By Anjali Bhavan
It is the 1990s, and the Kargil war is just around the corner. A group of Air Force fighter pilots in Srinagar sit drinking coffee and indulging in discussions on militant violence.
‘I don’t agree with this,’ Leela, the girlfriend of VC, one of the pilots, says.
‘Are you a pilot? Are you in the Air Force?’ VC barks angrily. Leela proceeds to put on his headgear. ‘Can I talk now?’
‘Put it down,’ VC growls. ‘Put it down!’ He barks, and Leela puts it down. He then quickly apologizes and as she tries to leave, he thrusts her aside in anger and she stumbles to the floor.
‘I love you I love you I love you,’ VC sings to her later. ‘You and I are never equal, you’re above me,’ he croons.
This is the crux of the relationship between Leela, a doctor in Srinagar, and VC, a dashing Air Force pilot and the plot of Kaatru Veliyidai, the 2017 Mani Ratnam film that has attracted a lot of backlash over the depiction of an abusive relationship and a ‘doormat’ leading female character. The umbrage is justified, of course – the movie is exceedingly difficult to watch, and VC intensely unlikeable. We are left squirming most of the time, cringing as we watch Leela take wrong decision after wrong decision, go back to him time and again even after he brings her back as a bet with his friends, even after he forgets their wedding registration day (yes, he actually forgot that he had to get married), even after he humiliates her and pushes her around several times in front of his friends. Why does she go back to him, we ask ourselves and the film again and again. Why would any girl tolerate being treated like a doormat?
The film gives us one answer: love. It’s supposed to be love.
And that is where the problem lies: Mani Ratnam gives us no explanation as to why an educated and intelligent doctor like Leela accepts someone like VC – is it because her father is like this? Is it because of some childhood trauma? A pattern of being with narcissistic, chauvinistic men?
We are given a little background for VC: his father is contemptuous and treats his wife badly, and VC even acknowledges this once: ‘I am just like my father.’ But no such background is provided for Leela. Instead, we are left with no choice but to just accept that Leela wants VC in her life, and she is okay with being manipulated and treated like a second-grade woman.
But what if there really is no reason? What if people coming from perfectly nondescript families do pick toxic partners and stay with them even despite the relationship turning abusive?
Our social narrative instructs us that if anyone is in an abusive relationship, they must have had a sad, broken childhood or undergone serious trauma – be it the abuser or the victim. And there is a reason behind such assumptions – dysfunctional families and trauma impact us psychologically, and alter our view of the world and the people in it. This leaves us with a problematic version of what is right and wrong, and we are ingrained with the need to protect/be protected by our partner, which is why we pick submissive/abusive partners according to our mental makeup.
Is it possible, then, that someone with a perfectly okay and nondescript life chooses to love an egoistic, sexist, and manipulative partner? The film leaves us with that question to ponder on. Whatever abuse or trauma may have impacted us, it is after all our decision whether we actively work towards not letting it affect our future relationships or not.
What VC and Leela have is essentially unequal and toxic; it is about dominance and submission, of an independent, intelligent woman consistently choosing to be her partner’s obedient other half, instead of being a fully realized person herself. The lack of appropriate background story is uncomfortable, but haven’t we met people like VC and Leela in real life? Haven’t we known toxic, manipulative men and women who are content with being pushed around?
Perhaps the main problem is that the film celebrates this romance – VC is a lovable hero, and Leela our delicate heroine. This is an abusive relationship that mustn’t be romanticized, but we are instead shown dance sequences and VC sliding his finger down her nose, her face, her neck, then further down…
Kaatru Veliyidai is a flawed, difficult watch. But if you see it without wringing your hands over why Leela isn’t behaving as a dignified, self-respecting woman (that is, as you expect her to), then it is fairly likeable, and is a mature (again, flawed) portrait of a complicated, unequal relationship.
Anjali Bhavan is a 19-year-old engineering undergrad. Her work has appeared in The Speaking Tree (a weekend supplement of The Times of India), Esthesia Magazine, Coldnoon International, the Allegro Poetry Review and Span Magazine. Her short story was once published in A Twist in the Tale, an anthology of short stories by Max Life Insurance. She currently writes on her blog, for The Wordsmiths and for High on Films, a popular film website.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Women as the ‘displaced’: The context of South Asia’, edited by Suranjana Choudhury, academic and Nabanita Sengupta, academic, India.