Love Aaj Kal, the sequel, goes way ahead in breaking binaries compared to its predecessor. Unlike the predecessor which retained and glorified the stability and persistence of the ideal of love irrespective of social context, the sequel portrays a more authentic account of how disabling, and scary the pursuit of love can be.
The economic insecurities fuelled by capitalism have an inevitably complicated life and relationships which is aptly conveyed by the hysteria that Zoe experiences throughout the plot of the film, like every ideal which she believed to be the terminal truth of her life continually displaces and dissolves into troubling rivers of turmoil and confusion.
The movie also deserves due credit for substantially rupturing the binary of traditional and modern, by showing that the desire to attain happiness and fulfilment can be rendered elusive by sudden shifts in social environments and practices.
The film trails the ups and downs of romantic attraction between the protagonists Zooey and Veer, with substantial forays into Raghu’s past, the owner of the café that Zooey regularly visits. Based on how its predecessor played out, a viewer would conventionally expect the parallel between the traditional and modern to remain in the sequel.
As per expectations, the traditional love-story would intuitively feature loyalty and devoted passion to the cause of chasing true, genuine and passionate love against all situational extremities, while the modern tale would be fractured by the relaxed norms of sexuality and casual approach in dating that seemingly appear to have made modern relationships more complicated.
By the climax, however, the contrast would be sealed by the one unifying thread of emotion that has remained uncontaminated and unhindered despite the shifts and flux in the external environment that evolve and adapt to changing times: the emotion of love.
The anticipated, prevailing trope would have been the desire for obtaining an intimacy that sustains over the tidings of time; be it a conservative, repressed social environment of the pre-globalization era, or the loneliness and alienation of a modern-day individual borne out of the pressurizing demands of building an identity of oneself through ‘career’; that has been heightened by the gruelling urban lifestyle and aspirations of modern-day capitalism.
However, neither Raghu’s flashback tale nor the present one that is the focus of the plot is devoid of exacerbated tensions at any given moment during the progression of the film.
A single mother has raised zooey in a family comprising solely of women, where the daughters have been taught the lesson since childhood; to be wary of that blissful euphoria of the feeling called ‘love,’ a state of mind that compels one to cherish a carefree and uninhibited embrace of what one truly desires, against what any norm of morality, either familial or social, induces one to believe.
Marriage, done out of impulse and instinctive passion, is bound to culminate into doom for women, for men render them emotionally and financially helpless, abandoning them once the infatuation dies. The ecstasy of love supposedly dies out after the brief hunky-dory phase of oblivion to real-life circumstances. The practical need to earn money and sustain one’s livelihood should drive the motivation of a woman to earn and achieve something of her own. This is what Zooey has been conditioned to believe all her life.
However, her ideas and perceptions about life and love are challenged throughout the plot. The anxiety of discovering that thing called ‘self,’ which lies repressed beneath the visible demeanour of a person, is the recurrent theme throughout the story. Zooey finds herself falling into the enduring attachment kindled by the emotion called ‘love’ that she has trained herself to resist.
Once she finds herself enmeshed in that emotional state, her tumultuous journey unfolds like a whirlwind. She fluctuates amid divergent beliefs at several moments. Having attained the zenith of what she believed was her dream, i.e., to secure financial independence, she realizes that this thing called ‘happiness,’ which she is supposed to feel is still beyond her clutch. She eventually chooses to reunite with Veer after a prolonged period of separation.
Raghu’s reminiscences and Zoe’s disillusionment from idealized cultural aspirations, both follow a similar trajectory. Both lives experience the fear of their notion of innocent and devoted love being ruptured by impending doom.
For Raghu, it was the sexual freedom discovered within pockets of urban glamour that had been unimaginable to his sensibility bred within the repressive environment of a small town. Freedom that dazzled and maddened him to such an extent that the love he had once cherished got buried beneath the angst and meaninglessness induced by the drudgery of an exploitative work-environment.
For Zoe, it was the dissonance between the fear of loss of selfhood that a woman is likely to experience in a hetero-romantic relationship and the desire to attain emotional intimacy and genuine care and affection within a mindless, consumerist culture that has implicitly conveyed a false message to the youth that money alone can resolve all pains in life.
