By Laxmi Murthy
20 February 2017
Obsessive male pursuit of women is commonplace in Indian cinema, reflecting deep-seated and worrying social norms.
(This is an essay from our September 2013 print quarterly, ‘Under the shadow of the Bollywood tree’. See more from the issue here.)
Boy stalks girl. Passes lewd comments, harasses and humiliates her, intimidates her family and friends. Threatens to kill himself or her, if she does not reciprocate. On screen, this bullying is not the act of the dastardly villain, but of the hero, and this menacing cocktail of obsession and infatuation is dressed up as undying ‘love’. The outcome of this one-sided imposition is usually the heroine not only succumbing to the hero’s attentions, but being transformed into a simpering and giggling bundle of acquiescence. Ah, the power of love!
This absurd dance of courtship has played itself out on screen countless times since the movies came to Southasia a hundred years ago. One of the more recent offerings, Raanjhanaa (Mad Lover, 2013), appears to be either horrifyingly prescient about the recent incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi this July – where a thwarted suitor brutally hacked his fellow student, the object of his obsession, and then proceeded to commit suicide – or one must concede, with despair, that real life takes its cue from reel drama.
Raanjhanaa, directed by Anand Rai, attempts to explore divides – class, religious, metropolis versus small town, educational – through a modern-day interpretation of the classic Heer-Ranjha story. One crucial departure from this timeless folk-tale of undying love is that Heer is as intensely in love with Ranjha, her lover, as he is with her. Like other love legends, Laila-Majnu, Sohni-Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban, the woman protagonist is as committed to following her love, and in fact challenges norms, defying family and community to fulfil her desires. In Raanjhanaa however, the hero’s one-sided and unreciprocated infatuation is celebrated as undying passion.
Set in Varanasi, the school boy Kundan (played by Tamil actor Dhanush in his first foray into Hindi cinema) is mesmerised by the young Zoya (Sonam Kapoor) while she is doing namaaz, quite unaware of being watched. He pursues, nay, harasses her until she consents to moon around on the banks of the Ganga with him. Not least of his dubious methods of seduction is to slash his wrists with monotonous regularity, apparently to prove that death is preferable to a life without her. Zoya dallies with Kundan while in school, and then moves on. Her vision broadens after studying in Aligarh and Delhi, and she barely remembers the boy who used to hang around her. The absurd plot of the film need not detain us, but suffice it to say that it is Kundan’s vanity and delusional obsession with Zoya that is the meat of the storyline, and all sub-plots mere garnishing. The insistence on lavishing unwanted attention on a woman is a dangerous portrayal of stalking not as a criminal act (which it is, after new legislation in India), but the personification of true love.
While the film has been much lauded for portraying ‘selfless love’, on the contrary what it celebrates is pathological narcissism, of love and obsessive infatuation that is divorced from the real-life qualities of the woman it is directed at, and is oblivious to the fact that the object of his love is not the least interested in him. Kundan declares, “tumse pyar karna meri kabiliyat hain, tumhari nahin. Aur koi hota toh main use bhi isi tarah jee jaan se pyar karta, loving you is my ability, not yours. Even if you were someone else, I would still love her with all my being.” The individual here is quite irrelevant to the business of love, since love, it appears, whomsoever it is directed at, is itself the goal, however disembodied. The message of Raanjhanaa, then, is never give up pestering, for in the end you will be rewarded with your beloved. In response to critical reviews of the ‘normalisation’ and even glamorisation of stalking in Raanjhanaa, director Rai argued “in a small town pursuing a girl, until she says yes, is a sign of true love.”
