Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema

Fall 2012 Research Paper


Pyār kīyā to darnā kyā?
(Re)Imag(in)ing (hetero-)romantic love in Dil Chahta Hai
“Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde, te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo: así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera […]” – Pablo Neruda, Cien sonetos de amor, Mañana XVII

Ever since the first Indian sound film, Alam Ara (Ardeshir Irani, 1931), romantic love has prevailed as an essential element of the iconography of mainstream Hindi-Urdu cinema. In the semiotics of Bollywood narratives, it has conventionally been used as a narrative device to articulate, negotiate, and manage prevalent socio-political tensions and anxieties, and examine dominant cultural paradigms of sexuality and gender identity. In the introduction to her book on Bollywood as social history, Jyotika Virdi (2003: 13-14) notes that Bollywood “film plots conceive [romantic love] strictly in heterosexual terms”, and that “[romantic love] confronts and transcends class hierarchies, patriarchal authority, [and religious and communal differences]”. In the allegory-heavy Bollywood mode of melodrama, the community simultaneously subsumes and sublates the individual, thereby essentialising certain paradigms of social behaviour and affective experience. In keeping with the politics of this aesthetic, conventional Bollywood representations of romantic love are underlain by the assumption that everyone defines, experiences, and is impacted by ‘true love’ the same way, and are limited by and concomitantly perpetuate socially prescribed categories and boundaries of expression. Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, and Mani Kaul – amongst the group of directors who spearheaded the efforts towards an Indian neo-realist cinema in the 1970s and ‘80s – have portrayed subjective experiences of romantic love in several of their films; My Brother… Nikhil (Onir, 2005), Pyaar Mein Twist (Hriday Shetty, 2005), and Cheeni Kum (R. Balki, 2007) are the most notable amongst the handful of Hindi-Urdu films that have portrayed nonnormative romantic and sexual orientations and relationships in the past few decades.  

Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut. and Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) – and presents a period of time in their lives. 2003) never managed to reach the Indian audiences because censorship restrictions and dogmatic opposition from the authorities prevented their exhibition. Dil Chahta Hai departed from the generic conventions of mainstream Bollywood. modernity and non-normative sexualities […]”. the plot of DCH revolves around three urban upper-middle class twenty-something best friends – Siddharth or Sid (Akshaye Khanna). In this essay. in which their eventual                                                                                                                 1     Appadurai. almost all of these films are situated within the discourse of alternative cinema. Brinda Bose (2011: 44). and deeply personal cognitive-affective experience. and sutured together by the neutral and impersonal hospital setting grounded in the present. Several others like Fire (Deepa Mehta. Arjun.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   However. and emerged as a cult film. I examine how Akhtar (re)imag(in)es love as a complex. The film is constructed as a series of extended flashback sequences articulated variably from the subjective viewpoints of all three friends. Akash (Aamir Khan). Set against the backdrop of a contemporary economically liberalised Mumbai. Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was the first mainstream Hindi-Urdu film focusing on subjectivity and individuality to become a critical and commercial success. traditionally a spectral presence in the Hindi-Urdu film industry that has been the domain of the intellectual elite and international film festival circuits. 1996) and Gulabi Aaina (Sridhar Rangayan. described the Indian metropolis as “a critical site (both imagined and real) for the mapping of a convergence of anxieties about urbanity. and engages with the Indian social imaginary by subverting traditional constructs of interpersonal relationships and gender identity.” 2 . “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. setting the precedent for a new wave of mainstream Hindi-Urdu films that adopt a naturalistic aesthetic and address the cultural and socio-political tensions defining the multifarious ideoscapes1 of the Indian metropolis. multifaceted. in her essay on the filmic representation of contemporary Indian urbanities.

