Monday, 19 March 2012

The Bollywood Rom Com Goes Global, Truly Madly Deeply

I watched a Hindi film called London Paris New York (often referred to as 'LPNY') last night, and was pleasantly surprised with some of the more neo-liberal layers that the classical Bollywood romantic comedy has acquired in recent years. By this, I do not mean that the wooing dances have merely moved to shopping malls from the neighbourhood park, but that there is a certain degree of moral latitude displayed by the central characters. Nikhil (Ali Zafar) and Lalitha (Aditi Rao) have far more sexual agency, and personally-formulated professional ambitions than the characters in comparable films set in foreign locales, such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, to name a few.

The treatment of 'feminism' in the film, however superficial, is a welcome change from the girly girls of yesteryear who may be willing to defy parental control of their marital choices, but do not display any desire for participating in the workforce. At the same time, Aditi's push for equal rights and greater political participation need not kill feminine expression and romance. There is a telling scene in the film where, after spending a drunk (but chaste) night in a hotel room in Paris, Aditi has soiled her clothes and Nikhil offers her the choice of a feminine (pink) or a feminist (purple) dress. Although she chooses pink, I read this as a more complex decision than simply conceding to (and consenting with) the male gaze. As is typical of many contemporary street fashionistas, Aditi combines the silky pink dress with a tough black leather jacket and a short hair-do. She walks the city as though she owns it, speaks fluent French, and tells Nikhil (when he complains about Indian girls not paying enough attention to their countrymen once they are treated well by the 'goras') that perhaps Indian males have an inferiority complex. To my ears, conversations and scenes of this kind ring refreshingly true for contemporary Indians of a certain class living, studying and/or working overseas.

Of course all this means that the poor boy meets rich girl (or vice versa) story may be gone for good, at least for urban and semi-urban dwellers. While Nikhil is the son of a wealthy film producer, Aditi proudly declares herself a member of the educated Indian middle class. This difference is of enough interest, and again taps into recent changes in India's demographics as well as greater association of its middle-income groups with the overall narrative of the nation's growth. The lower classes, it appears, will have to make do without malls and multiplexes, let alone envisaging romantic sojourns in London, Paris or New York.