But let us not hold Anand Rai overly responsible for promoting distorted notions of romance and relationships. He builds on a grand tradition of pestering, molestation and stalking so that the hero gets the girl. And the hero usually does, thus sending out the message that when a woman says “no” she actually means “please please, come and get me”. Lyrics of popular Hindi film songs, sung over and over again, in lilting tones, blunt the edge of what is nothing but unwanted attention. Dev Anand’s unapologetic harassment of Nalini Jaywant in Munimji (Clerk, 1955) is meant to come across as endearing, and his ‘teasing’ merely playful, especially when accompanied by Kishore Kumar’s mellifluous yodelling, “jeevan ke safar mein rahi; milte hain bichad jaane ko, we are travellers on life’s path, we meet only to be separated.” The heroine’s attempts to report him to the police meet with no results, since in a display of male bonding, Dev Anand manages to convince the policeman that she is his wife, and a bit crazy. The policeman winks and lets him go. Familiar?
In a similar vein, “na na karte pyar tum hi se kar baithi. Karna tha inkaar, saying no, no, I fell in love with you…I should have said no”, sung by Suman Kalyanpur and Mohammed Rafi, from Jab Jab Phool Khile (Whenever Flowers Bloom, 1966), one of the most popular numbers of its time, glorifies irresistible love, one that is beyond the control of the individual.
Superstar Rajesh Khanna, in Maryada (Decorum, 1971) croons in Kishore Kumar’s dulcet tones to an annoyed Mala Sinha walking through a park repeatedly rebuffing his advances, “gussa itna haseen hai to pyaar kaisa hoga; aisa jab inkaar hai to ikraar kaisa hoga, when your anger is so enchanting, oh what your love would be; when your refusal is so delightful, imagine your acceptance!” ‘Eve-teasing’, that quintessential Indian word, serves to trivialise a serious offence: sexual harassment.
Likewise, the iconic Sholay (Embers, 1975) has Dharmendra leaping onto Hema Malini’s tonga, grabbing her and singing “koi hasina jab rooth jati hai to, aur bhi hasin ho jati hai, when a beautiful woman is miffed, she becomes even more beautiful”. This outright harassment is justified as manly wooing, and women rebuffing men’s advances is only a sign of their decent upbringing, for ‘good’ girls do not make the first move, or even respond to male initiative. The fact that Hema Malini ended up as Dharmendra’s second wife off-screen only reinforced the notion that ‘true hunks’ grab the women they fancy.
During a recent television programme to commemorate the work of Pran, the actor who died in July 2013 at the age of 93 after having played the villain in about 350 films, the ‘joke’ of the evening was relayed by one of his fans amidst much merriment. On screen, any heroine kidnapped by Pran apparently wondered if she should create a ruckus when after all the villain was so dashing, and the kidnapping was bound to be an exciting experience. Abduction here becomes merely a prelude to a grand seduction.
Fixations in the guise of ‘love’ are not restricted to Hindi cinema, however. Similar notions of ‘harassment as seduction’ abound in the regional cinema of India. Let us look at just a few samples here. In the Kannada film Appu (2002), the eponymous college student played by Puneet Rajkumar in his first film as hero, walks up to Suchitra (played by Rakshita), a young college mate, and declares his love for her. She justifiably retorts, “What! Are you nuts?! This is the first time I’ve ever set eyes on you!” The peer group of young men and women are determined to see this ‘love story’ develop, viewing Suchitra as an ungrateful wench shrugging off the attentions of the brawny Appu, the local goon, who uses his earnest police constable father as protection. Suchitra (“She is Suchi to me, as that’s what I’ll call her after we get married”) is the daughter of the Commissioner of Police, making her out of bounds for a lowly police constable’s son. Breaking the class barrier is what this film is all about, the wishes of the woman concerned be damned.
