A chilling representation of India’s war against of love Hostel

In the present political atmosphere pervading the country, where the reprehensible concepts of ‘love jihad’ and ‘honour killings’ have prominence in the public discourse, Shanker Raman has made a thought-provoking film about a bleak real-life scenario.

Social relevance and good intentions cannot guarantee quality cinema. Shanker Raman’s sardonically titled Love Hostel does not rely merely on its brave theme. Instead, without equivocation or apologies to dominant communities, it tells a chilling story of a young couple in today’s Haryana, and the destructive familial, societal and political opposition to their love.

Sanya Malhotra plays Love Hostel’s Jyoti Dilawar, the feisty granddaughter of a powerful politician. She is educated, gutsy, spirited and in love.

Jyoti’s boyfriend, Ashu Shokeen (Vikrant Massey), fits certain prevailing stereotypes. It takes a while to realise that this is the case because members of persecuted communities are often strategically forced into specific brackets, then condemned for occupying those brackets, while the community as a whole is tarred with the same brush.

Through Ashu, we see society’s puppeteers feeding the masses’ confirmation bias.

Love Hostel has evoked curiosity ever since Shah Rukh Khan released the trailer earlier this month. Gauri Khan and SRK’s Red Chillies Entertainment is one of this film’s producers.

Watching Love Hostel is a challenging experience, one that does not allow a viewer any leeway to be distracted. Looking away even briefly could mean missing a crucial shot, a glance, a paper perhaps, that supplements the conversations. Besides, the subtitles are indispensable because of the Hindi-Haryanvi mix spoken by some characters and their heavy accents.

Love Hostel does not immediately reveal the specifics of Jyoti and Ashu’s religious and caste identity. We are, however, introduced right at the start to a murderous Viraj Singh Dagar (Bobby Deol), whereon it becomes clear that this is a film about the hounding and killings of people who choose to marry those socially forbidden to them.

Couples being harassed and threatened for such reasons have a legal right to seek the protection of the state. Love Hostel asks: What options are they left with when the state colludes with their oppressors, and elements of what constitute “the state” are themselves the oppressor?

Shanker’s brilliant Gurgaon was a brooding deep dive into a dysfunctional family emblematic of their home city. Love Hostel zooms in and out of the family at its centre, to give us a micro picture and a bird’s eye view of the socio-political reality that Jyoti and Ashu are battling.

The film rarely stops to breathe. This unrelenting flow of activity is fitting in the first half, though the second half is in places lost to the cursory treatment given to a couple of seemingly significant supporting characters and episodes of violence that could belong to just about any underworld film, especially a scene in which Dagar’s actions get mindless. He is a hate-filled man doggedly moving towards his aim of what he describes as cleansing society, so when he strays from his purposefulness with a round of impetuous bloodletting it is unconvincing.

The most intelligent, unexpected aspect of the screenplay is the characterisation of the lead couple’s bond. The common assumption about persons in inter-community marriages is that they would be virtuous and prejudice-free. This is often far from the truth. Love Hostel compels us to confront the reality that just as love can drive humans to rise above their upbringing and social conditioning, arguments and tension could well cause both to resurface.

At first, I was thrown off – and put off – by a comment about Muslims that Jyoti laughingly makes to Ashu, but as the film progresses, her ‘light-hearted’ remark connects logically to her underlying insecurity about this relationship that becomes evident during a fight between them. The insecurity is unsurprising, considering the amount of propaganda all around us and possibly even the warnings she has personally received from ‘well-wishers’.

That said, the scene featuring Jyoti’s comment needed greater clarity. Here’s how it goes. Jyoti asks Ashu to use a condom. He resists. She says, “no wonder you guys end up having so many kids”, referring to a widespread stereotype of Indian Muslims. (For the record, aversion to using birth control is a universal male phenomenon.) Rather than vehemently objecting, which would have been a believable reaction, he responds with what sounds like banter. Whether wittingly or unknowingly, the portrayal of that exchange thus normalises her prejudice before an Indian viewership already brimming with Islamophobia.

This is the one flaw in the conceptualisation of this couple, otherwise written to be both realistic and insightful in a way that such screen pairs rarely are.

Equally compelling is their individual characterisation. Like men who inflate their chests and walk gung-ho into physical confrontations while their female companions pull them back, here we see Jyoti’s impudence towards those in authority in contrast with Ashu’s diffidence.

He may have the privilege of being a man in a patriarchal world, but the narrative gradually lets on that as part of a beleaguered minority, he is familiar with oppression. She has the self-assurance of a person whose place on the sociological ladder is her shield; in addition to being from a home where women and a terrifying child are the primary perpetuators of patriarchy.

Deol’s somewhat generic, enigmatic hitman is the weak link in this chain, with a sudden revelation about him in the end that is not half as interesting as it is made out to be. Still, in his second innings as an actor, it is good to see him making risky choices.

Massey has pulled off chameleon-like personality transformations since Lootera in 2013. Ashu’s timidity is marked – and remarkably – distinct from Shutu’s in A Death In The Gunj. The actor could, however, have done better than Ashu’s wavering accent, which is particularly jarring in an awkwardly directed climactic scene that heads off into a mythical realm.

Malhotra is proving to be one of the most noteworthy newcomers of the past half decade, with a range of exciting roles – Pataakha and Pagglait in particular – after a dream debut in 2016’s Dangal. She is not a flamboyant actor, and her naturalism serves her well here.

Every one of Love Hostel’s pluses and minuses is put in the shade though by its complete lack of prevarication in its representation of India’s ongoing war against love.

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