Personal essay: Death is everywhere in Bollywood, but why is grief so rare?

What I discovered when I turned to Hindi films for solace.

https://scroll.in/reel/1002730/personal-essay-death-is-everywhere-in-bollywood-but-why-is-grief-so-rare

A month after my partner Abhiyan died, maybe it was a few days or weeks, I don’t know. I turned on his phone, it had been handed over to me at the morgue by one his students. I had slipped in that alien yet familiar silver rectangle into my bag, and only discovered it at the airport security on my way back, alone, with two phones. One mine, the other now also mine. I turned on his Apple Music play list, and listened to Nina Simone on loop. Oh that voice, he’d tell me.

And then inadvertently, I turned to Bollywood. Memories fell like the many aanchals in films.

Zingaat from Sairat, because his students danced to it non-stop.

The incredulousness on his face when he first heard Lungi Dance from Chennai’s Express.

And always, Raat Baaki from Namak Halaal, the song with which all our parties ended.

There are days when grief washes over me leaving me numb and frozen, and as I slowly start to move, it is to the background scores of Rafi, Hemant Kumar, and Pancham Da, Gulzar, Asha, Sahir Ludhinavi, Geeta Dutt, Kishore Kumar.

Yet, there’s something strange about Bollywood. As a self-confessed Bollywood fan, I must admit that this particular brand of mainstream masala films doesn’t prepare you for many things (I am not talking about outliers like Saraansh, Masaan et al). Which is perfectly fine, that is not why I see these films. They are great for many things but not for exploring the debilitating grief from loss. The thing is death is everywhere in Bollywood. But grief… that’s rare.

Loss in our beloved films is almost always of the beloved. Parental opposition, a problem of economics, misunderstood star-crossings, the hero’s failure to be a rock star or something even more unachievable, the heroine’s failure to have turned hot in time, the prospects of further studies or fancy jobs, millennial problems, and so many more twists and turns.

But when it comes to the matter of being grief-stricken because of death, Bollywood falls upon tried and tested tropes. It’s ironic, given the amount of times death is strewn into lyrics, and it’s literally just about separation. Yeah, that’s hard but hello, deal with it. Death’s the worst.

The Bollywood grief rulebook

If like me, you lose a partner, then fikr not! The boyfriend’s humshakal will conveniently pop up in Australia with gravity-defying dance skills. Or the girlfriend will now wear pastel-coloured sarees and come back to haunt sweater-boy as a ghost while enabling a profound sulah with father who was opposed to the said match and match-make all the students of a school.

When it comes to widows, there’re two paths to walk down. One is being assigned to a Nirupa Roy-like character. If she is lucky (because she still has a husband) she gets to keep her eyesight. Or she is the evil Lalita Pawar types.

Sorry, widows, we only get two options. Either she sacrifices everything to make dabbas of aloo paratha and gajar halwa, both slathered in ghee, or she insists people sacrifice everything for her laadla.

Wait, there’s a third one, if young, there’s someone ready to battle the world and marry her.

The feisty one who I love, is not from Pagglait. No thanks.

It’s Savitri, Jai Singh Rathore’s mum in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, played by Ratna Pathak Shah. She and her son take turns to cook while she groans at his samosa demands. She has a normal job because hello, bills. She talks to the Hogwarts-type portrait of her dead husband, Amar Singh Rathore (Naseeruddin Shah). Plus, she’s exasperated by her son a lot. Of course, Amar Singh talks back to his wife, but I guess, when there are perhaps enough brownies of a certain kind, a lot of photos do talk back.

Widowers have it a bit easier, they just need to worry about their daughter marrying some lout, all to a comedic track naturally, or they need to stare at a garlanded photo frame and address wife as so and so’s ma while wiping tears with folded white hankies. They also have the option of being married off to the wife’s sister because, you know, she’s right there.

The same goes for said person who has lost a sibling and can now be conveniently married. Or the wife will turn up alive, because it was actually the evil twin who died. Either ways, the men are able to play the violin or piano or some musical instrument to express their grief. (Though I must give it to that one moment where Rahul of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai asks Anjali, “Jab mujhe mere dost ki zaroorat thi, tum toh thi hi nahi” (Where were you when I needed a friend?)

Moving on (not really)

All roles are inexplicably obsessed with matchmaking. Fact: terminally ill characters play matchmakers in every movie. Daddies get mock heart attacks to ensure marriages stay within the caste. Because let us joke about something that kills people.

If the business partner dies, it’s most probably his partner who killed him, so there’s no loss there, or guilt.

A parent’s loss is best managed by quickly getting the other parent married. Especially a child with a love for summer camps where camp guides wear pastel sarees and suck at basketball. Apparently, it’s not like cycling, one can’t just stay good at the sport. Clearly, said child also never read Cinderella.

If the child loses both parents, best to let her grow up and be laden with the expectation of marrying the guy whose family she lived with, because clearly there were no sibling vibes here. Throw in a strange handshake-hug type sequence to denote deep friendship of the chaddi-buddy variety. If she grew up with a girl for a sibling, she can once again sacrifice her great love. It turns out that she does not have to because niceness wins.

Twins, of course, get separated at birth and one of them loses both parents and gets to live with horrible foster relatives. This understandably shapes their entire opposite personalities. At least that one has money, which apparently does not buy happiness.

Died in a fight sequence, oh well. Next scene please.

Vamp died in a bid to save the hero. Well done you, straight ticket to heaven.

Star-crossed lovers killed themselves. Cue in song. Let’s not talk about caste politics. What for? This is not arthouse cinema.

BFF died in a fight sequence, here, take a song. The same song as during the happy days, only played much slower, after famous last words. To give time to people hurrying out of the theatre to flag their transport before the rush of the other theatregoers like me who insist on staying until the end credits roll.

Rich person died, it is all about the jaydaad and waarises.

Died in the course of duty: a family of men will take over to become the Revengers. Or for love. There’s always reincarnation.

Died to frame someone: said person comes alive by the end in a dramatic song. And then dies again for real this time because, poetic justice.

Pushed off a boat by husband who wants jaydaad? Not even a croc can kill (they do have better things to do). Because truth is on her side.

The untold stories

The thing that Bollywood doesn’t get, is that it reduces grief to something that gives Indians the licence to turn around and say, oh but picture abhi baaki hai, mere griever. Not the part that is about endless paperwork, figuring out nominations and insurance and multiple traumatising calls and visits to bureaucratic offices. That’s only a possible story when a middle-class family wants a loan for a car or a wedding.

Or the shattering afters, the many many afters. The silences, the loneliness, the trauma, the expectations, the goings-on of the every day. Just beat chest and move on to the next matchmaking plot. And throw in a song about never having to say alvida.

Yet…

On a difficult morning, a friend sent me a video. I had recently read on Twitter how a doctor made video calls to relatives of a Covid-19 patient who was not going to make it. The son sang goodbye to his Ma with the song “Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle ka Naata Koi”. It was shattering, but also haunting in a wretchedly beautiful way.

After Abhiyan’s death, I kept listening to “Tujhse naaraz nahin zindagi hairaan hu main” from Masoom on loop. Gulzar’s words claw through farce, baring truths set to Pancham Da’s music.

You know what Bollywood? You keep your absurd characters and scripts. The songs and their lyrics, we will turn to them.

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