Whats My Raashi? 27th September 2009

Not every day do we get a film in Bollywood that sears through the contented middle class views on the two most fundamental social institutions – family and marriage. Not every day do we have a typical Bollywood formula film that using the peg of the familiar story of NRI trying to find a bride and bride’s families falling head over heels to pursue him, tells us the rather unnoticed, unspoken and inarticulated story of India’s women and what has happens to them as the country’s economy has progresses and society changes. The film Whats Your Raashi tries to tell us the woman’s side of the story in the Gujarati middle class as it tries to marry off its daughters to NRI Gujarati boys pursuing MBA degrees in American Universities. The location of the story in a middle class is typical of Bollywood because it invariably locates its stories in the middle class even when it shows the poor and the lower middle class. This is the formula of “hegemony” at work as Bollywood tries to create and recreate a middle class India by defining its values and cultures continuously. The middle class is what the poor aspires to be in and the rich try to win over in its attempt at consolidating its moral power and respectability that wealth does not automatically guarantee in the Indian society. The choice of Gujarati community is useful because it is this community that seems to have benefited the most out of India’s economic liberalization and hence can be considered to be in the frontline of the new changing India.
The story is about a NRI boy who is the sole heir of his maternal grandfather’s property because he is the only one who visits the old man regularly and never fails to wish him on his birthday. However, the grandfather will part with his gift only when the grandson marries. Meanwhile the hero’s older brother has lost massive sums of borrowed money to the busted bourses and is caught between the devil of going to prison and the deep sea of facing the wrath of the underworld. The father decides to marry off the younger son in order to be able to access the legacy due to the younger son. Since the wealth that would accompany the marriage is a legacy and not dowry, the director has been able to present to us a cross section of the Gujarati society, albeit all from the Hindu middle class.
The theory of marriage according to the director is a means to access money for boys and escape for the girls. Men seem to benefit one-sidedly from marriage and though women imagine that being married would release them from the prisons of their fathers, yet images of married women in the film shows them as silent spectators who simply go along with the wishes of their husbands. Marriage is a negotiation between two men, the husband and the father-in-law in which the husband gains access to the father-in-law’s property through the wife. In the everyday affairs of the home even when that concerns marriage of children especially of girls, the women are silent. She acquires agency and voice either when the husband cheats or she cheats on another woman’s husband.
The Indian girl is placed before us as a young adult who enters the world as a bride-to-be and marriage is to be her rites de passage into the adult society and public space. The groom to be is also to be married off because his family must access a large amount of money to clear off debts. For once, the protagonist of the film is not an eligible bachelor but the unmarried “kanya”, the girl with twelve facets to her personality expressed through twelve different characters, each belonging to a sign of the zodiac. The Indian girl is trapped one way or the other sometimes directly by her father and at other times by the very institution of marriage itself. Were girls to be empowered, given a choice to run their own lives, to be in command of their selves, no girl would have ideally married. The director turns this comedy into a merciless critique of the institution of marriage. He weaves the characteristic of the zodiac moon signs to use them as metaphors that would exhaust the condition of the Indian woman, especially the unmarried girl.
The Mesh Kanya has been forced into tradition, various kinds of fasts have been imposed upon her and she appears to be pale, frail, undernourished that so many Indian girls appear to be. She slouches, she drags her feet and of table manners and other cultures of civic life she has none. Her parents have disallowed her to pursue education, a tragedy that marks so many of Indian girls, because that would have required her to move out of the house all by herself and “mix” with boys. But despite her incarceration into the walls of her home and tradition, she imagines a life of empowerment in which she moves out with friends, drinks wine and smokes and what is most important, eats “non-veg” food. This is a great insight into a woman’s mind as her lack of access to good, exotic and interesting food is a hitherto unnoticed but an important aspect of her overall deprivation. Sohini Ghosh made a film on some prostitutes in Kolkata and almost all of them said that they wanted to be able to have their own money because they wanted to eat, not merely food but good and exquisite varieties of food. Woman’s desire for food has rarely been addressed and one of the most empowering aspects of woman’s liberation is her being able to sit at a restaurant and order food for herself. In the film, the Mesh Kanya was very interested in marrying the NRI because she was eager to see snow in Chicago, something that she will never get to see all her life except through marriage. Aries is the sign of the new born and the Mesh Kanya desires to be born anew into a world of her fantasies that a NRI marriage would help her realize.
