audiences in major urban centres across India, where the educated middle-class will all understand Hindi, in the rural networks across North India, and in the large diaspora communities overseas.

Alaipayuthey has a more limited audience because the cinema version is available only in South Indian languages (Tamil and dubbed into Telegu). It is designed to appeal to younger audiences in urban areas such as Chennai (Madras), Hyderabad and Bangalore. This allows it to dearly address the changing world for the young of India. (Some of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films have also been dubbed into Hindi –Alaipayuthey has now been remade in Hindi under the title Saathiya).

Zubeidaa seems to play to some degree to nostalgia, harking back to bygone times. What matters more is that it shows one of the doyens of the alternative Indian film, Shyam Benegal, essaying a relatively mainstream film – something that a number of independent directors have attempted in recent years, including diaspora directors such as Deepa Mehta (e.g. Bollywood/Hollywood, Canada 2002)

The three films offer rather different takes on the Indian family, a central focus in Indian cinema from its early days. In this they represent different areas of popular cinema in the sub­continent. They also offer rather different formal and stylistic takes on such ingredients as the key characters of hero, heroine and patriarch; on the use of song and dance in the plotting; and in different conventions of editing and sound design. One can trace variations on the Indian patriarch, hero and heroine: moving from the conventional in K3G to the somewhat unconventional in Zubeidaa. Yet each in its own way is pleasurable and absorbing – a bonus for audiences given their combined running time of over nine hours.

Notes

All three films were shot in anamorphic (CinemaScope) formats, which were reproduced on the UK DVDs. It is to the credit of Channel 4 that both Alaipayuthey and Zubeidaa were transmitted in almost full wide screen: an honour that was rarely accorded Western anamorphic movies in that period.

Maharajah – under the British Raj, various local rulers were allowed to keep their powers of control over their land and peoples. After 1947, the ‘princely states’ were absorbed into the new democratic India and their rulers forced to negotiate with the new government in Delhi.

This article originally appeared in itp In the Picture, February 2004.

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