Akash is a lazy and cocky cynic seemingly incapable of taking anything seriously and with no professional direction in life. circumstances bring them together later in the story. and usually finds himself with self-centred women who unabashedly take advantage of him. and they eventually fall in love with each other. middle and end. and resonate strongly with the urban Indian viewer. the film is structured using the principles of continuity editing in the form of a Classical Hollywood narrative. ShankarEhsaan-Loy’s melodies are internationally syncretic with a youthful feel. he falls in ‘true   3 . Stylistically. speaks casual Hindi-Urdu liberally peppered with English. however. and is unable to distinguish between infatuation and love. He is a terrible judge of character. He forgets about her soon after propositioning her and being thrashed by the aforementioned fiancé. After vehemently opposing his mother’s suggestion of an arranged marriage. He finds himself immediately attracted (physically) to a beautiful young woman called Shalini (Preity Zinta) at their college graduation party. The attitudes of the three protagonists towards romantic love are firmly grounded in their individual personalities. Everyone in this diegetic imaginary lives in large yet understated houses. and Javed Akhtar’s lyrics are situation-appropriate. with a clear beginning. ranging from casual and conversational to poetic and deeply evocative. who regularly has short meaningless flings with random girls and thinks of love as a bekār kī musībat (‘useless misfortune’). The musical sequences in the film are seamlessly integrated into the narrative.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   reunion takes place. and leads comfortable lives devoid of the numerous coincidences and melodramatic misfortunes seemingly ubiquitous in conventional Bollywood narratives. creating three distinctly individual protagonists and privileging the viewer as an intimate witness to their respective character arcs. and function to embody the characters’ states of mind. Sameer is a gullible and flirtatious serial monogamist whose notion of romantic love is conflated with physical/sexual attraction. and prepare the viewer for their respective encounters with love. who turns out to be the fiancée of a very possessive and physically aggressive fellow graduate.

jiskā ek patī thā. who had a husband. this is madness. however. and open-minded painter who is very close to his mother. akelī raihtī hai. Remember Sameer. Tara dies of liver cirrhosis with Sid at her hospital bedside. Yād hai Sameer. to mujhe koī aitrāz nahī̃. The main conflict of the narrative of the film surfaces in a scene halfway through the narrative that depicts an interaction between the three protagonists. terā roz kā ānā-jānā hai[…] mān gaye Sid terī choice to bilkul– (‘Okay I understood I understood. ye pyār nahī̃ pāgalpan hai (‘But Sid. (‘That I love her despite knowing all this. agar aisī bāt hai. While Akash and Sameer gradually mature and take responsibility for their lives and marry their love interests at the end of the film. Vaise bhī tere liye bilkul perfect rahegī – experienced hai.   4 . I have no such expectations. understanding. just think. the daughter of his parents’ friends with whom his parents set him up. results in a profound friendship. Sid is a sensitive. jiskī ek beṭī hai. maĩ aisī koī ummīd nahī̃ rakhtā aur agar vo mujhse pyār nā bhī kare to ṭhīk hai– (‘No. not love’) Sid: Nahī̃ ye pyār hī hai. but when Sid says he thought they would understand. kyā samjhe ham? (‘What are we supposed to understand? You’re saying that have fallen in love with a women who is tenfifteen years older than you. I don’t want her to be mine or to marry me. A chance encounter with Tara Jaiswal (Dimple Kapadia). Initially. merī bhī śurvāt aise hī huī thī… ṭhīk hai Sid. and has no preconceived notions about romantic love. tū khud hamse kaih chukā hai kī she’s got a drinking problem. this is love. Sameer and Akash laugh it off as a joke. who has a daughter. and it’s okay even if she doesn’t love me– ’) Akash: Acchā samajh gayā samajh gayā. It is an exterior scene set at night that shows Sid confessing his love for Tara for the first time to his best friends and their reactions to this revelation. you have told us yourself that she’s got a drinking problem– what are we supposed to understand?’) Sid: Yahī kī ye sab jānte hūe bhī maĩ usse pyār kartā hū̃. an interior designer and older divorced mother with a drinking problem who has recently moved into his neighbourhood. she reveals to him that she is in a relationship with another man (but doesn’t yet “love him enough to marry him”). they realise he is serious and the following exchange takes place: Akash: Kyā samjhe ham? Tū kaih rāhā hai ki tujhe ek aisī aurat se pyār huā hai jo tujhse das pandrā sāl badī hai. and he slowly falls in love with her.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   love’ at first sight with Pooja (Sonali Kulkarni).’) Sameer: Lekin Sid zarā soc. Maĩ nahī̃ cāhtā kī vo merī ban jāye yā mujhse śādī kare.

