Saturday, February 25, 2017

The curious case of Mehra's Sahiba

Timeless love stories are perhaps not the best subject for a feminist analysis, but heck, sue me. It's not as if non-feminists are ga ga over Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehta's modern retelling of the Mirza-Sahiba tragedy.

What is it about love stories that makes our best filmmakers so regressive that they forget to write a fleshed out female character?

In Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani, the titular Mastani started out as a badass warrior princess. Once smitten by the hero Bajirao, she's reduced to a simpering pouting mess.

ROMP has featured some strong female characters in his movies. His very first Aks had Raveena with her unapologetic sexuality and Nandita Das calling out marital rape for what it was, over a decade before the issue became fashionable. His Rang De Basanti, Delhi 6 were studded with willful, intelligent and ambitious women.

So why is it that Soochita, the modern incarnation of Sahiba, seems neither willful, nor intelligent and forget ambitious. The fault cannot entirely lie with the (missing) acting skills of the actress playing her. From the moment adult Soochi made her appearance, all I knew about her as a person was that she loves her father who taught her lines from Shakespeare, is engaged to a handsome Prince, and really knows how to condition those wild curls. I see her returning from some phoren land as young women in a certain kind of film often do, but I haven't the slightest clue what she was doing there. Or what she plans to do back in India other than drink champagne by the poolside and learn horse riding.

ROMP reminds us of the old legend by intercepting the modern narrative with scenes from the past. It is easier to identify with Sahiba in those ancient settings. It is conceivable that a young woman in that barbaric patriarchal tribe would have her life defined by the men around her. Her conflict when the man she loves must clash with her brothers is palpable. That makes get betrayal understandable, which is at the very core of the Mirza-Sahiba tragedy.

The very same things seem difficult to relate in the modern sections. Soochita is not exactly an oppressed female in the way Sahiba was. She is a (phoren) educated woman. She could have nicely and gently broken up the engagement. It can't be unheard of even in modern day royal families. She could have used words. Her father is not a tribal chief. He is a gentle, loving man who recites Shakespeare. Her fiancé is a sensitive, intelligent man. She does not offer him the courtesy of truth about her childhood love. By the end, I found myself sympathizing more with the Prince than the runaway couple.

And the Mirza of this story. What of the fact that he is a murderer? Does Soochita even know this, or did her loving father shield her from the truth somehow? What does that mean for this great eternal romance? How would she feel about her dear Munish of she knew? And what does it say about Soochita that she let these three men of her life become enemies? Or if she does know about the murder and still wants to marry that guy, what the hell is wrong with her?

The Sahiba of legend found her fate hanging in between a tug of war between the men she loved. Her great crime was that she did not remain a passive spectator.

Mehra's Sahiba, by refusing to use her words, led her men to a completely avoidable battle. Passivity is exactly her crime.

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