By Shilpi Suneja
Of course I liked Cheeni Kum. The very understated treatment of a wholly original love story, requiring a very mature understanding. It definitely heralds a new age of Indian cinema–here we are, talking about a romance between two people miles apart in age. It is what you call unconventional. I would also call it modern. That yes, we can finally talk about such unconventional romances.
But on a more subtle level, the tradition-modernity debate is implicated once again. This movie in a way suggest that it is only now that we can talk about such love, which defies our conventional ideals of marriage, family, the love between (reasonably same aged) adults. It is only now because only now has there been a triumph of reason. A triumph of freedom. Gone are the bonds of tradition. Of dated ideals of sacrifice.
This becomes clear if you compare Cheeni Kum with a movie such as Safar. The male protagonists of both movies are arguably in similar predicaments. Both are apparently closer rather than farther away from death. One is 64 and has no more than anywhere from 20 to 6 years of sane, un-wheelchaired adulthood, and the other has barely a few months as he suffers from terminal cancer. And in both cases the woman has good reasons to choose another man who is likely to live a longer life. In Safar she chooses another man. In Cheeni Kum she doesn't.
What we know, what we feel is that we have come a long way. What has happened to us during this process? 20+ years of feminine lib, 10+ years of neoliberal capitalism (in India), loud Americanization (Hollywoodization, McDonaldization) and you have it. A short, shy, dimpled, sari-clad Sharmila (I did say shy) is replaced with a tall, broad, lankily independent Tabu. There are important similarities. Both have a strong sense of independence, although I find Sharmila's more convincing. She is a true working-girl (not like Tabu's character who merely says she is a software engineer, but all of her time in the movie is spent walking in the streets of London and the by-lanes of Delhi). Both are given the option of making their own decision. But what changes? I don't think it is the women so much as the culture around them. It is no longer necessary or possible for the Devdas-like hero to compel the heroine to sacrifice her and his love. In fact, the modern day and age cannot give us a Devdas. Are the very aesthetics of sentimentality, of rona-dhona a thing of the past?
The man wishes to choose in his interest, in her interest. And so does the woman. After all, it is the age of choices. That is the least capitalism can afford to us. It is the age of reason, of individualism. The age of choosing happiness for oneself. Compared to this the poignancy of self-sacrifice in Safar seems so pointless, so hopeless, so unnecessary. This, I think is a not altogether healthy loss. I think we have lost something of beauty.