25 November 2013

Post-Nuptial Blues

This is my second column for The Sunday Guardian.

Jack shall have Jill;
Naught shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
(Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.461-3)

When I watched the 2000 Tamil film Alaipayuthey for the first time, I felt almost as though I was watching the sequel to every other romantic comedy I had ever watched. It seemed to me that the filmmakers were consciously addressing the problems that occur after a marriage, rather than before, as is more common in the Indian film industry. It dealt with discontent, jealousy and grudges – tensions that seem, in the general commercial film industry in India, to disappear magically at the end of a film, i.e., with marriage.

Often have the charges been levelled against Indian cinema of predictability, formulaic plots, inevitable weddings and happy endings. One wonders what happens to all the little problems that occurred during the film and are not resolved by the end. Commercial cinema prefers not to deal with messy realities; where there is a wedding, there is usually a happy ending. So too there is music, dance, and the extraordinary revelation of various misunderstandings.

This harmonious state that dominates the closure of commercial fare was never meant to be questioned; rather, it is part of the structure, and is expected and even looked forward to by audiences. The romantic union that inevitably concludes the film is a permanent and problem-free one, almost a restoration of social order: the leading couple attains wealth, happiness, and romance, and, often enough, various other minor characters get paired up as well.

That a happy story must end with a wedding is old Shakespearean formula. In part, both Shakespeare and commercial Indian cinema appear to be acutely aware that they create fictitious worlds that do not (and cannot) attempt to compete with reality. In Shakespeare's comedies, problems that seemed insurmountable are quickly and efficiently resolved and the union that the play seemed geared towards finally takes place on account of these easy solutions. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost inconceivably granted her wish when Demetrius loves her in the end; Olivia in Twelfth Night somehow finds a heterosexual outlet for the feelings she has for a woman she believes to be a man, while Orsino discovers that the man he appears to have feelings for turns out to be a woman after all; Phoebe in As You Like It agrees to marry Silvius, who loves her, when Ganymede conveniently turns out to be a woman in the end; a lucky coincidence saves Hero’s honour in Much Ado About Nothing and the twin weddings take place; in The Merchant of Venice, injustice is averted merely with semantics; in general, shrews are tamed, villains are defeated, fortunes are won and heterosexual marriages are made possible.

That these comedies, more often than not, end in marriage is clearly indicative of an accepted norm for comic closure; that they end happily is more arguable. The repercussions of indiscretions, jealousy, mistrust and disloyalty, which are quite marked and disquieting in the tragedies, are dispensed with in the comedies. However, the magnitude of these repercussions in the tragedy appears to suggest that when these tensions are disregarded, they do not diminish; rather, they are magnified. In effect, this makes the tragedy but an extension of the comedy.

My favourite example of this is the difference between Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. The plots of the two plays are almost identical: the male protagonist (Othello / Claudio), based on the manipulations of an angry antagonist who believes himself unfairly treated (Iago / Don John), is led to believe that his beloved (Desdemona / Hero) has been unfaithful to him. The former ends in tragedy, while the latter ends in comedy. The introduction of a fortunate coincidence makes Much Ado About Nothing end with marriage and, consequently, happiness. The mistrust and jealousy that drove Claudio to humiliate and abandon Hero is suspended by a plot device – had it continued, Much Ado About Nothing too would have ended in tragedy. Hero’s immediate and unquestioning forgiveness of Claudio for her humiliation is questionable; there is also the possibility that this jealousy may resurface later in the relationship and destroy it completely. The (tragic) flaw is thus the same in the two plays. What's also interesting is that Othello takes place after the wedding of Othello and Desdemona, a clear indication that tragic reversals occur after the marriage, i.e., after the comic closure.

Is all really well that ends well? The brilliance, both in Shakespearean comedy and in commercial Indian cinema, is this: the journey is often so memorable that questioning the destination seems entirely to escape the point.

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