New frontier of NRI marriage mores

Aug 27, 2006 Kul Bhushan

"Why are NRIs paying to see themselves as unfaithful spouses and sex crazy old men?" asks an irate Indian filmgoer from New York. Of course, it is a reference to the super hit 'Kabhi Alvida Na Kahna' or KANK. Karan Johar's latest film has created a lot of buzz, both in India and abroad, and in the bargain netted an estimated $15 million worldwide since it opened a few weeks ago.

At least $5 million of this box office bonanza has come from NRIs queuing at the box office to see how Western values have influenced them. In its opening weekend, the film grossed a huge $1.35 million in North America, set a new record of $1.4 million in Britain, opening at no less than 60 theatres, and also collected $3.5 million in just three days in overseas markets.

So what's new in a super hit to generate such buzz? The media is full of KANK: Indian newspapers carry long articles, TV channels screen talk shows, global news agencies have written about its impact in India and even many major Western newspapers have reviewed the movie. The urban elite in India flock to see it to gossip about it no end even while small towns and rural audiences have rejected it. Indeed some activists want it banned!

After watching KANK, a husband murdered his wife suspecting her of having an extra-martial affair near Delhi. In Thane, a suburb of Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stabbed and shot his wife because she did not allow him to marry another girl he loved. The wife is fighting for her life in hospital. That incident too happened after the couple had just finished watching KANK.

Why is KANK arousing all this passion?

Two NRI couples in New York are at odds with their partners. Their marriages are not working nor moving ahead. In one, a wife is suffocated by the unlimited husband's love in a loveless marriage and finds a soul mate in another husband neglected by his career-obsessed wife. The stifled wife yields to him. Ah, it's infidelity. But hundreds of films have been made on this theme - not forgetting Raj Kapoor's Sangam way back in 1964. There is nothing new in this since men and women have been unfaithful to each other down the centuries.

The new twist is the father-in-law of the suffering wife. Sexy Sam, played by Amitabh Bachchan, causes ripples of laughter with his Playboy escapades as a great lover boy. So what's new here? Plenty. For a start, most NRI first generation fathers now turning grandfathers are always presented as virtuous and pious hankering for the eternal family values of the Indian way of life.

This one lives it up with a new blonde every weekend and - instead of a prayer meeting - he wants scores of scantily clad sexy dames for his birthday bash. When he gets a heart attack he does not breathe his last

without blessing the new relationship of his daughter-in-law based on love and not marriage. Here we have a Casanova who is too much for the Indian film buffs to digest. He is sending a message - 'Marriage is a mutual trap; if it's not moving, move on!' This is a radical departure for the Indian cinema.

If the marriage does not work, divorces are acceptable for NRIs - and indeed most educated Indians for that matter. In India, one out of every hundred marriages ends in divorce. The NRI divorce rate could be higher - or lower.

But is there parental approval for switching your life partners? Many draw the line here.

And what about the spouses who have discovered a new soul mate when their marriages come to a dead end? Open infidelity is the big talking point but is not an issue with the Indian trendsetters any more. Moreover, KANK pushes the envelope of sensuality in bedroom and motel scenes a la Hollywood sizzlers.

If anything, NRIs are more conservative in their moral values than the Indians back home. Public opinion polls in the media regularly show their radical thinking on teenage sex, pre-marital sex, live-in relationships, infidelity and single parenting, among other personal relationships.

In a TV chat show on this film, some participants claimed: "Everybody cheats". Of course, the KANK situations are happening in India as well, especially with the educated urban elite. It's just that Karan Johar overheard a couple's conversation in a London cafe on these lines and staged his story in New York showing new frontiers for NRI marriage mores. If Indian and NRI sensibilities are hurt, they are paying for it.

(A media consultant to a UN Agency, Kul Bhushan previously worked abroad as a newspaper editor and has travelled to over 55 countries. He lives in New Delhi and can be contacted at:

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