Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein is memorable as it continues to reside in the psyche of the audience. Is it remembered for the right reasons, though?

Whenever a film completes a particular number of years of existence, it makes me cheerful for the art and artists. It’s a beautiful sight when films get old, but people remember them; it’s a lovely and much-needed reminder of how art is timeless. However, what about those films that haven’t aged as gracefully? What about the films that have aged but remind us of the evils of the past? Case in point – ‘Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein’ which turned 21-year-old recently. The fact that this film continues to reside in the psyche of the audience is testimony to the fact that it’s impactful, it’s memorable. Is it remembered for the right reasons, though?

(Content warning: Sexual harassment, misogyny, homophobia)

The protagonist Madhav Shastri (R Madhavan), is a brat who wastes his days loitering around with his equally crude friend circle. He is overconfident, always has answers, and takes nothing seriously – a typical ‘men will be men’ representation of college boys in movies. Madhav is proud that he hates girls; he has never fallen for any girl, no matter how beautiful. However, he also feels that it’s his birthright to objectify women. We see him constantly making crass comments about women, which are so vile that the streaming platform mutes those. At one point, he even asks some girls why they can’t date his friends if they can date other guys. The implication is that if a girl can date one guy, she can obviously give sexual favors to another. He harasses girls by bursting crackers in their hostel to take revenge on another guy. These attributes apparently don’t make him abusive, they make him ‘cool’.

The people around Madhav often look up to him and enable his behavior. Like other romantic comedies, we have a deeply attached father-son duo here. The lack of a mother figure in his life apparently explains why he is the way he is. The father is also supposedly a ‘cool’ person who is disgusted when his son wants to go to movies with his male friend because it seems homosexual to him. “Ladke ko film dekhni hai toh ladki ke saath dekhe!” he exclaims. His friends are equally misogynistic and abusive. They see women as nothing more than objects and are often heard crying about how privileged women are. Their friendship straight-up reminds me of the boys’ locker room incident where Madhav is supposedly the group admin.

Also Read: 27 years of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: On the inherent Indianness of its charm and follies

The woman that Madhav falls for, Rina Malhotra (Dia Mirza), is totally his opposite because opposites apparently attract regardless of the abuse involved. She is a Chartered Accountant living in Mumbai who prefers to wear salwar kameez. She prefers ‘aamchi Mumbai’ over Seattle and roadside panipuri over dinner in a five-star hotel. These stereotypical and conventional attributes attract Madhav because this makes Rina Hindustani“Hum Hindustani aaj bhi pizza se zyada panipuri prefer karte hai,” she proudly says. Submission hidden under the guise of patriotism is being sold as a virtue here. 

To earn Rina’s trust, Madhav stalks her and her friend Shruti and gets Rina’s contact number and address by fraud. Instead of meeting Rina and expressing his interest, he deceives her by posing as Rajeev Samra (Saif Ali Khan), the man she intends to marry. When Rina finds out the truth, she is hurt and rightly tells him to never contact her. So, he blames Rina, stalks her, constantly calls her and harasses her. When she doesn’t give in, he turns up at her workplace. Even though she asks him to leave, he follows her and gets abusive. He gets extremely angry, corners her, and screams at her. He tells her that during the five days he acted as Rajeev, he could have gotten intimate with her. He could have sexually exploited her, and she would have even let him. She should be grateful that he didn’t. It doesn’t stop here; he even resorts to violence and goes to beat up Rajeev.

On the other hand, Rina meets Rajeev, an engineer who has returned from Seattle. He might not confess his love for panipuri, but he respects women, loves his family, and respects elders. He doesn’t force or harass Rina. When he learns that Rina might be in love with Madhav, he is willing to let her go. Eventually, even though Rina says otherwise, he understands that Rina is in love with Madhav and lets her go. He understands consent even if it isn’t expressed out loud. Anyone can clearly see that Rajeev is a mature person, who will make for a good life partner. However, Rina chooses to spend her life with Madhav. Studies have found that cinema affects the thoughts and behavior of the audience. Such movies hold the potential to make people, especially women, believe that violence and abuse are acceptable if your partner passionately loves you.

I am very well aware that a film has to be judged according to the politics of its time. I understand that I can’t judge ‘Mother India’ with the political understanding of 2022. However, this resolve of mine is tested whenever I think of Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein. I am unable to understand how such crass comments about women were ever acceptable or desirable. In 2001, were we genuinely okay with abusive men stalking women and harassing them? I can’t go back in time to understand the gender politics of that time. However, it won’t hurt to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them. Art might be timeless, but its interpretation keeps evolving, and it’s for the better.

Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar!