TRIGGER WARNING. This film has the most accurate evocation of rape I have seen in, like, ever. Not dramatic or exciting, just painful and miserable and shameful. And done by your own intimate partner. So, don’t watch it if you can’t get past that. But DO watch it if you want to see a hopeful consideration of how someone can survive such an experience. And either way, READ THE SPOILERS. In this case, they won’t ruin the movie for you, and they will give you a lot to think and talk about.
What a wonderful movie! It says everything I always wanted to say about the stupidity of forced marriages, and it says it better than I could. Arjun Reddy is the only thing I could compare it to, and that film took the boring boy’s side of the story, and came out 6 years later. This film is from way back in 2012 and is firmly focused on the girl’s side of things. It’s also very hard to watch in the middle section, so be warned! But the opening is all sweet happiness, and the closing is all satisfying resolutions.
This is a review where I will need to spend a long time on the SPOILERS section, so I’m gonna keep the No Spoilers short. The songs are good, the performances are interesting (Nushrat Bharucha has a better role and does a better job than Karthik Aaryan), the direction is solidly workmanlike. It feels a little cheap, there are several times when we are told of something instead of seeing it in a way that feels like “we ran out of money to hire more actors and do this scene”.
Over all it has a wonderful feel of youth and nostalgia. Watching the cast goof around together in Delhi made me feel like I was a college kid in Delhi too. Everything possible, everything happy, everything good.
The romance is really something special too. It took me a while to figure it out, and then I realized what felt so different. For once, it was a mutual pursuit. It wasn’t an immediate falling into each others arms and vowing love at first sight, and it wasn’t “he stalks-she flees” or the rare “she stalks-he flees”. Instead, it was like life. An immediate bubble of happiness bouncing between the two, laughing, playing, staying up all night talking, and then a first kiss. Like every other college romance on every other college campus all over the world.
For all these reasons, I would recommend the film. Young interesting cast, young interesting happy romance, decent music, sunshiney scenario, it’s all good. And then it gets depressingly realistically dark. And then happy again!
Oh, also, Fatima Sana Shaikh in a movie way way more feminist than her other more famous feminist film.
(Normally I tell people not to read spoilers, but in this case I am reversing that. Unless you plan to watch the movie (despite the graphic rape scene), you should read the spoilers. They won’t spoil the film, instead they will give you a heads up about all there is to enjoy in it. READ THE SPOILERS)
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
It’s a really simple plot. Nishrat and Karthik meet in college along with their other two friends, Gautam Mehra and Fatima Sana Shaikh. The 4 students hang out together, do laundry, goof off in fancy dress in class, go on a school trip, stay up late talking and then walk home through the Delhi streets, college things like that. And eventually Karthik confesses his love and Nishrat eagerly reciprocates. They date for 4 years, never doing more than kiss, happily planning their wedding as soon as they graduate. Karthik will talk to Nishrat’s parents and it will all work out somehow. And then Nishrat goes home for her sister’s wedding, and her sister elopes the day before to marry a man of another caste. She tells Karthik not to come after all, now isn’t a good time. Karthik goes overseas to school without seeing her again. They talk constantly over the phone, and then months later Nishrat overhears her parents talking about her marriage. And sees her father crying over the “shame” of her sister eloping. She calls Karthik and tells him she has to get married, it will make her parents so happy. So she gets married, and the first night her husband forces himself on her and rapes her while she cries silently. For months, he rapes her every night and demeans her during the day. She tries to talk to her parents, but they don’t want to hear it. Her sympathetic aunt and uncle see what is happening and whisk her away to a college reunion in Delhi in such a way that her husband can’t object. At the reunion, she immediately tells everything to Fatima, including the rape. They meet Karthik that night, he is bitter and angry, but Gautam yells at him that this is his fault as well, he was too cowardly to fight for her and so he lost her. The 4 friends make-up. Karthik decides that he wants to make Nishrat happy again, because if she remembers what it is to be happy, she will have the strength to finally leave her husband. Nishrat has a wonderful time with Karthik, regains her smile, but then her parents call her back home. She leaves on the train and Karthik and Fatima and Gautam follow by car, not leaving her alone again. At her house, her husband shows up to surprise her and she immediately turns still and silent. Karthik watches, silently supportive. Nishrat goes to bed with him on his orders, but then leaves the bedroom and gives an impassioned speech calling out her parents for what they have done to her. She leaves with Karthik and Gautam and Fatima. With the support of her aunt, she moves in with Fatima and goes back to school. And she and Karthik start to date again. After her divorce, over a year later, they finally get married.
