Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bollywood's Damning Women Cliches

A guest-post for @genderlogindia, written on Prem Panicker's request, first published here.

Bollywood is usually the go-to guy for bashing. Anything evil in this country is, by and large, attributed to Bollywood’s zestful propagation of the same. Smoking – check. Dumbing down – check. Eve teasing – double check.

The meme goes that Bollywood has made stalking into an art form and otherwise respectable composers- choreographers-costumers have participated wholeheartedly to make this activity into a grand and enduring success.
The ‘stalking song’ is what stars and directors are most reviled for, but I am inclined to overlook it because it is never an end. If the villain does it, there is swift dispensation of justice by the hero. If the hero does it, he either reforms soon after or does something completely monumental (like strangling his Mafia don father’s pet anaconda to marry the girl) that underlines his true love.
My logic is simple: If a molester claims that he got his idea from Akshay Kumar, he should immediately be made to fight thirteen sword-wielding goons to save a girl. Because that’s what Akshay did – right after he teased the girl.

However, this is not to say Bollywood can hold its head high when gender is being discussed. What Bollywood kills us with are the stereotypes it silently perpetuates through stock characters or situations, either for convenience or through not wanting to take a risk. This is – in my opinion – far more damning than a raucous song. Because it is a subtle and, more critically, ongoing message that certain things are ‘wrong’.
Here is my quick list of six stereotypes Bollywood perpetrates. (Please feel free to add more. ):

Heroines don’t do regular work. Unless they are prostitutes or police officers.
Heroines don’t go to offices. (Yes, I know you will jump up and name five movies where they do but that’s exactly my point – those are exceptions.) They study. They are nice people, but they don’t ‘do’ anything.
In the two biggest hits of this year – Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express – we are not sure what the heroine does. In the former, Deepika Padukone is shown preparing to become a doctor in the flashback but in the present day, she is quite happy looking gorgeous, and no mention of her medical practice is ever made. Ditto for Chennai Express.
In the Top 10 grossers in Bollywood history (all of which are from the last few years), only one heroine – Kareena Kapoor of 3 Idiots – uses her profession to make a contribution to the story. The rest just dance spectacularly.
And this has been a standard template in Bollywood. For example, Madhuri Dixit was supposed to be a ‘student of computers’ in Hum Aapke Hain Koun but she never goes even close to one in the film. In Maine Pyar Kiya, heroine Bhagyashree had excellent marks in ‘inter’ but she chose to be deposited in a family friend’s home instead of a working woman’s hostel.
Take the biggest hits (and the not so big ones, as well) and you will see the same trend. The only working girl I can think of in a major hit is Sholay’s Basanti. And she abandoned her promising career to get married.

Working mothers are bad. Actually, mothers are bad whenever they are not doing the act of ‘mothering’.
Basanti’s abandoned career brings us to the subtle messaging about mothers who work. In Taare Zameen Par, the working mother gave up her career to turn her sons into class-toppers. In Akele Hum Akele Tum, the career-focussed mother (who left her son for a promising singing career) almost became the vamp till she decided to return to domesticity.
Whenever a child is shown to be in physical danger (road accident, kidnapping etc), the mother is usually doing something frivolous (like shopping) and is meted out some hard-hitting advice (“Tum kaisi maa ho?”) by a bystander – advice that leads to terrible remorse.

Pre-marital sex is punishable by death or imprisonment (though, by and large, not both).
If rain, crackling fire, skimpy clothing and sensuous songs cause you to slip (‘behek jaana’) and taste the forbidden fruit before marriage, you will die. Because sex is done by bad girls.
Sometimes the man dies (Aradhana), leaving the woman to a lifetime of struggle (including some jail time).
Sometimes, the woman dies (Trishul), thus getting a version of ‘capital punishment’.
Even in a totally realistic film like Masoom, the woman dies leaving her son in the care of her married lover.
In recent times, the moment of passion is dealt a little less severely — but the non-virgin never gets the hero (Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, for example).

