Halfway through Jab Harry Met Sejal, which released in August this year, the lead pair bumps into the male protagonist’s white ex-girlfriend, Clara. While Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) cowers, unable to handle Clara’s anger at having been spurned, Sejal (Anushka Sharma) rises to the occasion. With the confidence of a Bollywood hero, Sejal sits her down and explains to her that since she consented to a relationship with Harry, of her free will, his emotional mistreatment of her is really her fault. A lawyer by training, Sejal then goes on to accuse Clara of harassment for having the temerity to demand an answer for Harry’s disrespectful and deeply distressing behavior, which involved disappearing on her without a word.
The film is about a lonely Indian tour guide called Harry, and Sejal, his perky young customer, who claims to have lost her engagement ring while on a trip with him and persuades him to help her find it. Along the way, they fall in love. But as the film shows, the lead characters are able to indulge in the abandon and passion of romantic love only because they know that they are going to be with each other for a fixed period.
In the past few years, a spate of romantic comedies has featured similar casual relationships, whether in the form of live-in arrangements of varying lengths (Salaam Namaste, Pyaar Ka Punchnama, Shuddh Desi Romance, Katti Batti, Badrinath Ki Dulhania), or of an agreement between the protagonists to indulge in a (not necessarily sexual) relationship for a finite period (Jab We Met;Anjaana Anjaani; Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu; Cocktail; London, Paris, New York; Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani; Befikre; Jab Harry Met Sejal), or both (OK Jaanu). These films have a supposedly empowered and sexually liberated woman at the centre, and sometimes their characters state that they espouse feminist values. But the version of feminism these films hail—one that valourises certain kinds of freedoms while refusing to acknowledge the conditions in which they are pursued—is fraught. The characterisation of these new-age heroines is often embedded in a vision that still serves a male experience of the world.