Sunday, 29 July 2012

Homosocial spaces in Cocktail

Spoiler alert: the following is a discussion of the film, and as such refers to the plot in detail.
Cocktail has been criticised in the Indian blogsphere and social media for reinforcing the very stereotypes that it sets out to challenge - namely that the good Indian girl is always better than the Westernised/modern Indian girl. The most articulate of these criticisms was Shoma Chaudhary's opinion piece in Tehelka, available here. I do not disagree with these opinions, and am aware that the film's core choice is misogynistic. At the same time, I had guessed the story more or less accurately from the trailers, and did not expect the film to be any different from what it was. Perhaps that was why I was pleasantly surprised by the strong homosocial moments of the film, and its emphasis on homosocial relationships, i.e. on same-sex friendships.
In most discursive frameworks, whether it be Bollywood or Hollywood films, all other relationships are subordinated to the heterosexual relationship. Love, therefore, has to then carry the burden of having to be the most significant and the most sustaining of all relationships. Perhaps love should sue - it is overhyped, oversold, overworked and more is demanded of it than it could possibly deliver. Friendships, on the other hand, are recast as the new family. As the family that you choose yourself, it is assumed that the idiosyncrasies of the family are herein erased. Through generations of American sitcoms, (Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother and so on) we have learnt that friends are those who will help you laugh when parents drive you mad. Both love and friendship are then cast in comfortable slots, with clear places in the hierarchy - love comes first, friendship second. Family may come third. Any kind of social commitment to other people or to an ideal - er, when did that have to be on any list?
To return to Cocktail, it is Veronica who does what the hero usually does, and 'rescues' Meera in her hour of need. The two of them become friends and support systems for each other, and in that sense it is almost their story rather than a romantic one, since the man, though he has made an irritating appearance, is not yet significant to either of them. Even after he enters their space (both figuratively, by becoming involved with Veronica, and literally, by moving in with them), he is not immediately the most important. In a significant scene, Meera suggests that she should move out, leaving the couple alone together. Veronica asks her not to do so. She points out that men will come and go, but when they go, it will be her friend who she will need. At that point, she also says "You've turned that house into a home." Its a testament to how important friendships can be, and a nod to the many more things that they could be.
The Westernised girl has always existed to be rejected and sacrificed, but most narratives give this rejection a token "smiling with tears in eyes/is crying but hiding it in front of the hero" shot. What stands out in Cocktail is the amount of time the story gives to Veronica after the rejection, instead of summarily dismissing her narrative as done. After Gautam and Meera, improbably, fall in true love with each other, the film focuses on Veronica's sense of betrayal, pain, and self-loathing and, to a lesser extent, on Meera's guilt for having caused her friend that pain. Meera is quite clear that the reason she cannot be with Gautam is because her friend loves him. And the film cannot reach the traditional 'happy ending' until amends have been made to Veronica, until she intervenes to show Meera that she is all right with their relationship. This could be interpreted as Meera being the good Indian girl, but I would argue that it is also about moral responsibility, about acknowledging one's role in causing pain to another, about being answerable not just to your friendships but to yourself. The weakest person in the film, morally speaking, is Gautam, because he initially looks after Veronica at Meera's behest, and only then gradually seems to grow into it. He may be the source of love, but he is not the source of strength for either of the two women - both find their strength from within themselves. Ironically, they assert this strength through the same gesture - of rejecting Gautam.
This is why, for all its flaws, I thought that Cocktail had more to offer than is generally suggested. It is what happens in the interstices of the main plot that is open to alternative readings, and to possibilities suggested by such readings.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she killed young

I love drama/melodrama. From drama and novels to cinema and television, all is grist to my mill. One of my favourite genres is the Victorian novel, the great age of British realism of the 19th century. One sub-genre of Victorian fiction is the novel of sensation, which, as the title suggests, are novels that depend on violent twists of the imagination for gratification. Novels of sensation are closely allied to Gothic fiction, and tend to involve a fragile, vulnerable and innocent female protagonist, subject to a sinister conspiracy to defraud her of her fortune, her virtue or both.
I recently read Lady Audley's Secret, available here as an e-book, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which turned out to be a delightful read. It turns most of the conventions of the genre on its head. Golden haired, blue-eyed, and poor to boot, Lucy Graham is definitely the right character, employed in service as a governess, with nothing known of her past. How much more vulnerable could the central character get? When she is rescued from poverty and servitude by Sir Michael Audley, one just knows that some dreadful secret from her past is just waiting to be found, making her susceptible to blackmail and whatnot. The secret is revealed to the reader pretty soon, and at this point in the book I thought I knew exactly what would happen next and how.
And this is where the book takes you by surprise. It takes a startling turn, and the fragile Lady Audley may, or may not, have committed a dreadful crime. If this were a silent film, this is how the captions would go: "Has she done it? So child-like, so innocent. Could she have done it? Is it not even a crime to think this of her, so pure in every way?" The rest of the book is about one man's journey to find the truth, to find out if Lady Audley is who she appears to be, or not. The conventions of the sensation novel are there: the female victim pursued by a male figure who slowly hunts down a 'chain of evidence' against her, even as she races against him to prevent his being successful and having any kind of power over her. Except that in this case the female figure in question may be (or may not be!) as much hunter as hunted, as it were.
The novel maintains a distance from Lady Audley, and the reader does not really get to know her. This is necessary, of course, to maintain ambiguity. For a good part of the book, the scenes she appears in describe the material possessions surrounding her in great detail - jewelry, ivory-backed hand brushes, gilded baskets of hothouse flowers, Indian tea-caddies of sandalwood and silver, perfume, shimmering satin and diapahnous lace - the various frivolous trinkets that she has amassed after her marriage. It seems done obviously to create distaste for her opulence, but can be read ironically too. She is open to suspicion because she has so much to lose - she is punished for marrying a rich man, punished for valuing and wanting all these pretty baubles, punished for not being able to say 'no' to him and to them. It is a universe where it is perfectly acceptable to have these things as long as you do not covet them or transcend your station to obtain them. As Tania Modleski points out in Loving with A Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, the paradox of all romantic drama, from Jane Austen onwards, is that the heroine is eligible to marry the rich man only if she does not actually care for his wealth. Woe betide her if she knows exactly how much he is worth!