Things I think Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi is about:
The construction and perception of identity; misunderstanding of gender expectations, and the consequent difficulty of communication within relationships; the use of persona to explore hidden facets of one's personality; the way changes in personality and behavior (up to and including an attempt to more fully express one's "authentic" interior being) can clash with the way one's identity is seen by the people in one's life; and the way that common tropes from romantic fiction, like losing one's inhibitions and risking all for love, gloss over the real potential consequences of those dramatic gestures.
That's an awful lot of ideas floating around in a movie I only really wanted to see because of the adorable "Haule Haule" picturization of a fully nerded-out Shah Rukh Khan riding around backwards on a scooter. Even more considering that my first thought, upon hearing the premise, was that it's like a gender-reversed version of the most memorable romance novel I ever read as a little girl (mainly for its lavish descriptions of clothes): Barbara Cartland's deranged makeover classic Desire of the Heart. (Which I am personally choosing to think of as Dil Ki Ishq, and I should probably keep that to myself).
Warning: you are about to be subjected to a lot of loosey-goosey, quasi-philosophical chit-chat about how some people react to situations, all completely non-scientific, but based on years of observation and things people have told me over drinks. In the context of a movie many people didn’t like, and an out-of-print book that nobody’s read. That’s the way it goes.
Oh, and this post is insanely long. I'd get a drink first.
In both RNBDJ and DOTH, the protagonist has a spouse they're in love with, but who doesn't love them back, having married them for some (very different) form of convenience. The protagonist gets a dramatic makeover, taking on a fictional name and identity, largely in order to get a handle on who the heck the spouse is when the protagonist isn’t around. In disguise, each protagonist ends up winning their spouse's heart, and then thinks: What the hell do I do now? The use of overt masquerade within each narrative provides an exaggerated version of the ways people use personas in an attempt to win acceptance or love. What is exaggerated can easily be viewable as symbolic, and I am totally going to do so.
After years of contentious feelings toward makeover narratives (and being on the wrong end of plenty of attempted real-life makeovers), it's a delight to see this play out with the man getting the makeover. Having this similar storyline in mind, I see RNBDJ contrasted to a more traditional use of the makeover narrative. But instead of playing out to such a (in my mind) regressive effect, I see it as using the narrative conventions to deal with issues of identity.
Let's start with the Shah Rukhage.
Lovely young Taani, devastated by her fiancee’s sudden death, agrees to her dying father’s request that she marry an old friend, shy bachelor Surinder (Suri). They go home and settle into something of a domestic routine, while she grieves and he hides his actual love from her. When Taani joins a dance competition (“Dancing Jodi”), Suri decides to get a makeover (a pretty failed attempt make himself look like a “hip” guy) and surprise her there. But when she doesn’t recognize him, he makes up a name (Raj Kapoor) and ends up becoming her dancing partner. She loosens up in Raj’s presence, they get to know each other, and things come to a head when Suri, as Raj, invites her to run away with him on the night of the final dance contest.
It could have been any scenario to bring together two well-meaning people who get married without really knowing each other in a meaningful way. (For some reason, I'm reminded of the Sex and the City episode in which Charlotte lamented her unromantic marriage plans: "What am I going to tell my kids? "Well, Mommy really wanted to get married so she asked Daddy and Daddy said "All righty." ") The drama of the film's opening ten minutes places it into a more heightened realm, and the admittedly contrived plotline exists to put these two people in a situation where a variety of issues can be explored within more of a fairy-tale scenario than a realistic one. Which, frankly, I prefered it to, say, the more "realistic" domestic drama of Sex and the City, or, say, KANK. That's the one where well-meaning people get married, and/or stay together, for all the wrong reasons (much like this one). RNBDJ does, in a way, put a more standard SRK "love conquers all" spin on it, but in a way that plays out with oddly realistic tensions.
Surinder thinks Taani wants someone young and brash, that he has to be "cool" or "macho" to impress a woman. She thinks he wants her to be a quiet, conservative, traditional wife. (Her decision to run away with Raj occurs right after an attempt to embrace her new life by a full-on house-cleaning montage. Coincidence? I think not!)
