Love Hostel: The movie
Imagine living in a state of constant fear, where you don’t know what unexpected and unfortunate awaits you. And then think about the social contract we have all mutually consented to, where we’ve given up our sovereign rights for the safeguard provided by the sovereign power. And now imagine the many young women and men who end up in situations where they live in a constant fear even after being given the so-called safeguard.
The thought itself scares one; this fear unfolds itself in the movie ‘Love, Hostel.’ Directed and written by Shanker Raman, ‘Love hostel’ is a romantic thriller film about a couple from Haryana. This isn’t some usual romantic Bollywood film where the two individuals fall in love and end up together forever, as we expect in a typical Bollywood movie. Instead, it is the story of two individuals from different religious faiths: a Hindu woman, Jyoti, and a Muslim man, Shaukeen. They fall in love and decide to marry each other, which later turns out to be a life-threatening decision.
Throughout the movie, they are seen running for their lives and for each other. But running from whom? Usually when one marries, he/she is believed to have settled, but what’s unsettling here is that it makes them run for their lives. Isn’t marriage supposed to bring stability and happiness into one’s life? Unfortunately, NO, not for Jyoti and Shaukeen and many other real-life couples who struggle like this every single day. For them, the impediments created by society are predominantly creating a ruckus in their lives. Let’s understand this by delving deep into their story while bringing out the real-life conditions in such cases.
The movie Love Hostel begins with a nerve-racking scene where a young couple is hanged from a tree. It showcases this horrific man, Dagger, who is officially certified dead and has no record of being alive. His hatred for interfaith and inter-caste marriages is thus employed to murder these runaway couples without the fear of being caught. This terrifies us as we realize that a man runs around killing people with no sense of accountability. The basic right to life is violated, and in ways that brings the state to shame. This shows the normlessness present in society, how institutions set up to protect individuals are defunct in their roles, and how this leads to an abrupt rise in crime and wide-scale violation of norms. These individuals are then supported by legitimate authorities; in the case of this movie, Jyoti’s grandmother, who is an MLA seeks to protect her prestige in every way possible; these individuals become a source for doing such unlawful activities. This man is again put to work this time it was Jyoti and Shaukeen who were under his radar. They ran away on the day when Jyoti’s family arranged her marriage with someone from their own community. They were granted a safe house by the court once the facts were established that her family would be dead against the marriage and that her younger brother has often assaulted her. The irony that strikes is that a woman, Jyoti’s grandmother, ends up being the one behind all the torture.
The plot: Honor killing
Honor, prestige, and solidarity are some things that families and communities go above and beyond to safeguard. In our patriarchal society, women are the ones responsible for honor and prestige. This needs to be safeguarded through excessive control and norms imposed on women in the form of restrictions around what to wear, what to do, how to talk, how to behave, whom to marry, and many more. Autonomy is completely taken for granted, and women are not seen as individuals but rather as objects of prestige that need to be controlled and safeguarded.
The marriage decision being crucial in defending the honor often builds up to hostility for certain marriage arrangements. This opposition is due to the centuries-old caste system, which, though termed a thing of the past in common parlance, is very prominent and active in institutions like marriage, the other reason being interfaith marriages. Though various marriage practices, like village exogamy, gotra endogamy, and inter-caste and interfaith marriages are legally binding, they are not accepted by the society.
Under Indian law, especially the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 inter-caste, interfaith, and a lot of other marriages except incest taboo, are legal with no restrictions. However, the prestige and honor of the communities force them to disregard such marriages. This disregard strips the couple of the marriage autonomy that they are rightly liable to have. The resulting enmity takes the form of societal sanctions that can range from the expulsion of the families from their caste to violent actions to bring the couples back and dissolve the marriage.
Khap Panchayats in many districts in Haryana often acted in discretion and have given diktats of hanging the couple. Though Supreme Court clearly asserted “freedom an adult girl or boy to freedom of an adult girl or boy to pick their spouse,”.
