Back in the days of my early teens, dance performances and theatrical activities would consume most of my school days. This was one of those many dance dramas, where I had to play the role of a wife while my ‘husband’ was enacted, much to my excitement, by someone I had a massive crush on. When the day of the performance arrived, I had to, as a part of the costume, apply red paint on my forehead to signify sindur (or the red/crimson powder women apply on their foreheads as a marker of their marriage). What that meant to the young and naïve 13-year-old me, was an audacious attempt to claim my ‘love’ for him by applying real sindur, while taking his name. Dramatic as it sounds, I took great pleasure in repeating the act of applying sindur, each time taking his name. Carefully pinching it with my fingers, fluttering my eyelashes while I apply it, letting his name flow out of my lips in a trembling, melodramatic whisper, even deliberately letting some fall on my nose, were all acts I had performed to give myself a sense of belonginess to the man of my life. I had not applied it in a matter-of-fact way; instead the relevance of that event arose from the dramatic performance accompanying the familiar, mundane act. Yet, this ‘declaration’ of love and my performance of it, was a direct copy from the over-exaggerated scenes of Tulsi applying sindur in Mihir’s name, sans the over-sensational cinematography and the famous title track of Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi playing in the background. Those were the days of the grandeur of Tulsi and Mihir’s love story, and I was convinced that I need to be Tulsi and do what Tulsi does, to appropriately love my Mihir. Tulsi taught me not only how to love, but how to perform my love. Each time I repeatedly performed the act of love that applying sindur was thought to be, my subjective experience of love felt more legitimised and consolidated.
While, in the incident narrated above, I might have associated my personal experiences of love to the literal drama acted out in the TV serial, it is not that the dramatic representation of social relationships and beings in TV serials and cinema influence self-identity in a similar manner. In fact, that sensationalisation and extravagance characterise such audio-visual media is common knowledge. Yet, it is not difficult to notice the massive public presence of such ‘filmy’ theatrics and performative aspects adopted so casually by those consuming it. Who wouldn’t recognise the famous Shah Rukh Khan pose that became iconic for young lovers, love dialogues imitated in great detail, Bollywood love songs sung with much passion, various performative speech acts incorporated in regular conversations, and posters of movies and their actors distributed with great fervour?
It will be quite prudent to say that the carefully calibrated visuals, imagery, music and lyrics presented to us through cinema and serials assume a life beyond TV and cinema screens and sneak into the dynamics of both the public and private sphere. It, therefore, goes beyond its promise of entertainment; it provides a certain framework of a shared meaning system that is made accessible to its audience. In other words, audio-visual media, particularly cinema and TV serials, establishes a certain discourse around social relationships and social actors that it represents, which is recognisable by those engaging with the media. It is precisely the recognition and acknowledgement of such discourses that enables its normalisation (and therefore, domination) and its assimilation with the very common sense that dictates our lives.
The importance of the consequences of audio-visual media, although not immediately conspicuous, can hardly be ignored. It tells us stories through different genres and through various representations of identities, stylisation, cinematography, while each of these stories try to assume an essence different from the other. Yet, the narrative trope of each genre, over time, effectively assumes a common characteristic; a common order in which incidents unfold in the movie/serial. A ‘typical’ romantic Bollywood movie or Indian TV serial may seem like the following:
- Handsome (tall or not, as people’s preferences differ), charismatic man sees beautiful, domesticated, timid, slim, heroine. Hero falls in love.
- Hero stalks the heroine. Heroine says no, but hero assumes consent in dissent and continues his attempts to woo the heroine.
- Heroine gives in, goes out with the hero, they declare eternal love for each other in songs with elaborate vocabulary.
- Family of the heroine finds out, and is livid. Father of the heroine decides to marry her off to a person of his choice.
- Heroine resigns to her fate, and calls it quits with the hero with tears in her eyes. Hero is heart-broken, curses the woman for being disloyal and leaving him, but decides to fight for his love.
- Hero enters the family premises, destroys public property, throws around cars and people, defeats the father and rescues the damsel. The damsel follows him. As a bonus, the family accepts the man as the ideal man for their daughter.
- A happily-ever-after. The end.
When I write down what may be commonly understood as the typical romantic TV serial or Bollywood film, I wish to only point out the familiarity each of us might have with such an order, as if a definite script is already known to us. The narratives woven around such productions, however, have a deeper ideological consequence than what is immediately understood. The performative aspects, the dramatisation of love, the emotional evocation through audio-visuals within such cinematic productions serve to create a certain deification of love; they ascribe romantic love a certain importance and superiority over other social relationships. Furthermore, they attempt to definitively establish certain socio-cultural contours of romantic love. The romantic alliances and the romantic actors in them are specifically constructed through these narratives that suppose a special someone upon whom the one in love is fixated, motivating a desire for immediate companionship with that person; a desire for monogamy drives for a grand, final union with that person, its success contingent upon the person’s acceptance of the love and their reciprocation which needs to be constantly reproduced and reiterated by the people in love, and the glory of love as transcending and disrupting all socio-political structures is restated with force. Thus, a certain cultural form of romantic love is discursively constructed, through the intersection of various systems of representations and symbolism i.e. imagery, story lines, songs, lyrics, dialogues, costumes, etc.
What simultaneously, and in a concealed manner, also gets discursively constructed within the realm of romantic love, are the identities and roles of the lovers in question. This process of construction, I argue, is inherently gendered and closely follows, and re-establishes in return, hierarchical gendered power structures. If one looks closely at the way the lovers are represented, it will reveal the specific heterosexual, gendered parameters which dictate the roles and performatives that the man and the woman in love embody. The identity of the ‘aashik’, the man in love, is an active subject, signified by definite acts of speaking, initiating, proposing, pledging, recognising, apologising, fighting, trying, etc. Thus, acts of following the woman, stalking, and relentless persuasion that have continuously been criticised in feminist circles for normalising the disrespect of consent, are specifically legitimised through discourses around romantic love, that essentially define how the male lover would act. The male lover, therefore, does not give up on his search for love and challenges other masculine actors in the scene (the heroine’s father signifies the threat to the masculinity of the hero, that he must defeat in order to lay his claim on the heroine), in order to ‘conquer’ and ‘win’ his object of love. Conversely, the romantic actor to whom such acts are directed, is almost always a woman in love. As opposed to the active male lover, her romantic identity is carefully sutured together by acts and utterances of passivity and femininity, where she expresses her love through carefully embodying the object position and subsequently taking on the roles of emotional and physical caretaker of the man. Such a concept of romantic love as represented on the screen enables the gendered dynamics of the male offerer and the female offeree and establishes an asymmetrical masculine/feminine performativity embedded within gendered power structures to signify a romantic relationship If you are a man in love, they say, you ought to be the one to propose first. And if you are a woman in love, they say, you ought to say yes.
Furthermore, the emotionality of love is always conflated with the question of sexuality in its depiction. It goes without saying that a love story is only understood by the audiences of cinema/serials as only between a man and a woman and their emotional intimacy compulsorily manifested through heterosexual practices as expressions of love. If one notices carefully, there seems to be a constant urge to prove the romantic relationships; the depiction of sex as occurring within decorated rooms, accompanied by utterances of love, songs that swear by the eternity of it, and the beauty of the union of two souls, speaks volumes of how heterosexual practices signify the consolidation of romantic love by carrying connotations of intimacy, vulnerability, etc. Moreover, the representation of the heterosexual being in love offers to maintain the socio-cultural hegemony of heterosexuality, by normalising it through the lenses of romantic love.
If we are to follow Foucault, the discourses created around romantic love and heterosexuality through audio-visual media assume a certain institutional power that accords it a certain legitimacy within social discourses. It, then, employs such power to provide to the audiences a meaning-making framework that allows social beings to situate their subjective experiences within it, and derive meaning of their negotiations with their identities through the language provided. A social being in love, therefore, will find themselves subjected to the regulatory power of the socio-cultural discourses around romantic love, informed by the systems of representation in media. The texts of audio-visual media attempt to define the subject positions of those they represent, and anybody who seeks to affirm their identity simply needs to borrow from the pre-existing subjectivities available to them. These meaning-making structures, a ‘guide’ provided to me in a structured manner, enables me to identify myself as a heterosexual woman in love by appropriating particular meanings to that identity.
However, these meaning-making processes that media establishes shouldn’t be understood as unilateral; the text, its language and its semantic structures depends on hegemonic socio-political structures and their discourses. Cinema and other audio-visual media are, after all, understood to imitate the real into the reel, but they engage with consumers in a narrative that goes beyond the script of the movie; they renew, make and nudge forward a script that we are already familiar with. These complicated meaning-making structures and language employment by popular media make way for ‘shared’ ways of making sense of the self, and the relationships the self engages in. The familiarity with the script of love allows for it to define how a man and a woman should/could love, and establishes its dominance.
Having said that, the discursive power vested in audio-visual media can prove to be emancipatory if it seeks to re-write the scripts of love, to expand it to include various subjectivities, disturb the patriarchal gendered dynamics that it is based on by introducing a story that allows the audience to imagine it in various different ways, away from the strict, oppressive, mandate of heterosexuality. However, the responsibility to enable such revolutionary changes equally rests with the audience that seeks to take an active part in the discourses produced by media, and reject or welcome emancipatory and inclusive parts of it.
Cover Image: YouTube from Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi