Fixing The Scales of Justice:
a brief ramble on Dil Ka Rishta
© bollywhat.com 2003-2004

      When DIL KA RISHTA premiered in early 2003, critics dismissed the plot as trite and the acting as uninspired, saving the bulk of their column space for discussions of JISM, a noir thriller released the same week. Many claimed that JISM's depiction of predatory female sexuality stretched Bollywood's comfort zones. But DIL KA RISHTA's subtext is far more subversive than JISM's cliche meditation on the dangers of a beautiful woman. By adding a "happy-ever-after" to a world in which the weak are punished for the sins of the strong, DIL KA RISHTA turns the standard Bollywood fairy tale of a morally just world into a romanticization of injustice.

   The plot of DIL KA RISHTA is pure gothic melodrama. Jai, a rich multinational businessman, falls in love with Tia, a teacher of the deaf. But Tia is already in love with another man, Raj, an orphan of limited funds and abundant charm. She rejects Jai's suit and, despite Jai's increasingly obnoxious attempts to win her away with exorbitant displays of his wealth, marries Raj. Jai, despairing, turns to alcohol, refusing to surrender his dreams of a life with Tia even after she and her husband have a son.

  One night, while driving under the influence, Jai loses control of his car and crashes into the car carrying Tia and Raj. Tia's husband is instantly killed. Tia herself falls into a coma. When she wakes, she has total amnesia and cannot remember anything about her past. Because (according to the doctors) any reminders could trigger emotional upset and a fatal hemmorhage, Tia's mother accepts Jai's offer to relocate them to his home in South Africa. Tia is told that Jai is an old friend, and that her young son, Anshu, is Jai's son by his late (non-existent) wife. Tia knows nothing about her past marriage, or her widowhood.

   Gradually Tia falls in love with Jai, who is guilt-stricken and unwilling to take advantage of her amnesia. Tia's own mother, who considers Jai to be little better than a murderer, conspires against the match. But Jai's father finally convinces Tia's mother to abandon her hatred of Jai, and the entire truth -- the cause of the accident, Tia's widowhood, and Anhsu's parentage -- is revealed to Tia. Although she has not regained her memory, Tia decides that the past is past, and there's no use in focusing on anything but the future. She reaffirms her love for Jai, and he admits his love for her. The two agree to be married.

   Most Bollywood films have two things in common: the triumph of moral justice, and, particularly in the case of romances, the happy-ever-after. Although DIL KA RISHTA ostensibly fits this mold, doubts nag the viewer. How can Tia genuinely set aside the past when she does not even recall it? How "happy" will this "ever after" be if she *does* one day regain her memory, and recall the extent of her resentment toward Jai prior to the accident, as well as the depth of her love for Raj? How could this resolution possibly be conceptualized as satisfying? Most importantly, how does DIL KA RISHTA conform to the accepted model of most Bollywood films, in which moral justice ultimately prevails?

   The answer: DIL KA RISHTA plays by a different concept of justice. The storyline is resolved not in conformity with objective standards of morality, but with the warped standards of its own universe, in which blame is systematically dislocated to the least powerful -- and the most powerful are lauded for not taking advantage of it.

   This unjust system is most bluntly articulated in the hospital scene directly after the crash. Tia's mother refuses Jai's offer of help, verbally reviling him for the murder of her son-in-law. In reponse, Jai's father advises her that she is wrong to be harsh to Jai. Most drunk drivers, he says, would simply bribe the authorities and dodge responsibility for their actions. However, his son is taking responsibility and trying to help, and should therefore be lauded, not reviled. The questionable morality of the norm from which Jai deviates -- the willful evasion of responsibility for a crime; the exploitation of the weak by the powerful -- is not questioned. Rather it is accepted, explicitly, as the standard by which Jai's actions should be judged. The viewer is literally instructed to approve of Jai (a thoroughly unlikable character until this point) for choosing not to dodge reponsibility for his crime. This, the film informs us, is his first act of redemption.

   Likewise, when the romance between Tia and Jai (which the film manipulates viewers to support) is adamantly opposed by Tia's mother, her stance is also "corrected" by a forceful assertion of the (im)moral norm. For the bulk of the film, Tia's mother considers Jai to be a murderer, and she thinks Jai should be blamed and punished for this act, rather than rewarded with Tia's love. She changes her mind only after receiving two gifts from Jai's father. The first present she opens contains a traditional, crimson bridal sari, with all its many connotations of the auspiciousness of a "suhaagan," or married woman whose husband is alive. The implications of this gift enrage her: she hurls the sari to the floor, physically rejecting the idea of Tia married to Raj's killer.  The second box which Tia's mother opens contains a white sari, the traditional garb of widows. When she sees this sari, her entire attitude alters.

  Obviously, Tia's mother has always understood that remarriage or widowhood are Tia's only choices. Therefore these two saris must possess some additional subtext in order for them to so radically alter her stance.  Ostensibly, the white sari represents the colorless life which will be Tia's fate should she be forbidden to marry the man she loves. But as the traditional outfit of widows, it also inevitably conjures the whole assortment of traditional accoutrements of widowhood: not only white saris, but also the denigration, censure, and disenfranchisement that accompany them.* Thus it becomes a literal threat, implying the only alternative to remarriage to Jai is a life of vulnerability and suffering. 

   Thus, although Jai may be guilty of killing Raj, the saris remind Tia's mother that if she continues to use Jai's guilt as an excuse to forbid Tia's marriage, it will be the widowed Tia, not Jai, who is punished for Raj's death. The justness of this equation is not in dispute, or even considered relevant. Indeed, the gift of the saris implies that justice should be immaterial to Tia's mother's decision: her only choice is whether her daughter will be a victim or a wife. The film is structured so that the viewer approves when she chooses the latter; whether the choice is a just one, or one she should be forced to make, is, in keeping with the rules of this universe, deemed too irrelevant for discussion.

   In most films, the heroine would recover her memory and work through the complicated landscape of her past before moving on to a new future. But in DIL KA RISHTA, Tia remains an amnesiac,** forgetful of her past in the same manner that the audience must remain forgetful of Right and Wrong in order to reach the happy ever after they crave. Forgetting everything we learned about Tia's distaste for Jai in the first half of the film, we cheer her love for him in the second half, although, in the normal world, his past actions would render him unworthy of it. No matter. We have accepted Jai's reformation, because we have accepted as our standard a system in which a man should be lauded for not stooping to the unjust and immoral norm; in which injustice becomes the barometer by which one's moral worth is gauged.*** Unlike most films, DIL KA RISHTA does not manipulate the ending to suit our moral sensibilities. It manipulates our morals to suit the ending.

 * For info about the effort to improve widows' status in India, see The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990.

**One could also argue that Tia's inability to recall her former husband or married life is an easy way to pacify conservative film fans who might find the remarriage of a Hindu widow problematic or not sufficiently "romantic." In her mind, in her memories, and in her accessible experience, she has never been married to anyone. Her amnesia functions as a second virginity.

 ***For those who argue that cinema has little connection with reality, it is difficult to ignore the parallel between the film's benevolent attitude toward Jai's "noble" decision to take responsibility for driving drunk, and the real-life reaction to news that film star Salman Khan had, while driving under the influence, struck several pedestrians and killed one man. His fellow actors (not to mention his fans) came out in droves to support Khan, citing his immense regret and his kindness in offering to foot the medical bills for the victims of the crash. Ironically, Khan is the ex-boyfriend of actress Aishwarya Rai, who plays Tia in DIL KA RISHTA.

 

 

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