After more than an of conversation with Raanjhanaa and Tanu Weds Manu writer Himanshu Sharma and director Aanand L Rai on romance in their movies and in Hindi cinema in general, the topic of sex comes up. Or specifically, how the duo’s two romantic films so far have been characterised by a distinct lack of it.
Sharma, a well-spoken Lucknawi, whose thoughts and choice of words have a casual eloquence and easy wit to them, jumps at the opportunity to rib Rai, who is almost completely the opposite—soft-spoken, thoughtful and simplistic—with no suggestion in his language of either his early years in Delhi or the recent decade he has spent in the television and film industry in Mumbai.
“I have absolutely no problems with sex,” says Sharma, tongue firmly in cheek. “Give me a willing director and I can write the hottest, sexiest, sleaziest and most titillating film of Indian cinema. But the moment I have broached even a kiss in my scripts, Aanand brushes me off. I just don’t get it!”
Having already broken into an elongated ‘Arrre yaaar’ the moment ‘sex’ was brought up, as if expecting the mock rant by Sharma, and perhaps having been at its receiving end at various times in their successful partnership of three films over seven years, Rai explains, “I have always felt that if you can make love look beautiful and respectful without going that route, why put it in? Personally, I believe in the purity of love and innocence of romance.”
Ever since Mallika Sherawat exploded upon Indian pop culture with her 17 kisses and 1,700 bikini photoshoots with Khwahish in 2003, love has hardly seemed sacred in Hindi cinema. Words like ‘purity’ and ‘innocence’ are something of a joke in modern-day Bollywood, where even the most serious of filmmakers have had to add ‘item numbers’ to their movies to make them saleable, a la Dibakar Banerjee in his 2012 thriller Shanghai.
In the decade-and-a-half in which Karan Johar travelled from sweet Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to sexed-up Student of the Year, and in which every other romcom has at some level been a rehash of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (except that the leads wear fewer clothes), Rai and Sharma have brought a shared original voice to the silver screen. In their movies, the girls prefer patialas to skirts and kurtis to tank tops, whereas the boys are either too podgy (Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu) or too skinny (Dhanush in Raanjhanaa) to flex their muscles as a fashion statement. In other words, their films are about regular people, and, as a rule, neither lover takes off his/her clothes.
The romantic in Rai’s films is either the silent and brooding type, like Manoj aka Manu of Tanu Weds Manu, who falls in love with and immediately agrees to marry a girl who he’s only seen asleep; or is an over-the-top lafanga, like Kundan from Raanjhanaa, who comes every day to the same spot as Zoya just to get slapped by her, and waits eight years to marry her. But for both, the love is passionate and soulful, and not one borne of lust. This would have to be ‘true love’ because why else would the hero at some point in either story selflessly try to help the heroine reunite with the man she loves instead? And while this love appears to be a far cry from that of today’s ‘move on’ generation, it seems to have tapped something in their hearts, for the films have gone on to be hits (according to Boxofficeindia.co.in, Raanjhanaa has collected around Rs 60 crore in a period of four weeks, having been made on a budget of Rs 35 crore, while Tanu Weds Manu, filmed on a budget of Rs 17.5 crore, raked in Rs 56 crore).
Rai, who had been quoted in pre-release interviews as saying that he wanted to “teach the concept of love to the present generation”, is elated but not surprised that youth audiences are impressed. “Several people, including reviewers, have said that the film has a nostalgic feel to it and it takes you to the good old days,” he says. “But the fact is that Himanshu has written it today and I have made it today and kids of today are watching this movie and connecting to it, which means that somewhere the idea of love has never changed. It’s we who have changed. Why do you say that it’s nostalgic? Why do you not say that it’s you?”
“As a community, we have always believed in love in a great way,” elaborates Sharma. “That’s why we have never been able to make a Superman or Batman. Our superhero is Devdas, and even though we’ve thrived on him for decades, each time he’s come on screen, he’s made an impact. That’s because, as we grow older, although [such] notions of love start to seem overhyped and overrated if at all we go through a few heartbreaks, we still romanticise it in our heads. We are in love with the idea of love, even though we may not explicitly say it,” Sharma says.
“But I believe that somewhere, the handing over from our generation to the next was bad,” adds Rai. “People have lost faith in love; they speak of it as if it were a fairy tale. And more than love, people seem to have lost faith in people. And it’s important that we don’t let that happen.”