The Taurean, or the Vrish Kanya is the only child of a filthily rich business man. She has everything that one can possibly ask for. She is also never bound in the house. But she realizes, in case of marriage, men want her wealth and not her and hence she puts on the act of being a mad girl who any right thinking individual would reject outright. She is empowered because of the wealth she has and because of her wealth she is otherwise protected from the “ordinary street life” that the Mesh Kanya and other girls are not. The Vrish kanya seeks liberation from her own wealth in order to test whether what empowers her are the material opulence or whether as any other girl she could really enjoy the quality of life that she does. She embraces austerity and like Sarojini Naidu’s observations on Mahatma Gandhi, the father says that the daughter does not the costs that go into paying for her austerity. Marriage, for this girl is highly dispensable but she enjoys putting off men when they gravitate towards her wealth and not her. It is through the Vrish Kanya that the director also centrally locates his arguments against marriage by repeatedly showing that it is a conduit of transfer of wealth, where parents of girls would ideally love to buy off grooms and grooms to access money through marriage. True to the zodiac essence of the sign of Taurus, the Vrish Kanya pursues authenticity and is essentialist and sees no merit in marriage as an institution that in the disguise of being an occasion of meeting of minds and hearts turns out to be a platform to transfer wealth from women to men.
The Gemini girl, of Mithun Kanya is posited as an antithesis to marriage for money and this girl looks for romance. She appears to be a welcome change to the viewers as marriage seems to be indeed a pursuit of romance. This girl seems to have interested our hero because she is willing to look for and find romance in marriage. But as she wants to savour her romance, she finds marriage to come in the way of pure love. The zodiac meaning of Gemini as being a split personality is used here to split romance and marriage and to show, through this independent minded and spirited young woman that romance and marriage are mutually exclusive.
The Cancerian, or the Kark Kanya is not the homely one as zodiac wisdom insists but she is the girl who has been left behind at home, having nowhere to go, rejected by her lover and her family being totally incapable of retrieving her life out of the mess. This girl looks to the NRI as a passport to go beyond her moorings, to leave home and to be away from all that that defines her moorings. She is clear that marriage is not for love but to wipe the taint off her life of no longer remaining a virgin. The Kark Kanya is mentioned as being the niece of the associate of the hero’s grandfather. At the beginning of the film when the grandfather was making his gift of wealth it was this associate who suggested that the old man should make marriage of his grandson as an eligibility criterion for receiving the gift. It is quite possible that the associate was also eyeing the money in order to bail out the ex-boyfriend as the Kark Kanya seemed to be still in love with him. Kark, in the Indian zodiac is also a keeper of deep secrets, a metaphor that may help us get the hang of the tale better.
The Leo girl, the Simha Kanya is a drama artist and says clearly that she is already wedded to her profession and her only reason for getting married is to have a rich husband who can finance her hobbies and projects. She is the only avatar of the bride-to-be where the woman and not the man are looking upon marriage as a means to access monetary wealth. The Simha girl gets turned off by the hero as soon as he hesitates in eating the ice lolly that she offers him as he is skeptical of its hygiene. She finds in him the arrogance of a typical NRI, who tries to prove a point by considering his native home as sullied and foul and hence, walks off deciding that she would want nothing from the man who looks down on his native land. Simha, the sign of the King rules like a queen for who the NRI groom, irrespective of whether he is rich or not, is merely a subject. In any case, this marriage would never have worked because the girl would have made sure that she would have had the control over money and not the groom’s family and which would have defeated the reason why the hero wanted to get married, namely to use the wealth acquired upon marriage to clear his older brother’s debts.
The Virgo, the Kanya in many ways is the ideal woman. She neither looks for nor needs a mate but would not mind if someone just came along. She is happy to have a husband around but that husband is not necessary to her journey. He is a pillion rider as she drives her own life and helps her by keeping her world in order as she attends to the tasks at hand. Though the hero falls in love with this girl yet finds it difficult to marry her because he has to come into her life and thus completely giving up his own. The Kanya says that if a woman can leave her moorings and go along with a man why should it be so difficult for a man to do the same? Talks break down as the director helps us notice that a sustainable marriage is one which is tilted heavily in favour of the man, virilocal and in which women serve men and not the other way around. The director establishes the fact that marriage is extremely disadvantageous to the career woman dedicated to her profession.
The Libra, Tula Kanya is the corporate leader, who looks upon marriage literally as a contract wants to plan every bit of a relationship. She is clear that marriage is invariably one of convenience and need not involve emotions. Even within the marriage the Tula Kanya creates space for the partners to retain their entities as single persons. The hero does realize towards the end that such a marriage would have been the best suited for him because it would serve the purpose of inheriting his grandfather’s money and also would have been free within two years of the marriage as per the clauses of the contract. Despite such huge advantages, the hero feels totally controlled and dominated by the Libra girl because of her ability to look ahead, take charge of the situation and plan effectively. She also interprets marriage as a contract literally and thus exposes the underlying core of arranged marriages where material exchange and not emotions count.
