23 August 2010

What's Your Rashee?

Bollywood is kind of like a guilty pleasure for me, but this movie seemed worth writing about because a few days later, I find myself still thinking of it and what it says about love. The movie is in many ways fairly standard bollywood - long, with a somewhat bizarre, convoluted plot, some pleasing song and dance routines (more song than dance), etc, but there was something intriguing about it, namely, the way it took on the question of tensions between models of arranged marriage and romantic love.

The main character, because of plot machinations we don't really need to go into, needs to get married, quick. For somewhat random reasons, he decides to meet one girl of every astrological sign and pick one as a wife. This is explained by him saying that he had always thought he would marry for love, so he wants to at least make some attempt to find it - if each astrological sign represents one type of woman, he can at least take a sampling of the lot. Curiously, all the girls are played by the same actress (the beautiful and charismatic Priyanka Chopra), a perhaps unnecessary bit of randomness that seems to be done just for fun, and is half-heartedly justified when someone tells the protagonist that they all look the same because they all have the face of the true love he seeks. Why not.

So, what's intriguing about it is that the protagonist is committed to getting married - he WILL pick one of these women. He also wants to find love, but he's ready to marry even if he doesn't. So with every meeting, he seems to be sort of juggling two questions: how do you go about picking a wife (in the practical sense) and how do you go about figuring out if you're in love with someone whom you've just met? The women seem to be wrestling with a similar set of questions, and while it isn't really something explicitly discussed in the movie (though you get moments where they say to each other "Jeeze, what should we talk about?" and one great scene where the girl basically makes him act out various scenarios playing the role of someone who is in love with her - especially interesting because she tells him exactly what to do, and then seems to fall for him when he deviates from the script), the film nonetheless provides plenty of occasions to contemplate it. What's so interesting to me about it is that in some ways these questions overlap, and in some ways they don't. I mean, on a basic level, there's a kind of tension between romantic love and practicality. But at the same time, in a sense we identify "true" love by its ability to survive and overcome (practical) obstacles. But we're also aware that it's easily confused with plain old lust, or some kind of delusion, and we suspect that maybe the best relationships are ones with a more practical foundation. Then, of course, there are the more mythical dimensions of love, the sense of fate or a cosmic connection between two people who are "meant" to be together. Our protagonist pretty straightforwardly seems to reject those. Lust he wrestles with a bit more. But he's also a bit put off by the sheerly practical side as well. The neat thing about the movie is that by having 12 girls, it gets to model a bunch of different aspects of the issue. It's really cool. And you genuinely don't know who he will (or should) pick. And while the ending is satisfying (or was to me), it doesn't foreclose the possibility of alternatives, or try to insist that this is the best possible ending, thus guaranteeing for itself that this is REAL true love of the one and only variety.

On a more idiosyncratic level, I also enjoyed all the Chicago in the movie. Although it's set in India, the protagonist lives in Chicago, so there are some lovely shots of the city (including one of the new Trump Tower - I believe it's the first time I've seen it on film, and testifies to the incredible speed at which Bollywood films are made. Obama gets mentioned too. And the University of Chicago makes an appearance - they have some gorgeous footage of the Business School building). Incidentally, there is an understated reflection on immigration as well. There's a great rant from one character about Indians who leave home, come back, and suddenly develop stomachs "too sensitive" for the local water, which is kind of fascinating. Also, a subtle critique of people who leave purely to make money - as one character suggests, perhaps there are more important things?

Overall, it's also just an entertaining movie to watch. It's not perfect, and a lot of plot points don't really work. But what makes it really worthwhile is all this stuff going on just below the surface, in really fascinating ways.

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