Culture wars happen across the world, conforming to political correctness, or, deliberately confronting it head on. It is part of the political discourse in most democracies. If most culture wars in the West are ideological — class and race are subliminal part of the agenda — ours is a bhelpuri of caste, sub-caste, class, language and region. Marriage, the most intimate of relationships, lets loose an arsenal of prejudice and judgement when it crosses well-defined cultural fault lines.
The Vindhyas may be dwarfed by the Himalayas, but they mark an ancient divide between the north and the south that even the all-barrier-breaking globalisation has not managed to cross in our collective perceptions. 2 States revisits this old warzone that Bollywood tiptoes into intermittently and gives persuasive if not totally convincing solutions. Go back to the Kishore Kumar-Vyjayanthimala starrer New Delhi (1956) in which comedy swamped the romance. Ek Duuje ke Liye (1981), a remake of Maro Charitra (in which the conflict was between close neighbours and, hence, bitter enemies — Tamils and Telugus), chose the Romeo-Juliet route.
It is curious why the Bharatanatyam-battles-bhangra theme presses more prejudicial buttons than RabindraSangeet-versus-dholak beats does. Vicky Donor (2012) took on the Bengalis’ intimidating sense of cultural superiority versus carefree Punjabi crassness with more finesse and added yet another layer to the bragging rights of Aryan virility. Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) had clownish Gujjus revelling in their brand of conspicuous consumption against the unusually subdued Punjabiyat of the heroine. It was the Manhattan setting, plus the Christian mother, which toned down the Punjabi shor-sharaba. Now, it is back to Punjabi boorishness masquerading as gusto pitted against Tam Brahm self-righteous superiority in 2 States. The film cleverly updates Bollywood clichés with calculated doses of young love’s unheeding passion and shallow angst and dependable schmaltz thrown in for a winsome love story overcoming the hurdles of parental prejudice.
Confession time. I haven’t read any of ChetanBhagat’s bestsellers including 2 States, which is supposed to be the most popular of the lot. Bhagat takes up subjects that have an immediate connect with people under 30, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter of One Night at a Call Centre and I have not been tempted to repeat the exercise with the other books on which 3 Idiots and Kai Po Che were based. Maybe, the loss is entirely mine. But, I have read reams of interviews on 2 States. Bhagat claims that 2 States is not so much a love story, but an introspective look at a troubled relationship between an authoritarian father and a rebellious son. According to him, all his novels are an exploration of this theme in some way or other. He also admits that 2 States ends on a reconciliatory note, between father and son as well as the hero’s estranged parents. Even an autobiographical novel about the troubled path of love needs a happy ending for the feel-good factor. That’s honest.
The confessional tone continues in the film. A morose KrishMalhotra (have you ever heard of a Punjabi lad called Krish?) tells his unseen psychiatrist that he contemplated suicide. These confessions on the couch punctuate the narrative without establishing an identifiable timeframe, but you get the general drift of why the IIT-IIM graduate wears a habitual hangdog expression — ArjunKapoor’s reading of angst and wry self-deprecation. Many troubles bear down upon the shoulders of a strapping, young Punjabi man: his cold war with an angry father Vikram (Ronit Roy), the ambition of wanting to be a writer warring with the security of a bank job and the troubled course of true love.
Naturally, opposites attract. The feisty, pocket-sized AnanyaSwaminathan (Alia Bhatt, pert and pretty), a beer-guzzling, tandoori chicken-eating girl from Chennai with clear goals, takes the lead in the campus affair. From studying together to sleeping with each other is a natural progression and director AbhishekVarman films it with casual candour and without prurience. A refreshing first followed by an equally honest outburst from Ananya. On where the relationship is headed after college, she says, ‘It doesn’t take five minutes for a guy to jump into bed, but he wants more time to think about commitment.’ Her honesty is matched by Krish’s cautionary wisdom, delivered sotto voce — ‘There’s nothing more khartarnak than a Punjabi mother-in-law.’
The brash mother Kavita (Amrita Singh’s overbearing manner is a defence mechanism for her insecurities over her bad marriage and fear of losing her only child) overloaded with boxes of mithai meets the snooty Swaminthans at the convocation. Radha (Revathy) is voluble in her condemnation of Kavita as uncultured and Shiv (ShivkumarSubramaniam) is a genius at radiating disapproval with dour silence. The real battle is on now. The young lovers don’t want to elope (why use the word elope for a court wedding?), but decide to win over each other’s parents. Things haven’t changed much from the time of DilwaleDulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995).
