The bunkum of 'love jihad' rests on the idea that the brains of Hindu women are a bit like lauki—there but irrelevant. Despite being nonsensical, the theory seems to have stuck and has now managed to become the reason for banning Abhishek Kapoor's new film Kedarnath in seven districts of Uttarakhand.
The primary objection against the film—voiced, unsurprisingly, by a BJP leader in Uttarakhand—is that the film glorifies 'love jihad', a phenomenon in which Muslim men whisk away Hindu women who are believed to have a nondescript vegetable where their brain should be.
However, the good news is that Kedarnath—which is otherwise a problematic '90s rich girl-meets-poor boy story—is a slap in the face of 'love jihad' theorists.
Mandakini (Sara Ali Khan) is the daughter of a wealthy Hindu priest in Uttarakhand and Mansoor (Sushant Singh Rajput) is a porter. Mukku, as Mandakini is called in the film, is the kind of woman fundamentalists from all religions have a problem with. Considering they don't have any liking for a woman who exercises more agency than a candle stand, Mukku messes up the convenient 'love jihad' theory.
Mukku inhabits a patriarchal space not entirely familiar to women like me—it is the Bollywood fantasy of a small town where woman loiter in exquisite, figure-hugging, floral kurtas even in freezing cold—but the men are not entirely unfamiliar. A father who treats his daughters like assets to be bartered for personal gain, a fiancé who treats women around him like trophies to be shown off. Mukku's mother and sister are basically yes-women to the schemes of men. While the women Mukku lives with seem to have made peace with the infuriating restrictions of being a woman, is straining with all her might against it.
She is no crusader for the rights of women or a slayer of stereotypes, she's just a young girl fighting for her right to be happy. So she lies to her suffocating father and sneaks out to watch a cricket match. Or snubs a fiancé foisted upon her by her father.
Mukku's fascination for Mansoor begins like many crushes do, abruptly. It could also be in defiance to the exasperating audacity of the man she is engaged to, the man who broke her sister's heart. So it is Mukku who makes the first move and decides to pursue Mansoor. She turns up at the market when Mansoor works, asking for a ride. Mansoor initially refuses, but then comes around when she persists.
Kapoor reverses a problematic Hindi film trope in this scene where, when Mansoor tries walking away, Mukku grabs his arm and begins to argue. Even with genders reversed, the idea of grabbing someone against their consent is still annoying.
Thankfully, their courtship plays out with dignity, with Mukku simply trying to make conversation and Mansoor gradually opening up to her. Mukku's persistence in pursuing a man who isn't 'right' by the books of the life she is made to live is her way of exercising agency—something the 'love jihad' theorists do not attribute to women at all.
In a stuck-in-wet-clothes-in-a-cave sequence straight out of Aradhana, Mukku, thankfully, isn't reduced to being a shivering, coy woman waiting for the man to take charge. But Kapoor goes overboard here and has Mukku spit rainwater on Mansoor's face. If the latter looks like he's stuck on a bad Tinder date on a dry day for a moment, we don't blame him. However, thankfully, the moment passes and they end up kissing—again, this is initiated by Mukku.
Immediately after, Mansoor agonises over the fact that they cannot be together, but Mukku is still unfazed. In a mark of her commitment, Mukku also turns up at a wedding that Mansoor was even apprehensive of imagining her at.
Mukku's persistence is brought to life by Khan, who doesn't overdo the rebel act. She isn't screechy in the scenes where she has to be a foil to Mansoor's silence and she isn't theatrical in the scenes overpowered by melodrama. Khan's acting doesn't look rehearsed and hence, she saves Mukku from turning into a caricature.
Later, the film shows Mansoor pining for Mukku but not reaching out to her, while the latter actually trails him all around Kedarnath to win him over.
Besides the film's general campiness, its most problematic part is the depiction of the 'good Muslim'. To establish Mansoor as a 'hero', he also has to adhere to the Hindutva definition of the 'ideal Muslim'. Except for one fleeting glimpse of him offering namaaz, the film mostly has Mansoor singing paeans to Lord Shiva. During a cricket match, when Mukku asks him to pray to 'allah', Mansoor actually points at a mural of Shiva on a wall in front of him, expressing some sort of hope. He is also shown ringing the bells of a temple and, when confronted by a Hindu man about it, says he does that out of of his faith. A 'good Muslim' in the Hindutva narrative is often one who shows great deference to Hinduism at the cost of ignoring his own religion and Mansoor, unfortunately, is an embodiment of this.
However, Mansoor's 'good Muslim'-ness isn't enough to take out the sting from what Mukku represents—that women have brains and, as much as men dislike the idea, often use them.
Every week, the writer will examine how women are treated in a work of popular culture.