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No Tinder on this screen

Indian cinema's nod to our digital romance is seen in its growing acceptance of modern realities of relationships

In ‘Masaan’, the male protagonist first sends a friend request on Facebook.
In ‘Masaan’, the male protagonist first sends a friend request on Facebook.

Recently, Facebook’s “Memories" feature reminded me of an article I had shared in jest a year ago. It was an instant-dopamine-hit of a headline: “Man Hooks Up With Girl On Facebook, Only To Find She’s His Wife." If this situation sounds like it’s straight out of a movie, that’s because it is. Revathy’s 2002 directorial debut Mitr, My Friend told the story of a lonely housewife, Lakshmi (played by Shobana), living in California with her software engineer husband Prithvi (Nasser Abdullah), who drifts into a virtual relationship with a stranger in a chat room. As her mitr helps her rediscover herself, her relationship with Prithvi crumbles. When she finally gathers the courage to meet her chat-room friend, she discovers she had been chatting with Prithvi all along.

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Romance has always been an integral element of our cinema, even though large swathes of Indian society have traditionally treated love marriage across caste and class as a fringe, radical idea. In recent years, Indian films, particularly those made by Bollywood, have been slowly but surely disposing of coy and metaphorical depictions of young love in favour of “bolder", more overt sexuality. Films like Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) and Befikre (2016) have been eager to depict youngsters as carefree, rebellious and commitment-phobic.

Today, urban youngsters increasingly form connections and meet people through social media and dating apps. Women and men sext with photos. In fact, there ought to be a specific word for that feeling of panic when someone takes your phone and you’re terrified they’ll go through your image gallery.

While the digital age has affected how youths interact, our cinema, which is usually about young people, has been reluctant to acknowledge it. Perhaps it is because most films are commercial, looking to appeal to a pan-Indian audience that may not be comfortable using digital tools. Or perhaps it is because, cinematically speaking, the visual of young people staring into screens is no match for elaborately choreographed song-and-dance routines that emulate mating rituals.

This is not to say that there have been no such depictions. One of the first Indian films to spotlight romance in the digital age was the Tamil film Kadhalar Dhinam (1999; dubbed in Hindi as Dil Hi Dil Mein), in which the two leads meet and fall in love via the Internet. In Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (2011), marketed as “India’s first Facebook movie", two college students who can’t get along in reality form a connection on the social networking site under false identities. These exceptions to the rule have one thing in common: They’re only brought in when the limitations imposed by the setting and social environment force characters to resort to the digital medium to communicate with each other, and are not depicted as the new normal.

This may be because while urban India may have warmed up to the radical notion that young people will choose their own partners, it still refuses to openly acknowledge premarital sex. It is still less socially stressful to initiate a conversation on social media. A couple of films like Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi-language Sairat (2016) and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015) show this accurately. In both cases, the “first move" is made by the male protagonist sending a friend request on Facebook.

Perhaps the strongest acknowledgement of our digital normal comes with Indian cinema’s growing acceptance of choices in relationships. In Dear Zindagi (2016), Alia Bhatt’s character is a serial dater. At one point, she complains to her counsellor, played by Shah Rukh Khan, about society’s double standards towards women who pursue multiple relationships. Khan responds by comparing the act of searching for a suitable partner to shopping for chairs, pointing out that it is perfectly all right to try out several chairs before purchasing one. The movie never mentions if she uses Tinder, but it does acknowledge that the very idea of love has changed for some of us. For an industry that is quick to err on the side of conservativeness, that’s a significant step forward.

Suprateek Chatterjee is a Mumbai-based film critic.

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