This is one of those movies where I am watching it thinking “is the message I am seeing on purpose or an accident? Or an purposeful accident? Is it just where the characters ended up or was this the goal all along? Or did the writer start thinking of it as a statement on film relationships and not realize it was a statement on real ones too?” I think it is probably the last, because I started thinking about it in terms of film too, and then realized that it works just as well for real life. And, in fact, hits exactly my issues with the way culture treats female safety.
This all brings me back to “stranger danger”. I think I talked about this before in the DDLJ post, with the way Kajol is misinterpreting Shahrukh’s behavior. For years, little kids were taught about “stranger-danger” and how they should never talk to or trust any adult they didn’t know. But then people ran some studies on it and discovered that this is a TERRIBLE IDEA!!!! Little kids already tend to distrust strangers and trust their family. And stranger-danger was just reinforcing that. Which means that the kids who were being abused at home (which is far far more statistically likely than being abused by a stranger) would keep it even more of a secret, wouldn’t cry for help or run to a policeman, because of “stranger-danger”.
(Okay, this behavior is a little alarming. But on the other hand, is it actually dangerous? More importantly, is it the MOST dangerous? Is this stranger the biggest danger this young woman might face?)
The same thing is true of course of rape, harassment, and other violence. Far far more likely to happen in your own home with someone you know than with a stranger. And the way women are taught not to trust outsiders, especially young man, can have the unintended consequence of placing them in more danger because it makes them more likely to cling to their homes, their very dangerous homes, instead of breaking free.
I brought this up with DDLJ, because it really struck me on my re-watch that Amrish Puri had raised Kajol to be terrified of any strange boy who so much as talked to her. But at the same time, he was ready to marry her off to a violent and lustful stranger against her will. She was in much more danger from her own father’s actions than she ever would have been from the actions of some nice boy her own age she met on the bus. And Kajol’s brainwashing into not trusting strangers, and the rest of society’s acceptance that this was normal, were what was putting her into so much danger. Not just from her fiance, but every step of the way in the first half, her running from Shahrukh’s assistance just sent her off into more danger.
In a more direct way, every legal system in the world and every society in the world is very quick to jump on those rare stories of true stranger rape. It’s terrible, we need to protect our girls, etc. etc. But those same societies and legal systems draaaaaaaaag their feet about criminalizing spousal rape. If the danger to “our women” is coming from outside, it is horrible, but what about if “the call is coming from inside the house”, to put it in horror movie terms? And what if, in fact, the danger is almost always coming from inside the house, and by locking all the doors, we are just trapping ourselves inside with it?
Okay, if you’ve seen Aarya, you understand why I did that huge intro. But if you haven’t, you are probably reading this thinking “what they heck is she talking about?” What Aarya does, very consciously, is set up two conflicting love stories, both of them standards of Indian film, and asks us which one is better? On the one hand, there is the “stalker” love story, the guy who makes extreme gestures and sings songs and follows her everywhere. And on the other hand, there is the “force you to love me” love story, the guy who risks his life and gets into fights and suddenly the girl is in love with him even though she didn’t seem to notice him before. Which is true love, and which isn’t?
I am pretty sure the director just wanted to play around with film tropes by setting it up like this. But those film tropes are based on social “truths”, and he made a statement about those truths too, whether or not that was the intention.
Before I get into SPOILERS, I should also take a moment to deal with the non-plot related parts of the film. The performances, for instance. Allu Arjun does a nice job playing an outgoing and emotional and happy kind of person. He managed to seem harmless while doing things that could have been very scary.
Anu Mehta was fine, I guess. But her only job as a character was to stand there and wrinkle her eyebrows and stumble over her words. I just got so sick of it! Smile! Speak up! Do ANYTHING!!!!! That’s not on the actress though, that’s on the directing and the script. She does what she can with what she was given. Of all the leads, it was Siva Balaji who played the villain who impressed me the most. It looks like he was also the most experienced, so that makes sense. And he had the most complicated part, needing to play a whole variety of scenes and moods and so on.
But to get into that, I have to get into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Great opening to the film, of a piece with the clever little images and bits that are scattered throughout. Our heroine is introduced standing on a beach, and the wind blows a peacock feather to her, she looks to see where it came from and notices a notebook on the beach. She reads a half-finished poem about a dream girl, puts the peacock feather back in the book and writes “I hope you meet her”. It’s filmed in this great dreamy way that makes you feel like it is this kind of moment out of time, which is how it feels to the character as well.
