By Mythily Nair
Between the Shah Rukh Khans and the Ryan Goslings of the world, we’re often used to love stories that follow boy-meets-girl whirlwind romances with an “uh-oh” relationship breakdown somewhere in the middle. Sometimes we get happy endings, sometimes we don’t, but we can count on one thing: the media will sell us a story that reflects the realities of hardship when it comes to love. But lately, it’s been clear how in our daily lives, love can exist in a multitude of ways that don’t always centre around the trials and tribulations of romance and relationships. Nowadays, there is a growing interest in the ways we can shift what we’ve been taught about love to ourselves and our community, especially during the pandemic, and that love is more than just that same old story we’ve seen on-screen.
It prompts me to reflect on the ways we have typically been exposed to love and how it is represented across different mediums. In her book All About Love, bell hooks discusses we lack the proper representation of a love ethic in the media.
She writes that “the mass media perpetuates an ethic of domination and violence because our image makers have more intimate knowledge of these realities than they have with the realities of love”.
And whilst hooks is not referring to cinema specifically, it is true that we are often more exposed to portrayals of relationships that are consumed in negativity, dysfunction and even violence.
We rarely examine love as an act of rebellion or as a force for uniting. As hooks argues, it’s much easier for profiteering producers to substitute a positive portrayal of the art of love with their own mystified visions, rather than think critically about the images they create. And as consumers, despite knowing that most of what we are presented with is constructed in this fantasy land, inevitably, any negative portrayals of love become easier to accept in our real lives. But there are examples of when we do get to see love a little differently. Such portrayals are not necessarily without struggle (because really, what would a film be without a dramatic context), but love is utilised as a positive driving force for change, perseverance, and strength. In three important films that show this - Ennu Ninte Moideen, Madrasapattinam and Margarita with a Straw - love is a revolution.
Films That Love Without Fear
While many films have been made in the idea of love defying social norms, these three films have truly elucidated the notion of rebellion by capturing these themes. Notably, each film is from a separate industry and illustrates a different form of rebellion.
Ennu Ninte Moideen (Yours forever, Moideen) (2015)
The state award-winning film on the true story based in 1960’s Kerala was first made as a documentary, then transformed into a film for the popular audience. Set in Mukkam, Kozhikode, the film follows Kanchanamala and Moideen, a Hindu-Muslim couple both from prominent, politically connected families. Having fallen in love in a chance encounter, the couple faces every trial and tribulation imaginable as they hold steadfast in their desire to be with another.
As mentioned before, even positive portrayals of love aren’t without struggle, and the issue of endogamy vs exogamy is present here. The maintenance of caste endogamy, as theorized by Dr. Ambedkar in 1919, is that that caste itself had been created due to the “superposition of endogamy over exogamy”, and that strict matrimonial endogamy was a Brahmanical construct, “leading the other groups (castes) to do the same in order to emulate this self-proclaimed elite”. He notes that the essence of caste is ultimately the absence of intermarriage, as this continues to perpetuate membership to a particular caste as being merited only to birth. Culturally, cross-cultural/exogamous relationships and marriages have always piqued the interest of the subcontinent, solely due to the reason that they are largely taboo. In cinema in particular, it is interesting to see the way rebellious love has been presented - one filled with heady, bodily romance, not build on terms within social propriety. Many of these stories we’ve seen before have also had sad or violent ends, from Anarkali and Salim in Mughal-e-Azam, to Ram and Leela in Goliyon ki Raas Leela Ram-Leela, to Archi and Parshya in Sairat.
Ennu Ninte Moideen however, triumphs above this. It shows that secularity and interreligious harmony can only be achieved if we strive to understand one another, by breaking down archaic institutions meant to maintain outdated norms of purity. In a country divided by religion and nationalist identity, we’ve spent a number of years highly electrified by caste and religious politics, playing the blame game and watching ourselves get distracted by our leaders. But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that you’re only as healthy as your neighbour, regardless of whether they are the same caste or religion as you (if you haven’t learnt that lesson, you must’ve been living under a rock for the last year and a half).
The film was both a critical and commercial success, becoming one of the highest-grossing Malayalam movies of all time, as well as bagging numerous State Awards and a National Award in 2015. Hailed as one of the greatest love stories of the decade, filmgoers and critics alike have watched and re-watched it for the sheer mythic nature of the story, as well as the socio-political undertones that illuminate everyday life in Kerala.
