[I wrote this piece a couple of years ago, when the film was first released.]
"Boom" is a disaster. So we have been told ad infinitum by just about every film critic in India, and so it undoubtedly is, presumably for the same reasons that so many Bollywood films have been disasters over the last two decades: wafer-thin plot, flawed characterizations, banal resolution, etc. But more is claimed for "Boom"-- this is, we are told, a "sick," "perverted," "disgusting," "immoral" and "twisted" film.* One journalist even demanded that Amitabh Bachchan apologize to the public for appearing in-- and thereby lending credibility to-- such an appalling film. Others have called for the film's director-- Kaizad Gustad-- to apologize for demeaning Bachchan by casting him in such a film.
These claims merit serious examination, for many in India are rather invested in the idea that we are a "moral" nation; further, it seems that India's film critics take this investment so seriously that "morality" has become a valid criterion of film criticism where "Boom" is concerned.
But what does this morality consist of? Certainly the moral turpitude of "Boom" cannot be because three of its main characters are presented as callous underworld dons (Bollywood would be out of business if it stopped glamorizing the underworld, which it has been doing for nearly three decades now; the glamorization in contemporary Hindi cinema is via the tropes of greater naturalism where violence and dialogues are concerned, combined with hyper-stylized choreography and cinematography, but it is glamorization nonetheless). Nor can it be because of the casual attitude displayed by several characters in the film to female prostitution-- segments of Indian audiences have been known to cheer during rape sequences (indeed that was one reason the latter were such a staple during the 1980s), and successful films like "Sadak" have explored Bombay's brothels, with barely a protest from anyone. Finally, the outrage cannot just be about the skin on display-- Hindi films these days routinely show quite a lot of skin (by "a lot" I mean that it is socially acceptable for the lead female protagonists to bare more, relative to even ten years ago), and while "Boom" might have "more" of this-- though this is a debatable point for the most part-- the difference does not appear to me to be of such an order of magnitude as would explain the film's reception.
To my mind, what does go a long way toward explaining the way India's film critics approached "Boom" are the politics of the film, more specifically the sexual politics of the film. For what "Boom" does best is expose the reactionary politics at the core of Indian film journalism, and not just Indian film journalism; The reception accorded "Boom" reminds us-- though it should never have been forgotten-- that the mania of decency, the decency that is defined solely in terms of how much of the female form is publicly visible, is secretly an anti-feminist mania, a misogyny masquerading as public morality. It is not displays of skin that have "shocked" reviewers
(else why is no-one troubled by "Andaz", to take one recent example?), but the attitude of the female protagonists of "Boom," who are aggressive and assertive, like nothing Bollywood has seen before, and perfectly willing to use their charms to get what they want. The beauty queens in the "standard" Bollywood film ordinarily do not challenge traditional hierarchies or gender relations, but the heroines of "Boom" certainly do.
[Aside: I do not mean to suggest that the standard Bollywood film is entirely lacking in subversive potential, merely that this potential is all too often dissipated by means of retrograde fantasies, particularly the sorts of "family films" that we have been seeing in abundance for nearly a decade now, and whose time, mercifully, seems to be drawing to a close.] That Kaizad Gustad should have models-- the very essence of ornamentalism on one view-- make his point shows that he possesses a sense of irony: in one scene Bade Miyan (played by Amitabh Bachchan) tells Chote Miyan (Jackie Shroff) to send him a Miss India-- for the dons, of course, a beautiful woman is the ultimate unit of exchange. That the latter could herself subvert the exchange is not something that the dons even contemplate, and yet that is precisely what happens at the end of the film.