Only prostitutes initiate sex.
As per Bollywood logic, all sexually aggressive women are prostitutes (or similar), though all prostitutes are not sexually aggressive (if she is the heroine).
Traditionally, characters artistes like Helen and Aruna Irani have performed – with great aplomb – the cabaret that caused the hero to sway slightly off the straight and narrow path before he progressed on his way towards the virginal heroine. In recent times, the purpose of the ‘item number’ has been to introduce a guest star who can do the Fevicol-Zandu inspired gyrations while the heroine can dutifully avert her face when the hero zeroes in for a kiss.
[NB: The heroes can sow a few wild oats here and there. If you take the last five films of current heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, he has been polygamous in three of them unlike his heroines who, without exception,  were steadfastly monogamous.]
Even in an explicit movie like Murder, it is the man who initiates the adulterous relationship. The heroine initially turns away and is about to leave,  when there is an excuse for her to come back (she left her purse behind, you see) and get sucked into the affair. (Maybe an adulterous relationship is not the right example to make a point about women in Bollywood not having a say in sexual activity, though).

Women are allowed to kill villains but only with help from new lover.
There was a time when all of Bollywood was gainfully employed in remaking the Julia Roberts hit. Sleeping With The EnemyAgnisakshiDaraar and Yaraana faithfully replicated every detail from the original and differed from their source code on only one major front – the hero rushed in to kill the obsessive husband. While the fragile Julia Roberts pulled the trigger herself in Hollywood, a chubby Rishi Kapoor (whose heroines were much fitter than him) and a hungover Jackie Shroff ambled into the last scene to perform the heroic honors in Bollywood.
At one point of time, when Rekha was acting in a series of films as a female vigilante, it was always the hero who rushed in to assist her in the climax. The most famous example is probably Khoon Bhari Maang where she was doing a mean job of chopping Kabir Bedi up till Shatrughan Sinha was made to intervene.

In a love triangle, only the men get to chose the ‘winner’.
A Bollywood woman is, at the risk of over-simplification, property. She doesn’t really have a say in matters of the heart.
From Sangam to Saajan, from Dostana to Dobara OUATIM, the woman is just a method of sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or proving one’s masculinity for the sake of the world).
The friends decide – depending on who saw the girl first, whose relative debts are higher, whose box office clout is bigger – who gets the girl. This often leads to death or the honorable exit of one participant while the surviving one, usually the docile girl, goes with the guy. Simple, no?
And when you see a rather cavalier tyaag by Ranbir Kapoor in favor of his elder brother in Raajneeti, you realize this is a tradition as old as the Mahabharat itself!

Often one wonders about the wasted charisma of Bollywood’s leading ladies, and if the system will ever change to portray them as true role models. Right now, there are lakhs of young girls copying Priyanka Chopra’s tattoo. What impact she would make if she is shown actually working hard to become – say – a boxer!
A Mary Kom biopic – starring Priyanka Chopra – is currently in production. So yes, there is hope.

Women-driven Bollywood Films

My guest post for UltraViolet (Indian Feminists Unplugged), first published here.
Written for Women's Day 2014.

Coincidentally or otherwise, too many of my Twitter conversations end up in a blog post. This post too, got kicked off by a tweet-discussion with Dilnavaz about ‘women-driven Bollywood movies’. Always grateful to people for giving me filmi things ponder about, I wondered what, if any, the difference between ‘woman-centric’ and ‘woman-driven’ was. 
My theory is that a ‘woman-driven’ film is one where a heroine, despite being handicapped by a short role or pairing against a bigger hero or a clichéd plot, has shaped the narrative. Now, this ‘shaping of narrative’ is subjective and disagreements are welcome. I have also tried to pick those movies that enjoyed commercial success for most part, since a woman driving commercial success is a bit of a rarity in Bollywood.

