Friday, May 16, 2008
A piece of mine was recently published in the Sakaal Times (click on the image above for a clearer view).
Due to space considerations, the published version is about 100-150 words shorter than the piece I had submitted; the un-edited text is pasted below:
An air of self-congratulation is common among Hindi film audiences these days. Evidently, now that the over-the-top baddie, the weepy mother, the saccharine sister, and the rape scene, have been banished into the furthest recesses of our memory (banished so deep, in fact, that some in the contemporary audience seem to believe these were staples of every Bollywood era; Om Shanti Om, for instance, was especially notable in its inability or unwillingness to distinguish between Bollywood’s 1980s and preceding eras), we can all sit back, relax, and watch “edgier”, “different”, and “new” films – and ensconced in multiplex luxury to boot. Some weeks – the weeks when a Taare Zameen Par, Chak de India, Johnny Gaddar, or Black Friday is released – even I find myself succumbing to the dream of the popular cinema renaissance that is just around the corner. It’s just as well I manage to snap myself out of my reverie, for if I ever did get to wherever it is they’re staging the renaissance, I’d be terribly bored not to find any women at the party.
The marginalization of women is one of the best kept secrets in the new Bollywood: right in front of our eyes, and beneath the radar. In most contemporary Hindi films, lead actresses have nothing to do. Certainly, there’s plenty for women to do, given the hordes of Eastern European imports needed to serve as eye-candy in dance sequences, the number of poles that must be shimmied up and down, the excess of bastardized hip-hop tropes mindlessly re-cycled into Hindi song videos. Just don’t expect it to include meaningful characterization, or even much dialogue. With the exception of a Bhool Bhulaiya or a Jodha-Akbar, our lead actresses have been reduced to a gym-toned skin-show that tends more toward bland sameness than sexiness, and hence toward a fungibility that would have shocked predecessors like Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, or Kajol, let alone the likes of Meena Kumari or Nargis. And even meatier female roles (e.g. in Dhoom 2 or Tashan) are sold as “about” the lead actress showing more than we’ve ever seen before (Yashraj’s Tashan website lists Kareena’s character Pooja’s “[q]ualifications” – as part of a mock CV the website had for all the film’s main characters – as “34-22-34”, a line that speaks volumes about the true function of the most intelligent character in the film).
Substantial female roles ostensibly survive in some of the more traditional Hindi film genres, though even here the game seems to be up, what with the male halves of the Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol and Saif Ali Khan-Rani Mukherjee pairs having moved on to romantic films with curiously passive heroines with nothing to do but smile (e.g. Om Shanti Om); or “thrillers” where it doesn’t matter who’s shedding clothes, as long as enough of ‘em are doing it (e.g. Race). As for the rest, the love stories have morphed into brain-dead comedies (do I really need to list them?) and wannabe styleathons (Dhoom 2). In fact, watching previews of U, Me aur Hum gave me the odd sensation of watching a throwback: the heroine was actually having a conversation. Strange indeed (and the sort of strangeness that perhaps explains why Imtiaz Ali’s films have struck a chord with youngsters; though casting the leggy and inept Deepika Padukone in his next film smells of an impending sellout). Nor are films like Laaga Chunri Mein Daagh or Saawariya much better: these certainly have women in important roles, but they are “about” womanhood itself, more specifically, about the problem of womanhood (in a world where femininity only exists in two relevant flavors, whorish and virginal; personally, I wanted lemon). Needless to say, neither film was even remotely progressive, or even interesting, in its representation of gender issues (although Laaga Chunri Mein Daagh went some way in subverting the easy complacencies of the sort of “family values” film the 1990s fed us dollops of).
Ultimately, filmmakers cannot be absolved of all responsibility – they are not mere mirrors of our taste, and shape it in important and subliminal ways – but neither can the audience. Its unwillingness to watch any film with a woman as the principal character (Aaja Nachle and Umraojaan, anyone?) speaks volumes about our preferred on-screen representation of contemporary femininity: lips parted and shaking her ass. Indeed, globalization has exacerbated the problem: sexism has never been a stranger to Bollywood, but today sexism is sold (and consumed) as the liberation of Bollywood’s on-screen personae. But those (like Shobha De) who (usefully) remind us that it is refreshing to see mean, manipulative, and tough women after a steady diet for years of good girls, also overstate the case. For while we’ve imported the stance, the gesturality, of Western film and music as far as representations of femininity are concerned, we (and Bollywood) certainly seem far less eager to import Western feminism(s), or even the West’s greater commitment to formal gender equality. In the absence of a concomitant intellectual frame shift, we and our films run the risk of reinforcing traditional inequities in new and more insidious ways – precisely while thinking that the shackles have been broken.