Almost all reviewers of Haseen Dillruba will concur that this is a heady tale of triangulated desire between three people — Rishabh Saxena aka Rishu (Vikrant Massey), the archetypal good-boy, loyal and dutiful husband; Rani Kashyap (Taapsee Pannu), the wife of Rishu, who is an avid consumer of erotic-crime thrillers and aspires to live a sexually adventurous and imaginative life that she regularly encounters in the pulp-fiction that she reads; Neel Tripathi (Harshvardhan Rane), the cousin of Rishu, his antithesis, and the “bad-boy” in this triad who captivates Rani with his scintillating looks, brawny body, and risqué demeanour. This love-lust triangle between Rishu-Rani-Neel takes a gory turn when one of them receives a fatal blow and is made to exit the scene of this bloody romance. The rest of the tale is about a group of policemen/women, trying to investigate the case and locate the murderer. Several commentators have touted the representational strategies of the film as problematic, toxic, and misogynist. I am going to suggest, that, they are problematic to the extent that as desiring and pleasure-seeking people we all regularly move in and out of terrains that are dark, murky, dangerous, and can easily be designated as politically incorrect.
Towards the beginning of the film, in one of the scenes inside the police station, a policeman humourously admits that “this is [his] favourite case.” Another endorses him by saying that this case is just like poetry with love and conflict, “jaise kisi ne kavita padh di bhari adaalat mein.” In the next scene, while interrogating Rani Kashyap, the primary suspect in the case, inspector Kishore Rawat asks her: “why don’t you tell me the truth for once?” Expectedly, Rani does not say anything. In his desperation to uncover the “truth,” inspector Rawat makes Rani undergo a lie-detector test. To his utter surprise and disappointment, the test fails. The mechanics of the device are unable to read her pulse and her psychic state. Every effort of Kishore Rawat to frame Rani as the murderer of her husband is met with failure and he is eventually compelled to shut the case.
Truth, Dare, and Lies
To me, the episode of lie-detection and its failure is at the heart of Haseen Dillruba, a film that seems to offer a parable about reading texts. On one side of the parable is the figure of the Law — represented not just by the police, but all those viewers who are left offended by the toxicity of the characters, and the inconsistency of the plot — and on the other end is Rani Kashyap, a reader of sleazy literary novels, who dabbles in the fickleness of the genre and churns pleasure out of the piquant charm that these novels offer her. The lie detector fails to function and is incapable of offering any conclusive reading because there is no “lie” in the plot that can be easily detected. Rather, the film, much like those heady novels by Dinesh Pandit, obliterates the distinction between “truth” and “lie.” One can only arrive at the multiple truths that shape Rishu-Rani-Neel’s tale of bloody romance, but never a singular one. It can be argued, that often “truth” and “lie” are enmeshed into an indistinctive whole where a given fact is both true and untrue at the same time. While as the figure of the law, inspector Kishore Rawat insists on holding on to the binary of “truth” and “lie,” and desperately attempts to reach the “truth” by identifying the “lie,” there are no such moral categories in the world of these crazy lovers. In their racy universe, there is only the game of “truth and dare” which Rani urges her husband to play inside their bedroom. But what does it mean for Rani to imagine “dare” as the opposite of “truth” as against “lie”? This is no ordinary daring or adventure, but a leap of faith that can only be taken by those who are willing to risk safety, comfort, certainty, stability, and mundaneness for the intoxicating titillations of desire and pleasure.
If we, as spectators, are unable to bear this profusion and extravagance of truths and are incapable of confronting its ambiguities then we consciously or unconsciously risk being on the side of inspector Kishore Rawat, the representative of the Law, who expresses his desire to arrest Dinesh Pandit when all other doors seem to shut on his face. When Rani tells him, “Pandit ji apne kitaab mein likhte hain, amar prem wahi hai jisme khoon ke halke halke chinte ho,” he gets agitated and orders, “pehle toh yeh bhenchod Dinesh Pandit ko ghasit ke lao thane mein.” This is no uncommon desire, but a regular tendency of the law — with all its associations of rules, regulations, prohibitions, and policing — to censor, tame, contain, and erase the ambivalences of the literary, and the inexplicable machinations of desire that are never obliged to follow scripts of logic, reason, and normativity. Holding the simultaneity of “truth” and “lie” together can indeed, after all, be an intellectually painful experience.
There are several moments in the film that obfuscate this binary of “truth” and “lie,” thereby creating impediments in our attempts to read the story as linear and singularly meaningful. I call these moments disfiguring moments in the film where the meaning of a given word or sign is radically altered and made to mean something entirely different. The film is replete with such disfiguring moments that continuously configure and re-configure the boundaries of truth and its antonym.
