“Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.”
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
If watching Shah Rukh Khan’s 1990 hits taught me something, it was this: there are two boxes into which people you meet fit – one is friendship, the other is love. Take Dil To Pagal Hai (DTPH): SRK is unwilling to see his slightly flirty relationship with his good friend, played by Karishma Kapoor as anything but friendship. He only has to see Madhuri Dixit to know that he is meant to fall in love with her. No conversations needed. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH), he falls in love with a friend, but not before she undergoes a whole makeover. Kajol had to stay in the box for SRK’s friends, as long as she wore dungarees and kept her hair short. SRK couldn’t quite see that his best friend was in love with him, even when she was hurting badly from being so unheard and invisible. On the other hand, she only had to grow her hair and change into saris for him to realise that his love for her wasn’t the friendship kind of love, but love – the sexual kind. Both movies have friends, being slightly flirty with each other, apparently completely unaware of the possibilities open to them. When one of them becomes aware or open to these possibilities, the other one gets uncomfortable and begins to draw boundaries, about who to love, how to love them, and how much to love them. They also begin to come up with long dissertations on different categories of love. A lot is said in both these movies about dosti (friendship) and pyar (love). Dosti can’t be pyar and pyar can’t be dosti. If you suddenly feel pyar for someone, dosti sort of flies out of the window. Yes, once you have wanted to see someone naked, you can’t possibly want to be friends with them. And on the other hand, you can’t admit that your friendship may be mildly erotic, even if not sexual. Because that kind of sullies it for you.
These movies were a big part of my teens. My friends and I knew entire movies by memory. We knew the songs, and the dialogues. And as we playfully repeated them we learned the differences between love and friendship. We were all pretty confused if friendships crossed lines we had learned to draw around them. It felt wrong. Like we were betraying SRK or something (it may sound funny now, but if you were a teen in the 1990s, you know how serious an offense that was).
There were other lines being drawn: lines the movies perhaps themselves did not intend to draw, lines that weren’t very obvious to us. For example, when Akshay meets SRK in DTPH, why doesn’t he flirt just a little? When Kajol meets Rani in KKHH, why don’t they wonder which box they should put each other in: friendship or love? Even if the answer is friendship, why is this friendship between women not even a little bit flirty, like the friendships between men and women?
The problem with these representations is that they desexualize friendship and take out of it, the erotic dimension of deep, meaningful relationships. Around the same time that we were learning love laws from SRK movies, the teachers at my all-girls school called a meeting to discuss the hand-holding habits of the students. Why do girls hold hands, they wanted to know? If they wanted to hold the hands of boys… well, that wouldn’t be particularly allowed either, but at least that would be ‘natural.’ Why would they want to hold the hands of other girls? Why, indeed? We students were then witness to a kind of cleansing: friends who were suspect of too much hand-holding or hugging, were asked to appear in the principal’s office, and were told that friendship did not require the show of physical affection. There were a couple of lessons we learned from this: all physical affection is sexual; all sexual affection is meant for the opposite sex; everything else is unnatural. As physical contact was removed from friendships, homosociality which was common in an all-girls school was suddenly suffused with homophobia.
Not long after, it became very commonplace to wonder why some men held hands in public places? Was that an ‘Indian’ thing to do (as opposed to a Western thing)? Was that ‘our tradition’? Was it because in ‘our tradition’ men couldn’t be homosexual, and they could only be friends? But now that it had caught our eyes, could men still hold hands, without having to explain themselves in terms of ‘Indian culture’ and its differences with the West? What did a nation or its history have to do with a comforting feeling such as holding hands? But then are we saying that in the West (this easily identifiable ‘other’ to this very traditional ‘India’), people never hold hands, unless they are actually in a sexual relationship with each other?
Feminist and writer, Susan Sontag, said in an interview with the Rolling Stones:
“I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship – love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. But certain friendships can be erotic. Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.”
You might not want to turn every relationship into something sexual, but that does not mean that that relationship is always devoid of an erotic, physical component either. Dosti, be it Indian or from another place, often uses ‘touch’ as its form of expression. Holding hands, putting your arms around someone, holding someone close to you, feeling held, cuddling, being able to lean in – these are ways of expressing care, attention, affection. Touch is a modality of listening and of being present with someone; it is the stuff that friendship is made of. It speaks volumes. Definitely better than the Hallmark Friendship cards that began to make their rounds in the 1990s, becoming substitutes for hand-holding in our very homophobic school.
