Back in 2011, director (and occasional actor) Anurag Kashyap said in an interview, “I can’t make romance films. Jo aadmi jo kaam acha karta hai usse wahi karna chahiye (A person should only do what they can do well).” Yet for all his unease with the romantic genre, his films are threaded with some of the most electric and full-bodied depictions of on-screen love.
Take, for instance, his inspired adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel, Devdas, whose sadboi hero has given generations of (male) directors goosebumps of excitement. While Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Paro coyly refuses to show her face to Dev when they meet after years, Kashyap’s Paro clicks nude pictures of herself, travels to the city to print them, scan them and send them to her lover in Dev.D (2009). On the phone, the two whisper sensual nothings to each other and Kashyap shows us Paro’s toes curling. “Main paagal ho rahi hoon (I’m losing my mind),” she says in heat. Later, she carries a mattress to the middle of a sarson ka khet – no doubt a hat-tip to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) making mustard fields the site of romantic longing – evidently hoping for a lot more than a hug. However Dev calls her a slut and leaves, and Kashyap gives us the unforgettable image of defiance and melancholy: Paro carrying the same mattress on her shoulder — this symbol of her lust and love being her personal cross to bear — while tears stream down her face.
Over the years, Kashyap has shown romance to be a kind of raw, wild and ashleel (indecent) passion that Hindi cinema refuses to acknowledge as a possibility between two people in love. In Gangs of Wasseypur 2 (2012), Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) peeks down Mohsina’s (Huma Qureshi) blouse and visibly writhes in pleasure, before politely asking her to have sex with him. Their suhaag raat is encapsulated in sounds: The bed creaks, steel glasses fall off shelves and moans erupt. Sure, one of them rules over Dhanbad’s underbelly with a lethal, iron fist, but their marriage is one that allows for a sense of equality — you see it in the generous teasing and leg-pulling — that seems to originate in shared lust.
Men and women don’t shy away from slapping each other in Kashyap’s films. No gender gets to occupy a higher moral ground and neither does any gender get to be complacent about being dominant. Kashyap’s films have women who are fiery, particularly when they’re in love. In Manmarziyaan (2018), when her soon-to-be mother in-law sees Rumi (Taapsee Pannu), she says, “Aankhein dekh iski. Aankhon se goli maarti hai (Look at her eyes. Her eyes shoot bullets).” Rumi is the one whom Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan) selects in an arranged marriage, preferring her bullet-stare over a (seemingly) demure, saree-wearing dentist. Writer Kanika Dhillon created in Rumi a romantic heroine who was disagreeable yet charming in a way that is usually reserved for men in Bollywood. Kashyap’s direction makes sure we don’t lose patience with Rumi, even as she dithers between the two men in her life, giving both of them heartburn. Through her two relationships, Kashyap presents the audience with two tantalising daydreams. One is “Fyaar”, with Vicky (Vicky Kaushal), which runs molten on the loins and the heart, and welds f***ing with pyaar (love) to create a whole new word. The other is the languorous ease that Rumi feels with Robbie. Her indecision brings home how messy love can be and because the audience is equally torn between these two men, it can’t point fingers at Rumi for not knowing with whom she wants to be.
Kashyap’s segment in Lust Stories shows another facet to the love triangle as we follow college professor Kalindi (Radhika Apte) who is neglected by her husband and having an affair with one of her students. Her husband, Mihir — who is never shown in the short film — encourages her to be promiscuous because he’s “selfless”. Kalindi is almost manic with wanting as she longs to belong while also defending her husband’s abandonment of her. The seemingly modern relationship hides age-old sexism, disrespect and power imbalance. Kalindi is neither free nor empowered. She’s only neglected, miserable and angry.
Kashyap’s love stories often unfold in the by-lanes and gullies of India. His young lovers flit around golgappe waalas and momo stands, shady bars and rundown buildings. By locating his characters in familiar placeholders, Kashyap gives his characters a lived-in world that the audience finds relatable. And into this world of familiar contempt, disappointment, excitement and desire, he adds a touch of surreal magic with the music. Love songs in Kashyap’s films are rich with sensuality, rebellion, irony, satire and quirk. Listen to “Kaala Rey” from Gangs of Wasseypur 2, which is replete with innuendo and has come to represent the two characters’ abiding companionship. Dev’s self-sabotaging angst became a cultural phenomenon through “Emosonal Attyachaar” and “Grey Waala Shade” is powered by Vicky’s feverish insistence that Rumi straddle him even while family elders sit within earshot.
The films that Kashyap has made so far enjoy a cult following for many things: The glorious gore of small town mafia and gaali-galoch; the memorable performances he extracts out of non-stars and the uncanny conviction that anchors his characters in the distinct universe of his imagination. It’s about time we added his depiction of love in contemporary India to the list.
This story was originally published on September 10th, 2022.