Thanks to a conversation in the comments with Alicia/Bollywood Newbie, I went back and watched this movie again, and it is sooooooooooooo much cuter than I remembered. Really just adorable. Oh, and also kind of unique and groundbreaking in the sort of story it tells.
When I was in college, my Mom’s best friend got engaged. She was over 40 with 2 grown kids, had a bad divorce years ago and raised her kids alone, and then just as her kids grew up and moved out, she met a wonderful man and they fell in love and moved in together and then got engaged. I shared the news of the engagement with my college roommate, a desi, who responded “But at that age, it’s really just for companionship, right?” Because as we all know, once a man and a woman get to be above 40, their sex organs dry up and fall off.
(See how unsexual Madhuri is? Out there, looking for companionship, someone to hold hands with and fall asleep in front of the TV)
The assumption that old people are incapable of romantic erotic love is not unique to Indian culture, of course. It’s present everywhere in the world that there are clueless narcissistic young people, so, EVERYWHERE. But Indian culture is one (of many) that has some cultural layers to make late in life romance even less expected and acceptable.
For one thing, there is the strong idea that sex is only within marriage and marriage is only for procreational purposes. Even if you choose to adopt or use a surrogate or in some other way bring a child into the family, the idea is still that a man and woman come together primarily in order to be parents of a child. If you are past the age of child rearing, clearly beyond it with grown children, then what is the point of forming a male-female partnership? At least, that is the question asked by Indian society.
(Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi is another mature romance, but at least in that one they have never been married before, never had children, in theory they could still have the traditional family and partnership, just later than most)
For another, there is the 4 stages of life that I explained here. Once you reach Vanaprastha and hand down the reigns of the household to your children, you are supposed to stop changing. Not form new attachments, but rather focus on slowly letting go of attachments in preparation for Sannyasa.
And then there are just the basic structures of the family. If you remarry when you are young, then your new spouse simply replaces the old one. To the point of considering the parents of the first spouse as their own parents (if they are not in fact their own parents) and taking on the family of the first spouse as their family. The family structure remains stable, nothing else moves. But if you remarry in middle-age, the previous spouse has a place that cannot go away. Even if they are dead, they still exist in memory. Meaning there are now two people shuffling for position on the same spot in the very strict family system of Indian families.
(Remember in Bangalore Days how Nazriya essentially just replaced Nithya for her parents and in Fahid’s life and that was the happy ending?)
And this is why there are so many comfortable social structures in place for widows and widowers. If you are a woman, you remain in your in-laws’ household, if you are a man, you remain in your own household but forever connected to your in-laws. Your status remains the same, and the place of “spouse” is inhabited in your life either by a close relative of your first partner who replaces them, or by an empty space filled with rituals and grief. You focus on raising your children, with the support of your in-laws, and your life moves forward easily. It is actually a very good system, much better than in many other countries, allowing for an acknowledgement of grief and space for it and continuing those relationships of marriage instead of bringing them to an awkward end with death. But it is not a system that allows for falling in love years later and remarrying, after everyone has gotten used to the state of permanent grief.
It’s also not a system that allows for falling in love a second time at all! Certainly if a widow remarries, her husband’s brother for instance, that is perfectly culturally acceptable. And she will come to love him as time goes on and they live together. But that first flush of excited youthful love, that is supposed to come only once. If a man marries twice (much more culturally acceptable), the first marriage might be the one of convenience and social responsibility, while the second is one of passionate love. Or the other way around, the first being passionate and the second merely to have a mother for his children. But how can you fall truly deeply in love twice? Especially when the second time is in middle-age? It doesn’t make sense!
(Okay, maybe if you have a gazebo you can do it. But even so, only the man can love twice, the woman only once)
And this brings me to the brilliance of casting Dimple and Rishi opposite each other. Because we have seen them fall in love at every stage already, as teenagers in Bobby, reunited as mature adults in Saagar, and now here they are again as more than mature adults, into middle-age and beyond. Of course they will fall in love again, and of course it will be just as magical as ever, they are Dimple and Rishi, it doesn’t matter how old they are, they are teenagers at heart.
The rest of the cast is so-so. Satish Shah is great fun, Soha Ali Khan struggles in one of her first roles and comes off as bratty more than anything, Farida Jalal and Dimple are a delight together, the rest of the actors don’t make much of an impression. Which is fine, it is Dimple and Rishi’s story after all.
One thing that really struck me on this watch is that this is a true high quality film. The song sequences are good and complicated and with dozens of extras, the locations and lovely, the costumes are nice, nothing was cheaped out on. It still wasn’t an expensive film, the same locations are used over and over again for instance, but it wasn’t cheap. It’s too bad it didn’t get more notice at the time, instead of quickly disappearing beyond a little buzz over the Rishi-Dimple reunion. This is exactly the kind of pleasant well-made mature romance that Indian film should be doing more of.
Of course, the problem is who you could get to play a mature parent of grown children onscreen. Another perfection of the Dimple and Rishi casting is that both of them married and had children fairly young. It’s easy to believe Dimple as the mother of a grown daughter when she was the mother of a grown daughter and already a grandmother in reality. Or to believe Rishi as the father of a recently married son when his daughter in real life had just been married. I would love to see Juhi Chawla and Aamir Khan play these roles, but it may not work as well if we know they both have young children in real life and aren’t exactly moving into the Vanaprastham stage.