(Also, is the peacock feather a purposeful Tere Naam reference or just a coincidence? Because the films have a lot in common)
The dreaminess goes away for a moment when Anu meets up with her friends. All of her friends, by the way, wear jeans and t-shirts while Anu is in a full Salwar (it’s so full, it’s almost an Anarkali), with bangles and jewelry and all that. I know it’s standard for the heroine to be more modest and traditional than her friends, but it’s really extreme in this movie. Along with the way she is so extremely passive, it almost crosses the line into satire of the traditional heroine. I don’t think it’s supposed to be satire, but it’s pretty ridiculous!
Including the bit here where we go back into that dreamy place. Anu’s bangle slips off her foot and falls into the water just as some boys are looking at her and her friend. Her friend snaps at them that if they are really interested, they can do something useful and dive in after the bangle. And in the background there is a sudden flash of white as someone dives off the dock after the bangle and splashes into the water, without us seeing his face.
And then we are back at college? And Anu’s friend is telling her to just forget about that boy who died diving for her bangle, these things happen? Seems like you would kind of remember something like that, but oh well!
Anyway, here’s the part where we start to deconstruct romances. And I think I am going to discuss it as though it is too totally different films, so you can appreciate how unusual it feels to have these two complete plots interact with each other. The new powerful rich boy arrives on campus and sees Anu and falls in love with her unique beauty. Two students lounging nearby serve as a Greek chorus and start describing exactly what will happen next, because it is what always happens. And right there, we need to start being aware that this is all a commentary on film plots, as much as it is an actual story.
Right, so, just like the chorus described, the rich boy Siva falls for Anu. She ignores him. He beats up boys who are teasing her. She still ignores him. He confesses his love. She is not interested. And finally he declares that he will kill himself unless she admits her love. All of this is actually stuff we have seen before in other films (including Sholay), but why do we find it “okay”? A woman isn’t responsible for a man’s feelings, even if he is suicidal, she still does not owe him her love. She never “owes” him her love.
Now in most movies, we have this very hurried sort of “forced” love story, and then we move on to the rest of the film which is about gang wars or family feuds or something else not strictly love related, which is why the love story has to move so fast. But, also in most films, the next time we saw our heroine she would be magically okay with this forced confession of love and the couple would be gloriously happy together.
In the better films of this version, they manage to establish that the “forced” love wasn’t forced at all, it was just a misunderstanding that temporarily separated them. In Sholay, Basanti wanted to marry Veeru until her aunt objected. In Tezaab, Madhuri was in love with Anil but thought he was just playing with her and didn’t believe in his love. So the post-suicide attempt part of the love story still makes sense, since we know it isn’t just the suicide which brought them together.
This movie is fascinating, because it shows a realistic version of how this would play out! If she said no and no and no until finally the threat of suicide forced her to say “I love you”, then of course she wouldn’t actually love him! But at the same time, the kind of shy sensitive inexperienced girl who would be forced in this way is also the kind of girl who would feel that she had no other choice but to stay with him just because a public declaration tied her for life. And the kind of guy who would use these methods to force her wouldn’t notice or care that she wasn’t happy, he just wants her as a possession, and so long as she is there with him, nothing else matters.
Anu stays with Siva because all her friends just accept that they are in love and they have to be together. And whenever he seems to be flirting with another girl, or not as considerate as he could be, or anything else isn’t quite right, she just squinches her eyebrows and stands there and takes it. When Siva is told he has to marry someone else and is taken away from her, all her friends and even her mother just accept that she must be heartbroken, and she doesn’t go against them. Finally, when Siva runs away from home to be with her and they take off together, again she goes along with it. They are chased by goons, they go into hiding, all the usual romantic elopement things. Only she has never really made a choice about any of this, Siva just assumes it’s what she wants and barrels right over her. Finally, when the goons catch up with them, Siva leaves her. And Anu still doesn’t really get a choice. She can’t go anywhere else alone because she is still being hunted. But she also isn’t strong enough to chase after him. And when he comes back again, having stood up to his father and insisted on marrying her, Anu has to go along with it again, because she really doesn’t have any other option.
