The Print 14 Feb 2018

Priya Varrier’s wink is a relief at a time when love and sex have become state subjects 

by Sandip Roy

She is forward. She winks. She flirts. She puts the tease into eve teasing. In real life, the moral police would probably come down on her like a ton of bricks.

It’s the wink that launched a thousand memes.

Priya Prakash Varrier has taken the internet by storm. The wink she gives in the Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love, the little raised eyebrow action, seems to have set the internet’s collective heart aflutter.

This is a dreamgirl debut, and perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day.

Her Instagram account is splashed all over the web because there’s precious little else known about the teenage actress making her debut in film. News must be spun out of something and every picture has become newsworthy. There’s Varrier with a red umbrella. There she is in Mohiniyattam costume. In a white sari with a gold border. Looking pensive in black and white.

“Isn’t she the prettiest?” gushes Bollywood Life. She’s been called the “nation’s new crush”. Her Instagram account has been verified. She has over 2.8 million followers.

That wink has been broken down frame by frame. It’s been spliced and diced and repackaged.

Poor Roshan Abdul Rahoof, the young man who plays the smitten fellow student, the real target of Varrier’s Cupid’s arrow, has been replaced on the internet by a smitten Narendra Modi, a dimpling Rahul Gandhi, a gobsmacked Donald Trump, and even a polar bear who realises climate change is real as that wink melts ice caps. Only Gautam Gambhir seems resolutely gambhir.

We have investigative stories about how that famous wink came about.

“Actually, the director wanted to capture something cute between me and my hero. So, he told me if I can do the eyebrow thing and wink at him. I told him that I could give it a try. That’s how it worked out. It was spontaneous and we hadn’t planned anything,” reveals Varrier.

The irony is the spontaneity that makes that moment feel so genuine, so fresh in an increasingly pre-packaged world, which seems to be under attack all around us. Everyone has an opinion about how women should behave and are increasingly vociferous about it. And the less spontaneous, the better.

Good girls don’t cackle. They don’t drink beer. They know how to drape a sari.

Famed designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee told a gathering at Harvard: “I think, if you tell me that you do not know how to wear a sari, I would say shame on you. It’s part of your culture, (you) need (to) stand up for it.”

What’s worth noting is at that Harvard gathering of mostly Indian students, his statement was met with resounding cheers. And when he said “Indian women have kept alive the sari, but the dhoti is dead”, there were more cheers and applause. Clearly, men don’t need to be dhoti-shamed but sari-shaming women is perfectly acceptable. In that world where we seem to unquestioningly accept tradition as a woman’s burden and woman’s responsibility, Varrier’s little clip seems more an aberration than a symbol of the times.

After all, young love these days has become a state subject.

In Varrier’s native Kerala, the high court annulled the marriage of a 24-year-old Hadiya (Akhila) because her father alleged that his daughter had been indoctrinated into Islam and held captive by her husband. She insisted she had married Shafin Jahan out of her own free will but the court still gave her father legal custody.

Love is perilous in a time of love jihad.

While we go into a collective swoon about the freshness of young love, about the flirty boldness of a young woman winking at a young man on screen, in real life, the moral police would probably come down on her like a ton of bricks.

She is forward. She flirts. She puts the tease into eve-teasing. If something happens to her, she asked for it. In the name of family and honour, our moral police want to enclose women in a bubble of propriety. For their own safety, of course.

That’s why a khap panchayat in Uttar Pradesh bans girls from wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones, because they are having a “bad” effect on them and responsible for “eve-teasing” incidents. Anja Kovacs writes while some diktats cover boys and girls, and some are restricted to unmarried women only, they all boil down to this – “unrestricted, unsupervised mobile phone use by unmarried women spells disaster.”

It does not mean it’s working well. As journalist Snigdha Poonam, author of the new book Dreamers, observes — in small town India, young men and women “are massively using Facebook to find each other and WhatsApp to flirt”. No wonder the elders want to take their mobile phones away.

At a time of #MeToo, in some ways it seems the conversation has moved forward. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. A well-known cartoonist drew a Valentine’s Day cartoon where a woman complains “Not a single man had courage – I didn’t get one Valentine’s Day card this time.” A chorus of women around her agree #MeToo. Thus, somehow, a Valentine and workplace harassment are made equivalent, just as Sharad Yadav once feared anti-stalking laws would take all the romance out of love.

But still, let’s enjoy this filmi moment of young love for what it’s worth. Let’s be thankful that the Vishva Hindu Parishad, once famous for its anti-Valentine’s Day vigilantism, has decided young men and women have the right to fall in love, marry, and procreate without goons beating them up. Let’s be grateful for all the love because the internet is not known as a place to go collectively ‘awww’ when girls just wanna have fun. (And as if on cue, a Muslim group in Hyderabad has decided the lyrics of the song hurt the sentiments of Muslims and have filed a complaint because in India someone must always be offended.)

But still, let’s be thankful that on the whole, at least on film, a young woman can still shoot a flying kiss, as Varrier does in the latest V-day timed clip from the film, and not be shot down as a shameless hussy.

After all, these days even filmi love is risky. The Karni Sena went after Padmavati just on the rumour that there was a dream sequence between Deepika Padukone’s Padmavati and Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji. So let’s enjoy this brief moment when the internet is more melting heart instead of toxic meltdown.

It might all be gone in the wink of an eye.

Originally published in The Print.