Does touch have the potential to become sexual? Yes. And why not? The ‘dangers’ that we sense in this potentiality of touch, often has more to do with our fear of crossing boundaries. Hence our need for two boxes: dosti and pyar. Dosti is supposed to be innocent; pyar is imbued with the dangers of boundary crossing. But neither is innocent or dangerous. Both are negotiations of power relations between people. When we try to keep them in these separate, oppositional categories, with no overlaps and continuities, dosti becomes desexualized, and pyar becomes nothing but sexual. How misunderstood platonic love becomes! How misunderstood a simple touch becomes!
In a heteronormative society, these taboos around touch smuggle in homophobia. They draw strict lines between the sexes, reinscribe those gender norms that abet heteronormative sexual practices and make it hard to recognize the possibility of something more than platonic love between people of the same sex. Hence, I guess, the many movies of the 1990s, where you had at least one character saying, ek ladka ladki kabhi dost nahi ho sakte (a man and woman can never be friends). In fact, that might be a direct quote from Maine Pyar Kiya, another movie where you are not allowed to assume that something is up between Salman and his male friend, played by Laxmikant Berde. But Salman cannot possibly be friends with Bagyashree, can he? All their cuddling can only mean one thing: they are yet to discover that their dosti isn’t dosti, it’s pyar.
Am I saying that we need to do away with boundaries? Won’t that be dangerous? Could it not lead to violence? Exploitation? I think, it is always good to have boundaries, but these boundaries need to be defined and negotiated as each individual relationship takes form: not between the categories of friendship and love. (And, maybe, if you do not feel safe with someone, that’s neither dosti nor pyar, and you need to rethink the whole relationship).
The 1990s may be gone, but Karan Johar’s many attempts at trying to figure out the boundaries between love and friendship are not yet done. KJo tries, and he tries. In Kal Ho Na Ho, he allowed himself to unmask the chemistry between men: friends to the end – SRK and Saif Ali Khan – hugged, talked, listened, and even made their maid very antsy with their chemistry. And then, not very long ago, he made Ae Dil E Mushkil. After watching this, a friend and I were both very uncomfortable: what does Ayan (RanbirKapoor) not get when Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) tells him that she wants him for a friend. That she does like to hug him, kiss him, hold him, cuddle with him, but as a friend. All I can think of is this: Ayan watched too many movies from the 1990s. (In fact, he is a huge fan of these movies, in the movie). To him all that cuddling and hand-holding could only mean that Alizeh wanted him sexually, and did not ‘know’ it yet. Alizeh grew up on a different planet, and can actually want a friendship that is erotically charged and based on mutually understood negotiations. As a movie, Ae Dil E Mushkil, made me think about these ideas of dosti and pyar and how irreconcilable and ugly they can get, if you lived in the world of Ayan. In Alizeh’s world too, dosti and pyar were distinct; and yet their modalities of expression overlapped. The movie does not allow you to think even for a moment that this was a woman who did not know what she wanted or did not want. The movie (perhaps unintentionally) makes you question what taking touch out of friendship has done. Can a woman now not hug her friend, without fearing that he will pounce on her one evening when she is tired from chemo?
But as I said, KJo tries and tries. A few attempts ago, he produced Dostana. And this felt strangely redemptive. Sameer, Kunal, and Neha, played by Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra may have been duping each other (and themselves too) to begin with, but by the end, they were pretty much all in love with each other. They can all hug, cuddle, kiss and be happy. Of course, Neha never wanted to sleep with Sameer or Kunal, even if they did want it for a large part of the movie. But neither of them decides to assault her either. Neither of them decides that her dosti doesn’t matter if they can’t have her pyar. And what about Sameer and Kunal? Did they actually enjoy that kiss at the very end? We will never know. But the movie almost asks us not to care about strict definitions of pyar and dosti; after all, you have to have a bit of one in the other, no? Maybe this is Hindi cinema, apologizing for the drama of the 1990s. But god, were some of our teenage years, scarred or what!