The duality of the Indian housewife

August 1, 2021

Haseen Dillruba’s Rani is a character of many layers. This is key to a film that makes a display of every aspect of the human soul – lust, betrayal and the common denominator -freedom

The duality of the Indian housewife

The trope of the small-town girl is a phantasmagorical film in itself. She is portrayed as equal parts poetic and intense, posturing and gritty. The idea is grounded in reality – at least in cinematic reality, where this caricature has taken on the status of legend. Her reach does not exclude psychological depth or displays of human feelings – although these sides to her character are usually revealed during the third act, and almost always by a betrayal at the hands of a love interest. Regardless, her extravagance demands a cinematographic offering. In films like Judgmental Hai Kya or Queen, she undergoes a trituration that reveals her real self. She thrives on promises of love and freedom and, eventually, struggles against her ambitions before acquiescing to a life of contentment – a far cry from her earlier disposition. Think of Kirti Sanon in Bareilly ki Barfi, or in almost everything she’s done, or the generic but generous spirit of Geet in Jab We Met.

Haseen Dillruba’s Rani is also a character of many layers. This is key to a film that makes a display of every aspect of the human soul – lust, betrayal and the common denominator, freedom. Written by Kanika Dhillon, the film ferociously delivers the story of women proscribed by society into confined patriarchal spaces. The lead is played by Taapsee Pannu, who had a similar attire in Manmarziyan as Rumi, the girl who goes against the family’s wishes to fall in love and briefly run away with her love interest. She does return to a match of her family’s choosing in the climax, however. Rumi has become Rani in Haseen Dilruba – called a dayan (witch) and accused of murder by society in a high-brow investigation of low-brow murders. It is also a sinister reminder of a woman in our society being known for her domestic status. One misstep and you will be suspected of murder. To its credit, the layers of the film are not shredded to bite-sized pieces by cheap subtext; nor is Rani shown showboating as Salome forever without any reflection on her end.

Rani is played with a deep volatility and a sordid passion for everything similar - she is dashing, spontaneous and volatile. This is revealed in her love affair with literature. She has a master’s in Hindi literature and an obsession with a fictitious crime-novelist Dinesh Pandit (who becomes a recurring plot device in this film – or more of a stylistic flourish). Her arranged marriage to Rishabh aka Rishu (Vikrant Massey) – who is completely her opposite – is a fine, ragged mess.

But since this is the norm, she settles, by all means necessary, for a husband in an empty shell of a life. As someone who tries to control her, a decision spurred on by his mother’s refusal to contend with another woman in the same house, he is the polar opposite of her. An engineer with a docile and meek core and homeopathy as his hobby, he is pathological and rational. Rani works in a beauty salon. Her due in life is aesthetic and universal; his is provincial, more interior. Her allure to men is high praise for Rani, who proudly asserts herself as a “khoobsurat, hot larki”. This is her allure to Rishabh, a mild man with a brutal side to him. Or could he be a brutal man with a gentle, mild exterior? In either case, society deems him triumphant. His friend teaches him how to definitively control his new wife, like a newly acquired horse that must be broken before being accepted as the owner’s.

The society in Haseen Dillruba is a voyeur’s dream. The role of the investigating officer in this story is taken up by everyone around the couple. It is the same for us. We are taken into this evidence and compelled to come up with our own conclusions. No one is a mere bystander in this tale – it implicates everyone. This input is not generated via the mythical “what will people say” question that is generally suggested as a response to the sordid actions of the characters. After all, Rani makes no haste in assaulting the meek-mannered sensibilities of a small town. She is the kind of rebel that the village panchayat or the family elders may refer to as a cautionary tale.

But this tale is one that centres the three main characters and no one else. The communal influence is present, yes, but its hand is insidious, voyeuristic and gleefully silent. Perhaps some of this is suggested by the open-plan, cabin-in-the-wilderness decor of a house overlooking the lake and opening onto a busy street. Just as in a whodunit, the murder field is open on all sides. Combine this external conflict – never really addressed, and hence more sinister – with the internal conflict of Rani, who is so desperate at achieving a feeling that she raises the stakes and then tries to escape the dreary confines of her marriage. A tsunami of obsession follows, mistakes occur and tracks are changed, until the irrationality of the film takes on its own logic. This logic very cleverly avoids questioning Rani’s desires, much less criticising them.

