A group of female acquaintances were chatting about this and that, and the conversation veered—as it does so often—to movies and Zero in particular, which all disliked not so much because Shah Rukh Khan played himself without any variation or because he was cast as a vertically challenged man, but because his Bauua Singh was so arrogant and obnoxious and, two far superior women were inexplicably attracted to him. Aafia, a brainy scientist (played by Anuskha Sharma) fell in love with him, wanted to marry him, had his baby (out of wedlock); when she was to be married to a scientist, a man her professional and intellectual equal, she ditched him and waited for Bauua to return from his trip to Mars.
The other female, a superstar Babita (Katrina Kaif), still hurting from a break-up, uses Bauua as a confidant and support system, seeing in him something that nobody else could (the audience certainly didn’t or the film would not have failed).
The argument went: Would bright and accomplished women have such low self-esteem that they’d settle for a man so inferior in every way?
In an earlier release, Kedarnath, a rich Hindu girl (played by Sara Ali Khan) falls in love with a poor Muslim porter (Sushant Singh Rajput) in the pilgrim town where they live, bringing the wrath of her family upon her head. In another film this year, Love Yatri, an NRI heiress and business school graduate, falls in love with an Amdavad boy, an academic duffer, who has no discernible qualities, except that he does the dandiya dance well.
Keeping in mind that love is supposed to be blind, opposites attract, and all that conventional thinking, today’s women surely have some standards by which to pick a partner; in real life, how many women are marrying so beneath themselves?
Hardly any of these films in which ‘commoner’ men win the hearts of princesses, does the woman actually marry down and move into a hovel. If they did, how long would the marriage last? Or is it not even considered because by the Indian rules of matrimony, the woman has to ‘adjust’ to every condition in her marital home. (Even today, on some regressive TV serial you can hear the dialogue about how once a woman’s doli has gone into a husband’s home, only her arthi should come out. It’s as late as 2017 (Toilet Ek Prem Katha) that a wife walked out because her husband’s home did not have a toilet. A decade ago, she would have gotten used to going into the fields every morning with the other village wives. In earlier films, if a wife walked out on her marriage or wanted to set up home separate from her in-laws, she was seen as a home-wrecking vamp.
It’s also a matter of some concern that hardly any of these women seen to use their education to build careers, and if they do—like Aafia, who reaches an international space organisation—her work seems to take a backseat to her love life, unsuitable though the man may be.
In traditional love stories and fairy tales, it’s the man who selects a woman—always for her beauty—and does the wooing and winning her hand in marriage, in so many stories, rescuing a woman from a wicked step-mother. A man may marry a poor or uneducated woman, but one would have to strain to remember a story which a man romanced an ugly woman. But women are often settling for ugly men!
Jessica Bennett, writing in thedailybeast.com, quotes from Lori Gottlieb’s book, Marry Him! The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough, in which “she counselled girls to forget the search for a soul-mate and nab the next nice nebbish they could find (lest they end up, like Gottlieb herself, alone and regretful at 40). ‘Wouldn’t it have been wiser to settle for a higher calibre of ‘not Mr. Right’ while my marital value was at its peak?’ Gottlieb wrote. ‘My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection … overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go’.”
Comments Bennett, “Though Gottlieb’s take was provocative, it was hardly new—“settling” is a trope that women have struggled with for ages. You know the old adage: a woman who can’t find a man is a spinster; a man who doesn’t want a wife is the envy of all his friends. Historically, of course, women needed marriage in a way that men simply didn’t: a woman without a husband wasn’t just lonely, she was broke, outcast, shunned. And so the modern marriage debates—the case for settling versus the case for singledom—have largely been written by and for women.”
An nytimes.com piece by Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui, says, “From Cinderella to Kate Middleton, fictional and real-life fairy tales have told of women marrying up. But it has been a long time since women said they went to college to earn a “Mrs. degree.” In more recent cultural touchstones — like The Intern, with Anne Hathaway, and Opening Belle, the novel and Reese Witherspoon movie — the protagonists are highly successful women with husbands who don’t work. (Spoiler alert: Conflict ensues.)…These changes have been driven by women’s increasing education and labour force participation, new gender roles, and the rise of what social scientists call assortative mating – the idea that people marry people like themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them.”
Most urban women, who have the freedom to choose, would want to pick partners who may or may not have six-pack abs, but are educated, well-groomed, have similar interests, a career with prospects – men with whom they can have a conversation. No wonder, they didn’t care for Zero– and Bollywood had better pay heed to what women want, since they are now make up sizeable audience numbers. Not just because the man was a dwarf, but because he was a frog who could never turn into a prince, no matter how passionate the kiss.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author.