From 'Autograph' to '96': The trope of romanticising past love

While these love stories are well-made and performed, one wishes that directors would push the envelope more when it comes to relationships.
From 'Autograph' to '96': The trope of romanticising past love
From 'Autograph' to '96': The trope of romanticising past love
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Indian cinema has had an enduring affair with two cinematic tropes. One of them is old love or past love, the love that springs up between the hero and heroine while they are in school, college or just out of college. The other trope is moving on from one’s past love and finding it in an ‘arranged’ marriage. Or as the music band Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young put it, “If you can’t have the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Very often, both tropes are present in the same story.

But it is past love that filmmakers across the country find fascinating. A couple of weeks back, Anurag Kashyap’s film Manmarziyaandealt with the very same theme. It’s the latest Hindi film amongst many to have done so. And it’s not just cinema. Across literature and poetry (Neruda, anyone?), paeans have been dedicated to it. Same old, same old.

Fixing the focus on Tamil cinema, this theme has found resonance in many Tamil films. As the latest hit Tamil film 96demonstrates, old love pays rich dividends at the box office, tapping on the wistful outpouring of what- might- have- been it evokes in the viewer.

However, if one were to look at some random hit films dealing with this topic in Tamil cinema, one aspect stands out -- the status quo is never disturbed. Old lovers may meet in the present but they rarely ever leave their spouses, if married, for one another. This, even if they may still harbour feelings for each other. Screenplays are cleverly written to keep the status quo intact.

One wonders if this a conscious decision not to rock the boat. Do the writers have an instinctive feeling that past love is best when viewed through the soft lens of memory-tinted nostalgia? Or do they sense that if this past love becomes a current one and the lovers unite, the magic may evaporate in real life?

96, the current Tamil hit film, written and directed by C. Prem Kumar, has high school sweethearts, Ramachandran (Vijay Sethupathi) and Janaki (Trisha), meeting after 22 years at a school reunion. Interestingly, the director shows that they still care for each other but they do not act on it. No lines are crossed even as they spend a night together. When the hero pays his respects on glimpsing the heroine’s ‘thali,’ it seems to be the director also doing so.

This beautifully acted and directed film is an homage to past love. The heroine responds in a beautifully written line, when asked by the hero if she is happy in her marriage, that she is at peace. Implicit in this is that perhaps her true love still lies with the hero. Yet the director, who is also the writer, shies away from making this heroine do anything drastic like leaving her spouse.

Would that act have diluted the impact the film has? Would the issues of ethics and morals that would invariably be part of such an action, spoil everything? Filmmakers and writers are smart enough to know that very often love does not conquer all. And if it doesn’t where past love is concerned, all the better.

Take the example of another hit Tamil film dealing with past love, Autograph(2004), directed and written by Cheran. In it, the hero, Senthil, sets out on a journey to distribute his wedding invitation. In doing so, he meets three women who meant a lot to him at different stages in the past. The second woman he meets on this journey is his college love, Lathika, who is now a widow. If the writer were so inclined, it would have been possible to have Senthil and Lathika reunite. They were torn apart due to circumstances which do not exist anymore. Yet this does not happen. Instead, the hero is advised by both Lathika and the third woman he meets, Divya, that life has to go on, that it is best to go ahead without looking back. This is ironical indeed, in a film which is essentially about looking back.

Stories continue to be written cleverly so that the status quo is not disturbed. Death, conveniently enough, plays an important part in the above process. If your past love is dead, then there is obviously no danger and there is the added advantage of pathos. So, in Mani Ratnam’s early breakthrough film Mouna Ragam(Silent Symphony), the heroine Divya settles uneasily into an arranged marriage, unable to forget her past love. The past love, Manohar, is played by the actor Karthik with such charm, vivacity and appeal, it’s a good thing that he’s dead. If that were not so, the viewer would inevitably wonder if Divya could ever be happy with the staid, quiet man she marries.

Death makes a guest appearance in the hit film Raja Rani (2013), too. Written and directed by Atlee, this is a romantic drama about a couple who learn to find love in the present, moving on from their past loves. In it, the lovely Nazriya Naseem plays Keerthana, the bubbly past love of the hero John. But she is, you guessed it, dead; so, the hero can move on guiltlessly. The heroine Regina’s past love is alive. He has moved on, though, and just like the women in Autograph, advises Regina to do the same. Such nobility and unselfishness in thought helps in keeping one’s past love frozen in the prism of nostalgia. Past love, remembered and idolized, seems to be preferable to past love finding a future in the present.

Gautham Menon’s Neethane En Ponvasantham(You are my golden springtime), which released in 2012, was the rare exception to the rule. In this story, finally, almost at the altar, the hero decides to go with his heart rather than his head, and reunites with his past love. It’s a refreshing change to a familiar story that usually treads the tried- and- tested path.

The idea then, is that past love is to be cherished when it stays safely in the past. There is an inherent romanticism in remembering one’s past love in all its idolised glory. The unwritten rules of conventional thinking are also adhered to in these stories.

All of the above films mentioned were well directed and acted, they did well at the box office, too. One just wishes that once in a while, when this trope of old love is dealt with in a film, the envelope is pushed. That the unthinkable happens. That, irrespective of their marital status, former lovers get together in the present.

Until then, writers and filmmakers will metaphorically be like the hero in Selvaraghavan’s hit film 7G Rainbow Colony, forever talking to a dead past love.

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