The pioneer in women-driven films was, of course, ‘Hunterwali’ Nadia. India’s first and only action heroine, she thought nothing of jumping over trains, cracking a mean whip and taking on muscular baddies in hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, these films have all but gone off public memory due to poor archiving. Here is my admittedly subjective list of recent and yesteryear Bollywood movies that are distinguished by virtue of being driven by women:

Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana
Sharmila Tagore played a grey-haired widow for nearly half the film, while her male lead , the reigning superstar, pranced around as her son. And yet, the story started with the hero getting besotted after seeing her on a train and ended with the hero accepting her as his mother at an Air Force honours function.
She fell in love, saw her lover die, had a son out of wedlock, tried to bring him up, saved her son by taking a murder rap upon herself, served a prison sentence and finally reunited with her son – her life being the focus of the story (“Saphal hogi teri aradhana…”). 
Rajesh Khanna was the reason people came to watch Aradhana but Sharmila Tagore was the reason they remembered it.

Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta
It takes a lot of courage to take Bollywood’s favourite ‘brothers lost in childhood’ plot and give it a distaff twist. But then, you had a heroine like Hema Malini to pull it off.  
The biggest impact of Seeta Aur Geeta was not the film itself, where Hema Manlini stole Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar’s thunder with aplomb, but the aftermath. Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra remember the story of their film Gehri Chaal suddenly changing after the release of Seeta Aur Geeta and Hema Malini doing all the fighting. Because the distributors wanted it!

Waheeda Rehman in Trishul
Waheeda Rehman had about fifteen minutes of screen time in a film which had three of Bollywood’s biggest male stars and yet, she is the pivot on which the story of Trishul hinged.
Salim-Javed wrote a genre-bending tale where a son swore to destroy his father, in an industry where sons are always subservient to their parents. With his characteristic intensity, Amitabh Bachchan brilliantly channelized the pain of seeing his mother die a little every day (“Jisne pachchees baras apni maa ko har roz thoda thoda marte dekha ho, usse maut se kya dar lagega?”) and the film became an important piece in the document of the Angry Young Man.
In both Deewaar and Trishul, Bachchan’s anger was directed towards his missing father. In Deewaar, his mother tried to change his outlook. In Trishul, she extracted a promise that the son would take revenge on her behalf (“Main tujhe rehem ke saaye mein na palne doongi… Taaki tap tap ke tu faulaad bane, maa ki aulaad bane… main doodh na bakshungi tujhe yeh yaad rahe”).

Zeenat Aman in Insaaf Ka Tarazu
A model is brutally raped by a pervert, who is then acquitted by court on the ‘she-asked-for-it’ defence. This ‘reputation’ leads to her modelling career hitting a snag but when she is fighting back, the pervert (yes, the same guy) rapes her teenage sister. She kills him, emptying a revolver into the man.
Insaaf Ka Tarazu was notorious for its explicit rape scenes, which bordered on titillation. It suffered from over-dramatisation and very bad acting. But the plot, borrowed from Hollywood thriller Lipstick, centred on Zeenat Aman and she completely eclipsed the two male leads of the film. After this, Deepak Parashar – her lover in the film – became Bollywood’s Official Wimp and Raj Babbar became much celebrated for his villainous turn.
Moving away from the usual Bollywood tradition of hero avenging the female folks’ ‘dishonour’, here was a girl who pressed the trigger herself. 

Sridevi in Chaalbaaz
At her prime in the late-1980s, Sridevi acted in several films that centred on her but nothing exemplified her ability to steal the limelight than Chaalbaaz, where she acted opposite two of India’s biggest superstars – Sunny Deol and Rajanikanth. The film could have been just another remake of Seeta Aur Geeta but Sridevi’s manic energy took it to just another plane. As the two sisters who were separated at birth and came together after a multitude of crises, Sridevi made the most of the footage that was given to her.
A lot of people had wondered what would have happened if Sunny Deol and Rajani came together in a North-South Death Match. Well, Sridevi won.
Honourable MentionMr India, a film produced by the hero’s brother, named after the hero and boasting of Hindi cinema’s second most popular villain. And we are still enamoured by Miss Hawa Hawaii.
Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela
Why is this standard-issue-Bollywood-love-triangle a woman-driven film? Because despite the presence of two major stars – Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff – it was Urmila who decided whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. In Bollywood love triangles, it is always the two heroes who decide on who gets the girl and the girl is just expected to meekly agree. Rangeela was different.
The entire contour of the film was built around backup dancer Mili’s quest to become a filmstar and the two leading men – one a tapori and one a star – just adjusted their lives around her. And then finally when one of them decided to sacrifice and exit her life, she refused to accept his decision. She went out and brought him back in her life.
And yes, her film within the film was a monster hit too! 
Honourable mentionEk Hasina Thi, Urmila Matondkar, in a deglam avatar, sought revenge after being cheated in love by a slick con-man. And she got it, in the most gruesome manner possible. Ewwww… I get the creeps just thinking of it.
Bipasha Basu in Jism
With her bronzed back and never-ending legs dominating the posters and the most popular scenes of Jism, Bipasha Basu was the true blue femme fatale in the classic film noir style of Hollywood. Throughout the film, she literally toyed with John Abraham and got him to do her bidding, which would get her money and freedom. This was not a story in which the hero and heroine conspired to pull off a heist. This was a story where the more intelligent (and more ruthless) person manipulated the other to get what she wanted.
As the famous line goes, “Her body was the weapon, her body was the killer, her body was the scene of crime.”