You see why I love this movie???? So many reasons!!!! One thing that I love is the way it sort of turns the idea of arranged versus love on it’s head. Karthik and Nushrat have an immediate connection, their first meeting is when as part of “ragging” she has to say “I love you” and he surprises her and says it back. But then they take things slow. They live together (in the dorms), do laundry together, stay up late talking, meet each other’s friends, and sloooooowly come close enough to kiss. And then there is a lot of kissing, sleeping (just sleeping) together, hugging, exchanging physical affection. And after 4 years, they are beginning to look forward to having sex soon, after marriage. This is what an arranged marriage is supposed to look like. An initial spark between the couple, getting to know each other while living together, talking and laughing and then finally a kiss. And then sex after however long it takes for them to get comfortable together and make a mutual decision.
This is also the reality of “love marriage” as I know it in the West (not know it personally, but what I’ve seen by everyone around me). It’s not a wild passionate elopement, it’s a long slow process of getting to know each other. And sometimes it doesn’t work out, you break-up, and that’s okay too. You don’t have to be in love forever with the first person you meet.
But most Hindi films tend to create the argument that either you marry the wild passionate impractical lover within weeks of your first meeting, or you have an arranged marriage and slowly get to know each other over time. And if that is the argument, than obviously the arranged marriage is the better option. I actually like a lot of arranged marriage movies for that reason, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam for instance, Aishwarya was clearly far better off with Ajay than with Salman. Salman and she had no real conversations, had nothing between them but sexual chemistry translated to passionate love. Ajay she got to know in long stretches together, intimately, alone. It’s that “alone” which is so important, first crushes can feel intoxicating just because of the magic of fleeting time together, stolen moments. You never have time to be bored or disappointed in each other, you just have the magic.
With this definition of “love” versus “arranged”, then a Wise Elder is completely right in cautioning against marriage. It’s a few stolen moments, no reason to make a lifetime commitment. Take your time, think. And end up with the mature guy your family knows well, whose manner of life will naturally fit your own. Choose a marriage where you can slowly come together over time and shared challenges, with no heightened background to your love. And this is what we see in movies over and over again, the reliable kind family friend who is a far better choice than the exciting Bad Boy you barely know.
But, what if that isn’t what “love” versus “arranged” means? Or even just “love”? Back when I was in college, I had a roommate who was from a conservative-ish Brahmin family. Conservative in a way that I didn’t realize then was conservative, because it looked modern and liberal (wearing clothes like everyone else, going to school like everyone else, and so on). Which, come to think of it, was the same as Nushrat’s family in this film, she was raised to feel free and confident, not some shy sheltered thing. But when it came right down to it, my roommate’s family was as conservative as Nushrat’s in this movie. It first came up sometime in Junior year, she came back to the room all a buzz because of a family scandal. Her older male cousin in India had secretly married his girlfriend! She was from a different caste, ate beef sometimes, and the elders of the family (and my roommate who had imbibed their opinions) were all sure the couple was headed for a wreck. Could they really get along together with such big differences? The moral of the story was that the young couple had seen too many movies and thought love was as easy as that.
At the time I had a bit of “huh” reaction, nodded along but silently thought “this seems odd”. And I’ve turned it over more and more since then and I think the moral of the story was that my roommate and the other family elders were the ones who had seen too many movies. From what she said, her cousin and his wife met at work. They dated, they wanted to get married, his family said no, they got married anyway, his family didn’t even find out until 6 months later. They were living on their own in their own apartment in the city and (I suspect) had probably been living together even before marriage. This is not a couple from the movies that falls in love at first sight, steals moments together, and then elopes. This is a normal regular couple like in normal regular places who met, liked each other, dated, got serious, moved in, wanted to get married, were told “no” by his family and rightfully ignored that and got married anyway. The fantasy of a foolish impulsive love marriage, that belonged to the conservative elders. It was their romantic movie based vision that distorted reality. They were the ones who thought that love was “easy”, that a love marriage meant magic and fireworks instead of just as much work as an arranged one.
This movie gets it. It understands the strangeness of two people who know each other better than anyone else in the world, who love each other, who have a life together, being told that it will be “better” more “sensible” if they break apart, they will both be happier with a complete stranger. That they have to build a marriage from nothing when they already have something real built up between them.
That’s the first half. Watching Karthik and Nushrat fall into love, and then build up a love between each other. Until by the time her sister elopes, Karthik is the one Nushrat turns to for strength in this difficult time. Her parents are the sad ones, she is struggling to support them, and Karthik is encouraging her and being there for her. Like a partner, like family. More like family than her own family is being.
The moment that changes Nushrat’s mind is when she sees her father crying and hears him asking how her sister could turn her back on the people who loved her for 24 years for someone she just met. It convinces Nushrat that she owes it to her parents to get married now to the person they have picked for her.