A fractured relationship then results – one articulated and governed by many outside the two main participants; e.g. Rishabh’s mother, who is looking for a civilised, sundar and susheel bahu who will do the housework and respect the family elders. These complacent emotions that have no notion of personal agency have been decreed to be the most desirable traits in a wife. They are juxtaposed against the tightrope act that Rishabh and Rani execute in their private sphere.

The duality of the Indian housewife

The boudoir politics occasion several dirty jokes, with metaphors for premature ejaculation being invoked several times. The bedroom is contrasted with the kitchen, where the act of making tea together becomes the vessel for their raging hormones. Haseen Dillruba employs dramatic flair to heighten the mundanity of an arranged marriage: from the couple’s wordless encounters in their bedroom to the casual kitchen politics between Rani and her mother-in-law. Vikrant Massey’s performance captures the anguish of being in the crosshairs of this twisted world of female politics. Rishabh exults at one point that ‘good men’ like him are not hero material. He feels that his kindness is used against him. Taapsee is seminal in her performance of the impulsive woman, who is besotted with her own freedom. Her seminal streak has been continuing for a while, however, having played the same character in Manmarziyan. Meanwhile, Rishabh’s devotion to his wife, or to the woman who has subjugated his heart and body, is contrasted with the rollercoaster relationship she shares with Neel (Harshvardhan Rane), the third wheel.

As these characters change tracks, with Rishabh being left alone on one path and Rani taking off on another, the wheels realign, and the third wheel is backed by a misogynistic encounter with the world. As a result, Rishabh becomes emotionally uncompromising; his stance hardens. Meanwhile, Rani’s encounter with the ‘bad boy’ leaves her troubled and inspired to settle with Rishabh. This is complemented by the flashbacks that unfurl much of the plot: Rani, suspected of a crime of passion (a role usually allotted to the male protagonist) is voicing her transition from bad to good, while the Rishabh of the third act has become the Rani of the first act.

This coupling is a beautiful struggle towards equilibrium. Both have passions that run high, and both are right from their own perspectives. They have a capacity for spitefulness matched only by each other. We might view them as hateful, but they might see each other as truthful and generous. Because passion is passion – negative or positive – it is everything or nothing, toxic and pure. In the opening scene, Rani is shown feeding scraps of meat to dogs. This carnal generosity, or brutal purity, is a foreshadowing of the duality at the centre of this film. To feed one creature, another has to be sacrificed. While an extramarital affair rages on, Rishabh experiences his own transformation. Thus, here are two individuals with different dreams, aspirations and backgrounds, who are kissed by the unattainable romance of freedom.

The link between literature and cinema, and the neurotic affiliation of both with society, is startling. Haseen Dillruba triumphs in the glory of bending genres and busting myths. Yes, the family is in disrepute because people are professing their appetites in a franker way. Society seems to be making a lot about appetites and freedom, so that by writing a pulpy novel into a film, the makers are giving themselves licence to be as frank as possible. What happens when a writer puts a cry of suffering into a novel? Why does a writer write? One of the many reasons may be to leave behind evidence of their struggle. On the other hand, for many readers, like Rani herself, these activities are not brought to light, like bricklayers, sewer cleaners or a wife. You can’t read the wife’s life on the house’s chaar deewari – the writing really isn’t on the wall. To spell out her story, Rani uses an author as a crutch and breaks the wall down.

Consequently, in the universe of Haseen Dilruba, anything you can do with lust and freedom and anguish is good. It’s like Sinatra said, “I am a friend of anything that gets you through the night.” In the same way, if you really get good at being a wife, you disappear. There’s no end to this profession. But Rishu and Rani turn a new leaf and this film’s real story starts. The house has burnt down, erasing any traces of Rani’s old life.

This act of burning, an act of divorce, is significant. For Rani, anyone who isn’t in love should be divorced. Rani, roaming through the streets of Jwalapur, divorces everybody and finds that it really cleans up the path to her own self. Rani feels free when she is making up or quoting Dinesh Pandit and telling stories. Her storytelling has the whole police station enthralled. This is very skillfully woven into flashbacks (recounted by Rani). For example, in her choice of flashback, it is raining in Jwalapur when she arrives. This scenic start to her journey here, a belaboured metaphor, is straight out of a tier-2 novel. Her passion for words and her husband’s passion for action make their awkward encounters just a little less ridiculous.

