The men in the trenches of the single-screen movie hall weren’t being fooled by the clumsy attempt at nuance. They hurled abuses at the fragile, teary-eyed beauty when she consigned her paramour to a horrible fate. She had her reasons—and had they been less convoluted, the mob of unreconstructed masculinity might not have been so bloodthirsty. But since the men were being guided entirely by Raanjhanaa’s screenplay, they boisterously and uninhibitedly vented their frustration at her perfidy.

In the gentry seats above, the mostly middle-class filmgoers tittered and quietly grumbled at Raanjhanaa’s 140-minute length before vanishing into the nearest available taxi.

Raanjhanaa’s office takings are nothing to sneer at, however. Starring Tamil actor Dhanush in his first Hindi movie and Sonam Kapoor, the movie collected 20.8 crore from cinemas in its opening weekend, plus 3.85 crore across the country on Monday, according to co-producer and distributor Eros Entertainment. That’s close to the opening soak-up of Aashiqui 2, another romance without saleable actors.

Raanjhanaa might get its female lead, Kapoor, Best Actress award nominations, but what does it say about the ways and wiles of women? Director Aanand L. Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma are too evolved to suggest that Kapoor’s Zoya is a tease. A significant portion of the movie is dedicated to deconstructing the idea of Hindi movie-style wooing, which sometimes borders on sexual harassment. There are moments in Raanjhanaa that reference as well as turn over movies from the 1980s and early 1990s, in which mournful heroes played by the likes of Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan declared their undying love for women without bothering to check about their feelings. The casting of Dhanush is crucial to this tense exchange between conservatism and progressiveness. Dhanush has played this role several times before, and going by the clucks of approval from the single-screen audience, there is still a great deal of currency in the idea that a dark-skinned and matchstick-thin hero may look at a fair-skinned and comely princess.

Women as ruin—Rai doesn’t say it but he gets close. He does spend some time on the other side of the fence, and lends an ear to the feelings of the woman who is being pursued in an irrational fashion. The female characters in his movie have more agency than their predecessor and counterparts, but they remain as capricious as ever. Kapoor’s Zoya has far more intelligence and spark than, say, Deepika Padukone’s lovestruck Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, but both women have to submit to the force of male love. The movie also stars Swara Bhaskar in the hapless role of the woman who has loved Dhanush’s Kundan forever. In the old days, brassy women who sidled up to their men in public were known as vamps. These days, they are called supporting cast.

Except for Anushka Sharma’s Bijlee from Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, female characters this year have only been marginally different from leading women down the years. They are coated with a patina of independence, but they obediently dim their lustre by the end. Chitrangda Singh’s fake feminist in Inkaar and Mahie Gill’s open-mouthed seductress in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns will be counted as “strong" and “author-backed" roles in the year’s final reckoning, but their achievements amount to little. One pursues a sexual harassment claim because of a love affair gone wrong. The other is too drunk on alcohol and power to deserve any empathy.

At least directors like the brothers Abbas and Mustan have no pretentions about how they see women, and how they would like audiences to view them. The duo picks glamorous women who can shimmy in short-length clothes and stilettos to appear in such unabashed crowd-pleasers as Race 2. Perhaps they know something we don’t want to accept: The more things have changed, they more they have stayed the same.

Bollywood’s younger lot is faced with challenges of its own making. They want the healthy box-office opening along with the accolades. They care deeply about their reputations, and don’t want to be seen as collaborators in the escapist cinema that the Mumbai dream factory has been churning out for decades. They want to be regarded as thinking film-makers who are up to speed with the headlines and sensitive to the changing aspirations of the populace. They want the emotional honesty, but not the messiness, that results from a realistic approach. They have watched enough international cinema to know that the world has moved on considerably since the days when women did little more than wear pretty clothes and prance through manicured parks. But they have also watched enough Indian cinema to know that the majority of the ticket-buying public hasn’t tired of pretty airheads or implausibly happy endings.

What is a film-maker with one eye on the box office and another on the four-star review to do? He run with the hares and hunts with the hounds. The mismatch between real-life experience and a make-believe happy ending has often scuttled several recent movies that claim to be reinventing genre fare, whether it’s Shanghai or Aurangzeb or Fukrey.

Rai, whose Tanu Weds Manu (2011) was well-received, also seems to have feasted on a steady diet of Tamil cinema. Tanu Weds Manu, in which Kangna Ranaut’s wildcat was progressively tamed by Madhavan’s catatonic lover boy, had shades of Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam (1986). Ratnam’s Yuva (made simultaneously in 2004 in Tamil as Ayutha Ezhuthu) casts a shadow over Raanjhanaa. The casting of Dhanush is no coincidence. Recent Tamil cinema abounds with examples of one-sided l’amour fou. There is much to appreciate in movies like Paruthiveeran (2007), Subramaniapuram (2008), Mynaa (2011) and Aadukalam (2011; starring Dhanush). They are realistic and visually exciting stories that are usually set in small towns and villages and explore the concerns of ordinary people, but they also send out the unmistakable message that love is the undoing of the working-class man.

Kundan’s ardour starts off as a charming and identifiable school romance and goes into untested territory when Zoya loses interest after being sent away for higher studies to Aligarh and eventually, Delhi. She is understandably befuddled when he asks her to marry him as soon as she returns for a visit. Their sensibilities are different, as are their dreams. She wants to change the world, he wants her to do nothing more than change her mind. She asks him if she should ruin her life because of a mistake committed during their childhood. The question is crucial to the duel between the sophisticate and the pleb, and between nuance and rawness, but it proves too tricky for Rai to answer.

Had this movie been made a few years ago, the reply would have been simple. Zoya would have realized Kundan’s worth and embraced him to an uplifting, shehnai-inflicted background score. But since we are in 2013, not as far from the past as we would like to be, and not as far into the future as some of us want to be, she must gently be put in her place for her obduracy.

Dhanush’s intensity does provide a fascinating contrast to the other major romantic hero of the year. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s Bunny is so preternaturally sexy that he doesn’t even try to win affection, whether of the women in the movie or in the theatre. Played with insouciance bordering on contempt by Ranbir Kapoor, Bunny is never anything less than a hero. Dhanush’s Kundan, on the other hand, sweats and bleeds to win Zoya’s heart. The character and the actor never take audience identification for granted. The question is, with what or whom are they identifying?

Of the many questions that go unanswered in Raanjhanaa, this is the most troubling one.

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