It’s been 10 years since Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (DCH)—a fact being celebrated directly at a film festival in Mumbai in July and indirectly through the release of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), a DCH-type road movie about three friends who have one last holiday together before one of them gets married. Marriage and bondage share more than their last three alphabets for screenwriters and advertising film-makers. Men don’t jump into convertibles and take off after tying the knot (Spain in the case of ZNMD). Many of them sign up with Kesari Tours and head out to trample over monuments in large batches wearing identical caps.
ZNMD, directed by Zoya Akhtar, presents a woman’s take on a mostly male genre, but she sticks to the idea of three men out on a limb and in a car. The road movie is a quintessentially American film category that came up to mark the development of expressways that connected the continent-sized country like never before. With the road came the journey towards self-awareness, and it was usually made by men. There have been women-friendly tweaks to the template such as Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, in which two women hit the highway—and end up dead. Couples are the worst affected. They usually live to tell the tale but flee in opposite directions once it’s all over.
The company of men: Why don’t Bollywood’s women travel alone?
The Indian road film faces numerous obstacles. For starters, where is the road? A road movie about a trip from, say, Bangalore to Chikmagalur, would run out of gas at one of the metropolis’ never-ending traffic signals. Indian road movies can have their own twists and turns. The multiple ways in which Indians get from A to B can constitute a film in itself—the short-cuts taken, the colourful touts, the chaos that is a part of everyday life in a nation whose will to be on the move has never been defeated by the lack of infrastructure. What would a woman, or women, do in these circumstances? All these years later, we’re still not sure.
Films like Nau Do Gyarah, the copies of It Happened One Night (Chori Chori, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin), and, more recently, Jab We Met are the closest we’ve come to taking a woman outside her Bollywood-prescribed comfort zone—home, college, dance floor, waterfall—and making her encounter the world at large. Most of the women in these films are runaways seeking escape from forced marriages rather than self-fulfilment. Kareena Kapoor’s Geet in Jab We Met sorely needed the company of the conveniently wealthy companion Aditya to put her on the right path, but the film at least allows her to explore a universe beyond her small-town Punjabi homestead. Priyanka Chopra couldn’t have gone too far without Ranbir Kapoor’s company in Anjaana Anjaani (not an unpleasant thought). Men come to the rescue yet again for Lara Dutta’s character in the more recent Chalo Dilli, in the form of the dweeby Vinay Pathak and the hunky Akshay Kumar. The idea that a woman can actually manage to travel by herself, or in female company, remains mystifyingly alien in an industry that has a sizeable chunk of women writers and directors.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara released in theatres on Friday.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org