The small community of love

VEENA DAS

back to issue

THIS paper presents the sketch of an argument about what it means to think of a biography of the nation on the register of popular film. This is hardly a new subject but I want to try a different angle from which to ask this question. In effect, I wish to consider some popular remakes of a Hollywood movie and ask what it means to ‘remake’ something, especially a film? By definition, remaking must have the temporality of ‘after’ – but does this repetition of an earlier theme in a different context make the discourse of such a film derivative? Finally, how should we understand the very notion of context in cinematic language?

The Hollywood film I wish to consider is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) – and the Hindi remakes are Chori Chori (1956), Nau Do Gyarah (1957) and Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin (1996). While Chori Chori and Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin are obviously remakes – they follow the original plot, sequencing of events and even the dialogue closely. Nau Do Gyarah cannot be considered a remake in any strict terms. It follows a different plot line, but nevertheless establishes a connection to the other two films by the insertion of motifs that act as quotation marks and thus shares the temporality of the after.

It Happened One Night is the story of a rich girl who contracts a marriage with a playboy against her father’s wish. She runs away from her father and tries to make her way to her husband, but on the way meets a journalist who agrees to help her evade her father and get to her husband, though he thinks poorly of her choice. In return, he asks for the exclusive right over her story. On the way, they have to stage a charade of marriage, most notably in an auto camp cabin where they have to spend the night. It is as part of the journey that they discover their love for each other, and after some misunderstandings, are united.

 

 

More important than the plot of the story are the fragments that bear significant symbolic weight – for instance, the blanket hung between his side of the room and hers and how it finally falls. Or the repeated motif of her refusal to eat food – first in the opening scene when she is confined on her father’ ship and later her refusal to eat a raw carrot when she is hungry and they are out of money. Her accepting the carrot as they ride in the motor at a later stage, has significance beyond the obvious Freudian symbolism of the carrot as a phallus like object. She learns the lesson of humility but he too learns that simply being poor is not a guarantee that one can recognize one’s desire.

The theme of rich girl-poor boy, and of a journey in which they learn what it is to inhabit the world together is a standard theme in much of Hollywood cinema. I find that the question of how it is that they can come to a shared place from which to view their relation is nicely presented through the medium of the dividing blanket. This is also an obvious allegory for the cinematic screen; it tells us how we, as audience, are implicated in this story.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell, saw It Happened One Night as inaugurating the genre of films he called the comedy of remarriage.1 These movies, he argued, were the inheritors of preoccupations and discoveries of Shakespearean romantic comedy. As I understand Cavell’s argument, the character of this genre is determined by a certain question they ask about what it is to replace a past – seen as settled place – with a commitment to the future defined simply as the adventurousness of being together.

The plot, as in most romantic comedies, revolves around a couple – a man and a woman and the obstacles in their search for each other. In such a story of search for love, Old Comedy typically places the weight on the heroine who, sometimes disguised as a boy, must pass through something like death and restoration as a key to the successful resolution of the plot. In New Comedy, on the other hand, it is the young man who must struggle to overcome the obstacles posed by an older man to win the heroine and find individual and social reconciliation.

 

 

As Cavell notes, the comedy of remarriage seems to transgress one important feature – for the heroine in these genres is cast as already married and the thrust of the plot is that the central pair must be married again – so something like a divorce is also part of the story. It is Cavell’s take that in these movies, some place other than the normal or the habitual has to be found as providing the perspective on what it is to be married. Though not stated explicitly, the title of his book, Pursuits of Happiness, directs our attention to the American Constitution: it suggests that the reconfiguring of what it is to be a man or a woman, and what it is to be married, are somehow implicated in the question of what is the moral stake in America at this juncture.

 

 

What is at stake is something Cavell discovers in his careful reading of the films through the symbols of the ordinary – in the case of It Happened One Night, it is by reflecting on the blanket or the carrot. Moments such as the ones in which Clark Gable shows a maternal side – bringing a tooth brush for Colbert, surprising her by ironing her clothes while she is asleep, and teaching her how to dunk doughnuts in coffee.

Something like a conclusion might read as follows. Clark Gable stages the telling of the story of this rich girl as that through which he would divorce her from her past but discovers that this story cannot be told as to a public – it has to be said to her in private. One cannot base the little community of love on an appeal to law – you cannot wait, as Cavell says, for the perfect larger community before you form the smaller communities of love.