He's right: she does think he's kind of boring (and actually says so). But when he acts spontaneously, more like a crazy young guy than the way she expects him to act, she's annoyed and disturbed. She tells him (in his Raj persona) that women want grand, romantic gestures. (And certainly many women have faulted the men in their lives for the lack of such). But when he presents her with one, it’s too much, and throws her into an unpleasant emotional confusion. Both of these situations are depicted in a way I found unusually realistic for a romantic film. She's not depicted as a contrary diva. She's just an ordinary person, with a lot of ideas about how love and romance are supposed to be, and ideas about what she expects from other people and who they are. These ideas clash with a complex reality.
When Suri first sees (and falls in love with) Taani, she's lively and expressive, full of fun: "her joyous dance, her unhesitant laughter." His nature is reserved, and he seems to have been fairly content with his quiet life. But when he sees how Taani lives her life, it reveals a reserve of untapped romanticism, and makes him realize that he does in fact want more.
In turn, the offer to share this life of low expectations seems like a good coping mechanism for a young woman who's suffered an unexpected tragedy. She’s on the rebound from life, suddenly much more willing to “settle,” so she marries the nice guy who doesn't demand much from her, with whom she could potentially develop a relationship of friendship and respect, and probably, eventually, sex, if not real passion. (I can't help but think an American version would somehow make clear that Surinder was a virgin and the younger, carefree Taani was not).
In a further turn, though, the situation is complicated because Suri has been awakened to love and the greater possibilities of life. Suddenly, he doesn’t want to settle anymore, and doesn’t think she should either. At the same time, openly expressing his love would clearly endanger the balance of their relationship, as it does in fact disrupt the friendship between Taani and Raj, where there's less to lose. Meanwhile, Taani's feelings illustrate the fact that, once someone has been hurt, falling in love again can be difficult, even threatening.
If he expresses his love openly as Surinder, he could actually frighten away the woman he loves, because of the luck of circumstances in which they came together. He's got it better than he's ever had, and he could lose that by trying to get more. Again, this is not an uncommon relationship situation, albeit not one that usually involves dance contest masquerades. But the realistic fear of possible repercussions can also prevent things from changing in a meaningful and positive way.
Speaking of change: "I have to kill the old Taani that was, and become a new Taani," she says. Seriously, she's like every girl who left the punk rock scene and married a nice guy who works in a bank. Believe me, it happens! They really probably don't have to "kill" the old self, but I'm sure it feels like that at the time. To fit into the new life and role, they have to change who they are, stifling the aspects they used to express freely. Surinder's taking on an overt persona is an outward mirror of the internal identity confusion going on inside Taani as she changes from carefree girl to grieving woman, from modern girl marrying a modern boy to someone with a husband whose life (and perceived expectations) are much more traditional.
But while she's struggling to change herself to fit his life, he says, "She wants to change herself...But I love her just the way she is...I don't want her to change." So he tries to change himself into someone that might suit the life he thinks she wants to have. (Man, this is like those papers I used to have to write about Twelfth Night: it’s very complicated in an identity drama to explain who you’re talking about).
Surinder is certain that Taani wouldn't dance with "a geek like me." That's his (potential) misreading of her gender expectations. At the same time, he recognizes that "She can never be the old Taani around Suri." (The reality being, not necessarily "never," but certainly "only with time and difficulty." And that he’s really better looking in his subdued nerd avatar than he is with Raj's goofy haircut and rubbery facial expressions. Although that last might be a personal bias of mine).
Surinder bases his persona on the kind of romantic heroes that Taani enjoys watching in movies, who are physically aggressive and self-consciously "cool." One of the enjoyable details is that, faced with a guy who behaves like that in real life, Taani isn't impressed at all. She more or less thinks he's a jackass, and he has to win her over with his good intentions, just like he would have to do as Surinder. Only as Raj he doesn't come with the situational baggage he does as Surinder.
Of course, since he's played by Shah Rukh Khan, there's a metafictional subtext about what people might think of the more over-the-top SRK characters, whom they love on the screen, as some people do, if they came across them in reality. I know some people find the metafictional thing annoying, and I can totally see their point. But in SRK's defense, it might start to seem artificial not to deal with the topic head-on. If Shah Rukh is the avatar of love for this generation, here he is enacting the drama of someone who thinks he has to be like a Shah Rukh character to find love, and being totally wrong about that.