But, did they really love her sister for 24 years? And did they love Nushrat for 22? What I mean is, Nushrat went off to college and became a different person (like everyone does) as she was away from home for 4 years. For the past 4 years, it is Karthik who knew her and loved her while her parents didn’t seem to see her for what she really was. That’s what growing up is, leaving your parents and the version of yourself you are with them behind and becoming someone else. And so when your parents say “how can you choose Him over Us?” what they don’t understand is that the choice is not “Him over Us” but rather “myself when I am with him instead of myself when I am with you.” Again, if we are talking about a real love story, a long lasting love story where you truly deeply know each other, not just love each other.
And hovering over all of this is the rhythm that parenting a daughter ends with her marriage. Nushrat’s parents have the end in sight, they want the grand finale of this 20 year commitment and then they are done. What happens after that, not their problem. But Karthik loves Nushrat not for the past 4 years, but for her whole future life as well. He sees a future with her, and a future self she could be, and he loves all of that.
That’s the first half. All the reasons that it was, simply, Wrong for Nushrat and Karthik to have to end things like this. Wrong for Nushrat to be forced into a new world with a stranger, without the support of the one person who knows her best. And wrong that Karthik has to give up on the whole future he had planned through no fault or decision of his own.
But the second half starts fresh with all the reasons that it was, simply, Wrong for Nushrat to be forced into a lifetime commitment with no take backs and no warning. Even if Nushrat had never built up a love with Karthik, her marriage would still be a nightmare. In the most predictable and common place way. She is sad and unsure at the wedding. That night, her new husband starts to slide her scarf off her head, she hesitates and says she isn’t ready, he says “no one ever is”, and then takes her to the bed and holds her down and rapes her. It’s not dramatic, she doesn’t scream or fight him off. But the camera focuses in on her tortured face, her hands in fists, her feet twisting unhappily on either side of his bare legs. It’s rape. In the simplest most basic way. She said “no”, and he didn’t listen. And now she is being violated, in physical pain, while he takes his pleasure. And afterwards, she sits under the shower and sobs.
Anyone can be a rapist. Or rather, anyone could turn out to be a rapist. Not that anyone can rape, I absolutely do not believe that. But that there is no way to tell from the outside who has that inside of them. The whole “arranged marriage” idea relies on being able to tell somehow, from a family background and a CV and a nice face, that your daughter will be safe with them. That you aren’t handing her over to a disturbed ugly mind who will make her life a living hell. Even if you accept and forgive Nushrat’s parents for marrying her to this man, say that he had a great resume and a nice family and they didn’t even know she was in love with someone else, the real problem is the “no take backs”.
In this film, the problem starts because Nushrat’s husband is a monster. She knows it that very first night. But she can’t simply tell her family the next day (we see her forcing a pallid smile at the family gathering the next day and hiding it all) and never see him again. And even after he constantly insults and minimizes her day after day, and rapes her night after night, even then when she tries to tell her parents, they just send her back to him. That’s the problem. If this strange man you hand your daughter over to turns out to be a monster, then what is she supposed to do? Will you take her back? Will you admit your mistake?
That was the purpose of the love story in the first half. Not to show why Nushrat was sad at her wedding, but to show how lucky she was to have someone to save her after the wedding. Unlike all the other sad raped wives in India, Nushrat has someone in her corner who truly deeply knows her and cares about her. It didn’t have to be Karthik, it could have been her friend Fatima or her aunt as well. And it was them a little. While her parents sent her back to that house, her aunt and uncle contrived to get her out (at least for a little while). And Fatima is the first person she confesses the full truth of it to, and Fatima makes sure her other friends have an idea of what is happening and continue the work of encouraging her to leave. But Karthik is the most important simply because he knows and loves her the most. Yes, far more than her father despite all his claims of 24 years of love. Because a college boyfriend, a boyfriend of 4 years, really can know you better than your own parents.
And that brings us to that glorious ending. Nushrat has seen a glimpse of freedom and now is being forced back into her cage. There is a couple of minutes where we get to see her life and her father through Karthik’s eyes and it changes everything. She and Karthik and her father are sitting at the table eating. And then her husband shows up. He waits at the table until she stands so he can sit in her seat. He waits for her to take his heavy bag and carry it for him. He waits for her to serve him food because he can’t even do that much for himself. And Karthik watches and is disturbed, because it is disturbing. And obvious, that Nushrat isn’t being seen as a real human by her husband, isn’t even allowed to eat in peace. But more disturbing, is Nushrat’s father calmly eating and accepting, even encouraging, what is happening around him.
It’s a little moment, but it is there so Nushrat can have that final little push to finally confronting the real problem in her life all along: her parents. It’s not that she is married to a rapist, or not with the man she loves, it’s that her parents picked a rapist for her and refuse to see or believe how terrible her life is. Something it took her college friends mere minutes to see and understand, her parents are either too blind or too cowardly to acknowledge. And they are expecting her to spend her life in agony just for the sake of maintaining their smugness.
