How does a human fall in love with a non-human? Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the latest in a long line of films to answer the question. The acclaimed fantasy drama is a loose retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, written by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and an amphibian humanoid creature (Doug Jones) develop feelings for each other. Elisa attempts to rescue the creature from captivity and share a life with it. The film will be released in India on February 16.
Among the earliest Indian films to explore inter-species romance were low-budget fantasy films made between the 1950s and the ’70s. The creatures in these films were usually fairies, such as in Homi Wadia’s Hatim Tai (1956) and Sushil Gupta’s Tarzan in Fairyland (1968). The only aspect differentiating the fairies from humans were a pair of wings attached to the shoulders.
The snake films made between 1986 and 1991 come closest to Hollywood’s human-beast romances. These films are based on the homegrown legend of the ichchadhari nag or a snake that can take human form at will.
One of the earliest efforts was Rajkumar Kohli’s 1976 multi-starrer Nagin. It was the success of the 1986 blockbuster Nagina, starring Sridevi, that led to a boom of similar films featuring a romantic relationship between a human and a shape-shifting snake.
The films that followed, such as Nigahen (1989), Naag Nagin (1989), Sheshnaag (1990), Naache Nagin Gali Gali (1990), Tum Mere Ho (1990) and Vishkanya (1991), were not as successful as Nagina. In these films, the romantic pair’s happiness is at risk from villains (usually, a sorcerer) who are on the lookout for the naag mani, a rare and precious gem owned by shape-shifting snakes.
Indian filmmakers never adequately rationalised the reason behind a human’s attraction towards a non-human. In the snake films, the hero falls for the heroine without realising her ophidian origins.
Likewise, in the human-mermaid romances, the hero’s heart beats for a beautiful woman. Not until the final reels does the hero realise that his ladylove is only half-human.
In Laal Paree (1991), a rip-off of the 1984 Hollywood blockbuster Splash, Shankar (Aditya Pancholi) falls in love with a mermaid. He remains in the dark about his girlfriend’s origins because she becomes part-fish only when she is splashed with water.
The 1996 film Sahasa Veerudu Sagara Kanya follows the formula but with a slight modification. Here, the makers add the element of villains hungry for riches from the snake films. The mermaid (Shilpa Shetty) resides in a sunken ship full of treasure. The villains attempt to capture her to loot the gold.
While Splash ended with the hero and mermaid swimming towards an underwater kingdom to live happily ever after, the Indian imitations opt for more orthodox endings. In Laal Paree, the couple swims to safety, reemerges on a shore and keeps smiling at each other till the end credits begin.
Sahasa Veerudu Sagara Kanya ends with the weeping mermaid (Shilpa Shetty) returning to where she came from while the hero, Ravi (Venkatesh), gets hitched to another woman. As a consolation prize, Ravi hands a doll to the mermaid to give her company underwater because she always wanted to get married to the hero and have a baby.
In the case of creatures who can never become human, the love becomes platonic. In SS Rajamouli’s Eega (2012), the hero dies while trying to protect his girlfriend and is reincarnated as a fly. As a fly, the best he can do is to watch over his former lover. She reciprocates with smiles and thank yous.
In the Ramsay brothers’ rare foray into non-horror territory, Ajooba Kudrat Ka (1991), the creature and the human share a father-daughter relationship. A little girl is rescued from her kidnappers by a woolly creature, whom she goes on to call “Yeti” and throw snowballs at.
Both Mahesh Bhatt’s horror film Junoon (1992) and Shankar’s special effects-driven potboiler I (2015) prove that intentions, not looks, matter in the case of inter-species romance.
In Junoon, Vikram (Rahul Roy) has been cursed to turn into a man-eating tiger on every full moon night. Instead of trying to fight the curse, which would require suicide, Vikram chooses to go with the flow, which requires the occasional killing. His wife (Pooja Bhatt) dumps him the moment she gets to know about his reality.
In I, Lingesan (Vikram), despite turning into a grotesque creature, is accepted and loved by the heroine Diya (Amy Jackson). Lingesan’s goodness does the trick. In the end, just as in Beauty and the Beast, Lingesan slowly turns back into a human after receiving Diya’s love and care.
Sometimes, the creatures are doomed to never experience human love. In the 2013 superhero film Krrish 3, Kaya (Kangana Ranaut), who is part-human and part-chameleon, develops feelings for the human superhero Krishna (Hrithik Roshan). She is able to hoodwink Krishna for a while by turning into his wife. Later, she imagines herself with Krishna in a romantic song sequence. The charade soon ends, along with Kaya.
Srijit Mukherji’s Nirbaak (2015) features an extreme variation of this sentiment. In Nirbaak, a pet dog becomes jealous of her owner Rahul’s new girlfriend, an unnamed character played by Sushmita Sen. The dog continuously interrupts whenever her owner (Jisshu Sengupta) spends time with his lover. Meanwhile, a tree is shown to be infatuated with Sen’s character, shaking wildly as it looks down upon Sen and oozing out sap from one its branches.