Adjoining the railway platforms and bus stands of towns big and small, lies an entire world of heartland Hindi pulp fiction that makes even Premchand and Orwell fight for a reader's attention. This amusing trade machinery via small railway stalls has been sustaining the genre for decades. From Ved Prakash Sharma to Surendra Mohan Pathak, and the perennial Manohar Kahaniyaan, the stories sweep through a surfeit of themes, the most popular of them being crime dramas. It is between these pages of Hindi pulp that female characters were claiming their sexual agency, solving mysteries, dominating the plot, but often accompanied by objectification and titillating imagery. It is between these pages that a generation of vernacular readers made a tryst with storytelling that was set in the places they come from. It is between these pages that they found their adolescent rites of passage.
Bollywood has time and again drawn inspiration from Hindi pulp writing. Movies such as Kati Patang, Daag, and Khilona were adaptations of Gulshan Nanda’s books. Javed Akhtar has professed his love for Ibne Safi's Hindi pulp novels, which allowed him to create iconic antagonists like Gabbar Singh. Haseen Dillruba is the latest and the most overt instalment to this category.
Homage to Hindi Pulp
Haseen Dillruba’s cinematic world of pulp fiction stems from writer Kanika Dhillon’s self-admitted fascination with Hindi crime novels growing up. The film is a homage to everything that these pulp novels characterise — a feisty newlywed bride (Rani) very aware of her sexuality and a shy, sexually inexperienced husband (Rishu), an extra-marital affair with the young and lascivious brother-in-law, a gruesome murder, and a police investigation. It is dipped in cliches and tropes to imitate the pulpy pages.
Haseen Dillruba has been inviting mixed reviews since its release. When we are dissecting a film’s merit, it’s crucial that we analyse not only the actions but also the social context that precedes the story. The film entirely follows the gaze of the female protagonist who has already bought into the universe created by the fictitious Dinesh Pandit’s pulp thrillers to the point of obsession. She desires a lover whose passion breaks bounds. When she witnesses a flicker of this (toxic) fervidness in her boring husband, she is naturally attracted to him.
Haseen Dillruba is not trying to be a love story as much as it is attempting to create an outlandish world of Hindi pulp. It’s not romance, but a small-town arranged marriage of misfits traversing through madness, leading to horrific ramifications and ghastly bloodshed.
In the scene where Rishu sets up a trap for Rani to trip over the stairs, the background score is deliberately screeching and blaring to indicate the explicit disposition of pulp crime dramas. The screenplay, although faltering in consistent execution, is intentionally made lurid to portray love, infidelity, and jealousy transitioning to lunacy. I did, however, have some qualms with the climax. But it forces me to think if redemption is the ultimate litmus test of morality of the cinematic language.
Haseen Dillruba is certainly not faultless, but a brave experiment nonetheless. I agree that the filmmakers’ dependence on the audience to separate the irony in the narrative could be excessive. But if its pulpy universe strikes a chord, it is anything but boring. The film’s endeavours in genre disruption — comedy to erotica to thriller with an overall looming investigative murder mystery told by an unreliable narrator — are so rare that it is almost unfair to reduce it to the portrayal of the toxic relationship between husband and wife.
The Nature of Critique
When a film of this nature comes out, it is always interesting to notice the nature of conversation it stirs, especially on social media. It’s unsurprising now that it reaches polar extremes. The conversation steadily shifts from the gaze of the film to the gaze of the viewer, making them either misogynists or feminists, patriotic or anti-national, right-wing or liberal. At what point does the critique of the critic surpass that of the content?
It is not untrue that personal beliefs and our sense of politics influence our responses to a film. But films, ideally, shouldn’t be burdened with the responsibility of politically correct messaging, or of providing the viewer’s certificate-of-ideology. How we feel about films like these derives from how morally sound we want art to be. But if fiction cannot take the liberty of moral ambiguity and depict morally grey characters, then who decides what is politically correct and to which side does the ideal moral-ground tilt?
Since 2019, a name that rears its head in all divided debates of gender, toxicity, and relationships represented in films, is Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh. I am not defending the film, but when we equate every new movie to a Kabir Singh, we conveniently wash out the contextual relevance. Moreover, where does the end to this road lie? Do we bring back classics like Wuthering Heights and take away their acclaim now that society is sensitive to over-romanticization? This circles around the very question of what art form we think deserves our critique. If Haseen Dillruba draws entirely from Hindi pulp fiction, is it a good thing that the latter is slowly becoming a dying genre?
Let’s move away from the art form to the subject matters that call for our critique. For every set of audience whose sensibilities are offended by a Kabir Singh, there is another whose sentiments are hurt by a Tandav, or a Sacred Games, or a Padmaavat. There's no denying that OTT shows like Mirzapur glorify violence and crime, but the reaction to these shows is dramatically different. So, does our critique matter only when it passes through the gender prism?
The problem is far from us having a problem with films. We must question them. What I am saying is that nuanced critique can find a middle-ground, and films can exist in extremes, rather than always expecting the opposite to be the case.
Be it Kabir Singh or Haseen Dillruba, Raanjhana or Devdas, each time the debate tips off of toleration, it discourages cinema from taking risks and trying experiments. Each time the debate reaches the point where people don’t want these stories to be put on screen, we move a step closer to the slippery grounds of greater censorship.