Appu’s chorus “nanna heartu atom bombu / naanu human bombu, my heart is an atom bomb / I am a human bomb” sums up his destructive potential. The film is interspersed with fights, Appu’s lumpen activities and wooing of his ‘sweetheart’ through all the acts of machismo. Suchitra is scared to step out of the house or go to college because of Appu’s relentless stalking, despite the fact that her father is the Commissioner of Police who assures her of protection. Sneaking past security guards, Appu breaks into her bedroom, pins her down, and brandishes a knife in the face of the helpless girl. Under her terror-stricken gaze, he proceeds to stuff a piece of cream cake into her mouth and declare his love for her, informing Suchitra that she would never get a better husband than him. As the film progresses, she is drawn into a distorted equation with her harasser, even if it is to engage with him in order to rebuff him. When indifference turns into hostility and being locked into his obsession, challenging him to prove his love for her, half the game is over. With his death-defying acts and emotional blackmail, her resolve breaks and what follows is cavorting around snow-clad hills in a slinky dress, rapidly descending into wearing a demure salwar kameez and bindi to meet Appu’s mother. The point is proven – women have no idea what they really want. With Kannada film industry icons dominating realpolitik in Karnataka, it is not difficult to imagine why scores of misguided young men are convinced that harassment pays, and that true passion demands refusing to take no for an answer. After all, riding the wave of passion is perilous, requiring macho qualities.
The notion of ‘love’ is alien to the Kannada lexicon, and most often the English word is itself used in Kannada dialogue, as in “naanu love maad bitte, I fell in love”. But in the drive to promote the notion of ‘love marriage’ and challenge traditional ‘arranged marriages’ as supposedly more egalitarian, Kannada films employ patriarchal notions of ‘saving’ the woman from her villainous family bent upon marrying her off to someone she doesn’t love, but who does meet the requirements of the family in terms of class, caste and profession. How does this in any way improve women’s agency, though? Is being a pawn of her lover any better than being forced to uphold the family honour?
Marathi films also suffer from the stalker-as-ace-lover syndrome. Mahesh Kothare, said to be a ‘revolutionary’ director, serves up the same fare of one-sided ‘love’ and downright intimidation . In Dhumdhadaka (To Have a Ball, 1985) the hero (Mahesh Kothare) not only blocks a lone woman driver (Nivedita Joshi) in a car with his erratic driving, but grabs her keys and throws them away, leaving her alone and vulnerable on the highway. When the heroine’s sister tells her she is in love, the heroine remarks, “Oh! You kept saying no, but have fallen in love! How wonderful”, to which her sister replies, “Yes, I don’t know how I have unwittingly got tangled up in love.” The operative emotion here is one of ‘falling’, ‘drawn’, ‘tangled’ and an inability to extricate oneself. For women to actively seek love, sex or follow their desire is too dangerous. Where such independent women exist, and relationships challenging the norm are depicted, for example Dimple Kapadia as the older woman lover in Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires, 2001), the only possible culmination of the love story can be her death.
Stalker as villain
When does the routine ‘stalking as seduction’ get transformed into ‘stalking as violent crime’ in films? Since the substance of the film does not change dramatically, I guess it is when the director tells you so. Some films like Yash Chopra’s Darr: A Violent Love Story (1993) featuring superstar Shahrukh Khan as Rahul, the obsessive stalker who pursues Kiran (Juhi Chawla), did pathologise stalking and depict the fear experienced by a woman who is stalked. However, the film ended up conveying harassing phone calls at midnight and letters written in blood a measure of ‘true love’, whether or not the object of love reciprocated. In popular perception, the intensity of love was measured by how destructive you were willing to be – to others and yourself. The more blood spilt, ergo, greater the love. “Tu hai meri Kiran, you are my Kiran” became shorthand for a declaration of a love that lasts forever. Darr was remade in Kannada as Preethse (Please Love M e) and, more aptly, as Sadist in Telugu. In all languages, the story was a runaway success.
Shahrukh Khan, who was nominated for the Best Villain Filmfare Award for Darr, won it for his role as the murderous and psychotic Vijay in the thriller Anjaam (Consequence, 1994) opposite Madhuri Dixit as Shivani, the object of his desire. Many twists in the plot and a trail of gory killings later, both end up dead. While Shivani makes it her life’s mission to destroy Vijay for ruining her life and killing her loved ones, she does not live to enjoy freedom from his obsession.
