Female, flawed, feminist — if such is the undercurrent of the Madame Bovary-esque Rani Kashyap in North India’s fictional small-town Jwalapur then screenwriter Kanika Dhillon bathes it in the clandestine charm and clichés of pulp fiction. In a rare insight, Dhillon breaks from existing Bollywood romance tropes and turns to Hindi pulp fiction or manohar kahaniya — tales of passion that thrive on lust, thrill and crime.
Anchored in the aesthetics of a raunchy pulp thriller, Taapsee Pannu’s Rani is the titular beautiful lover in Vinil Mathew’s directorial Haseen Dillruba. Dressed in floral chiffon saris paired with body-hugging blouses and salwar suits, Rani is the femme fatale. Armed with a Masters degree in Hindi literature and a stint as a beautician as a hobby, Delhi-girl Rani finds herself stifled in Jwalapur and in her sexless marriage.
The film begins with a crime scene and an investigation into the alleged murder of Rishu. The prime suspect is Rishu’s wife Rani, who gives a frame-by-frame account of her tempestuous marital journey to the investigating policeman. Dhillon slices through the patriarchal bias that Inspector Kishore Rawat (Avishek Srivastava) epitomizes as he has already given his verdict that Rani is the treacherous and murderous wife or the culprit. This is plain-speaking patriarchal morality that is at once the voyeur — the cops at the police station who relish Rani’s visually-rich narrative — and also that questions a woman’s immorality.
Conventional morality has been used by patriarchy as a tool to question women’s bodies and sexuality. This has shaped the discourse of the good woman/ bad woman and Dhillon wants her audience to question this.
Like in the romantic plotlines of the unseen pulp writer Dinesh Pandit whose Kasauli Ka Kahar entwines the Rani-Rishu saga, the feisty Rani fantasizes sexual escapades and orgasms in the bed only to find unfulfillment with husband and good-guy engineer Rishu aka Rishabh Saxena (Vikrant Massey). It is Dhillon's witty, irreverential writing that makes Rani who is anything but the ideal sushil bahu dazzle in parts. She refuses to make tea and fry onion fritters and counters marital boredom by dyeing her father-in-law’s hair. Rani subverts the arranged marriage tradition day and night; she demands sex as is and not under any pretext of romantic sugarcoating. Her ideal lover is a tall, dashing man with a sense of humor and a sexual attractiveness, everything that Rishu is not and all that Neel (Harshvardhan Rane), Rishu’s cousin embodies. A racy extramarital affair unfolds between Rani and Neel where the vegetarian and the so-called non-cooking-type Rani takes to the kitchen to make tea and mutton curry for her new lover. Her sexual blossoming flowers the 'feminine' in her and the film seems to suggest that when Rani finally takes to the kitchen, it is not the arranged marriage diktat of a wife laboring over preparing meals for her husband and his family but her love and individual choice at play. However, ironically, Rani reverts to the binary of the alpha male and the sexually provocative heroine who is ultimately ‘tamed’ after an adventure between the satin sheets.
Rumi, Rani and the sexual rebel
The Kanika Dhillon brand of feminism has given us diverse and layered female characters or women who do not necessarily fit in. Part of Dhillon’s feminist writing is the mentally ill Bobby in Judgementall Hai Kya, and the sexual rebel Rumi in Manmarziyaan and now Rani in Haseen Dillruba. If Rumi, played by Pannu had no qualms in having sex with her ex-lover Vicky (Vicky Kaushal), a DJ while being married to investment banker Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), she was Rani’s predecessor in being the sexually woke heroine. It was Rumi’s ultimate quest to find the perfect ‘husband material’ despite she having been a promising hockey player herself. Rani, who is already in the throes of thwarted desires and boring domesticity, is in the quest for passion, intensity and intrigue. Dhillon, in her interviews, has mentioned why she loves creating such flawed, grey female characters and why there’s no ideal representation of a feminist. That the only way to show an empowered woman character isn’t to show her financial independence; but to let the woman choose whatever it is that defines happiness for her is empowerment itself. Granted, for long Indian cinema has been crippled by limited representation of women’s personalities and has portrayed women’s sexuality through the patriarchal gaze of lust and pity without investing her with agency or aggression. So, there’s no need for prudish morality to censor Rumi’s or Rani’s choices.
The problem, however, is the construction of the said sexually emancipated feminist heroine, which is designed around her embodying the sexual life to the exclusion of any other facet of her personality. Rani, for instance, discusses her husband’s premature ejaculation with her mother; talks about how they ‘tried’ only once in their one month of marriage to a complete stranger, her husband’s female fellow student at his MBA class. At the first arranged-marriage meet-up when Rishu and his family visit Rani at her home, she asks Rishu to fix the fan. Well, that may be a heroine who has no patience for traditional values, but for establishing her as a feminist does it require her to be ill-mannered or outrageous without any provocation. She is not turned on by Rishu until she sees the violent side of him, and in her warped sense of romance she equates that with love and possessiveness.
Love turns toxic
This brings us to the most disturbing facet of Haseen Dillruba. The introverted Rishu who is madly in love with Rani can’t let go of his love even when she betrays him; but he must punish her. So, he designs a series of mishaps for her — she slips from the staircase, burns her hand while lighting the cooking gas burner. But in all this, guilt takes over and she finds sadistic pleasure; while she agonizes in pain she equates that pain with the pleasure of being loved by Rishu. In the dark, twisted and pulpy world of Rishu-Rani, such toxic behavior is seen as romantic catharsis. Violence and bloodshed are said to be hallmarks of true love.
It is this cliched, frenzied and obsessive ode to love that makes Rani’s world take a detour from its feminist pathway to enter the haloed world of covert patriarchy. One where control and coercion are presented as desirable. True, what one woman may find desirable in sex and love maybe entirely objectionable for another, and while there should be room for all, what is this view of sex as binding, love as dominating and passion as killing if not warped?
Does Rani really have agency when she must now train herself to be feminine and comply with the obsessive-possessive love of Rishu? What is it if not patriarchal convention that Rishu must rise to be controlling and coercive, capable of inflicting physical pain and emotional trauma, in order to appear as attractive in a ‘masculine’ way? Is Rani really free of her conditioning which has trained her to find a man thus desirable?
(Edited by Poorvi Gupta)