I’m saying that I love this woman. Akash’s and Sameer’s assessment of Tara as an unsuitable romantic partner for Sid seems to based more upon the fact that she is a divorced mother. Sid imagines his friendship with them as a bond of mutual understanding and respect.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   I started out the same way? Okay Sid. Grow up Akash. A time comes in life when true love happens to a person. I suggest an alternate reading based on this compelling and profound exchange. and at the very least expects acceptance if not endorsement. The conflict is caused by Akash’s and Sameer’s immaturity. and the only people in his life who he thinks would understand. if this is how it is. Sid– ’) Sid slaps Akash across the face Sid: Terī soc itnī ghaṭiyā hai. characterising her as ‘easy’ or sexually promiscuous. their conception of romantic love is entirely shaped by sociocultural norms governing it. than the large   5 . Akash interprets what Sid thinks is true love as mere lust-driven infatuation. They consider marriage with its neatly packaged familial connotations as the only possibly desirable outcome of romantic love. which manifests itself both in their decision to invalidate Sid’s feelings. ye zarūrī nahĩ hai ki hame ek dūsre kī har bāt sahī lage lekin har dostī mẽ ek had hotī hai jise pār nahĩ karnā cāhīye. and you turned the matter into a dirty joke. it just happens. 2011).’) While this can and has been interpreted as a generic conflict between the homosocial bond and heterosexual desire (Bose. Grow up Akash. so when Sid expresses his lack of need to ‘lay claim’ on the woman he loves. Anyway. Akash’s and Sameer’s response to Sid’s revelation is both a reflection and indictment of societal impositions on romantic love. but there’s a limit in each friendship and you crossed that limit today. then I have no objection. and the offensive manner in which they do so. never having been in love themselves. we don’t have to like everything about each other. and encourages him to lose his virginity to Tara. she lives alone. Akash and Sameer are the first people to whom Sid reveals his feelings for Tara. you visit her all the time… I’m impressed. he has no intentions of even telling Tara how he feels about her. (‘The way you think really disgusts me. they begin to seem trivial… you can’t understand it now but one day you will realise that love isn’t rational. aur āj tūne vo had pār kar dī hai. she’s really perfect for you – she’s experienced. Maĩ kaih rahā hū̃ ke maĩ is aurat se pyār kartā hū̃ aur tūne is bāt ko ek gandā mazāq banā dīyā. Zindagī mẽ ek aisā vakt ātā hai jab hame sacca pyār ho jāta hai aur ye sab jo tū kaih rahā hai […] ye koī māyne nahī̃ rakhtā sab chotī lagne lagtī hai […] tū āj nahī̃ samjhegā lekin ek din tujhe aihsās hogā kī pyār soc samajh ke nahī̃ kīyā jātā hai bas ho jātā hai. and these things you are saying… don’t mean anything.

