In Sony Pictures Television’s controversial show Pehredaar Piya Ki, nine-year-old Ratan marries 18-year-old Diya – a union that violates the law on child marriage.

The show carries a disclaimer that its makers do not promote child marriage. In an interview with Scroll.in, producer Sumeet Mittal said that the objective was to show “a rare bonding between a little boy and a woman”.

Ratan’s life is in danger. His father, lying on his death bed, requests Diya’s parents to wed their daughter to his son in order to protect him. This happens in the fourth episode. The previous episodes show Diya saving Ratan’s life in another instance.

Why does Diya have to marry Ratan to protect him? As Ratan’s father explains, marriage is what will ensure Ratan is safe and will give Diya the strength to be his guardian (a stretched interpretation of the Savitri-Satyavan mythology, if you will). The power of the “pavitra rishta” (sacred bond) between a husband and wife forms the justification for child marriage.

Back in 1980, a similar story of child marriage was made in Telugu. Marriage was described as a sacred bond even when the child’s life was in no danger. In Muthyala Subbaiah’s Moodu Mulla Bandham (A relationship of three knots), Murali marries Radha (Madhavi), who is old enough to be his mother, after her groom dies of an electric shock at the wedding hall.

Radha is cursed by everyone for bringing bad luck and causing the death of her groom. The little boy, who has just learnt that marriage means tying a mangalsutra around a woman’s neck, jumps in to accomplish the unfulfilled task. The guests at the wedding ceremony are outraged and tell Radha that it would be silly to think she is now married to the child.

But Radha sees Murali as the god Krishna. She launches into a monologue about the sacred meaning of the mangalsutra’s three knots. “This has happened in the sacred space of this wedding hall and it is god’s wish,” she says to the guests. “No one has any right to reverse this decision, not even god.”

Moodu Mulla Bandham (1980).
Moodu Mulla Bandham (1980).

Moodu Mulla Bandham marked Subbaiah’s first film as a director. “My films always had a purpose,” he told The Hindu in an interview in 2013. “There are failures but I always aspired to show something new. Most of my successful films had heavy doses of sentiment.” That is certainly the case with Moodu Mulla Bandham.

Radha leaves the hall with Murali and begins to live with him as his wife. She also sends him to school. Even there, Murali is teased when he tells his friends that Radha is not his mother. “What are we to each other?” he asks Radha. “You are my Murali and I’m your Radha,” she replies.

Radha is so invested in the belief that she is like her mythological namesake that at a school annual day function, when she sees Murali dressed as little Krishna, she imagines herself as his lover.

Like Pehredaar Piya Ki, Subbaiah implies that the relationship is not purely platonic. Seeing Radha dressed in a red saree as the good sumangali (married woman), Murali begins to kiss her face. Radha gets all shy and Subbaiah voices her inner desires through the song Kala Yeduta.

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Kala Yeduta, Moodu Mulla Bandham (1980).

Subbaiah takes the narrative all the way into Murali’s adulthood. As an adult, Murali (Rajendra Prasad) falls in love with Padma (Vijayakala). He seems to have forgotten that he once married to Radha. He continues to live with her, but their relationship remains undefined. Radha wonders if she should tell him about their status and the conflict builds up to the highly melodramatic climax and mind-boggling concluding scene.

Like Pehredaar Piya Ki, Subbaiah’s film too sees marriage as pure, sacred and offering protection. Murali may have tied the mangalsutra, but it is Radha who turns into his caretaker for the rest of his life, a job that the “sacred bond” of marriage has given her.

“In today’s generation, we see a young girl marrying a 40-year-old person and it is taken as a vow and her choice,” Sumeet Mittal said in his interview. “The same way, Diya has made this choice out of certain circumstances, where she marries to protect the boy. That is very brave.” Radha too makes similar arguments. “Why should the wife always be younger?” she asks Murali when he tells her that his professor married someone much older to him and he finds that weird. “Aren’t men and women equal? Age doesn’t matter, only the heart does.”

Murali applauds at the end of the scene.

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Pehredaar Piya Ki.