Haseen Dillruba, at first glance, seems like it’s just a lazy attempt at recreating lurid pulp fictions set in small towns, however it is much more dangerous than that as it gives us the ultimate incel (portmanteau of ‘involuntary celibates’ referring to a member of an online subculture of people who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one) fantasy, where the ‘nice guy’ comes out on the top, merged rather nicely with the Indian fixation with bhabhis.
The film is populated with our everyday misogynists without any meaningful criticism levied at any of them: the casually verbally-abusive and tharki neighborhood boys, the misogynist-stud Neel who takes non-consensual photographs and publicly broadcasts intimate liaisons, the friend-of-the-husband who thinks women ought to be trained and our very own protagonist nice-guy who’s the quintessential incel with his ranting about ordinary nice boys going unnoticed and his barely concealed scary, violent rage.
The film introduces Rishabh or Rishu who’s the small-town nice guy and Rani who’s the wild, untamed, big-city girl. Rishu’s niceness is displayed to us by the fact that he is shy and introverted, doesn’t know how to talk to women, does house chores and isn’t sexually forward. The film makes sure that we know he’s the nice guy by introducing us to another character, Neel, the not-nice guy. Neel is supposed to be everything Rishu is not, sexually active, extroverted, able to talk to women, and, ofcourse, a not-nice misogynist, who lies to Rani and runs away, along with disclosing the details of their sexual escapades to the neighborhood boys.
Neel’s characterization is important to understand the way in which Rishu has been constructed for us to like and root for. In the face of Neel’s abandonment of Rani, we’re supposed to not see Rishu’s mistreatment of the woman he brought into his home and then ignored, or the violence he unleashes on her after, and instead focus on the fact that the ‘stands up for her’ despite taunts from the family and neighborhood boys and values her love, unlike Neel.
The violence — its placement and the treatment in the film — is important because it serves to show us, first, Rishu’s vulnerabilities, such as when he gets beaten up by Neel, and then to show us the ways in which he triumphs over both his wife and the man she was unfaithful with. The scene at the end of the film where Neel’s arm is cut off has the camera linger and Rishu’s face is brimming over with righteous rage.
The story, then, is of the nice guy that avenges his wife’s betrayal by winning her over, rather violently and viciously, and who triumphs over the not-nice guy, again rather violently, to get his happy ending. He does, despite his protests to the contrary, become the ‘hero’ of the story. It’s a dangerous fantasy of masculinity and its victory.
Rani, for the first half of the film, fills in the Indian Savita Bhabhi trope, and given the constant and obvious references to the Dinesh Pandit and his saucy crime thrillers, one hopes the film will challenge this trope in some way. Instead, the film abandons the trope, after indulging it, once Neel’s betrayal is brought to light.
Rani, who’s introduced to us as a woman aware of her desires and able to wield agency, such as when she insists that she doesn’t like to, therefore would not, enter the kitchen and cook, is seen shedding each of these aspects of her personality in the course of the film, just as the best-friend had recommended to Rishu.
We see long sequences of her trysts in the kitchen as she begins her relationship with Neel, sequences that also show Rishu falling in love with her anew now that she is taking on the appropriate wifely duties. We also see her shed her sexual desires, calling them unnecessary and recognizing them as being far-fetched and as asking for too much in the sequences post the Neel-betrayal where she’s now seen vying for Rishu’s — what had previously seemed inadequate — love. There is also the dangerous insinuation that the love is now more appealing because of the violence heaped upon her.
The film is thus also the story of a woman tamed. When her transformation is complete into the subdued wife, she finally receives the mother-in-law’s approval which had been withheld all this while that she was un-wifely and therefore lacking, and now all is well with the world.
The passing of the ultimate test of the good woman is revealed to us at the end of the film where we realise that she has suffered through accusations against her moral character and even custodial beatings, all because she’s a dutiful wife following the plan her victor-husband formulated so he could save her from the punishment (read: jail) she rightfully deserved for the crime (read: betrayal of nice guy) that she had committed, but which he had benevolently forgiven her for.