Thus the constitutional promise about life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness has the public face of what it is to claim this in law and the private face of what it is to ask that human society contain the room for these small communities to be built. Is the remaking of this film in the Indian register similar/different? If we understand translation as that which is not purely an importation of meaning from one language to another, but also a fullness that may come from the other in whose medium now we are forced to think, then, can the Hindi popular film bear the weight of this conception? Let us see.

In the original movie the barrier scene had some biblical underpinnings, as for instance, in the reference Clark Gable makes to the blanket that divides his space from hers as the ‘Walls of Jericho’. So when he asks her mockingly to move herself to the side of the Israelites, we understand him as saying that the invitation to find a correct way of breaking that wall must come from her side. Indeed, we see that the moment of confession of love comes when she crosses over to his side and tells him that they will run away (but they are already on the road, so where and how would this running away be accomplished?).

 

 

Clearly this biblical underpinning is absent in the Hindi remakes – but surely, in 1956, the idea of partitioning a space when you are on the road could not have been completely innocent of the idea of the larger and more traumatic partition that the country had undergone? Is the separation and privacy that Raj Kapoor offers in hanging up the sheet dividing their rooms an allegory of how the space of the private is to be reconstructed?

Let us recall that in running away from home, defined by the presence of a loving but domineering father, Nargis has to learn what it is to come to terms with her own desire (a theme common with It Happened…) but also what it is to learn to inhabit this space that is India? This is signalled first from the way that her running away is also an entry into the space defined as ‘Indian’. She is shown eating in a ‘Madrasi’ eating place with a Brahmin looking cook serving her; she goes into a shop to buy a sari – while in the first few scenes in her father’s ship she is wearing a pair of black Jodhpurs and a tucked in shirt, marking her as wearing western dress. The film wittily suggests that wearing a sari would be an effective disguise for her!

This theme of her learning to become Indian is again marked by her learning to recognize food that is Indian. Thus when hungry and without much money, she buys a roasted bhutta, and then says with a glimmer of recognition, ‘Oh corn – you can make into soup, or cake, or pudding.’ Only towards the end when she returns to her father’s house, convinced that Raj Kapoor has abandoned her because of his contempt for her, does she find that this ‘Indian’ food is all she can bear to eat. By now, her father has yielded to what he imagines is her desire. But all she can say is, ‘How good were those days, when a girl left her home only twice – once when she got married and the second time when she was taken for her funeral.’

This strict code of female chastity within which she imagines that tradition can provide security of being Indian is already like a memory – a feeling of pastness pervades this sentence.

 

 

What is then imagined as the journey through which this woman will learn how to be an Indian, and how to be a new woman who can recognize her desire? I note that the person she first proclaimed to love, even willing to defy her father for him, is a pilot – and as the father says to the reporters after the marriage with him is announced – a pilot can take her to the world of stars. Later, in Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin, this person is a film star – both offer an escape.2 Indeed the journey is the site on which she will have to learn that the little community of love is to be made within an imperfect larger community rather than by escaping to some perfect world made up of stars.

 

 

An important feature of the genre of remarriage as described by Cavell is that there is considerable confusion as to how the roles of being active and passive are to be distributed between men and women, between the paternal and the maternal. Chori Chori expresses this confusion between the active and the passive as a sign of the modern. The characters of It Happened One Night, against whose threats Clark Gable protects Colbert, are replaced by couples and each couple has an aggressive female figure and an effeminate man trying to prove his masculinity but getting defeated. With these couples surrounding our protagonists, the manner in which Raj Kapoor expresses his masculinity is a mixture of the paternal and the maternal. In Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin, Aamir Khan has completely shed this suggestion of the paternal or the maternal. Though the scenes in which he brings her breakfast are similar to Chori Chori, his style is that of a boy next door who is nevertheless capable of fighting off the mafia – enacted in a scene in which he rescues her.

Thus the education of a woman, and hence her creation, is seen in these movies as in the original, to be a matter concerning men. The heroine is never shown in the orbit of another woman such as a mother – but is this a matter of only educating the woman? I find it important that in each case there is also the question of whether she can accept this education from this man?