Both these parallel tales have demolished the binary between traditional and modern love, as the necessity to engage in an emotionally fulfilling relationship persists. Raghu experiences immense pain and alienation from his self when he realizes that love still held a promise of that succour which his debauchery lacks. At the same time, Zooey feels the need to return to the allure of romantic intimacy, which she always feared.
There is still one unifying thread; however that has remained unchanged across the parallels, and it has been the unseen malady of Hindi cinema since forever: the trope of masculinity. Raghu’s estrangement from his self due to uninhibited indulgence in sexual freedom, and Zoe’s turmoil and confusion serve to reinforce the classic binary between masculinity and femininity.
Love is a heartfelt emotion that remains a womanly affair. Patriarchy does recognize emotionality in men, but it also systemically controls and regulates it to align those instincts into a constricted space, which exists solely to build an unflinching narrative of heroism.
The scene where Raghu tells his peers about his’ breathing problems’ which is followed later by Zoe hopefully asking Veer if he has felt something like that, (as if endurance of pain is supposed to make a man more desirable) was troubling moments to watch for a boy who has a history of bullying, abuse and emotional difficulties that took a toll on his mental health.
Often films colour our aspirations about love, life, and relationships. They teach us how to be the perfect and desirable girl or boy, woman or man, and films perpetuate the notion that fluidity is inherently feminine.
Male emotional behaviour is depicted as stunted, shortsighted and hinging upon extremes because it is never free from the performative pressure of masculinity, that ceaselessly wants us to believe that maleness inherently implies strength and charisma; which is why male emotional experiences portrayed on screen are choked by this insufferable need to channelize every desperate yearning into an opportunity of risk-taking action and heroism.
Raghu passes the test of manhood when he gives up his medical career and shifts to an unknown city without worrying about his economic security; because that is how manliness has been culturally defined. It is perceived as the ability to give up your sense of comfort and unabashedly jump into uncertain waters without worrying about your safety or well-being. All the tender tendencies and inklings of a boy are essentially supposed to be directed at the project of wooing a girl. Otherwise, they would make him look weak, unmanly, and undeserving of love.
Zoe tries to fashion her life upon a specific ideal but is frequently caught between conflicting needs and hopes. She wants to be strong and in control of herself, but there are moments of weakness when she breaks down.
That doesn’t happen to Veer, however, because since the first moment, he has been shown as this uni-dimensional creature who has a certain idea about what love is supposed to be, and he wants to achieve that at any cost. When Zooey craves for him after a night of reckless drinking, he is able to refuse her because he knows that he wants her to come back to him in all her senses.
It was, in all likelihood, a fitting and natural response. Still, it was also a stoic response, and emotional stoicism is culturally-conditioned in men. They tend to believe that they must retain the ability to resist the impulses of their heartfelt desires and what they truly want.
Zoe is a much more aggressive and resilient person than Veer, and her aspirations are those of a modern, liberal, educated woman. Yet she breaks down. The uncertainties of contemporary love and the absence of intimacy, however, do not inflict any trauma or wound upon Veer’s psyche, and even if they did, we wouldn’t know it because viewers are supposed to believe that emotional turmoil is a fitting female business and men have only parts to play in those experiences.
The movie has overly glorified pain and reckless heroism when it comes to the male experience of love, which was rendered evident in the scene when Raghu tells Zoe that he wishes to be like his younger, daring, carefree self again who was willing to take risks without fearing the wrath that would be inflicted upon him as the consequence of his actions.
It’s 2020, and about time, we start showing love as something that happens between two people, not the fixed identities of two genders. Boys of all ages watch these films, and they subconsciously mould their behaviour to fit into the definition of the ideal man.
When you show the man as a cheesy chaser of the girl he desires, a reckless alcoholic and sex-seeker, or someone who has the tenacity to bear the separation from his beloved merely for the sake of an idea he believes at the cost of what his heart wants, the problem is not specifically with any of these individual depictions. But if these are the only depictions of male behaviour culturally available to us, the lessons about manhood are learned silently and implicitly by a boy before he ever gets a chance to understand his emotions.