And FINALLY, we have a movie that acknowledges everything I just said. Nushrat says explicitly that she did not do this because she was in love with Karthik, that was not what killed her marriage. What killed her marriage is that it was not the right man for her, and she was miserable, and her parents had done this to her. That she had no ability to make a choice, even a choice to leave the marriage, because her parents made this mistake for her and then kept making that mistake for her, making her feel that she needed their permission to even leave this marriage. That is what her speech is about. Not marital rape directly, that’s just a fact of life. But parental rape. The parents who force their children into a living death over and over and over again because it is easier for them than to admit they made a mistake.
I was trying to think of a good comparison while I was watching her give that speech. The best I could come up with was peanut allergies. Imagine you saw a parent forcing their child to eat peanuts because everyone else was eating peanuts, and then that child keeled over and died. And you said to the parent “oh no! How horrible, you forced them to eat peanuts not knowing it would kill them”. And the parent said, “oh no, I forced them to eat peanuts because everyone else was doing it. I knew it would kill them, but at least they died without embarrassing me”. That seems extreme, but think about Kedarnath. Sara said she would rather die than marry her fiance. And then her father made her marry him and she tried to kill herself. And her father was kind of okay with that. Suicide is embarrassing, but less embarrassing than canceling a wedding. The same story plays out in film after film. The social value being taught is that a father will OF COURSE prefer that his daughter die than embarrass him. Her life is valued at the same as two weeks of public embarrassment.
The nice thing is, I know this is not true in real life. There are plenty of fathers and mothers who marry their daughters off to someone they believe is the best possible choice, and are shocked when they find they are wrong. Who rush their daughters back home and hurry through a divorce. Neerja Bhanot for instance, India’s real life heroine, survived an abusive arranged marriage followed by a divorce with the full support of her entire family.
The problem is when films refuse to acknowledge these stories. When the social values being taught are that a “strong” father should force his daughter back into the marriage over and over again. That a “good” daughter should stay in the marriage no matter what in order to protect the family pride. It puts one more burden on these families, to have no easy reference point to explain what they are going through, why they made these choices. And here is Nushrat explaining exactly what is happening and why she is doing it. This is a speech I want available to every abused woman fleeing a broken marriage, available to post in her Christmas letter, or on her Facebook page, to explain to everyone who might ask exactly what was happening and why she had no other choice. And available to every father and mother who want to explain why their daughter is back home and they are happy, not ashamed, and proud of their choices as parents
I can’t stay with Ravi. I want a divorce. What are you afraid of? That what people will say? What if this was happening with my sister? If her marriage was falling apart, you would have been happy. And felt let her pay for whatever she has done, as that mistake was made by her. And this is your mistake, so why do you want me to compromise? Only because this mistake has been made by you, do you want me to pay for it my whole life? [Mother: we were acting in your best interests!] Lie! Absolute lie! You are not saying this in my best interests, but to protect your pride in society. I’m not saying parents should have no right in choosing partner for their children. But if children are unhappy, shouldn’t parents own up to that responsibility? Today I just want to ask this one thing to you, that why when a daughter says to her father that the partner they have chosen for her is not right, why then is she told to compromise? And assured falsely that everything will be fine? And when the same mistake is committed by a daughter in choosing the wrong partner, she is mocked and asked to pay for her own mistake? [Mother: But what is it that is missing in your life? This is a common thing in all households. Once you start a family…] Why can’t you understand that starting a family is not the solution? I would be even more trapped then! When I can’t stand the person, how can I even think of starting a family with him? If in every household the wife is raped, then I don’t want to live in such a household. If more than my happiness you are bothered about what the society would think and how they would perceive, then No. I am not prepared to bare the consequences of your mistake. No matter whose mistake it is in life and how big, one shouldn’t be stopped from living. [Husband: Why don’t you say something? My wife, who is my pride, is tarnishing my pride in front of everyone!] Pride! Which pride are you talking about? The one that you rape every night? Or the one who you can’t even protect from being molested during the day? [Husband tries to drag her off, her parents stand and do nothing, she slaps him and frees herself]
That speech could have been the ending. But the film had one more message, for women escaping abuse and their families. A simple lesson, that this isn’t the end of the story. Nushrat and Karthik have one more conversation where they acknowledge they love each other, and that Nushrat left her husband for herself, not for Karthik. And Karthik knows that and wanted it, that she did what she needed to make herself happy. And then Nushrat moves in with Fatima, goes back to school, gets her divorce, celebrates the divorce with her aunt and her friends, and then marries Karthik and has wonderful happy sex with him. That’s the promise, if you leave your marriage (for yourself, not because someone else is waiting for you) you can find your friends, your few relatives who really love and support you, your own dreams before marriage, and eventually you may even discover sex as a joyful loving thing instead of a nightmare. Life goes on, and it gets better.