I offer only two comments here. The first is that the man is able to relate to the larger community – but does not know what it is to be forming the smaller community of love. And she cannot accept his education until he learns to recognize this. For instance, in Chori Chori, Nargis begins to call Raj Kapoor ‘Mr Insaniyat’ – and at one point when he does not respond to her, she says, ‘You can think of the whole of humanity but you cannot respond to the one next to you?’ Aamir Khan’s playful teasing of Pooja Bhatt as ‘Aye, Miss India’ – inserts that distance that he will have to learn to traverse.

 

 

The second point is that after her confession of love when the woman has crossed from her side of the sheet that divides them, in order to declare her love for him – he is indifferent, or scared, or in another world . Earlier the man had admonished the woman by saying that he cannot understand what rich people like her want. And now she replies, ‘But do you know what you want?’ From her perspective, she was declaring her love after she had heard him speak of the kind of woman he would want to marry – but he seems incapable of recognizing her as that woman. Perhaps his vision has put him in a trance?

Third, there is the entire sequence in which Raj Kapoor/Aamir Khan, leaves her sleeping to get money from the editor of his newspaper, since he now has the woman’s story – and comes back to discover that she is gone. He will not find out until much later that she was thrown out but we could ask – could this mean that her story if told publicly, is not a story of their love? That, he wins her in the end because he went to settle accounts with her father – overtly this is about the film’s testifying to the father that he was not after the reward money and hence loved her. But I also take it as allegorical that a settling of accounts must happen on the small register of everyday transactions. The dividing screen between them finally falls because they have both learnt to inhabit this world as the world of their desire.

If my reading of these two remakes is anywhere in the right direction, then I claim that the popular film provides a very different take on what it was to be making masculinity and femininity in the new nation. Far from the interior being a space in which tradition lived through the medium of women promising an authentic self to the alienated masculine subject, the excitement of the new nation was to lie in a journey in which room was to be made for the sphere of the private, small communities. I suspect, though, that if the theme of the partition in the charade of marriage bore even a faint relation to the theme of Partition, then the film does not offer us any thought on how that particular dividing blanket was to fall.

 

 

I will offer a few brief reflections on why Nau Do Gyarah might be seen as belonging to the same genre of films though its plot line is quite different. In this Devanand-Kalpana Kartik film, the protagonist (also a journalist) discovers that he has inherited nine and two – i.e. eleven lakhs from an uncle.3 At about the same time Kalpana Kartik discovers that her groom has asked for more money in dowry and she rebels by disguising herself as a man and running away. She is hiding in Dev Anand’s truck, headed for an unknown journey, when he discovers her. Both proceed to play the charade of marriage by taking a job as a married couple in the household that had appropriated his inheritance, discover their love for each other, and after some heroic fighting Dev Anand saves her from the clutches of her evil fiancé, reclaims his inheritance and presumably get married.

 

 

What I find interesting in the movie is that though made just one year after Chori Chori, the hero has already become the macho man who must save the heroine. The theme of ‘educating and creating’ the woman becomes more of saving her from the wicked world, and the mix of paternal and maternal care in the making of a conjugal couple shifts the maternal functions typically on the woman.4 Yet the motif of the journey, the charade of marriage and insertion of such memorable moments as the woman saying ‘I am hungry’ as a confession of her need for him – these moments put the earlier films as ‘quotes’ within this film.

I find it intriguing too that in Dil Hai ki Manta Nahin, the first tender moment between Aamir Khan and Pooja Bhatt happens when they get lost in the tune of Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke – the signature tune of Nau Do Gyarah. This explicit creation by the film of a past for itself vastly complicates questions of what it is to be in context and out of context. I think there is an interesting murmur of conversations here that may be worthy of remembrance. It points to a time when we were willing to be educated by each other.

In a conference I attended recently, someone asked if a song like ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banegaInsaan ki aulad hai insaan banega’ from Dhul ka Phul was still possible. I thought of Mr Insaniyat and how he learnt that the claims of building small communities of love was also a way of learning to be Indian.

 

Footnotes:

1. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1981.

2. In neither film is the theme of ‘remarriage’ to be taken literally but this does not alter the cinematic expression of divorce for in all these films the moment of renunciation of that wild dream is to be enacted forcefully as in the girl running away from the wedding mandap.

3. The reference to Nau Do Gyarah , as absconding helps to think of this film as belonging to the search for a different place – although it is the man who inherits the nine and two making eleven, it is the woman who is absconding.

4. Thus it is the woman who makes and offers tea to the man as a sign of care.

top