Beneath that veneer, both are mute. One can wax lyrical all day long, while the other can hardly disclose his emotions to her. During the first act, they communicate in a language borrowed from others. Rani receives advice to seduce her husband by saucily dropping her pallu. Rishabh’s dicey cousin Neel’s physique is also a deliberate attempt at invoking a deliberately pulpy trope. This nod to the dramas of railway station literature is a convenient pit stop for the story’s entire first act; whenever it needs to fuel the narrative, it makes this pit stop, and no one can fault it because it is intentional. Everyone is on board.

This useful trope allows Haseen Dillruba to avoid dealing in abstractions or following convention. The screenplay is good enough that it becomes anonymous, standing for the whole thing, and not just for one concept. It is not a black book of good deeds and bad deeds. There’s nothing vindictive about it, at least up to a point. Because the climax devolves into Bollywood clichés and the stereotypical third wheel is punctured as an unfeeling, robotic automaton of evil and destruction.

But to the film’s credit, even Neel, as the tattooed Lothario, is constructed as a casually misogynistic reminder of the enviable position of some in society. There are no repercussions to his actions. There is a stag party. Rani tries to get invited to this party and then decides that she has to go make certain decisions for herself. Thus, this is not a tale of forbidden love, nor is it a social comment veiled by a millennial hash-tag with one-dimensional restrictions. The stage here is a stage built on a stage; it is a homage to the garish pulpy films of yore that are characterised as the guilty pleasures of a cult following. But how guilty is Haseen Dillruba of falling into the same traps as the films it pastiches? A romantic song seals the deal as the fetishising gaze of the viewer begrudges Rani.

But desire is best expressed in between pauses, and there are no pauses in this film. Instead, it appears too sure of itself, with the plot too ridiculously contrived and the pace too steady for there to be any holes in its armour. A few scenes add to the sense of paranoia that any halfway-decent thriller has to generate. Yet, there are no guesses left in the film. It is also true that in Bollywood, the trailer piques the suspense too quickly and dispels any curiosity.

Much the same happens here: we do not wonder, we observe. Furthermore, the writing is too tight to deal with the consequences of a slipping directorial grasp on the narrative. The dramatic portions in the final scene rely too much on flashbacks, the closing is too flustered. It’s like a shortcut. Direction is supposed to be an ordering of time. Yet, the final montage, with its long shot of Rishabh falling into the water body is a hasty attempt at a weak ending.

The behavioural patterns recorded in the pleasantly-jarring melody of this film are interesting and ominous, no matter how predictable. You take Situation A and switch it up with Subject C, and there would be a different outcome. It’s like reading an Indian version of RL Stine’s Fear Street or, more precisely, the Goosebumps series. Each movement in the plot sets off a chain reaction. The three-act film relies on a housewife avatar as the centre of the setup, which is a ubiquitous proposition and thus startling.

Unlike in Phantom Thread, another genre-busting film, each second is articulated here. In fact, the whole ticking clock is visible. The mechanics are too obvious but the technique is too good. Haseen Dillruba shows us that technique is not everything. On the other hand, Phantom Thread subverted the traditional marriage trope by introducing a twisted empathy for both Woodcock and Alma. The result was a film dealing in hushed tones and inverted sensibilities. Contrarily, the ending of Haseen Dillruba is too comical to err into the chasm of darkness. It dances (or teeters, somewhat unsteadily) at the edge of this chasm throughout its run time. But it fails to fully embrace the point of Rani’s “independence”. It leaves you gazing into the abyss. Something gazes back, but it may take a couple of watches to notice it.

So, in the style of a film told in flashbacks, let’s end at the beginning. At the start, life goes on as normal – no show, no explosion. Then, a literal explosion bursts onto the stage, with a camera tracking sideways through the burnt-out carcass of a house. The curtain has been lifted. The whole stage is revealed. A flashback is heralded. The rehearsal is in progress. The play seems to be right before our eyes, logical and formulaic, if mistakenly so.

The writer is a student of history and comparative literature at LUMS

The duality of the Indian housewife