‘Maajhi Preet’: A Stirring Story of Lifelong Romance and Rural Despair

Satyabhama and Satva (or Bhau and Bai) have been married for 42 years. Cotton farmers in a Maharashtrian village, Pokhari, they live with their two sons and their families. They’re one of the six couples featured in a recent Netflix docuseries, My Love, that depicts lifelong romances across cultures.

Spread over six one-hour episodes, profiling pairs in the United States, South Korea, Japan, Spain, Brazil and India, My Love often feels overlong and tedious. Most stories struggle to justify their runtimes, losing their focus in directorial indulgences. But the last piece, centred on Bhau and Bai, comes closest to dignifying the logline’s stirring promise.

Directed by Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa, who made the acclaimed documentary Katiyabaaz (2014), Maajhi Preet, like other stories in the series, spans a year in the couple’s lives. It opens to Bai massaging Bhau’s head. We get some compelling banter – “you should pamper your husband once in a while,” he says; “this is enough for today,” she replies – that makes the sexagenarian pair seem like teenagers who express their affection through the sting of humour. But the understated opening bumps into trite exposition, as Bai relays evident information: “Our bond extends beyond this lifetime”, “I hope we remain happy”, “I hope we remain blessed”. We also hear strains of sitar and flute, jaded sounds that signal “Indian!” to the foreign audience.

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But Maajhi Preet finds its power and purpose when it stops worrying about imposing (ideas, themes, traits) and concentrates on feeling — and being. When Bhau forgets to carry his tiffin to the fields, Bai walks all the way to hand him lunch. Later, sitting under a sky facing an open fire, they chitchat about the weather and sleep on the same cot. In another scene, when Bhau feels feverish, Bai touches his forehead and says, “It’s because you worry too much.”

It struck me then that a documentary form is a near-perfect choice to depict eternal love. Because if the question is, what do we talk about when we talk about love, then the answer, via the protagonists’ conversations, is simple: We don’t talk much; sometimes, we don’t talk at all. By focusing on seemingly mundane moments, Kakkar and Mustafa show that the charm of a true love story doesn’t lie in florid sentences – or ‘grand gestures’ – but in blank lines separating the paragraphs. Bhau and Bai may have said everything to each other, but their reservoir of shared silence – of feeling content, secure and complete – is limitless.

Maajhi Preet also tells a connected story of rural decay and despair. It didn’t rain in Pokhari for the last two years, but the year it did, during the filming of the documentary, it poured, diminishing the crop yields. So, the son, Natharam, is forced to migrate, finding work in a factory. Ditto the second son, Asaram, eventually moving out for a better source of income, leaving his parents alone. The filmmakers don’t just respond to Bhau and Bai’s love story but also explore its attendant strands: the pall of patriarchy (Bhau’s initial refusal to take care of Bai’s mother saying it’s her sons’ responsibilities), the death of adolescent dreams (their grandson, Vaibhav, tells Bhau that he wants to leave school to help them in the fields), the fissure of filial bonds (Natharam doesn’t come home for the Sankranti festival, saying the new job would keep him away for at least “seven to eight months”).

Covering summer, monsoon, winter and summer, Maajhi Preet captures the rural life in varying cadences, through some gorgeous and rooted cinematography: Diya lights bathing the house walls in warm yellow; Bhau, Bai and their grandchildren visiting a local fair and wearing luminous horns; Bhau and Bai reflecting on their lives, making fanciful plans, as mountainous piles of cotton eavesdrop a few feet away. But unlike mainstream Bollywood, trying to airbrush hinterland India to make it appropriately pretty for city slickers, Maajhi Preet does something remarkable: It invites us to experience rural beauty on its own terms – there’s no apology or fetishisation here, just infectious fondness funnelled through a deep desire to share.

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Yet at least three scenes bothered me, for they seemed a bit too neat, a bit too ‘complete’, as if intent on smoothing out the jaggedness of life in lieu of a polished story: an opportune news playing on the radio after Natharam has left home (“due to heavy rainfalls, the farmers have faced a major loss … requesting financial help from the central government”); she asking her grandson to read a passage from his book (“the thought of leaving their homes created turmoil in their hearts. As all the young men and women left the village, only the elderly and children were left behind”) that cuts to pensive faces of old couples and their grandchildren; and Bhau and Bai flipping through old photos, with their grandsons asking pointed questions about their past lives.

What stays with you, however, is the scent of sublime in gloom: Bhau and his friends singing a Tukaram hymn; Bhau and Bai posing for pictures in a photo studio at the fair; and, my favourite, Bhau gifting Bai a garlanded swing hung from a tree. She sits on it; he gives her a push. She starts laughing; he laughs with her. Monsoon has returned to Pokhari, promising to drench them again in their 43rd year of romance.

This article was first published on The Wire