In his early forties now, Rai belongs—and proudly at that—to a generation for which love meant ‘commitment’ and ‘fidelity’. Having gone on to marry his high school sweetheart, his notion of love hasn’t changed since his school days: that it is eternal. At one point in our conversation, Sharma even jokes that Rai belongs to that clan of filmmakers for whom sex would happen “by mistake” during a particularly cold evening—to keep the other person warm.
At 32, the jovial Sharma finds himself at the cusp between the blu-ray generation and the older one that fondly reminisces about VHS films, and as a unique voice at the bridge of both these generations, narrows down love and the palpitations in our hearts to “chemicals in our brains—which ultimately is connected to the latent sexuality in us”.
“I believe that all inter-gender emotion is connected to sexuality, whether we are aware of it or not,” he says. “The fact is that while the present generation has seen our parents committed to each other forever, thanks to the ever-increasing exposure, they’ve—and we’ve—also seen that [old] taboos are slowly being done away with. That’s why there no longer seems to be the burden or tag of emotional or physical commitment, and the idea of ‘love’ has evolved into something much deeper than ‘love at first sight’.”
“But that’s not letting them settle down, is it?” Rai argues. “For some reason, there are too many calculations done before falling in love today. I respect the fact that youngsters are straightforward and honest, but my problem is that they fear falling in love and they fear heartbreak. They believe saying that they are emotionally dependent on someone else will make them weak. But I think that if there is no pain, there is no love. Heartbreak should be celebrated.”
The case for pain seems to have been made very well by the duo. While typically in modern Bollywood romances, ‘pain’ and ‘heartbreak’ are relegated to being a montage in a sad song, the pain of Manu in Tanu Weds Manu or Kundan in Raanjhanaa is quite sharply portrayed. Rai, in fact, recalls that his brief to composer AR Rahman for Raanjhanaa was that he wanted the music to celebrate guilt and heartbreak. While scoring for the last scene, Rahman joked to him: “Sir, we are about to celebrate death now!”
“Growing up in Lucknow, I was always of the opinion that love should be extreme—Ya aap ishq mein abaad ho jaayiye, ya barbaad ho jaayiye, bas beech ke jugaad mat kariye (Find fulfillment, or be ruined in love, just don’t settle for anything in between),” Sharma smiles. “The best love stories are those where a beggar outside Jama Masjid falls in love with a princess of Delhi, everything else is jugaad. And the truth is, pyaar mein barbaad hone ka bhi kuchh aur hi mazaa hai (there’s something extraordinary about letting yourself go to ruin for love).”
“And everyone knows this,” says Rai. “I was surprised at the number of people who came up to me saying they were like Manu deep inside. Even if they are haraami outside! It’s just that no one’s admitting this openly because for some reason it has become ‘uncool’ to admit it.”
While Rai has so far maintained that Bollywood reflects society and not vice-versa, he blames Bollywood in some small part for this mindset. “I think this has a lot to do with the term ‘aspirational’ that Bollywood was selling middle-class youngsters in the last decade,” he says.“In trying to buy the dreams that Bollywood was peddling and trying to change themselves, youngsters started losing out on inter-personal relationships.”
But Sharma puts things in perspective by saying that even if that were the case, Bollywood is likely to be the key to resolving this ‘generational loss’ that people are facing. “I still believe that movies like DDLJ or Maine Pyaar Kiya were the ones that helped youngsters find romance, and it was the photocopies that kept losing [other] generations,” says Sharma.“Instead of taking the soul of the movie, the easiest thing to take was Raj and Simran [the characters in DDLJ]. So, for the longest time, everyone in the movies was a Malhotra or a Khanna or a Kapoor.”
“But the good news is that youngsters have successfully changed their lives and chased their aspirations, faster than anyone thought they were capable of,” he laughs. “And that’s why now, interestingly, they are already ready to see what they used to be. Hence, movies about the innocence of love remind them of a time gone by.”
Even as they start working on their next romcom, the concepts of love and lust will continue to differ for Rai and Sharma, as it will for the generations past, present and future. But if there’s one thing the two agree on, it is that as this generation starts settling down, the notions of romance will come full circle in society, and they hope their movies play a role in it.
“And if that doesn’t happen, I’ll appease Himanshu and make a Basic Instinct in India,” laughs Rai.