I wasn’t sure I would have the patience to sit for 2 hours and a half and watch a “Bollywood” movie once again…But somehow the old passion revived, and the magic was still there: Rab ne bana di jadoo! Let’s say, to start with, that what caught me by the sleeve and gently made me sit down was the main guy’s reappearance in front of me: Shahrukh Khan as Surinder with his flattened hair, his glasses and his strip of a moustache: something in me said: lemme have a look! Lemme see what he’s going to do with this character… I’d seen him before in a similar guise (Paheli) and he normally works his way through rather well. So off I went, and then another charming feature came along: not Anushka Sharma yet, but Amritsar, its purani galiyon, its noise and crowds, and even if we don’t see much of it really, the distinct Northern Indian atmosphere was a strong pull. I could almost smell the whiff of each open dukaan (and when you look inside the friendly grins and head movements), feel the bumps of the streets, hear the calls of the far-off muezzins, and all the honks and hoots of the traffic were immediately there, inside.
Intellectually I would probably have preferred Suri to have been the owner of a smaller and more modest house, but I told myself, ah well, perhaps it’s an old family place, he’s inherited it from a wealthier ancestor – but in fact I didn’t care, knowing some the filmi conventions. I loved his office though, and the way he makes himself smile in order to say the company slogan: “lighting up your life” – that’s what Bollywood aims at doing, I thought. This cinema may well be branded as escapist, cheesy and predictable – if it brings light in my life, well, what more do I need? Light is the same, whether it comes from a cheap bulb or an elaborate appliance. Another charm operated on me: Shreya Ghoshal, whose voice I had left aside recently: she sings in tujhe mein Rab dekhta hai, here’s a video of herself singing – oh, and I loved Anushka Sharma’s dress in Roopkumar Rathod’s version.
Rab ne bana di jodi’s story has been told and retold since it came out in 2008; I’m not going to do that again (check here). Unlike some, I had loved DDLJ, whose 1000th week of continuous playing we have recently celebrated (check here), and I started watching RNBDJ without realizing Aditya Chopra was at the wheel once again. Some people don’t like him, I don’t know why: jealousy? I certainly won’t say Mohabbatein was such a great movie, but let’s put it that way, with Rab, he’s learned to avoid some of the pitfalls which were present in the other two productions. The sentimentality is tuned down, for example, and that’s a relief. Taani’s character is in some ways more credible than the other ladies’ ones (even if nothing will beat Simran’s totally crazy and utterly charming role which Kajol impersonated in Dilwale). And Bobby, the buffoon’s role, played by Vinay Pathak, is somewhat less painful to watch than was Johnny Lever (who played with SRK in Baazigar, KKHH and KKKG). There are some pleasant exchanges with Suri, especially the one dealing with the “macho” persona which Bobby insists his friend should adopt if he wants to secure his beloved Taani.
Here and there on the blogs I found an oversized quibble about the film’s supposed flaw in that Taani should have recognized Suri behind Raj… A wife should recognize her husband… There’s a guy on IMDb who suggests what could have been “the perfect twist” because, he says: “We are told that Taani is a loyal and decent wife. Yet it is completely out of character for her to think about running away with another man.” So this is what he comes up with: “A perfect twist to the film would be for Taani to have known all along - it would have been a nice way of showing that Taani did recognise his heart from the start but she also wanted to see how far Suri could go.” A nice idea, don’t you think? Well, only if one forgets the basic principle of all fiction – that it’s fiction. As fiction, movies play on another plane than reality, namely that of fantasy, desire and dreams.
As in Paheli, the main character plays two facets of himself, and each of these two facets has a specific relationship with the character’s love interest. One must also keep in mind the strictures of traditional Indian customs as regards man-woman relationships, which can be pretty oppressive, or at least are seen like that by many. I read recently that 97% of all cases of sexual violence in India are cases of marital violence, which still goes uncondemned. So escaping these excesses by going to the movies would be a good way of easing the pressure. Better than cheating on your spouse! So why would one like to watch a plain-looking guy, who works in a boring office and can’t hope to attract the attention of beautiful girls, because he’s shy and intimidated? Well, because many, many guys are like him! And why would one want to watch him morph into an easy-going, sexy, and self-assured prankster who might be ridiculous at first but at least who isn’t afraid to chat up the girls? Because that’s what these retiring guys are dreaming they could do! But they wouldn’t want to be recognized, would they? The great thing is if they could do this, have fun, and then fall back into their everyday life afterwards.
