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Why 'Haseen Dillruba' is Wrong in Championing Toxic Love, Violence

If divorce was more normalised in our society, would Rani have at least given a thought in that direction?

Updated
Bollywood
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Going into the film, our expectation was to watch an intriguing thriller with a femme fatale trope – an expectation heightened by the presence of Taapsee Pannu.</p></div>
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(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.)

Picture this: Two friends who never seem to be able to decide on what to watch together, are spared their usual troubles, as the mini trailer of Haseen Dillruba that pops up on Netflix promises a rather entertaining watch.

The day was last Saturday, and the people in question were my friend and I – two women who have seen each other battle it out in several toxic relationships over the years, and now in our late 20s are crawling towards saner practices of love. Realising that having ‘a spark’ in the relationship doesn’t necessarily mean constant high-octane fights that lead to passionate make-up sex.

Caution: Watch Your Step!

Going into the written by Kanika Dhillon and directed by Vinil Mathew, our expectation was to watch an intriguing thriller with a femme fatale trope – an expectation heightened by the presence of Taapsee Pannu. But were we in for disappointment.

Haseen Dillruba first introduces seedha and simple Rishabh Saxena (Vikrant Massey) – arguably the eventual protagonist – when he’s on his way to meet a woman for marriage. We are told that Rishu is still hung over another woman – whom he met ONCE two years ago.

‘Red flag alert!’ said my friend as we shared a look of disquiet. Anyway, we had great expectations from the female lead.

Fast forward to the first meeting between our dynamic duo. He’s enamoured, she’s hell bent on making sure he knows she’s sundar and susheel. Before the meeting, Rani, who’s apparently seen a few unsuccessful relationships and is inching towards 30, is told by her aunt ‘simple ladka pakad le (settle for this simple guy)’ and stop looking for a rangeen kitaabi romance, ‘cause she is manglik and has got only two offers for marriage in the last two years. She answers by saying “dekheinge, Jwalapur kaun jaayega? (Let’s see, who wants to go to Jwalapur?)

Rani Kashyap comes across as a woman who has sort of resigned to her fate. The movie never quite explores why.

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Why Did They Marry? Why Did They Stick Together?

And so begins their married life, with the small town life now a reality which hits Rani hard. It doesn’t help that her husband gets nervous, in his words because “aap itne khubsurat ho”, each time she tries to initiate intimacy. The two are completely out of sync. A week or so into marriage, Rishu completely shuts Rani out, after he overhears her jeering about his incompetencies in bed with her mother and aunt. What follows is weeks of awkward silence.

At this point, my friend and I found ourselves wondering what we would have done in Rani’s place. Would we have the courage to realise that we have probably chosen the wrong guy? If divorce was more normalised in our society, would Rani have at least given a thought in that direction? Frankly, Haseen Dillruba seemed to be out of its depth to even explore such an idea. So, we moved on.

The boat of Rishu and Rani’s (non-)marriage is rocked further with the entry of Neel Tripathi, our ‘seedhaladka’s ‘not-so-seedha’ cousin. A lover of kitaabi romance as we’ve been told she is and deprived of the intimacy she’s seeking for in her marriage, Rani finally gets to play the Haseen Dillruba.

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It was disappointing to see her revamp herself and become the kind of daughter-in-law Rishu’s mother always expected her to be, the moment she receives some validation and attention from Neel. Her naïveté shines through, when she starts dreaming of a happy life with her new lover, only to find him gone at the end of the day that she, a vegetarian otherwise, has spent labouring over a mutton curry in the kitchen.

By this point in the film, we had probably realised that it was not going to be a championing of feminist ideals, as we had imagined. (Who is naive now, hello?) But it was still entertaining.

That was until Rani, in her own words, meets the third avatar (after engineer and husband) of Rishu, that of a ‘lover’. The moment Rishu goes behind Neel to avenge his betrayal AND tries unsuccessfully twice to kill his wife, is when Rani starts falling for the guy! It is ‘stubbornness, love, and guilt’ that keep her from leaving her husband even after his wild proclamation of a death threat if she doesn’t.

We pressed pause again. Was this love? Why was she finally feeling attracted towards this man with whom she had hardly shared a moment of affection in months as newly weds?
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Why Eulogising 'Mad Love' Will Do More Harm Than Good 

The critics have come down heavily on this glorification of domestic violence, eliciting a defensive response from both Taapsee Pannu and the writer of the film, Kanika Dhillon. The two have been on social media fiercely defending their right to portray flawed characters ever since the reviews started trickling in. Pannu even questioned how those pouncing on the film for showing this sort of ‘love’ were any different from those who ‘suppress the voice of cinema’.

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But in my opinion, what the two women fail to realise is that you do not have to endorse this brand of love to merely portray it. Depict flawed characters by all means. We loved the nuanced and very real portrayal of our patriarchal society in both Pink and Thappad, Taapsee. Those were very real depictions of the deeply problematic society we live in as well. But Haseen Dillruba errs the same way Kabir Singh did.

This idea of losing yourself in love, where violence and what can hardly be termed affection intermingle is not an alien invention, yes. It very much exists all around us, even in educated and urban milieus.

But to romanticise and dish it as the only way of love to aspire to, does great disservice to the feminist cause. Especially in a society where women dying due to domestic violence is nothing out of the ordinary, where it takes years of unlearning for women to realise that they deserve to have agency over their own bodies, that they are not mere meat to please and assuage the fears of entitled men.
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In such a world, Haseen Dillruba doesn’t merely use, but wholeheartedly backs Dinesh Pandit's dialogues like:

  • Amar prem wohi hai jispe khoon ke halke halke se cheetein ho, taaki usse buri nazar na lage. (Eternal love will always be stained with a few drops of blood, to protect it from evil.)

  • Paagalpan ki hadd se na guzre, toh woh pyaar kaisa? Hosh mein toh rishte nibhaye jaatein hain. (If love doesn’t push you to the brink of insanity, it’s not true love. Only the meek seek refuge in passionless relationships.)

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Can We Please Move on From Toxic 'Love'?

This entire time, my friend kept telling me, there will be a twist, just wait and watch, Rani will not be the oppressed woman who thanks her lover for ‘proving his passion’ by attempting to kill her. Well, a twist there was, just one that did nothing to help matters. Rather the movie uses Neel’s villainous evil to show the protagonists in contrast, and make the audiences root for the duo.

And to drive home the point, at the end even the police inspector, who is after Rani this whole time, applauds the manic couple’s victory in deceiving the world. We are expected to join in and rejoice as Rishu and Rani walk into the sunset, albeit a hand short.

As the credits rolled and we looked at each other in disappointment, I read out to her a definition of love I had recently read in author and activist bell hooks’ book All About Love: New Visions:

“As the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

While this might not be the adventurous idea of love we have grown up yearning for, as we move towards our 30s (just as Rani), and hope to make the world a more equal place for all genders, here’s hoping our filmmakers finally realise the difference between depiction and glorification of violence.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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