Madrasapattinam (Madras Town) (2010)
A romantic period drama set between the cusp of Indian Independence in 1947 and the present day, Madrasapattinam follows an elderly Amy Wilkinson, as she journeys back to India to return the thali (nuptial thread) given to her by a man she hasn’t seen in 60 years. In her quest to find him, we revisit her youth (played by a debuting Amy Jackson), as the daughter of the Governor of Madras Presidency, falling in love with a young man Ilam Parithi (played by Arya), from the washerman clan. When discovered, Amy tries to elope with Parithi on the night of 15th August 1947, away, and what follows forms the rest of the story.
Here, we primarily follow the journey of Amy, her evolution as a young girl and her growing interest in both Madras culture, the life of Parithi and the inequality his community face at the hand of the British, butting heads against her then-fiancee. Love, while being the primary driver for the two main leads, also provides a platform for both Amy and Parithi to better themselves as people, whether it be in Amy’s character and her journey back to India, and Parithi’s ambitions to build everything she had dreamed for them, all to better his community.
Directed by A.L Vijay and music by G.V Prakash Kumar, the film is hailed a Tamil romantic classic, with beautiful art direction and a stellar soundtrack to match. Set in-line of debating the politics of class, identity, and questioning the effectiveness of the non-violent path of independence, love falls square in the middle of an electric time in Indian history. With both characters not resorting to tropes of a White Saviour/Native complex, but instead learning about each other’s cultural intricacies and going the extra mile to learn each other’s language, the film is ahead of its time.
Margarita With A Straw (2014)
Love is rebellious, even when society does not think you’re fit for love. Margarita With A Straw is the National award-winning film directed by Shonali Bose, about a young woman with cerebral palsy as she navigates questions about her identity and sexuality. Laila, played by a magnetic Kalki Koechlin, is accompanied by her mother Shubhangi (played by Revathi) to an exchange semester in New York, where she meets Khanum, a blind activist of Pakistani-Bangladeshi descent.
In her book, hooks reminds us that we must acknowledge the extent to which the “vast majority of the images we see are created from a patriarchal standpoint”, and therefore do not offer an alternative way of thinking or perspective. Love stories, even the funny rom-com types, typically advance patriarchal agendas or messaging, even if it isn’t too explicit. Think of male saviour/hero tropes or the man who goes to any lengths to get the girl (which is sometimes a little too far), we don’t need to list how many Indian films regurgitate these narratives. And frankly, as much as cinema has advanced, we still see lots of male domination, even if it’s not in the form of a chiselled Bollywood actor with perfect abs walking shirtless through a fire to save the damsel in distress.
And because the ideals of the patriarchy often persist within cinema, pushing aside marginalised groups such as queer people and disabled people, we never really get to see what love looks like for those groups without it being focused on how “Othered” they are. And that’s the beauty of Margarita With A Straw, it’s that this film isn’t remotely just the idea of a queer lead with a disability, rather the way both Kalki and Shonali deem the film - a simple “coming of age movie”, or a “rom-com with some hurdles”. This film is a must-watch for the fact that it takes the attention away from Laila’s disability that the patriarchy normally deems as someone outside of love’s parameters, and treats her exactly how she must be seen as just another young girl navigating her way through romance and relationships.
On-Screen to Off-Screen
As great as these films are, it’d be a lie to say that the notion that love rises above everything is always the case in South Asian culture. Many of us can’t help but subscribe to the notions of love that are confining solely due to societal pressure and the systems in place that structure our relations. But hooks rightly says that while most of the evils in our worlds are not created by mass media, we would all benefit from more stories and images of loving human interaction, and this would undoubtedly have a positive impact on our lives.
And some projects are bringing us this hope. Projects like @indialoveproject on Instagram serve this very purpose, to showcase stories of couples that break the shackles of societal norms and choose to live on their own terms. To promote such cinema or storytelling of this form ensures an everyday debate, for example, whether or not society's endogamous norms are really necessary today, but it also highlights the ability of love as a weapon to shatter socially rigid structures and change preconceptions. These stories, some from as early as the 1950’s, shine a light on some much-needed examples of love for unity, community and change in the hopes that it translates off-screen too.
Mythily is a graduate student at USC Annenberg with an interest in South Asian media, culture and education. Having grown up abroad, she often juxtaposes her experiences of a multicultural upbringing and college life in India. Find her on her Instagram @singacutie and LinkedIn.