"Boom" is a film for adults, and it is certainly a dark film: in its world, if one works hard, dresses decently, and looks like the girl next door, the most one can hope for is a job-- fully-dressed of
course-- under Chote Miyan's table (or pushed out of a car in the middle of a desert). This is comedy, of a rather bleak sort: one's heart goes out to the girls assembled on the tarmac in Dubai, each of whom appears to be more "normal" than any of the film's main characters (and each of whom certainly shows less skin than the film's female protagonists). What gives? One can either play by the rules-- as her name suggests, "Pavithra" might well have been doing
so-- or, if the game is rigged against one, as it must appear to many women, one can use every advantage one has, as Anu, Sheila, Rina, Alice, and Bharati do so. That Indian critics should attack not the way the game is instituted but the way it is being subverted speaks volumes about their own complacency.
For those who think I am reading too much into "Boom," that it is simply a dirty little film, I point them to Chote Miyan's first two meetings with the three models. The Chote Miyan is rather traditional, and is clearly disapproving of the fact that the women sitting opposite him wear so few clothes; even in his second meeting with them Chote Miyan continues to be hung up over the models' dressing, favorably contrasting Pavithra, who might have to perform oral sex (but, of course, out of sight-- he is after all a traditional desi male) but at least "gets to keep her clothes on." Chote Miyan disapproves of the way the three models are dressed-- but seems to regard his own drug-snorting, killing and pimping as unproblematic activities. In this of course he is simply a grotesque caricature of a very recognizable type: the Indian male whose view of his own culture's innate morality is unaffected by pogroms, bomb blasts, bride burning, infanticide, gender-based foeticide, and a mindset that has great difficulty even acknowledging the concept of rape within marriage, but for whom the merest hint of Katrina Kaif's nipple provokes a crisis.
Chote Miyan realizes what our critics do not wish to admit to themselves: if the game is rigged (and who would say that it is not?) then male privilege is far more seriously threatened by women who recognize the game AS a game--thereby liberating themselves from its rules, or more accurately liberating themselves from its rules to an extent sufficient to disturb the game's equanimity-- than by those who have fully internalized the logic of decency that the game
prescribes as particularly appropriate to women. Confronted with the possibility of subversion by the slutty, the sassy and the smart, it is obvious to see why Chote Miyan prefers the sort of woman that he does: out of sight, under his table, and uncomplainingly attentive to a fault. Sound familiar? You bet: "Pavithra" is Gustad's revenge on all the boring sati savitris he (and we) have had to endure for years on the silver screen. In recent years we have certainly had women who aren't afraid to bare on the big screen; it's a good start-- but absent an attitude adjustment, such liberation is itself highly susceptible to co-optation, and "Boom" provides a much needed injection of attitude.
It is useful to regard "Boom" as itself a disturbance in the complacency of Hindi cinema: these days there is much talk in the media of how Bollywood needs to "update" its product, of how it needs to try something "different." What the media really means for the most part, however, is simply that Bollywood needs to become more technically proficient. The merest sign of intellectual difference, of a sort that calls into question received social categories, evokes howls of protest, not only from film critics but even from many of Gustad's colleagues (at least one of whom took the unusual step of writing an editorial condemning the film). "Boom" takes its own risk-taking seriously: "Boom," by making full use of its fashion industry connections, simultaneously pokes fun at the fashion industry (even analogizing it in one scene to extortion), at itself (for cashing in so heavily on the fashion world's celebrity appeal while poking fun at it), at those who would judge it (Chote Miyan, and perhaps even Bharati to a certain extent), and of course at those who consider themselves too serious or sober for it-- but can't resist making
potloads of money off it by featuring it on front pages that sell like hot cakes (the Times of India).
"Boom" does have its flaws-- the script is not as strong as it could have been, the satire not as coherent as it could have been, and the film suffers from an over languid execution-- but it is that rarest of things, a Bollywood film that does not play it safe. For this alone, kudos to Mr. Gustad.
*[Every one of these adjectives has been used by one or other review
of, or editorial on, "Boom," appearing in the "Indian
Express," "Hindustan Times," "Screen," "Rediff.com," "Filmfare" and
the "Times of India."]