(Digression, or shall we call it a footnote?: My whole SRK-is-an-avatar-of-love thing is also reflected in another metafictional component: "I have learnt about love from the gods of love," her fantasy Raj says. Meaning, of course, the stars he impersonates: Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, and Kapoors Raj, Shammi, and Rishi. The "Hum Hain Rahii Pyar Ke" song contains the refrain "In every life we change our form/On dream's curtains are we reborn" (or at least that's what the subtitles tell me, although I'm sure there's got to be a better translation than that). The dream's curtains business is an obvious reference to the fantasy world of film, and "changing our form" suggests the way each era has its romantic hero. The superstars are distinct individuals, but are all manifestations for their specific time periods of a universal need, embodiments of the desire for love).
Suri's plan, such as it is, involves spending some time with her and attempting to cheer her up in disguise. But once he, as Raj, makes an emotional connection with Taani, things grow increasingly sticky. I don't think there's any possibility he started the disguise to test her, but in the course of it, things came to light, and he's forced to deal with them. When he says that she "has" to love Surinder as he is, I didn't take it as an emotional ultimatum, or stubbornness on his part, because it's paired with an "otherwise." If she doesn’t, then they’ll end up “hum hain rahii pyar ke, phir milenge, chalte chalte” -- a serious use of his jokey catchphrase for parting and saying goodbye. If she isn't able to love Suri as he is, then it isn't going to work in the long run, because while Raj is a part of him, it isn't the totality.
Either or both of them can change to be more like the person they think the other wants them to be, but that’s not going to lead to genuine connection between them. The “real” Taani and Suri can never fall in love if they never meet, because they're always playing the part of a person they think the other wants. (Gar, I'm feeling all Twelfth Night again!) It’s not that either needs to change as such; they need to understand who they really are and what they really want out of life, and then try to see the other person as they really are.
If people both love each other, "swear to god it's true love," then they should be together. If they both don't feel the same way about each other, then they should part amicably, despite external pressures that include: I promised my father! I'm afraid of being alone! What will people say? None of that really matters next to a lifetime when you and another person could be happier. But knowing what the other person really feels, and sometimes even knowing what YOU feel, isn't always that easy.
The plot gets a little shaggy as the masquerade gets out of Suri's control, and the characters’ feelings and motivations undergo various shifts, but it's a little late in the day for me to start judging Bollywood harshly for the lack of clear narrative follow-through. And even as it sometimes seems to meander emotionally, the film depicts various roadblocks to honest communication between people in a close relationship. Genuine concern can seem over-solicitous and even annoying. Giving space -- even when asked for or needed -- can seem like disinterest. Trying too hard to make others happy can create complications that cause them new pain.
Once Taani knows that Suri was Raj, she knows that he can make her happy. Because he has made her happy. And she knows it was done selflessly, because he made her happy in such a way that it was impossible for him to actually benefit from it. Suri wasn't getting any points at home for cheering her up as Raj.
Persona and the Makeover Narrative
Inhibitions tend to get a bad rap in fiction, which tends to promote the letting down of one’s hair, and idealizing the free-spirited at the expense of the “uptight.” But people have inhibitions for a reason. They have to weigh their words and their actions with the possible consequences. Others will remember what you’ve said and done, and judge you by them. In real life, expressing your love when you're not sure of the reception can be a huge gamble, and people have lost things they had and didn't want to lose, without gaining the more that they wanted.
In a long-term relationship, like a marriage, or between family members, it's easy for people to fall into personas, ones that are not exactly inauthentic, but are incomplete. Surinder and Taani could obviously easily become like that, and not be unhappy together, but both never be truly happy either.
There can be a feedback loop of perception, which is part of the reason why people can have issues with family or long-term relationships when they feel their identity is changing, or has changed. The other people don’t have to actively press for the maintenance of an old identity, or thwart the expression of a new one. Just knowing that those other people know you, and have expectations of who you are, can be inhibiting. Often times, people feel they can’t be a new person in the old environment. Or it can be actually, overtly stressful when identity conflicts with the expectations of others. Sometimes it's not overt conflicts that separate people, but the strange moments when, faced with someone you've known for years, you wonder, do I really know this person at all?
This is why people experiment with their identity and their lifestyles when they leave home and go to college, where they meet new people who didn't know them before. When they move to a new town. When they dive into new subcultures, or take one "artistic" personas. (John Lydon vs. Sid Vicious). People can use personas to explore different aspects of themselves, and hopefully, in the end, figure out who they really are.
