How boy (really) gets girl
Love, and the advantages of being ordinary
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The hero of Badrinath Ki Dulhania is a young man who does not know what compound interest is. In fact, he does not know what simple interest is. Even though his father owns a car dealership, where he works, he is unaware that ABS stands for anti-lock braking system. All of the world’s acronyms or abbreviations are unfamiliar to him. Apart from the Taj Mahal, he does not know the other wonders of the world as decided by white people. He looks like the sort of muscular man who can make his breasts quiver at will, and rate that highly as talent. He has an idiot man-friend whom he loves and they often walk with their little fingers locked. He is unemployable, short-tempered, and lives in Jhansi, which he does not wish to flee. He is an obedient son because his father is rich, a condition that is often passed off as an Indian family value. Yet, in the end, the boy secures the love of an exceptional girl.
She is beautiful and dominant. At weddings she dances in the Hum Aapke Hain Koun way that leads men to sing to her buttocks, but what she really wants is to start her own business. She lives in Kota in the type of beautiful house producer Karan Johar wishes, for aesthetic reasons, every lower middle-class Indian would possess. Her home is a happy place but she wishes to flee to make something of her life. She can speak English fluently and is familiar with words like “claustrophobia”. She recognizes her suitor from Jhansi as an imbecile. In the end, he does not transform into a clever man, there is no situation that he overcomes through force of character, he does nothing heroic, but she falls in love with him.
There are Indian stories where a man wins the affection of a woman because he is extraordinary. And there are stories where a man is so fortunate when he is unremarkable, or, worse, a wreck. In most of mainstream Indian cinema, the boy is stricken by the beauty of the girl and some other qualities, including talent and intellect, but it is usually not clear what the girl sees in the hero. That Devdas was written by a Bengali does not explain the attraction of a total loser and why women must love him. Badrinath…, in fact, is puzzling in its deliberate portrayal of the boy as not merely unremarkable but exceedingly stupid, with no redeeming prospects. It is a type of carelessness that Hollywood usually avoids—the boy in La La Land, for instance, is a jazz romantic and some sort of struggling puritan pianist, highly admirable features in a man who also resembles Ryan Gosling.
We dismiss the emptiness of the Indian hero as part of the artistic mediocrity of commercial cinema. But what if it is not a flaw at all? What if the unremarkable man as the most common recipient of love is closer to the truth? What if the typical modern Indian hero is, in fact, sheer anthropology?
The love of a girl, with its exaggerated compliments, long, fond stares and promise of decadence, is generally presumed to be a reward for distinguishing male qualities. It is an idea that women themselves have promoted through the many ways in which they talk of romance and the loud expectations they have from men, which physically and intellectually disqualify most men. That is the reason I went through my entire late adolescence confused by the lovers the adorable girls took. As it is, I could not understand how women could be in love with men who were not writers, or at least scientists and other kinds of artists (but not the postmodern kind). And how could all of them laugh so easily in the company of their men when most men were not funny at all?
In the real world, love occurs for the simplest reason, that it is very desperate to happen, and because it cannot wait it tends to reward not the extraordinary but the available. As Eartha Kitt sang: Doesn’t have to be prince or movie star/A Texas oilman or a French marquis/Doesn’t have to be handsome as a picture/An ordinary guy’s all right with me.
An exceptional quality of the ordinary is that it is ubiquitous. Like in a Hindi film, a guy in the right place at the right time has a better chance than the invisible prophesied genius titan. The regular guy is in the right place at the right time because he is up and about most times even as his formidable competition is hidden in solitary confinement working long hours on heroic dreams. He is most often not the brilliant coder or artist or scientist or athlete and does not have to spend a colossal amount of time nurturing his gifts. And he probably exhibits signs of appealing goodness because as an ordinary person he, rightly, believes he needs the backing of people, so he has a natural tendency to reach out.
The exceptional young men, meanwhile, however attractive their talents might be, may not be as agreeable as the ordinary. Or they might be too proud to make the first move, or too scared of the shame of rejection.
In the language of love, there is much talk about the inexplicable “connection” that two people discover, or the fiery “chemistry”. This is meant to explain why women choose regular guys when they could have been with more gifted men. But we can never be sure how much of this chemistry is influenced by the far less glorious circumstances of the players involved or how much of this is in reality plain misconceptions or delusions that people wish to surrender to because they are tired of loneliness. And there is the matter of equal handicaps.
In the satire The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos creates a fictitious world that is somewhat familiar: An oppressive society expects everyone to find love within a certain period, or they will be converted into animals of their choice. “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves,” an official tells prospective couples, “you will be assigned children, that usually helps.”
In their desperate search for love to save themselves from becoming animals, men and women who are handicapped in some form also search for similar flaws in others. In the real world that the film parodies, love is very rarely a match of the strong and often a union of equal weaknesses. And there is much beauty in that.
It does not matter what creates it, there is such a thing as love. It is our finest form of insanity, and we must not be too troubled by whether its origins are sound at all.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.