I just watched 2007’s Namastey London, starring Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif, and I’m amazed that what’s meant to be a fairly lighthearted romantic comedy has my head swirling with thoughts! The basic premise: Jasmeet “Jazz” Malhotra is a girl from a traditional Punjabi family, raised in England, and when her father has enough of her drinking and partying, he packs her off to India and entraps her in an arranged marriage. Jazz finagles it so she and her husband Arjun don’t consummate the marriage and when they get back to England, she refuses to recognize the union. The rest of the movie involves Arjun patiently winning her heart and Jasmeet coming to terms with who she is and what she wants.
As with any movie about NRIs (Nonresident Indians), there is a strong thread of nationalism and pride. Like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Pardes, there is a lot of focus on tradition vs. modernization, losing one’s identity, and the idea that Western sexuality and liberal values are something to be looked down on. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about how the British characters in the film are caricatures — Jazz’s boyfriend, Charlie, is a cad, there are some pompous, racist jerks that the Indians must “pwn” — but, to me, that’s par for the course when you consider the narrative voice. Western cinema does the same thing, and I’ve seen far worse portrayals than the ones in Namastey London.
The portrayal that really fascinates me is that of Arjun. He’s a complete departure for Akshay Kumar, who has made his name doing action films and college boy romantic comedies. I don’t think he raises a hand to anyone in this movie; all his strength is internal. He’s sensitive and endlessly understanding. And that’s definitely one level he fascinates me on. Arjun is a throwback to an earlier era of Hindi cinema, the patient, kind hero who wears his heart on his sleeve like your Rajendra Kumars and Rajesh Khannas.
But, more than that, he flies against every idea Indian women have about Indian men. Namastey London shows us that Arjun adjusts to London, to Jazz’s proclivities, and doesn’t turn into some chauvinistic caveman. And at least in my community, we’ve always assumed that it’s easier for Indian-born women to adjust to the west than it is for Indian men* — that a guy from Punjab or Bengal or UP is just not going to put up with a girl as blatantly liberal as Jazz. But Arjun…he sincerely lets Jazz come to her own conclusions. He doesn’t flip out about her dating her white boyfriend or drinking — he even drinks with her — and he continuously asserts that love isn’t about possession. And she finally gets that and realizes she loves him, too. That’s…really unique, and I was fascinated to find such a message in, as I said, a purportedly lighthearted rom-com. Of course, part of me was also like, “Shyeah, right. This is how you know it’s a movie!”
*I know that’s not necessarily a fair assessment, and that I’m employing some reverse sexism in discussing this film, but India is a very patriarchal society. Sure, there are guys who are exceptions to the rule, but generally, someone born and raised in India would not react to a westernized woman like Arjun does to Jasmeet. Heck, someone born and raised in the west probably wouldn’t either!