and ends the song with the line: vo laḍkī hai yāhā̃ (‘that girl is here’). Akash crosses the limit of judgment in their friendship. and thereby hurting Akash’s ego. Sameer’s song. the minimalist musical arrangement incorporates synthpop elements. As the title of the song suggests. the hero questions the universe in the refrain about the whereabouts of the girl of his dreams whom he has yet to meet.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   age gap between her and Sid. Sid’s song. Each of the three protagonists’ realisations of true love is imaged and imagined in a unique musical sequence that embodies the individual’s worldview and personality. Rather than setting up the homosocial bond/heterosexual desire binary. Woh Ladki Hai Kahan (‘Where is that Girl?’) is a playful ditty composed in the tradition of Celtic fusion music and incorporates the flute and traditional bluegrass string elements. this throws into sharp relief the extent to which the identity and ethical code of a woman is read in the context of her personal relationships (rather than say. and tries   6 . The quirkiness of the song appropriately captures Sameer’s goofy. and mutually imagine themselves singing and dancing with each other on the big screen in a humorous sequence that pays homage to the generic conventions of the Bollywood of the 1960s through the ‘80s. Akhtar implodes this binary and reframes platonic friendship and romantic love as different yet equally important forms of love-based interpersonal relationships that must co-exist under conditions of mutual respect and acceptance for personal happiness and social order to be maintained. her professional achievements) in Indian society. while the focus of the song is on the vocals. and Sid performs a retaliatory transgression by slapping him. Sid is hurt by what he perceives to be thinly veiled contempt for his feelings and the woman he loves. Kaisi Hai Yeh Ruth (‘What Kind of Season is This?’) is a slow and soothing number with the feel of a lullaby. It plays in the context of a scene where Sameer and Pooja are watching a film in a theatre. easy-going and even-tempered personality. realises in the process that the heroine has all the khūbīyā̃ (‘virtues’) which he associates with the girl of his dreams.

the lyrics of Sid’s song express his efforts to describe the feeling of being in love.’) This utopian landscape can be interpreted as an expression of this world inside him.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   to evoke the aural atmosphere of a natural setting. extra-large butterflies and moons. you seem to be a friendly and outgoing person. his conception of love is a lot freer and entails no expectations. which you don’t share with anyone. Akash’s song is a short operatic instrumental piece. how is one to express what love is? Love knows no bounds. Mujhe to lagtā hai ke jo log tumhe jānte hai vo bhī tumhe nahī̃ jānte. when Tara first sees his paintings. for example: Kaise kisī ko batāyẽ. she remarks: Kaihne ko tum logõ se milte ho. lekin tumhāre andar jo ek duniyā hai tumhāre khvāb tumhāre sapne vo tum kisī se bātṭe nahī̃. He revels in the joy of his love. an essential prerequisite for his experience of romantic love. For him. without concerning himself with its consequences. your real thoughts and dreams. while concurrently using the same images to imply his sexual desire for Pooja. haste ho. love is a goal-oriented experience in which the goal is a physically attractive woman who will love him more than anyone else in the world. Earlier in the narrative. is mẽ bandhan nahī̃ hai aur nā koī bhī dīwār hai (‘How is one to describe. there is a conspicuous absence of sexual tension and existential angst in the picturisation of Sid’s song. lush meadows. On the other hand. kaise ye samjhāyẽ kyā pyār hai. and soaring porpoises. I think that even the people who know you don’t really know you. and is a stranger to walls’). The picturisation of the song is a sequence of scenes of him painting Tara intercut with scenes of him alone in a utopian colour-saturated landscape of sparkling streams. In fact. and is played when he and Shalini are watching an opera. and she tells him to close his eyes and ask himself if he would “die a thousand deaths to spend a moment   7 . but there is a world inside you. (‘On the surface. bolte ho. and has no desire to make the object of his affections aware of how he feels. While the lyrics of Sameer’s song describe the girl of his dreams and his efforts to find her. which is also so integral to his definition of romantic love. which has been released by the first person to really understand him and his art. which is a very private experience for him. The picturisation of Sameer’s song skilfully satirises the norms defining love and sexuality in a Bollywood of days gone by.

