Movie-star marriage breaks hearts, but keeps traditions

In India, when an actress is betrothed, her career may take a dive -all for the cause of social stability.

A coup in Pakistan, a cyclone in east India, and two atomic tests last year that rocked the region.

But the real shock for about half of South Asia's 1.4 billion people came a few days ago when they heard that Madhuri Dixit was married last month. Never heard of her? It's OK. But Ms. Dixit is probably the most beloved Indian actress around - a visage of classic South Asian beauty with a sun-comes-up smile who has defined "the perfect woman" here.

Don't look for an American equivalent. For South Asians, whose bond with film stars approaches the mythic, Dixit is Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Whitney Houston - all wrapped up into the girl next door. Cram into an auto rickshaw in Delhi, Calcutta, or Bombay, and you will likely see her image enshrined next to tiny mugs of Lords Ram and Shiva. She even transcends borders. A joke in Pakistan has that state willingly giving up the disputed territory of Kashmir for "Madhuri."

So, that the Bombay-born Brahman went to Los Angeles for a secret arranged marriage to an unknown Indian-American doctor in a simple ceremony followed by a vegetarian lunch - well, it's just a huge brouhaha here.

"Runaway Bride" cried a Times of India headline - not on a glossy gossip page, but in a weepy and remorseful lead editorial. "To say that Ms. Dixit has broken every male heart in the country - not to mention Pakistan and the extended South Asian diaspora - is to render prosaic an attachment so profound that it is at once real and imaginary, intimate, and public," waxed the Times.

Most significant is the fact that Dixit did not fall in love with her husband - in the way her dream girl character so often does on screen. She accepted what is being called an "evolved arranged marriage" - the groom is a friend of her brother, discovered after a search by the family for a proper mate.

During the 1980s and '90s, Dixit won over South Asia for a rare ability to dance, sing, and play comedy and tragedy equally well. And in an industry dominated by men, she often got top billing. She became a national obsession - a diva with a spirit that was both vivacious and virtuous.

In 1994 Dixit played the lead in the biggest Indian hit of all time, "Hum Aapke Hain Koun" (Who am I to You?). A musical love story like most Hindi movies, it marked the arrival of a middle-class Indian dream of happiness and satisfaction as something secure. The painter M.F. Husain saw "Hum Aapke" 64 times and drew countless portraits of the star as a variety of Hindu goddesses. Last year, Mr. Husain became a film director just to work with Dixit. Reportedly, he is not a happy man.

In her real life role as bride, Dixit neatly stepped between Indian culture wars over tradition and modernity. Weddings here are crucial elements of social stability - parents are relied on to bring together families of similar status for a good match. Yet urban Indians have been experimenting with "love marriages" - the Western approach that Bollywood, the Bombay movie machine, and Madhuri made popular.

Yet the Indian middle class has been reacting against the trend toward romance. Marriages of passion, as they are sometimes known, are increasingly suspect. There is little support if they fall apart. At the same time, contemporary twentysomethings are more uncomfortable with a match that may be little more than a business decision, and in which they have no say.

Dixit, however, points out that she did make a choice, even while submitting to the traditional search, which resulted in Los Angeles doctor Shriram Nene. "My marriage is not strictly an arranged one, in the sense that only the meeting with Shriram was arranged," said Dixit.

Whether Indian audiences will accept Madhuri, whose career is slightly on the wane anyway, is a question. Unlike in the United States, heroines in India must be unmarried. "Bollywood's portrayal of women follows one dictum," says social psychologist Sanjay Chugh, "they should be chaste or unattached."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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