I find this an interesting one to think about. Because Shahrukh manages to be in a May-December romance, in which the power is balanced between both parties. Very hard to do, often in the fictional version of these relationships, the young woman is supposed to “control” the man with his desire for her, or the man is so much wiser that she obeys him in every way. But Rab Ne is different.
I think what makes the biggest difference is that they first meet before there is any possibility of a romance. We can see them, and they can see each other, clearly and fairly. Anushka is young and carefree and happy. She may be less wise than Shahrukh, less experienced, less knowledgeable. But she has an fearlessness and ability to relate to others that he envies. And her future is so much brighter than his, so open and filled with possibilities, marriage, children, anything she wants.
And then there’s Shahrukh. Settled into his small life, given up on changing himself or having anything more than what he has already. He is intelligent, makes enough money to live comfortably (and has a really nice house), and knows life things like how to buy a car or be a guest at a wedding or go to the movies, all those little things that go into turning you from a dependent into an “adult”.
They compliment each other, both of them have gaps that the other can fill. And, even just as people meeting each other at a wedding, they can see that. Anushka immediately mentions that Shahrukh was her father’s favorite student, she was always hearing about how wise he was and how good at school. And Shahrukh is to shy to say anything, but his voice over and the way Anushka is filmed from his perspective, shows how he is aware that she has greater social skills and charm than he will ever have.
Now, if they came together in an arranged marriage because “She needs an older man to steady her/he needs a younger woman to keep him young”, that would be creepy! In fact, that would be Mouna Ragam, which had to spend a whole movie justifying Revathi’s parents’ terrible decision. But it’s not like that at all. Shahrukh seems to have given up on marriage, he would certainly never think of offering for this bright young woman. And Anushka’s father has lovingly arranged her marriage to an age appropriate boy that she fell in love with.
No, it is only when disaster strikes that the two of them are awkwardly forced together. This is one of those times when I have learned to pause the movie and lecture for 5 minutes, or else new viewers just don’t get it. When Anushka’s groom dies, and then her father, she truly has no other option besides marriage to Shahrukh. They carefully built this up, made sure we knew that she was terrible and uninterested in school, so she has no useful work skills. Her father is a teacher, which probably means a housing provided by the school which she will now lose. And, even if she were able to fall in love again, probably no one would be willing to marry her since all these terrible events would mark her as “unlucky”. Having Shahrukh swoop in and rescue her is really the only thing that is saving her from living on the streets, or a sad life as the “poor relative” in the household of a distant relative. See, all of that is super clear to me, but to a complete newcomer to these films, they watch this and go “ew, gross, why does she have to marry him? Why can’t she just get a job or marry someone else?”
Going back to my older man-younger woman dynamic thing, I really enjoy how the film never backs off from the age difference. Shahrukh is oooooooooooold. He has nothing in common with his new wife. The best thing he can offer her is kindness and patience. But, on the other hand, he only has that kindness and patience because his age has given them to him.
At the same time, Anushka is emotional, sensitive, confused. She is young and still unformed. But, on the other hand, her youth means she is better able to recover from the tragedies that have afflicted her, and better able to adjust her life to fit with Shahrukh’s.
The movie is about watching them come to appreciate and understand each other, despite the age difference, not because of it. Yes, maybe Anushka would have been happier, or at least just as happy, if she had married her young fiance. I don’t think Shahrukh would have been as happy living alone in his house for the rest of his life, but I think he might have been content. But something happened to completely upset both their lives, and they are dealing with it.
Inarguably, Anushka’s life is more upset than Shahrukh’s. She’s losing everything in one moment and is forced to start life completely anew. But, in this uncertain and unhappy time, having someone with her who is so settled and so, well, boring, is kind of good. Maybe they wouldn’t have been happy, or had anything in common, if they had come together in the normal course of things.
But then, they never would have come together if things were “normal”, this is what I was saying about meeting the characters first before any idea of a coupling is in play. The film makes it very clear that, pre-tragedy, these people barely even have anything to say to each other. There is no arranged marriage possibility, and certainly no “love” possibility. Shahrukh doesn’t even realize that what he is feeling could be love. And Anushka doesn’t really notice him. There has to be some seismic shift before they can come together.
So, what does this have to do with Dear Zindagi? Well, my hope would be that it is a similar relationship of equals. I don’t want to see Shahrukh “rescue” Alia, I don’t want to see him being super wise and powerful and always right. I want him to offer her something from his age that she doesn’t have in hers, and I want her to offer him something in return.
(Yeah, okay, so she does worship him, literally worship him, at the end of the film. But she still does it from a position of strength! She has choices still at this point, he’s not forcing her to do anything)
And I want there to be something remarkable that brings them together. I don’t want the film to “normalize” the idea of a May-December romance. I want it to say “this young woman would never normally want to spend time with an older man, but because of this extraordinary situation, she is.”
I’m pretty sure there isn’t a romance at all, the promos and so on have been very clear about that. Even Alia and Shahrukh’s joint Koffee With Karan interview hit the fatherly flavor pretty hard. But even if they aren’t romantically connected, they are still the main couple of the film, and I want their coupling to be a little more than the wise older man and the foolish young woman.