and the thought of being unable to be with the woman he loves tortures him. his love. and Akash’s Love Theme are all surreally visualised in the context of an artistic medium – a film. Kaisi Hai Yeh Ruth. While the romantic pursuits of Akash and Sameer are informed by a facet of the traditional construct of masculinity. which he expresses in an earlier song. and non-judgmental. in marking the conventional male ego as   8 . Thus. His memory is visualised as a network of turquoise-hued corridors through which a catatonic hand-held camera races to finally settle and focus on an image of a haloed Shalini in a white gown standing alone on-stage. which he thinks is destined to be unrequited. is goal-oriented. an elegiac ballad that distils the essence of traditional Urdu love poems. However. in accordance with which they grow and prove themselves worthy of the women they love. and feels helpless when faced with the reality of love. a painting.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   with anyone in his life”. kind. converting them from the unattainable to the attained. Although the songs are particularised by distinction in melodic tone. like Sameer’s. and a musical play respectively – thus suggesting that romantic love is a transcendental experience. and expresses the pain and loneliness of Akash’s love for Shalini. and Sid discovers that profound spiritual kinship is the meaning of love for him. Unlike Sameer. Akash meets ‘the right woman’ who manages to transform his sexual desire into romantic love. they are all simultaneously signified as different perspectives of unquestionably the same emotion: romantic love. Woh Ladki Hai Kahan. Sid’s approach to his relationship with Tara is informed by an alternative construct of self-assured masculinity that is sensitive. Jaane Kyon (‘Who Knows?’) has functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. and lyrical focus. The song indicates that Akash’s conception of love as a cause of great grief and suffering. This scene is shortly followed by Tanhayee (‘Loneliness’). he has spent his entire life making every effort to avoid love. Sameer meets ‘the right woman’ who makes him realise the difference between the intense fleeting passion of infatuation and the patient enduring compassion of love. visual imagery.

however. Rather than imagining the Indian metropolis as an embodiment of the clash between tradition and modernity.Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   inimical to healthy interpersonal relationships. For Sid. Lack of agency and reasoning are intrinsic to its meaning. despite being a pathbreaking and exceptionally well-made film. He establishes sensitivity and open-minded willingness to accept difference as universally desirable traits essential to healthy interpersonal relationships. and are attributes linked to its potential transformative power. By learning patience and sacrifice. although Akhtar   9 . and in which pyār ke sab rūp hai sacce (‘all forms of love are honourable’). they develop a greater sense of empathy and become more sensitive and mature individuals. and coloniality and post-coloniality. his experience of romantic love does not have as radical an impact on the trajectory of his life as for Sameer and Akash. including his mother. and helps him open up more as a person. DCH is not without its flaws. and share more of ‘the world inside him’ with the people he loves. their experiences of romantic love alter the trajectories of their lives. While acknowledging and embracing individual differences in its definition and experience. and set them on their individual paths of personal growth and self-discovery. and reconfigures masculinity as a complex and heterogeneous site of identity formation and contestation. stoic indifference and judgmentality as dysfunctional. Akhtar rejects the cultural hegemony of behaviours universally coded as the masculine ideal. and the behavioural tropes of physical aggressiveness. For Sameer and Akash. Akhtar re-inscribes it as the site of a syncretic and dynamic culture that is increasingly governed by notions of respect and non-judgmental acceptance rather than theoretical and unyielding norms. and having to prioritise the interests and feelings of another person in addition to their own. it does make him re-evaluate his priorities and his approach to his personal relationships. Akhtar images and imagines romantic love as possessing certain universal attributes that distinguish it from other forms of love. Sameer and Akash. However.

and (re)imag(in)es masculinity as a fluid and variable construct. and fails to account for the participation of alternative sexual orientations in the construction of romantic love. The film also foregrounds the primacy of the homosocial bond. and disregards the validity of heterosocial bonds unless they culminate in romantic love and/or sexual consummation. his diegetic imaginary is categorically heteronormative.   10 .Priyal Chitale FILM 237: Indian National Cinema Fall 2012 Research Paper   interrogates and unsettles boundaries of love and interpersonal relationships.

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