The obsessive lover, when cast as a villain, has to die to resolve the story. In Girlfriend (2004), Karan Razdan’s homophobic take on lesbianism, Tanya’s (Isha Koppikar) obsession with her girlfriend played by Amrita Arora, can only end with death. Hers. How else can a lesbian relationship be justified, and how else can Amrita Arora come out smelling of roses, if not as a victim of the psychotic Tanya?
In Aitraaz (Objection, 2004), a remake of the Hollywood film Disclosure, the boss (Priyanka Chopra) is obsessed with one of her staff members (Akshay Kumar) with whom she has had a brief fling several years earlier. Unable to accept that he no longer has a romantic interest in her, she pursues him aggressively, and, when rejected, proceeds to file a case of sexual harassment against him. For her, too, the ultimate end is death, as she is unable to bear the humiliation when it is discovered that her allegation was cooked up.
It is much easier to relegate obsession and mania to a few individual psychotics who need psychiatric treatment or must be locked away, and cinema has followed this more dramatic route of casting certain people and behaviours as villainous, while failing to recognise that the very behaviour is lauded and normalised while in a milder form. The problem is more insidious, and permeates the grain of male-female relationships and hierarchies of power in society, and must be tackled at a societal level. As long as molestation and harassment are passed off as light flirtation and seduction, there can be little remedy.
Naming a crime
The horror of stalking and the manner in which it can ruin a woman’s peace of mind and interfere with her mobility, studies or ordinary relationships was not legally recognised in India until early 2013, and that only after years of campaigning by the women’s movement. According to Section 354D of the Criminal Law Amendment (2013), a man is said to commit the offence of stalking if he (i) follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or (ii) monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication. The offense is punishable by imprisonment and a fine, and is non-bailable on the second offence.
The efficacy of the law remains to be seen, since in the general perception, a woman still means ‘yes’ when she says ‘no’. Even lawmakers continue to confuse wooing and seduction with stalking and harassment. It is seen as romantic and cute, rather than a crime that could be a prelude to rape and murder, acid attacks or driving a woman to suicide. During the debate in the Lok Sabha on the Criminal Law Amendment fast-track sought following the brutal gang-rape of a student in Delhi in December 2012, Janata Dal (United) chief Sharad Yadav quipped, “kaun hai hum me se jisne peechha nahi kiya hai? Who amongst us has not followed girls?” The House resounded with laughter as he went on to describe the national male pastime of stalking girls and pestering them into submission because, “koshish toh hamein hi karni padti hai. Pyaar se batana padta hai, yeh poore desh ka kissa hai. Humne khud anubhav kiya hai, you have to take the first step when you want to speak to a woman. A woman will never approach you; we [men] have to take the initiative and convince her with love. This is the story all over the country. This is my own experience.” Unfortunately, such views are not confined to Sharad Yadav or his ilk, but are subscribed to by the large majority.
It is this widespread perception that women must not express their sexuality, that well-brought up girls are asexual, and sex should be confined to marriage alone. When women’s sexuality is tightly controlled by family and community and choices are rigidly circumscribed by caste, religion and class, the price for transgression is high. The notion of love – not necessarily a modern-day construct, as legendary lovers have long been part of the collective psyche – seeks to transcend feudal divides and prioritises the individual over the family and community. However, in attempting to break boundaries of class, caste and religion in film romance, filmmakers have tended to bypass one important factor: women’s choice. Even when female characters on screen are shown to be challenging rigid societal norms, they seem to be doing so merely as reflections of the male protagonists’ construction of himself as a lover, and not as individuals in their own right, with personalities, views, humour, idiosyncrasies, dislikes and desires. The male preoccupation with his own needs precludes a mature relationship based on respect, mutual attraction, reciprocated passion and shared ideas and interests. Unless space is created for a woman to say ‘yes’, her ‘no’ is always going to remain muted.
Laxmi Murthy is a consulting editor with Himal Southasian.