Taking on a persona can make that easier, but then that can lead to a conundrum. Does she love me because of my indie-rock cool, or my "I'm a tycoon" confidence, or for "the real me"? How much of their interactions with others are a pose, or really authentic? Am I really "being myself"? Sometimes people will abandon a persona as no longer being "really me," startling the friends who knew them as that person, and sometimes leaving them feeling betrayed. And this can work both ways: the conservative housewife who suddenly comes out as a militant lesbian, shedding her old life like a cocoon, or the college-age militant lesbian who decides she's really a traditional girl who wants a husband and babies and a life in the suburbs. I've met 'em both.
The persona might be a part of them, but not the whole of them, and might come to feel like a straitjacket. The best-case scenario is probably to integrate the side of one's internal self that the persona fulfils with the "real" private person. But creating and maintaining an identity that’s true to one’s self can be a difficult job.
Persona particularly shows up as an issue in romantic relationships. Women feel they have to dress and act a certain way to get men. Men think they have to dress and act a certain way to get women. From The Rules (play hard to get!) to The Mystery Method (get any women into bed!) to the covers of a million magazines, the mainstream media is full of messages that you'll never find happiness being yourself.
The Big Makeover Scene is this identity conundrum in a nutshell. An individual is subjected to a process of artificialization, in the service of showing her as she "really is," as a beautiful, desirable woman. Desire of the Heart depicts this absolutely without irony, taking for granted that we'll all understand the necessity for this. In the more recent Clueless, Cher can make over her friend Tai's surface, but she can't change who she really is. (Unlike the horror that is The Breakfast Club, where that lesson is never learned, so the audience is left with the message: sure, you can change someone's whole life and personality by brushing her hair and putting a bow in it! Because by god, it would never occur to Ally Sheedy on her own to brush her hair).
Pardon my spleen.
Anyway, when I first saw Main Hoon Na, I was awestruck by the scene in which Sanju gets a glamorous makeover. All the boys at school fall over her, especially the one she's in love with, who's always treated her like one of the boys. But when he expresses his interest, she tells him that "I feel like I'm cheating you. Because this isn't the real me. Tomorrow when I go back to my old clothes...then what?" Delightfully, the makeover doesn't take. She is who she is because that's who she is. It's the boy who has to be "made over," in the sense that he learns to appreciate her as she is, and stop judging women for appearances and behavior that might be all empty persona.
I've been waiting my whole life to see that makeover scene!
In RNBDJ, it's the hero who acts out the makeover narrative, and in doing so, gets to test out different, more uninhibited and fun-loving aspects of himself, rather than using it to conform to cultural gender stereotypes. In fact, his friend Bobby, who owns a salon (and whose job, therefore, is to help people either improve or express themselves through their appearances), encourages him toward a more conventionally gender-based identity. But that doesn't, in fact, appeal to Taani at all.
Further Elements of RNBDJ
-- Speaking of Bobby, I don't care if there's something self-serving in the subplot of how the romantic hero can still be totally heterosexual even with a best friend who, if not overtly stated as such, is clearly "coded" as gay. It can be as Shah Rukh and Karan Johar as it wants to be: it's still delightful to see the two men easily express their love, and drink and dance together like schoolgirl best friends. The world would be a better place if we saw more of that kind of thing.
-- After reading some reactions to the film, I feel compelled to talk about the God business, which I didn't really intend. It's probably just because this is such an area of my interest, but it all made perfect sense to me. God’s a metaphor for love, love’s a metaphor for God, that’s all pretty fluid in my mind. Now, where did I put that last book I read on tantric Hinduism? I know there were some relevant quotes. God (or a concept of the divine) can be present in all things, and yet also manifest specifically. God may be everywhere, in an abstract sense, but also take the form of human individuals. In a secular context, one can take that as a metaphor for the complex nature of human beings, who "contain multitudes," as Whitman put it. An individual is more than the limited perceptions other people have of them, and love involves seeing the divine qualities within them, but without being deluded, or seeing what you want to see. Seeing them as they really are, but in a sublime way.
Boy, that sounds corny, but maybe that's why I enjoyed this movie so much. Like it or not, I am a corny gal, and just flipping through the songs on the DVD index, I got all teary-eyed watching the sad "Tujh Mein Rab Dikta Hain" scene, in which Taani, about to run off with Raj, suddenly looks at Surinder and sees his worth.