Tabu in Maqbool
Tabu has acted in several women-centric films like Astitva and Chandni Bar but nowhere has she dictated the characters around her and controlled the circumstances as much as Maqbool.
As a desi version of the iconic Lady Macbeth, she was the Mafia don’s mistress – apparently living under his thumb, helpless and insecure. But her insecurity became a weapon when she used the don’s main henchman to fuel a rebellion and wrest control of the gang. It was Irrfan who pressed the trigger and ascended the throne but it was Tabu who spun the macabre web in which all her adversaries were caught.
She was not just the villain’s moll. She had blood on her hands. Literally.

Madhuri Dixit (and Huma Qureishi) in Dedh Ishqiya
The promos focused on Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi probably because they were the connecting link from the earlier film but there was no doubt that it was Begum Para and her associate who held all the puppet-strings. Soon, they had the two heroes and pretty much the entire cast eating of their hands – revealing a game bigger than what we had expected.
SPOILER ALERT: As the two rag-tag heroes ran into a wall of guns and goons in the climax, they realised the two damsels were stringing them along all through. And what completely broke all conventions was the distinctly romantic relationship between the two women, who rode into the sunset with each other as Naseer and Arshad looked on longingly.

Parineeti Chopra  in Hasee Toh Phasee
A PhD in Chemical Engineering. Works in Shanghai on high-density polymers. Is back in India to steal money to fund further research. A Bollywood heroine couldn’t get more anti-stereotypical than this in what is a very stereotypical movie. The same old ghisa-peeta theme of the hero realising his true love is not the one he is getting married to was given amazing twists throughout the movie as the heroine rescued the hero in distress, came up with the save-the-day ideas and then decided that happily-ever-after needed to be pushed back a bit… because there was a small matter to be settled with irate German debtors.
Honourable Mentions: Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor’s acts as the cool, sassy, sexually liberated, small-town girls in Shudh Desi Romance.
Kangana Ranaut’s crazed turn as the nearly-runaway bride in Tanu Weds Manu
The tragedy of actresses in Bollywood is that we have to think and make up a list of women-driven films. For each of the films I have named, there are a hundred mindless blockbusters where the heroine just wiggles her bottom and daintily waits to be rescued by her leading man.
With Dedh IshqiyaHasee Toh PhaseeGulaab Gang and Queen coming in quick succession, this is probably the thickest concentration of heroine-driven films in hero-driven Bollywood. One hopes and prays that all these films will make truckloads of money and Bollywood will start making more of these.
And Boss II will not star Salman Khan, but Katrina Kaif. *fingers crossed* 

This post was written before Queen. But I had this happy feeling that it was going to be the last name in this post!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Who is your Andaz Apna Apna friend?

Popular comedian Aditi Mittal (aka @awryaditi on Twitter) has written a brilliant column on a brilliant film. Of the many joys she recounted, one incident stuck with me:
Suddenly, my brother liked a girl and no one was yelling at him about it. Instead, I was being made to put on a salwar kameez and meet her. She was very pretty, and I could tell my brother cared for her and she for him. But that did not quell my suspicions. As we walked out after lunch that day, I suddenly heard my mother say “Adu, your dupatta is dragging on the floor.” And, as I turned around, my to-be-bhabhi blurted, “Gogoji, apka ghaghra.”