This works also, if not more, for when you’re married: let’s say marriage means that you should reap the pleasures of marital happiness. Alas, it happens only very rarely. For men (if we focus on men first), once their wife starts having the kids, she’s more tired, and then later she’s not ready to go back and start the fun again. What’s the man to do? Go to the movies, where he’s given the possibility to dream about what it would be like if he could get rid of the ingrained customs and habits which guide (in fact constrict) husbands and wives’ roles. So such movies as Rab ne bana have in fact a very urgent social role, in a way. This fantasy of being someone else with the person you live with, especially someone who would be your exact opposite, is, I believe, quite widespread. And the fantasy of watching unobserved (ie in real life, not telling your partner) what would happen in such a case also appeals to the imagination: suppose it works (ie, you find satisfaction in such fantasizing), then it’s interesting to “see” how far it works, and if it doesn’t, you can simply retreat safely in your own conscience. I suppose many men (and perhaps even more women) imagine what it would be like to make love (or more generally engage in an affair) to a stranger in the shape of their real partner, because this way they don’t fully cheat on him/her, and at the same time they can let their frustrations express themselves.
Mera pet dard hai
So Suri’s split personality isn’t for me very strange at all: it’s exactly what many men and women do regularly when they look at their partner and wish he/she could be someone else for a change/while. And the film enables them to visualize this. So if this is understood, it’s pretty futile to bicker about whether Taani should or shouldn’t have recognized Suri under his Raj disguise… and therefore decide on the value of the film on this ground. What’s really happening is not Suri pretending to be Raj and Taani not recognizing him, it’s Aditya Chopra cleverly manipulating an audience he knows well, into fantasizing and dreaming that such love-games might exist, for marital life to be less boring or even sordid.
In the film there’s a more noble intention to Suri’s double-dealing: he wants to make his suffering wife happy – find love once again, and the only way he thinks of is to become somebody else for her. Psychologically, and practically, this is totally unrealistic, and so in order to accept the plot, I think the only solution is to put yourself on the level of the fantasizing function as described above. But it also shows an important fact about marriage as an institution: the necessity of inventiveness. Because even if actually lying to your partner about your having impersonated somebody else for her to fall in love with yourself is almost impossible in real life, what is possible is to refuse to remain in a blocked situation where frustrations and ill-will might evolve into violence and hatred. Anything in the form of surprising your partner out of the daily routine, even if it’s at the cost of shocking him or her a little at first, could be a good idea. And it isn’t just a question of routine, it’s who one is for our partner. I think many couples are unhappy because they take their partner for granted and don’t or won’t invent anything to break the role or the picture in which they have solidified. Okay, well, enough counselling!
Now of course, there’s the ending, where Taani does recognize him in the Golden Temple scene… Some spectators were angered because she seems to have forgotten that she really loves Raj and she falls back, via an exasperating religious trick, on the hackneyed convention of “a woman’s husband is her God”. Okay. First, this scene, as I understand it, is for the film-maker to reunite his audience with reality, marriage in India is a religious thing, something serious. Even if there is a lot of frustration and suffering involved in the institution, it’s nevertheless regarded as an essential part of Indian culture, and I suppose A. Chopra wants to assert this. It’s all very well to let your fancy wander and day-dream for a while about your partner being other than she/he really is, but one has to face the reality and make the most of it. And, says A. Chopra hopefully, doing so perhaps you will actually recognize in him/her more than what he or she appears to be. Perhaps you will actually “see God” in the partner who was chosen for you, or that you have started drifting away from.
The age-old truism that loving somebody makes you turn him or her into a divine object can be very boring indeed. And it’s very easy for Raj to declare that he loves Taani without any suffering, just because he’s seen God in her and it makes him happy, whereas she cannot but see the unhappy implications of allowing herself to love him. I admit that A. Chopra’s use of the association of faith and love (loving somebody is a confirmation of God’s existence) to bolster the institution of marriage contains a flaw: all marital contracts aren’t made in heaven, and many should be undone if you want people to live more happily. Divorce is clearly a reasonable solution sometimes! (didn’t know this review was going to make me push so many open doors :-). But what the film-maker is suggesting still holds somewhat: if one believes in God only from an outsider’s point of view, if one primarily has a ritualistic relationship to God, and you can separate the people you live with and the religion you practice, then the film’s insistence on “God inside” is essential. I realize this is a teaching which India can direct to the West more than the other way round, BTW. I think over here we have a tendency to see God as a perfect spirit living his eternal life somewhere “up” there. We have a tradition of recognizing Him as “further inside us than our most intimate self” (saint Augustine), but it’s a minority tradition, in spite of the doctrine of Incarnation which shows the divine actually becoming human. In Rab ne bana di jodi, I see this reality once again formulated: the divine is right there, in front of you, and inside you: as soon as one loves, divinity blooms and transforms our darkness into Punjab Power.