Actually, this returning refrain illustrates one of the ways that music can be used in Hindi films for emotional effect, in that what is connected musically is also connected emotionally. In the earlier version of the song, Suri lengthily expressed that he saw God in Taani, in a beautiful picturization of his feelings for her: full of color, freedom, showers of flower petals everywhere. When she sings the same song back to him, it’s a sign that their feelings are aligning, showing -- or, well, telling -- that she's begun to develop the same feelings for him that he has for her. So I don’t see the message being that (as a married woman) I'm supposed to see God in my husband in some "lord and master" way, but that he and I, in an ideal world, should see God in each other.
Early on, she had said that she was taking her anger at God out on Suri. Her anger at God is totally justified, but her anger and grief mean that she's in no emotional position to "see god" in anybody. This makes sense if seeing God is taken to be at least something of a metaphor here, for the fact that her pain has made her afraid to love or be happy again. Once she's begun to live and laugh again, then she can start to know how she really feels about anything, and be truly open to new love.
-- There are also a few subversions of common film tropes that I’ll mention in passing: for one, the Hindi film ideal of the romantic rival who selflessly steps aside. Not that I think people in India are any more selfless in real life than anybody else, but it's still a nice ideal. It makes sense, too, because people do spend a lot of time, in films and sometimes in life, trying to win people with whom they'll never be happy. If the other person doesn't love you, letting them go isn't just a decent thing to do, as a way of putting that person first, and concerning yourself with what will make them happy; it's really the only thing that makes sense. (Not that people in the crazy throes of love necessarily care).
Surinder is definitely falling into that archetype, ready to be Salman at the end of KKHH, or Akshay at the end of DTPH, or Kareena at the end of MDK. Or Rani at the end of the Salman Khan Sarong Movie. Except the twist in this version is that he'd be stepping aside for her to marry someone who doesn't really exist. If she were in love with some other man, a real one, he'd be able to step aside nobly. The fact that there is no other man doesn't change the fact that if she's unhappy, if it really isn't going to work except as a compromise on her part, then he should step aside nobly anyway. That's why he's so concerned to know how she really feels.
There’s also an echo of the other long-time Hindi movie convention, that of the long-suffering wife whose spouse recognizes her worth in the last reel. One that never seems to convince anybody is Amitabh’s change of heart at the end of Silsila, when suddenly he’s like, no! I really love my wife, not Rekha after all! Plenty of people don’t find Taani's turnaround any more convincing in this movie, either, but I believed it, and again, I have to kinda like the gender-reversed version on display in RNBDJ.
And now, as promised, on to the Barbara Cartland romance
In the oddly similar but oh-so-different Desire of the Heart (copyright 1954; my edition is from 1970), Cornelia is a frumpy orphan who’s grown up on a horse farm in Ireland, but who comes from a well-connected family and has suddenly inherited a fortune from a godmother in America. Her conniving aunt conspires to marry her off to the aunt’s lover, Drogo, so they can continue their affair under her husband’s nose. When she discovers the truth, Cornelia is devastated but, unfortunately in love with Drogo, marries him anyway. On their honeymoon in Paris, she is taken under the wing of Renee, a chic Frenchwoman, who gives her a complete makeover and introduces her to Drogo in disguise. (“Have you never brushed your hair?” Renee asks on page 136 -- hey, shades of The Breakfast Club!) “With that one reckless deception, Cornelia risked everthing to win the Duke’s love…” as the book jacket breathlessly describes it.
The purpose of Cornelia’s disguise, much like Suri/Raj’s, isn’t to get involved with Drogo under an assumed name and identity (Desiree, in her case), but to “learn what he likes, what he thinks, what he feels…” (p. 133)
Now, RNBDJ’s Taani is conflicted, but she’s not any kind of bitch. She’s not trying to hurt anyone on purpose. Drogo, though, is a big jerk, callously willing to marry an innocent girl he’s never met in order to carry on an affair with a married woman. Throughout history, there've been plenty of Helen of Troy types in fiction, women who are loved for their physical beauty and are otherwise ciphers, treated as sex objects and possessions to be won. So there's a weird gender reversal in Cartland's treatment of Drogo as just such an object. All he's got going for him is that he is, apparently, super-hot.
Reading between the lines, I think we’re supposed to see that Drogo has the potential to be a person of more substance, but he’s been hampered by a lifetime spent among frivolous, shallow people, and so he doesn’t know anything better until the right woman comes along. But mainly, Cornelia’s feeling for him comes from a very physical “love at first sight” (much discussed in the book), based on his sexiness, and from her mistaken notion that he had seen her as no one ever had before, as a potentially desirable woman. Even when she finds out he was totally lying about it, she doesn’t want to lose that self-perception, or the way that perceived identity made her feel.
