Chitra Subramaniam| The News Minute| 8.00 pm IST
Rohena Gera is not your “normal” kind of a person. But then, that’s the point about her – what is normal and who decides, for whom and with what effect, asks the Stanford educated screen-writer-director who takes her critically acclaimed documentary What’s Love Got To Do With It? to London next week.
The “it” is marriage and the fun-packed documentary takes us through the lives of young Indians about to get married wondering how arranged is love and if love can be arranged then why is there no formula for it? In an exclusive conversation with Chitra Subramaniam, Editor-in-Chief of The News Minute (TNM) ahead of the London screening, the Pune-based Gera says her stories are people-driven and that’s how she hopes to generate emotions, laughter and viewership in India and abroad. Excerpts.
Before speaking about “What’s Love…,” I wanted to ask what you think of the Deepika Padukone-Times of India controversy. How do you see it?
I think moral policing was built into the headline “Cleavage show” and her reaction was justified. I think that’s what she reacted to, not to photographs in and of themselves. She is a beautiful woman, she has a beautiful body and she called TOI’s hypocrisy by telling them to deal with it. She’s brave to have taken them on. I think it’s great that she reached out to her fans on twitter. The newspaper seems to have completely missed the point by comparing cleavage shots to 8-packs. Would they be moralistic towards a man for showing his abs?
What is it with 8-packs? I thought the term was a 6-pack!
I think an 8-pack is like a 7 star hotel! One up on the 5 star, though I have no idea what that means! Seriously though I think we are going through a phase where we are extremely body conscious. When you ask people how a film was, they often say the actor was hot… which to me has nothing to do with the film. This applies to men and women. Whether it’s John Abraham’s perfect body or Priyanka Chopra’s… for a lot of people that is as much reason to watch the film as the story.
You wrote the script for Kuch Na kaho and a few other films. How difficult has it been for you as a screenwriter?
When you work as a screenwriter you have to be aware that film is a director’s medium. I really enjoyed working in the Hindi film and TV industry for a while. Other than KNK I worked with Kunal Kohli, Ram Madhvani and also with the TV serial Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi as well as a production company called iDream. But eventually I saw that I was a misfit, my sensibilities are different. I realized that if I wanted to tell stories the way I saw them, I would have to do it myself, i.e. Direct my own films.
Where did the idea of making this unscripted documentary come from?
Funnily enough it emerged in 2003 at the end of my previous marriage. When my “love marriage” didn’t work, I started to wonder about what works. I thought if love isn’t a stable enough foundation for a marriage maybe the arranged marriage folks have it figured out. That was where I started to explore.
Hence the title What’s Love Got to Do With It?
To me the title is not cynical… it is provocative. The film tells stories of people who are planning to get married, the pressures they face… and how love becomes secondary. While families may not “force” their offspring into marrying a particular person, they often make very strong assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. And it is these assumptions are written in stone. Even if they don’t “tell” you whom to marry, there is the assumption that both sets of parents should be somehow “similar”. How will they come over for a meal, what will they wear, same social standing, etc. etc. What the film shows is that often, in India, practical considerations are paramount when it comes to marriage. So it’s very hard to break out of one’s economic class in a marriage.
How does covert parental pressure exert itself ?
I think parental and societal pressure exerts itself through the thumping applause you get when you announce an engagement, especially to an “appropriate” man/woman. And while you are single, you hear of “success stories” and see glamorous weddings as the standard. And I think many people are made to feel like failures till they offer or acquire that ring!
Do you see a pattern in this – children couples looking and living almost exactly as parent-couples?
I think our parents’ opinions matter a lot to us and we tend to seek parental approval well into adulthood. You may play out the pattern, marry like your mother and then discover one day maybe that you are not like your mother, things are different, you are a wife and you have a husband and your expectations from your husband are very different from the ones his mother had from him. I have seen some very unexpected divorces.
The documentary dips heavily into humour – Did you plan it?
I didn’t expect it at all… I have to admit that people are funnier than screenwriters, I could not believe the things people were saying to me on camera.
What were some of the funnier moments during the making of the documentary?
Actually the film is very intimate and I was acutely aware that people were letting me into their lives, and sharing their deepest concerns. So the shoot itself was very contained rather than boisterous. There were some hilarious comments made though especially by the older generation (parents, and matchmakers), and we had to struggle to keep a straight face, or ask the follow up question objectively. The edit was a lot of fun though.
Do you think India is a good audience for mature humour?
I have had screenings in Mumbai and Pune, and the audiences have been fantastic. They have enjoyed laughing at themselves, discussing the film after and so on. If the audiences broke into spontaneous applause at funny moments in the film I think it’s because they enjoyed seeing their reality accurately captured on screen. I think it is the gatekeepers who play it safe and keep the bar very low.
The documentary also talks about individuals who disappear at the altar of societal acceptance. What happens?
I think a society that attempts to control who you love seriously clips your wings. For instance, one of the men I interviewed had been in love with a European woman who he could not marry unless she turned into the perfect Indian bahu (vegetarian and in love with the idea of a joint family). He broke up with her and spent years trying to find an acceptable woman to love. His own aspirations about love or romance had been completely subsumed by his mother’s need for an appropriate bahu. If you marry a bahu rather than a woman you truly love, where are “you” as a person?
Why don’t Indians openly talk about love?
There’s a lot of shyness, I think… But also I think one can be considered immature for being too dramatic about love. Even though our cinema celebrates love, somehow conventional wisdom doubts it or questions it’s power to overcome life’s real trials.
Do you think Indian women are a step ahead of Indian men?
Definitely. But to be fair to men, perhaps women in a patriarchal society have more to gain by breaking out and so they do… You need to be quite an enlightened and cool man to opt out of being a prince and ask instead to share in the housework!
Are there many women screenwriters in Bollywood?
Plenty – I have a lot of respect for Sooni Taraporewalla, who is also a director, although she is not bollywood. In the commercial hindi cinema world there is Zoya Akhtar who is a writer-director, Shibani Bhatija, Ruchi Narain… there are many.
If you were to make a feature film, who would be the actors you would pick?
In all honesty, I would pick unknown actors, people who would trust me as a director. Winning the trust of an actor is very important for a director and I would seek to work towards that.