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It’s a remarkably simple plot. Both Rishi and Dimple have just taken their final step into Vanaprastham. Rishi officially handed his company over to his son, and Dimple is about to marry off her youngest child. Rishi’s daughter-in-law is pregnant, Dimple already has two married children, a son and older daughter, they are on track to stay home and play with the grandkids for the rest of their life. Or, they are on track to start thinking about what they want for themselves, to feel their loneliness and let their hearts wake up again. That’s not what society (or these characters’ families) expects from them, but it’s what can happen at that stage in life. And so Rishi and Dimple bump into each other in the park, and the supermarket, and have chai together, and start meeting for walks every morning. It’s new and special and happy, and hard to define because there is no clear definition for this.
But then Rishi takes the plunge and officially asks Dimple out for dinner, inspired by a police officer mistaking them for a married couple earlier that day. They have dinner, they dance together, they are giddy and shy and nervous and happy. And almost immediately the bubble is burst when Dimple’s daughter’s in-laws find out that Dimple is going around with a man and break the news through out their circle of friends. It’s a social outrage, it’s embarrassing, it’s just plain WRONG. A middle-aged woman who is supposed to be the mother of the bride should not be stepping out with a man. Rishi’s family finds out as well, and has a more complicated reaction. It’s not exactly the public shame for them, it is the sense that Rishi is somehow being unfaithful to the memory of his dead wife, especially as his daughter-in-law is now pregnant, a fragile time in the family.
At first, Rishi and Dimple plan to sacrifice their happiness, because it is what they have always done. But then Dimple talks to Farida Jalal, who supports her, and they change their minds. They run off together, just like a couple of kids, just like they did as teenagers in Bobby, escape to the vacation home of Rishi’s school friend without telling their families where they have gone. And, just like in Bobby, the shared worry over their parents and the time to consider what it all means allows their families to make peace and understand that they have a right to their own happiness.
It also gives Rishi and Dimple time to come to understand that they aren’t just “Friends”, they are in love, and that is okay. Rishi declares his love first, is just generally braver and more enthusiastic than Dimple. But Dimple is won over, is happy to be with him, and at the end of their weekend away together, they know they are in love, not just friends. Also, and we can debate this endlessly in the comments, but I am pretty sure they slept together. They are just SOOOOOOO sure that they are in love now, and so much happier together, and also staying all alone in a luxury guest house, so why not?
(Also pretty sure they had sex in Bobby. Yes they were young and sweet and innocent, but they were also teenagers with all their parts working locked up together in a bedroom, and they sure came out looking happier with all their problems fixed)
Beyond this simple plot, widow and widower fall in love-run off together when family objects-family comes around, there are a lot of character layers that barely hinted at and are perfect.
It’s a true middle-age romance in that both these people have baggage. They aren’t entering into a love story fresh and young and hopeful and pure, like they were in Bobby. They bring with them their families and their past loves and past tragedies and everything else that has happened in their lives. Dimple’s terrible driving, Rishi’s health food obsession, it’s all part of them. And they need to slowly learn about each other, come together not in the impulsive rush of youth but the cautious steps of age.
Dimple was truly deeply in love with her husband and somehow managed to go on without him. She and Farida created a replacement bond, Dimple isn’t alone in her household, Farida is her best friend and co-conspirator and confident. It makes it a little harder for Dimple to think about moving on, setting aside what society or her children might say, she herself isn’t sure if it is right to forget her first love, if she even needs someone else in her life since she has her children and Farida. It is only because Farida encourages her, gives her strength, that she takes the leap.
(She even has Baby Spice! Her life is very full)
But Rishi is the really fascinating one to me. We learn late in the film that he had a loveless marriage. He had a teenage romance that was left behind when his older brother died and he married the widow in order to give her son a father. And they never had children, implying that they never were really together, never had a “real” marriage. Rishi is happy though, he loves his son and he is respectful of the memories of his wife, and he loves his daughter-in-law and is excited for his first grandchild. But when he gets a second chance at love, he is not going to turn away from it. Suddenly his teenage enthusiasm, his willingness to jump in feet first, it all makes sense once we know this backstory. Rishi was living his older brother’s life until now, running his company, raising his child, married to his wife. The only thing he had for himself were the old friend Satish Shah from before marriage, and his dogs. But now he has finished raising his son and handed off the company, and he can start again, building his own life, and nothing is going to stop him. His strangely youthful attitude that grows and grows as he spends more time with Dimple makes sense, he never got to have the big public declaration of love, the romantic first date, any of that. He wants it all now.
The problem is how to end it. Because, again, Indian society really doesn’t have a place for two husbands. And so the best they can do is a sweet scene of the two sons coming together to “arrange the marriage” just like parents normally would, followed by Soha’s wedding at which Rishi replaces her father, his name on the invitation and him taking part in the ceremony. There is no investigation of what Dimple and Farida’s relationship will look like now that they are not tied by marriage any more, if Dimple will move in to Rishi’s household or if Rishi will move into hers or if they will get a house on their own away from their children, how exactly this late in life remarriage is going to function.
Oh well, I guess that’s for the sequel! Or the remake with one of our current 50+ couples, a love story that goes beyond the marriage and into the nitty-gritty of daily life, a Chalte Chalte for the mature set.