Interestingly, when she’s in disguise, she mocks his declaration of instant love (while inwardly swooning, of course) and says, “You know nothing about me, and therefore you imagine a lot of things which perhaps are not there.” (p. 171). Ding ding ding! We have a winner! She has just described her own love for him, without even noticing.
None of this bothered me when I was a kid, enthralled as I was by the dresses “of green chiffon which brought out the green of her eyes and made her look like a water-nymph, wild and lovely” (p. 176), and the diamond pins in her hair that “glittered and shone like stars against the darkness of the swathed tresses” (p. 216).
I’m going to quote two memorable passages at length: all in the interest of literary criticism. Fair use, people!
“It was the loveliest gown Cornelia had ever seen … of bright, flame-coloured lace in narrow frills; it was very decollete and fitted close over the breasts; then, accentuating the tiny waist and full curve of the hips, the skirt swirled out to a great fullness round the feet.” (p. 137)
“Renee was dressed in black, as she had been the night before, but today it was black lace -- a gown provocative and subtle with clever transparencies and trimmed with tiny bows of black velvet. Against this background, her jewelry was sensational. Three rows of huge black pearls encircled her throat and a pearl almost the size of a bird’s egg rested in the lobe of each ear. One was black and the other was pink -- the only touch of colour to relieve the severity of her gown. It was chic, it was brilliant…” (p. 152)
Renee, the mistress of a Russian Grand Duke, gives Cornelia advice like “My dear child, be yourself. No man wants a pale echo or a copy of another woman. He wants someone unique, someone of whom he can say -- She is different from anyone I have ever known before.” (147). Thus, the book provides a whole inspirational self-esteem message, but all in the service of winning over a guy who's only worth throwing out on his ass. But that's a lot of romantic fiction in a nutshell, so never mind.
Of course, in the elegant, wealthy society where he's always lived, Drogo has never known anyone like Cornelia was in the beginning, but once she has a nice hairdo, a more flattering dress, and expensive jewelry selected for someone else’s taste, he’s immediately smitten with her. She was herself to begin with. Wasn’t she? Until she's been rendered conventionally beautiful, however, in clothes that were becoming to her, he would never have paid her any attention. He similarly holds up her alter ego as the model of a purity “that I have never found in any woman before” (p. 166). More pure, apparently, than the utterly innocent country virgin, obviously incapable of putting on airs or any show, whom he actually married.
After the makeover, she says, “How I hate that dress now that I know what I can look like in this one!” (p. 146), and reflects that “as her taste developed and she became more sure of herself, (she) could become more alluring day by day” (148). Correspondingly, there seems to be a fundamental change in her identity. Where once she was disdainful of rich owners who don't breed or train their own horses, she never again displays her expertise, or much of her previous lifelong love for horses. (Drogo mentions taking Cornelia riding, but they never go, and she doesn’t seem to care). Her deep attachment to her home in the Irish countryside, and her many old friends, especially Jimmy, the groom who loved her like a father, are never mentioned again. Instead, romantic love integrates her into the “world … from which instinctively she shrank” (p. 25) when she was first exposed to it, with its hypocrisy, and a value system the book has consistently shown as morally bankrupt.
Ultimately, Cornelia wants to know if Drogo loves her so much that he’ll throw away all the social conventions for her, and if so, then she’ll reward him with the woman he loves. But she’s actually hoping that he’ll be willing to leave her (her actual, normal self) to be with a fictional persona (played by herself), and that’s the test of his love for -- her. (Of course, her aristocratic parents ran off in a love match, so maybe it makes more sense from her point of view than it can from mine). Then too, with the logic of makeover, Desiree is supposed to be some version of who Cornelia “really” is, since the use of the persona has loosened her up the same way it did Raj. “It was so easy to flirt, to say the right things, to make the most commonplace remarks sound amusing.” (p. 143).