Safe houses: A chronic problem
The safe houses are state-allocated spaces for the couples whose parents, relatives, village, or panchayat are against their marriage. These houses are the only means of refuge for the couples, and in many cases, the state’s failure to allot safe houses has resulted in the loss of the lives. The caste panchayat, their families, and the local political powers are all after the couple, and they spare no means to bring the so-called ‘delinquents’ back to normalcy.
This normalcy is achieved by either killing both or killing the man and marrying the woman as per their own choice. But because running away brings shame to the community as a whole, these local caretakers of prestige take the law into their own hands to bring justice to the community. The state’s role is dubious and often seen as intervening. Here, too we see that the police are not proactive in such cases but follow a wait and watch policy; their interest is context-specific. Throughout the movie, a police official is seen knowing the story, but rather than taking preventative action, the couple is left to fend for themselves. Thus, the question of the safety of these ‘safe’ houses also comes into question; the movie presents how Dagger ends up entering the safe house and killing everyone there. Prem Chowdary, in her ethnographic study of Haryana, studied the state’s intervention in these runaway couple cases. She states how the police helped the families bring the delinquents back to the village.
They file cases of kidnapping and abduction against men in such cases, and the women’s consent is not taken into consideration. Her consent is believed to have been forced or influenced by a threat created by the man. A very context-specific interest is generated when police believe what they want to believe.
In false abduction charges, even if the woman agrees her decision was not forced and as per her will, the statement is not believed to be true. So, when state intervention can be to this extent in such cases, how does one justify the ‘safe’ tag of these safehouses? Anomie is a looming curse over society, with institutions losing their authority and integrity.
Women’s consent being talked about above highlights the condition of autonomy in decision-making for women. One has no right to decide; parental and social authority are given prime importance. Jyoti was bereft of this right first when her marriage was arranged and then again when she was battling for her life. Similarly, Jyoti’s sister Babli too experienced this; the village Sarpanch advised the family to marry Babli to the man who was supposed to marry Jyoti initially. Practicing sororate marriages without even taking Babli’s wish into consideration. Women are mere tools for protecting their status and are supposed to act strictly according to the rules setup by society. Any deviance results in sanctions taking horrible forms.
Now even if the couple end up protecting themselves from their families and communities, the safe house presents them with problems of sustainability. The living conditions in these safe houses are absolutely pathetic; multiple people end up living in one single room in piteous conditions. They end up living in these spaces for months with no source of income because they cannot go anywhere. The cost of living here runs into the thousands, forcing them to ultimately move out to find some kind of job. Many of these runaway couples barely earn anything; some end up carrying just a few bucks with them. Many are wage earners who earn 1000–1500 per day; these safe houses charge them for room, food, and snacks, but with being locked up inside, the financial burden intensifies.
Today, a huge number of couples are allocated these safe houses, but the safety guarantee is still flawed and undermined. A number of guidelines for operating these safehouses have been published by various governments, but the conditions of these safehouses in rural areas are still not livable, and the safety aspect is constantly under question. Recently, the Kerala government and the Delhi government published orders to create more safe houses.
But cases of honor killing and violence are more common in rural areas of North India, with Haryana, UP, and Bihar being the prominent states. However, state action here is not pro-active; no or minimal efforts are taken to provide additional safety and financial security to these young men and women who only wish to spend their lives together.
A number of LGBTQ runaway cases are also reported and allotted safe houses, but are they equipped to cater to their needs? State intervention throughout India is essential to stop the violence in the name of caste, religion, and region. For these individuals, a grave defiance of their fundamental right to life under Article 21, a life of dignity and respect, is witnessed. Positive state action and judicial intervention are the utmost requirements for these couples to live a life of peace and stability after all they want is to spend their lives together.
About the author…
Akanksha Ghildiyal is a Master’s student of sociology at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. Her research interests include visual ethnography, population studies with a special focus on migration, the urban city and its intersection with the local, the sustainability of village economies, and gender studies. Apart from writing, Akanksha is also avidly interested in photography; her expertise is macro and portrait photography. Through her work, she means to bring to light the hidden stories often overlooked by society.