Friday Classics: Udaan, Choosing Love Over Duty

I finally watched it! I have been putting off this movie for years because I know how powerful it is supposed to be. And it was powerful but, thank goodness, it ends with hope.

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Indrani Mukerjea and Tevar

So, this isn’t really that film related (except that it sounds exactly like a film plot), but I am fascinated by the coverage of the Indrani Mukerjea murder case.

So, to recap, the police picked up a guy for a weapons charge.  While they were “interrogating” him, he suddenly confessed to hiding a body in the forest and setting it on fire, 4 years early.  Further questioning revealed, he had done this at the behest of his employer, Indrani Mukerjea, wife of the head of Star TV India. And that the body was that of her sister, Sheena Bora, who Indrani had drugged and strangled.

Over the next few weeks, almost every hour seemed to bring another juicy detail.  First, although Indrani had introduced her as her sister, in fact the victim was her daughter.  And she had a secret son as well, Mikhail.  And that son had also been drugged that night, but had managed to escape before being murdered.

It also came out that Indrani’s stepson, Rahul, had been living with Sheena.  They were in love and planned to marry, but Indrani disapproved.  Indrani’s husband, Peter, agreed with her and had cut his son out of his life entirely, not having spoken to him for years.

Now, weeks later, after the excitement has died down, the final information on motive and details of the events that lead to the murder have started trickling out.  And as I read them, something finally clicked into place, and I realized what this reminded me of!  Not a movie, but other news stories I have read, American news stories about spousal abuse leading to murder.

In those murders, and in this one, ultimately, there is no motive, at least not one an outsider can understand.  The motive is simply that the victim acted as though they had needs and wants and a life outside of their abuser.  And by this point, the abuse had gone on for so long, and had been so accepted by everyone around them, that even a murder did not seem outside of the bounds of reasonable response.

In America, it is relations between couples that are considered so private, and so sacrosanct, that outsiders are afraid to comment, and those inside the relationship are so ashamed that they would never consider sharing their problems.  The abusers take advantage of societies blind-spots to push the limits and become increasingly comfortable with their power.

In this story, it is the relationship between parent and child that is considered so private, and so powerful, that no one is allowed to interfere or judge.  Peter and Indrani Mukerjea were respected members of Bombay society.  No one found it odd that Peter would cut off all contact with his son merely because he dared to fall in love with someone of whom he disapproved.  No one found Indrani’s cover story for the disappearance of her “sister” odd, that Sheena Bora would be sent overseas to study by her “parents” (in reality, her grandparents) and not allowed to contact any friends or relatives, because she had a relationship that did not have her parents’ approval.

Worst of all, the newly released emails and texts show that Sheena herself accepted all that was done to her.  For years, she allowed her own identity to be lied about, to be a sister instead of a daughter.  She barely objected when her mother and stepfather sold the apartment she was living in, she put off her engagement to the man she loved, and even in the midst of a fierce battle with her mother, when threats had been made which lead her own boyfriend to suggest she it would be unsafe to be alone with her parent, she still agreed to meet with Indrani.

This same symptom of abuse is still apparent in her brother, Mikhail.  His mother attempted to murder him years ago, and did murder his sister, and yet Mikhail was still so afraid of her, that he never called the police, never spoke to any friends or family members, and may have even helped cover up the murder by maintaining his sister’s facebook profile.

And even if Mikhail had gone to the police, likely nothing would have happened.  Rahul, Sheena’s boyfriend and possibly the only decent person in her life, did go to the police.  He went immediately, he recorded messages and saved texts and emails.  He knew Indrani was a threat and that Sheena loved him and would never have left simply because her mother told her to.  The police did not believe him.  Despite all his evidence, they took the statement of the victim’s mother and ignored that of her live-in boyfriend.

Tying this all back into film, FINALLY, this reminded me of Tevar, the remake of a southern film starring Arjun Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha which came out last year, and which I finally watched last weekend.  Sonakshi is being stalked by a powerful gunda.  She runs away, with her parents’ support, planning to fly to America.  The villain and his gang track her down, and she is rescued by Arjun, who hides her in his home.  Coincidentally, his father is a police officer who has been assigned to track Sonakshi down!

This is all fine, kind of cute, romantic, whatever.  The problem is, once Arjun’s father discovers Sonakshi is staying in their home, the narrative suggests that he is in a moral quandary.  While we, the viewer, know that the heroine’s parents wish her to leave and go to America, he has been told that they do not, and therefore it is his duty as a police officer to bring her back home.

But this isn’t a moral quandary, right?  All he has to do is ask the grown up person standing right in front of him what she wants to do, does she want to go to America or does she want to go back home.  But that is not an option.  Because she is not a grown up person who belongs to herself, she belongs to her parents.  The audience is supposed to sympathize with him, to know that if her parents want her back, the right thing to do is to take her home.  Even if she begs, even if she runs from him, even if he has to beat her and put her in chains, it is always a parent’s right to decide what they do with their children, especially their female children.

And that is why Sheena went to meet her mother that day, and that is why Indrani thought it was perfectly normal to drug her daughter, to put her in the backseat of her car, to strangle her with her own scarf, and to pay her driver to dump the body, and then to go about her life with no guilt, no regrets, and no sense that she had done anything wrong.


(more thoughts on Indian family relations, here and here )