As with most traditional, non-ironic makeover scenes, there's no contradiction seen in the use of artificial aids and an overt performance of feminine wiles to "be yourself." In theory, it's all meant to be in the service of expressing one's inner being. A girl’s raw individuality is turned into a “feminine” persona, at which point she is accepted as a woman. But Cornelia is an instructive case. Was she not really being herself, back when she was riding her horses with her dogs? And is that side of herself going to get integrated into her new high-fashion beauty mode? I mean, hopefully so, but it's not suggested anywhere in the text itself, and that would be a much happier ending than ending up with sleazy Drogo.
Cornelia's innocent belief, in the early part of the book, that Drogo could love her for herself, horsey lifestyle and comfortable clothes and all, turns out to be completely misguided, which really gets my dander up. The plot of the book expresses the fallacy that women who aren't traditionally "feminine" are either refusing to put away childish things, or hiding from being female, or both. The purpose of the makeover is to bring out the latent womanliness, to integrate the individual into prevailing cultural gender expectations. It contains no critique of those expectations, of the kind that I'd be sure to make, and which were so satisfyingly expressed in Main Hoon Na.
Now that my spleen is being vented, I’d better disclaim: obviously, my whole makeover hostility isn’t directed at women who use makeup and the otherly womanly arts as a means of genuine self-expression. God forbid, I’m not condemning Helen or her children! And I of course love clothes myself (a latent interest probably spurred by this book, with those Nile blue, green chiffon, and flame-colored gowns). What offends me is the idea that the one and only route to true love is appearance, as defined through a socially-approved use of makeup and wardrobe, regardless of one’s personal inclinations or what one has to express.
In the unquestioned conservative world of DOTH, because of the class and gender expectations society places on people, there’s a sense that whoever one appears to be in the world is necessarily a fiction. “We are prisoners to ourselves and nothing we do can set us free,” Cornelia’s aunt says (p. 81), and Cornelia thinks of her maid as “the only person to whom she could speak the truth, the one person with whom she could be completely natural” (p. 106). Womanhood in particular is a construction, based on certain societal models, as is one’s place in the class system. For example, Cornelia is constantly inhibited by her position in society, especially once she marries into Duchesshood, and it’s a given that she can’t be spoken to honestly or have certain freedoms of movement while being thought of as a Duchess. Basically, an individual is always a persona in the public world, perceived through the filters of gender, marital status, and social position.
With that situation taken for granted, it is impossible for Cornelia to “be herself” in the unthinking, unselfconscious way she was herself at the beginning of the book. She’s eaten the apple of society, so to speak. The best she can hope for is to use the exact same tools all the other women of her society are using, and attempt a kind of alchemy that will allow her to somehow express a true inner essence while outwardly conforming to the expectations and social judgments of others.
Through my modern eyes, I see this as a process by which she learns to become as hypocritical as the other people around her. Her earlier criticisms of the injustice, hypocrisy, and shallowness of high society were all perfectly valid. After all, she married into a family with a fabulous estate, but one in which her mother-in-law assumes Drogo will have extramarital affairs, and is openly willing to help facilitate them. But once she knows she can win the game, Cornelia seems happy to play, and is ready to take her part within that society.
Crucially, in the end, Drogo never actually recognizes Desiree as Cornelia, but it's done for him. (Clueless! And not the movie, either). The beautiful glamorous girl is recognized as his wife, after a fantastic transformation. Wouldn't I have been much happier if, instead of realizing that Desiree was Cornelia, he's realized that Cornelia was Desiree? In other words, if instead of discovering his wife submerged in his fantasy girl, he had seen the desirable aspects within her "everyday" self? And that's exactly the alternate version that RNBDJ gives me.
In the respective discovery scenes, Drogo is expecting the real Cornelia, but the persona Desiree turns up; whereas Taani is expecting the persona Raj, when the real Suri appears in his place. Suri had obviously hoped that she'd recognize him within the Raj persona, but instead, she recognizes the Raj in Suri. He doesn't have to give up who he is, but instead, he just gets to add more facets to the identity he started out with. Which is much more satisfying, and far less creepy, to me.
Last word, until the inevitable "how could I forget to mention that?": whilst reading Joan Cummings’ Indian Painting: from Cave Temples to the Colonial Period (based on the fine collection at the MFA in Boston), she talked in passing about avatars: how “the young Krishna is…playful, and charismatic,” and Ram is “forever serious” and “responsible,” but they’re both actually the same being, Vishnu (p. 112). “See!” I cried. “It’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi all over again!”
Big thanks to SpyGirl and Wookie Hermit, who were excellent sounding boards on various points of RNBDJ-ism…