Krish battles on many fronts: with his mother and her extended family by implication and the thinly veiled hostility of the Swaminathans when he opts for Chennai for his posting. In one of the best lines in the film, Krish describes the minimally furnished traditional house as one that was robbed by thieves who left the sofa behind because they didn’t like it. BinodPradhan shoots the two interiors — the cluttered Delhi flat and the vast central courtyard with carved wooden awnings in Mylapore — to visually encapsulate the different sensibilities and lifestyles. But, having the Swaminathans eat off banana leaves every day stretches credibility. Melamine plates versus stainless steel thalis would be a more plausible contrast.
There is an efficient economy of comic observation in an otherwise sprawling script. Radha is an aspiring Carnatic musician. You have a procession of vidwans giving up on her, one citing her inability to master gamakas. Krish wins her over by asking her to perform at a concert sponsored by his bank and his advice: practise a medley of film songs and, presto, she is a singer. Whether it is intended as a satire on talent shows is unclear. More convincing is the gradual inroads he makes into Shiv’s obdurate reserve. From quiet drinking sessions between the two men to helping the technically challenged Appa with a PowerPoint presentation and pie charts, Krish makes the crucial breakthrough even as some elderly aunts prepare Ananya for a prospective groom of the right caste and horoscope.
The events unfold at the level of daily tedium, but that is how it happens in real life. For drama, he takes Ananya to Delhi for a big, fat Punjabi wedding of his cousin. The ‘len-den’ fracas is solved by Ananya’s fiery feminist intervention. The point gets drowned out by the obligatory big ensemble dance in which Ananya moves from the expected Bharatanatyamadavus to Bhangrathumkas. I think the director was trying to sum up the theme through dance, but it sticks to the expected groove.
More to the point are the stereotyped barbs shot at each other. Kavita accuses Ananya of trying to patao a gora-chitta Punjabi munda as all dark-skinned South Indians are wont to do. Krish points out that Ananya is much fairer than he is, but for Kavita, the exception only proves the rule. Radha’s riposte is that 90 percent Tamilians are highly educated. VikramMalhotra’s late intervention in solving his son’s problem is far too abrupt. Ronit Roy glowers all through as if he’s nursing an Udaan hangover.
And, yet, he manages to convey long-standing resentments and unspoken yearnings through his remarkable screen presence. Actually, it is both sets of parents that walk away with the film, and persuade you to accept their final, if begrudging blessing, of the marriage. As for the marriage ceremony, it’s a visual delight. A pillared courtyard of a temple, silhouetted against a mellow setting sun, acknowledges Tamil aesthetics submerging Punjabi sho-sha.
A few trivial questions for the makers. Why is the music so ordinary for a love story? A memorable love story must have at least one haunting melody. And, pray, why does Ananya lug out an old, clunky typewriter from the recesses of Krish’s wardrobe for him to start working on his novel when a laptop seems to be an extension of his persona?
The theme of Punjabi munda and Tam Brahm professional girl has now filtered into television as well. It was word-of-mouth publicity that made me aware of Ye HaiMohabbatein. Stereotypes are thriving as usual. The Punjabi mother is loud and crass, bad-mouthing the Madrasis who live across the landing. The Tam Brahm mother has great conviction in the power of her vegetarianism, takes pride in her professional daughters and indulges in cultural one-upmanship. Both balleballe and ayyayo are overdone, as is the Tamil mother’s exaggeratedly accented Hindi. And, the pity is, it is played by a fine Marathi actor, NeenaKulkarni. We have not moved beyond Mehmood’s caricature of the Tamilian. It is as if the media in its collective wisdom chooses to ignore the many well-adjusted cross-regional marriages.
A final confession. I’m aware of the cultural incomprehension and pervasive racism at the heart of our perceptions. Our well-meaning landlady in Ahmedabad asked my mother if we spoke Dakshini, ignorant that there are four languages in the south and we spoke Telugu and Kannada. Such colossal ignorance in an educated family. A year in Kolkata revealed respect for the south and its culture. An M. S. Subbulakshmi concert was sold out, more than half the audience was Bengali. Filter coffee was expected by visitors. On a more personal level, we had absolutely no problems when our only child married a Sardar according to Sikh rites and neither did the Punjabi extended family raise any objection. Yes, my sister-in-law (a Maharashtrian) did ask if she should arrange for a priest to perform another set of Hindu rites. Such is life. Love happens. Marriages — love, arranged and arranged-love — happen, and they all have to be worked at.