Love is said to transcend all barriers, but quite realistically, Indian cinema has continually engaged with tragic stories of lovers who couldn’t be united because of social and class differences. The iconic dialogue: “Bekhuda, hum mohabbat ke dushman nahi, apne usoolon ke ghulam hai”, from the epic love story, Mughal-e-Azam, released over six decades ago, resonates with us even today, as the sociocultural climate of India remains largely unchanged. More recently, in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), that became the highest grossing Indian film worldwide at the time, popularised the conflicting pulls of tradition versus love, as the character of Amitabh Bachchan kept harping on “parampara” to coerce his son into subscribing by class norms. The lovers’ refusal to bow down to the patriarchal stooges of classism led to the son’s disownment from the family, and their departure to foreign lands, in a bid to escape the bounds of Indian society.
It must be stated that countless Bollywood films have been based on the theme of class divide in love relationships. Bobby (1973), Devdas (2002), Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), are some of the prominent films that have portrayed lovers who cannot be together in socially legitimate ways. Reversing the positions, films such as Kaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000), Dil (1990), Raja Hindustani (1996) etc., have portrayed the rich-girl-loves-poor-boy trope. The popularity of the given formula seems to indicate at more than just a specific cinematic taste. It reveals the persevering social conditions that still lead to the rejection of such so-called ‘mis-matched’ lovers. And so when Rohena Gera subtitles his film, “Is love enough?”, it strikes a chord with the audience, that on one hand espouses modernising Indian sensibilities, but at the same time, remains largely powerless when faced with such moral dilemmas.
Recently, I spoke to a friend about Sir, and one of the most important things she said was that “these kind of things probably do happen to people… you never know”. Indeed, what is projected as a novelty in the film is not really so in reality. We come across countless stories of star-crossed lovers in the newspapers, lynched, murdered, ostracised, or simply forced to marry other people, because they chose partners from a different caste or class. The present debates around love jihad are a case in point.
Years ago, the film, Love Sex Aur Dhoka (2010), created ripples amongst the Indian audience for its depiction of pornography. I was in college at the time, and remember being aghast by the gritty portrayal of love and sex. But significantly, the film shocked the Indian audiences because it brazenly portrayed the dark reality of khap panchayats. All of a sudden the media became obsessed with the incidents of honour-killings in the country. It was not a new subject, but there was certainly a renewed interest in it. Sir seems to have done something similar in terms of the debates it raises: Gera actually taps into an all too familiar subject — class and caste divides. It made me marvel at how the film was placed precariously on the precipice of becoming yet another ‘forbidden romance’ meant to pander to the universal appeal of the rich man-poor girl angle. That it doesn’t, comes as a breath of fresh air.
Sir is certainly one of the more subtly-constructed, sensitive, and realistic portrayals of love relationships I have come across lately. It manages to raise larger questions about the superfluous-ness of social divides in matters relating to the heart. With remarkable finesse, the film captures the redundancy of societal constructs such as class barriers and issues of propriety. The maturity with which the subject is treated is heartening. The actors are realistic, relatable, and draw our sympathies for being constrained due to nothing but external forces that deny their desire for each other.
The question, “is love enough” looms large throughout as the two characters attempt to explore their own feelings. Ashwini’s declaration that he doesn’t think of her “as a maid” is meant to be a declaration of his respect for her, but it negates the reality of her situation: she is a maid. Thus, Ashwini’s character is deliciously flawed, and compelling for that reason. We are shown how people are limited in their own positions in society: Ashwini is rich and successful, but those become his limitations in the relationship as transgressing social codes of conduct threatens the entire fabric of society that relies on caste-based patrilineal descent. The film also skillfully brings out the issue of sexual agency — notably, the man too is shown to lack it. Both character’s emotional struggles are felt keenly by the audience as they struggle with their own biases and prejudices. In the end, Ratna finally asserts her freedom to love by discarding the title, ‘sir’ — the spectre haunting their relationship — as she demolishes the class barriers between them. Her upward mobility as a tailor for a fashion designer empowers her and gives her the confidence and will to assert her will.
Indeed, the movie is able to construct a delicate and sensitive narrative from a rather hackneyed subject, and give it a profoundness that is rare to find. Even though the formula remains cliched, Indian cinema has hitherto not treated such love stories with the dignity and delicacy that Rohena Gera affords Ashwini and Ratna. I could appreciate the film primarily for the absence of unnecessary melodrama. The film seems to indicate at the generation’s maturity towards the idea of romantic desire, companionship, and even platonic love, as the society attempts to reform mindsets despite the prevalence of conservative attitudes. Quite fittingly, the overarching question remains however: can we ever overcome the shackles of society in all matters pertaining to love? How does one resist the society’s narrow-mindedness? How do you triumph over the custodians of ‘usool’ and ‘parampara’ when there is still a stigma attached to romantic relationships outside of the bounds of marriage, or pre-marital romances in general?
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