This story reminded me of something as well.
Many years ago, I joined the Calcutta branch of a FMCG multinational to ‘take over’ a state as the Sales Manager. The guy I was supposed to take over from was a Tam Brahm, vegetarian and seemed unnecessarily combative in the fleeting occasions that I met him. I did not have a good feeling about him but started the process nevertheless. It was progressing without incident till we were about to leave the sales depot one evening. He suddenly said, “Arre, aaj kuch maal nahin becha? Khandaani ASM hoon. Aaya hoon, kuch to bechke jaoonga!”

The point of these two stories lies in the reaction to the film when it first released and my frustrations thereof.
When Andaz Apna Apna opened, there was considerable buzz in Calcutta because two chocolate box heroes were coming together for the first time. Or maybe there wasn’t and it was just my sister – an Aamir Khan fan – who ‘whipped up the buzz’. Anyway, a friend and I reached Priya one matinee show to watch what seemed like a romantic comedy. My friend read the works of Leon Trotsky in his spare time but was not averse to the occasional Bollywood flick. We were both unprepared for what unfolded next.
During the film, I laughed so hard that I was gasping for breath for most part of the movie and when Gogo did the Dhikki tikki dance towards the end, I felt I would pass out because I was not able to breathe. My friend remained stoic throughout.
When we were exiting the hall and I was planning to come back for a second show soon, my friend asked – “Did you really find the movie that funny or were you being sarcastic?” I was dumbfounded and suddenly realised that the movie had alienated me perfectly. Andaz Apna Apna had no takers in Culturally Conscious Calcutta.
Over the next few years, I remained cautiously positive about my views about AAA because I did not find a single person who even mildly enjoyed the movie, leave alone laugh uproariously. In fact, I came to believe that this was one of those freak cases where I would remain alone in my choice.

So when I met Ganesh – the aforementioned khandaani ASM – it was like discovering a twin after growing up. We were the only ones in the office who were Andaz Apna Apna fans and our colleagues shook their heads indulgently when we lapsed into our giggling discussions about Mohun Bagan, Rabbit and maiyat ka chanda. I found it very strange that our colleagues and friends – who shared many common likes and interests – were oblivious to the charms of Amar Prem. 

Before this beast called the internet came about, we never realised that on a planet of seven billion people, no one can be alone. And that’s when we realised there is a Cult of Gogo. We were all watching the reruns on Zee TV and laughing together – except we did not know it then.
As Google spread its tentacles, obscure blogs got discovered. As Bollywood chat forums became active, we found these soulmates. As Facebook allowed us to form the craziest groups, we sent friend requests to these spiritual siblings.
And that’s when Andaz Apna Apna found its following.

This is somewhat different from most films that are called ‘cult classics’.
Andaz Apna Apna had a decent opening and the appeal wasn’t niche. After all, it had two of India’s hottest stars in the lead. Karisma Kapoor and Raveena Tandon weren’t pushovers either.
Cult classics are usually films which don’t get noticed when they release but build up a fan following over the years. Andaz Apna Apna got noticed and then people just looked away. Unlike other cult classics (like, say, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro), Andaz Apna Apna had and still has a large number of detractors. Many people still don’t ‘get’ the humour and that is where this classic is a little more cult than the others. 

And that brings the Andaz Apna Apna friend into play.
An AAA friend is the guy who was the first person you know who turned out to be a fan of the movie. He became a soulmate on this quality alone and you never regretted the friendship. He was the one who completed the lines you started to say. She is the one you SMS “AAA on Zee Cinema” even now. He is the guy who – after getting drunk – says “Bus ke backseat mein woh Shashi Tharoor hi tha, b******....”

It is my belief that everybody – and not only fans of the movie – has an Andaz Apna Apna friend.
If I broaden the definition a little bit, she is the one who shows you it is okay to be quirky, it is okay to like things nobody else likes, it is better to be happy than successful.

And that friend eventually helps you transform from a kachcha khiladi to a pakka khiladi.