The Scorpio, the Vrishchik Kanya is passionate about her career and looks upon marriage to the Chicago-based NRI as her passage to the world’s modeling capital. She lives her life in disguise as a domesticated, quiet and an obedient girl who is not the real glamorous model that she aspires to be. This is perhaps the only girl vis-à-vis who the hero emerges as the liberator. It is only for this girl who is so passionate that the intensity of her passion can set her free that the hero feels that he has no role to play in her life and it is she who seems to benefit the most through her date with the protagonist.
The Sagittarius, or the Dhanu Kanya quite the reverse of Gemini believes in pre-marital sex and has no qualms about wanting to “taste” the potential groom. Sex and not marriage was on her mind and she believed that to have the real experience of sex, one had to have it outside marriage. This destroys the great Indian assumption that people marry to satisfy their physical needs. When the satisfaction of the erotic is taken out of marriage, the Dhanu Kanya feels really no need to marry at all. The archer in the zodiac sign is used to hit straight at the point and thus expose the hollowness of marriage as an institution that legitimizes sex.
The Capricon, the Makar Kanya, one which the zodiac says will go far in life has been depicted as an underage girl who again the hero “rescues” and sets free, much like the Vrischik. Her father was marrying off the underage girl because of his inability to pay dowry. The tender age of the girl was supposed to be a perquisite to offset dowry, a ghastly indication of sexual abuse of children within Indian homes through the institution of marriage. This is the only case in which the girl did not wish to leave home and the zodiac essence of the Makar, as a sign of strong grounding probably is used to metaphorize the young girl’s need to continue her education and also her grooming into an adult.
The Aquarius, the Kumbh Kanya, the one who the hero eventually marries is a girl who is herself looking to arrange her own marriage. She wants to be rejected by the hero because she wants to be able to marry her Ugandan-Indian boyfriend, who unfortunately cheats on her. Her marriage to the hero is “arranged” by the marriage broker because the latter realizes that while the young people are genuinely in love with each other they are unable to realize it themselves. The Kumbh kanya is one who is genuinely on a marriage mission and her marriage to the hero is a crossing of paths. The sign of the Aquarius is often depicted as one which is matured, detached and independent and also somewhat resigned.
The Pisces, the Meen Kanya, whose father is a culmination of the rich businessman of the Taurean and the conservative one of the Aries and also the repressive disciplinarian of the Cancerian allows no space for the daughter. He insists on being with the daughter all the time and answers every question on her behalf. The father of the Piscean is the crudest instance of Levi-Strauss’s thesis that marriage is a contract between men carried out over bodies of women. The groom needs the money and the father needs a modern man for his daughter to be able to redeem his wealth into respectability and education. When the Piscean Kanya finds some space to talk to the hero alone she appeared to live in an imaginary world of dead humans, souls and reincarnation. Her imagination of her beau is that of his being a dead body and it is only with the dead that she can interact. Since she is to be a conduit for exchange of money between two sets of men, what else could she be but dead?
A point that seems to intrigue the hero is that while he takes so much time to decide about marriage how is it that the girls seem to have all decided one way or the other within few minutes of meeting him? A possible reply to this could be the fact that women are very clear what purpose marriage serves for them, for most it is a route to escape from the father’s domination, for some, a strategic move and for almost all, marriage as an institution does nothing for their personal growth, their professional excellence or for their physical and emotional needs. One cannot help noticing that given a choice no woman would have married except the Aquarius, the most detached and also the most self-absorbed sign of the zodiac. Marriage, as the older brother of the hero puts it cannot be successful should honesty and transparency be its foundation. For the woman, marriage serves no purpose except to ease the reigns on her a bit by transferring the hands that hold it namely from the father to the husband.
But the director’s concluding comments are that a system that binds women as conduits of exchange between men and fractures women’s minds, hearts and souls and ensnares her into silent acquiescence of her husband’s deeds and misdeeds cannot emancipate men as well. The conclusion of the film in which the marriage broker takes over the hero’s agency, arranges his marriage for him to the extent that he remains clueless as to who his bride is till she arrives at the ceremony, or the way the money is arranged without the hero having any chance to display his heroism, shows how the “rule of the father” liberates neither the girl nor the boy. Systems that are based upon asymmetries of power and agency and freedom can help neither the deployer of that power nor the victim over who the power is deployed. Released the day after the 24th September, the day of the girl child, the film is a strong statement to release women from patriarchy and then watch India transform into the superpower that it yearns to be.
“Hath jaa tau….”

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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