Towards the beginning of the film, we see that a blast has taken place inside Rani’s house and a burnt, severed hand, which has her name inked on it, is left as evidence. Moments later, as the story unfolds, we get to know that for his obsessive love for Rani, Rishu had tattooed her name on his hand. The police take no time to conclude that Rishu is dead, and Rani has murdered her husband by plotting with her lover. It is crucial to note the interplay between “truth” and “lie” here because the policeman’s observation is simultaneously true and false. Rani is indeed the murderer, but she has not murdered her husband, as the police suspects. She has accidentally murdered Neel to defend her husband. Rani is, therefore, both a murderer and not one; the police inspector’s speculations about her are simultaneously true and untrue.
Another important thing to note is that the police inspector, Kishore Rawat, continuously refers to Neel as “the lover” and not by his name. He interrogates Rani — “aapne aur aapke lover ne mil ke koi planning nahi ki thi?” — implicitly referring to Neel in this question. This generates a semantic confusion because indeed Rani hatched a gruesome plan along with Rishu to dispose of the dead body of Neel. At this point in the narrative, Rishu is no longer a mere husband whom Rani was compelled to marry under circumstantial obligations. He has graduated to the position of the lover who has completely enchanted Rani’s mind and body with his deep, intense, and violent love for her. She admits before the police: “Jab pehli baar Rishu se mili thi na, toh ek engineer se mili. Dusri baar apne pati se. Aur teesri baar apne ashiq se.” The police officer’s suspicion — that Rani has conspired with her lover to commit murder — therefore, is both true and untrue; the difference of meaning is dependent on who one imagines her lover to be.
Signifiers as Switch-points
Inspector Kishore Rawat does not believe a word of what Rani Kashyap says. He mockingly tells her, “kahaani acchi hai … The end bhi accha hoga, jab main murder weapon aur apke lover dono ko dhund ke le aunga.” We can only laugh at the irony of this remark because whom the police identify as the “lover” is the one who is dead, and the “murder weapon” (the frozen leg of the mutton) has been fed to the dogs! Not only is the police chasing after non-existent things, but he is also grossly misreading evidence and signifiers. This misreading, on the part of the figure of the law, is also a commentary on what happens when one treats evidence and signifiers on their face value as facts, notwithstanding that they dupe us every moment by switching their meaning(s) to something else. Apart from “the lover” indicating both Rishu and Neel, the most prominent example of a signifier as switch-point is the severed hand of Rishu with Rani’s name inked on it, which is collected by the police as the most compelling piece of evidence.
Towards the beginning of the film, Rishu’s mother warns him against marrying Rani, saying that he won’t be able to “handle” her. To his mother’s objection, Rishu replies: “Engineer hai hum. Roz 100 100 watt ki electricity ki taaro ko handle karte hain in haathon se. Woh handle na hogi kya humse?” However, when Rishu fails to sexually satisfy his wife, he admits to his friend that “maa sahi kehti thi. I can’t handle her.” But in the course of the events Rishu does exercise his romantic and sexual prowess on Rani, downrightly enchanting her. The pinnacle of that feat is, perhaps, achieved when he amputates his own hand to change the narrative of murder, and saves himself and his wife from getting implicated in the case. This is his ultimate sacrifice, his sincerest and crudest expression of love for his beloved — that which he and others thought could not be “handled” can only be handled by severing the hand! In other words, if one rips off the hand, one simultaneously rips off the requirement and needs to handle. If handling is a euphemism for control and management, then the severing of the hand seems to suggest that desire and love and pleasure will always transgress regulatory impulses. In retrospect, the signifier “handle nahi hoga tumse” switches meaning and comes to predict the violent ending where Rishu literally loses his hand.
Haseen Dillruba continuously disfigures tropes, signs, evidence, and signifiers to suggest that there is no stability of meaning when it comes to matters of the erotic. It is this instability that does not allow inspector Kishore Rawat, who insists on stability and guarantee, to solve the case. The iconic song from Namak Halaal (1982) —
Jawani janeman haseen dilruba
Mile do dil jawan nisar ho gaya
Shikaari khud yahan shikaar ho gaya
Yeh kya sitam hua, yeh kya zulm hua
Yeh kya ghazab hua, yeh kaise kab hua
Na janu main, na jane woh…
— from which the film draws its title, serves as an intertextual reference that captures the essence of this film. At the end of the film, when we see that the police inspector is deeply engrossed in reading a novel by Dinesh Pandit, and after five years re-imagines the scene of the crime involving Rani, Rishu, and Neel in his head, we know that the “shikaari” has indeed become the “shikaar.” The hunter has been hunted down. One who insisted on arresting the writer of these cheap erotic thrillers is now savouring the pages of Kausali ka Kahar, and has been infected by the pleasures of the literary. The police — as a figure of prohibition and policing — disfigures into a symbol of enjoyment. As he reads the novel, he fantasizes that the characters of the book metamorphose into Rani and Rishu, and imagines their story to be aligning. But where is the place of fantasy in the film in relation to Rani, Rishu, Neel, and inspector Rawat? That is a conversation for another day.