That’s the thing, she hasn’t had another option since the moment Siva first saw her. He never gave her an option. He used all the levers and pulleys and unfair advantages he had been given by society to trap her in a dead end. He knew that everyone would be on his side if he claimed that Anu had “driven him” to suicide. Because it is always the woman’s fault. And he knew that she would be pressured by everyone around to give in. And he knew that once she had given in, her own conscience, supported by those surrounding her (her friends who thought it was “true love” and she was lucky to be dating such a rich boy, her mother who thinks this is her only marriage option), will keep her trapped in that forced promise.
And she is trapped! She can’t break-up with him, she can’t even admit that she is happy when his father ends their relationship. She can’t say no to the elopement, she can’t go back home to her regular life when he leaves her again, and she can’t say that she doesn’t want him back when he returns to her.
(Ignore the bit with Arjun dancing, just look at how unhappy Anu looks and how disconnected from Siva)
So, that’s relationship number one. The other relationship, with Arjun (right? Arjun, not Allu?), that starts out almost the same. He tries to talk to her, and she says no, and he keeps talking to her. But he never beats someone up while she is watching, and he definitely never tries to blackmails her with threats of self-harm that will be “her fault”.
(we also know he is the hero because he gets huge hero song numbers like this, so obviously he will get the girl)
All he does is say that he loves her and wants her to be happy. When she tells him to go away, he goes away. When she says she hates him, he accepts it. And when she ultimately tells him that she never ever wants to see him again ever, he follows her order and disappears out of her life.
He is a bit aggressive and outgoing in how he goes about talking to her. And he is a little over the top in sharing his feelings with the rest of the campus, putting up a note on the bulletin board describing every encounter. But he doesn’t actually ask her for anything.
In fact, that is his entire point, that he doesn’t want anything from her. He just wants to love her, and for her to know she is loved. She can date someone else, she can live her life, she can do whatever she wants and it makes no difference to him. He doesn’t want to “possess” her, he still respects her autonomy and her personhood.
Now, in a normal stalker romance, he would work on the shy girl and give her flowers and poems and slowly break through her reserve. And then the rest of the movie would happen. But in this case, it’s not just her reserve he has to break through, it’s all the bonds that have tied her to Siva. She not only feels it would be wrong for her to talk to a boy when she is dating someone else, she feels that Arjun can’t be a proper boy if he is chasing after a girl who is dating someone else.
And this is where we get into that whole big discussion I gave at the beginning! Society says that Anu is in danger from Arjun, not Siva. Arjun is a strange boy who is chasing after her and talking to her. Siva is her one committed relationship. Arjun is the one breaking through all the bonds of society, Siva is the one who is accepted by society.
But Siva is the one who just wants her to be with him and doesn’t seem to notice anything else about her. Siva is the one who is always dragging her around, making her do things she doesn’t want to do, and never actually listening to what she is saying about anything. Siva is the one who only got her to be with him in the first place through threats and forced promises.
Arjun, on the other hand, wants to get to know her, to spend time with her, to listen to what she has to say. Notice that early on Siva asked her to go for a coffee with him and she turned him down. Arjun, who she officially hated as someone chasing after a committed woman, she did agree to have coffee with. And spent time with in general, not because he forced her to by making her his “girlfriend”, but because she kept going along with his invitations for coffee, or visiting when she was sick, or any other kindly act.
(He even has a whole song about how it’s really okay when the girl doesn’t feel the same way, just accept it)
Most of all, though, he is the one giving her a choice. He doesn’t agree that her choices have disappeared now that she is dating someone, he thinks she should still have the right to know about her options. And then when she declares she never wants to see him again and wants to be with Siva, he accepts that she has made her choice once and for all and does everything in his power to give her what she wants.
The biggest way in which he gives her choices is in what he doesn’t do. We find out waaaaaaaaaaaaaay at the end that, of course, Arjun was the one at the beginning who dived in and rescued her bangle. He has had it all along, but he never intends to give it to her. Because that would put her under an obligation to him, remove her ability to make a free decision. And, as I see it, that is why the discovery of the bangle is what makes Anu choose him, finally. She has slowly come closer to him and become happy while the were hiding out waiting for Siva to return for her. She is already unhappy on her wedding day. But the discovery of the bangle, that Siva was the one who saved it, but he has never wanted her to know, that is what makes her suddenly make her choice. This is just my interpretation, but I don’t see it as her thinking “oh my goodness, he risked his life for me and now I love him!” I see it as her thinking “oh my goodness, he could have told me all along that he risked his life for me, but he loved me too much to say anything”.