The Dirty Picture Project: Shaandaar

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi is running the Dirty Picture project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. Anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying out the work is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg@nludelhi.ac.in with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]

By Aarti Bhavana

This is the classic fairy tale of an orphan of mysterious origin (Alia, played by Alia Bhatt) who is adopted into a big, rich family, but is hated by the evil mother and grandmother. Of the hunt for Prince Charming: the doting father (Bipin, played by Pankaj Kapoor) waits desperately for a Prince to arrive and free his daughter from her curse of insomnia. Of a grand wedding in which this movie is set, where Alia’s sister’s (Eesha, played by Sanah Kapoor) is set to get married.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaandaar#/media/File:Shaandaar-Official-Poster-2.jpg

The introductory scenes of the characters are defining, as they tell you everything you need to know about them. Unfortunately, these first impressions are quite lasting, as it is all you get from these characters throughout the movie. Full of tropes, some choice ones are:

The Fairytale Princess

First, there is Alia, the whimsical, slightly odd, lead character who seems to have stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale. The kind that names and befriends a frog. And that is exactly how the audience first sees her. As she gets out of the car, she is surrounded by fluttering dragonflies, much like a Disney princess. Her father believes that the only cure for her insomnia is to find her prince, a sentiment she seems to agree with.

Her character has been given the most screen time, yet there is no character development shown over the course of the movie (overcoming insomnia doesn’t count). There is much that could’ve been done to further explore her status as an ‘outsider’ in the family, but the portrayal remains largely superficial. And because there was no other way to force it in, a bikini scene is introduced in a dream sequence where Alia stands on the beach in a tiny bikini, calling for JJ’s (played by Shahid Kapoor) help. Of course, this does not advance, or even affect the plot in any way, but certainly acts as fodder for later discussions about Alia Bhatt’s body. For some, this is the only take-away from the movie.

Even big reveals aren’t dealt with realistically. For the first half of the movie Alia does not know where she came from, or why she was adopted. But just before the interval it is revealed that Bipin is actually her biological father. The bounce-back from this revelation is very quick, as Alia revels in being the ‘illegitimate child’ instead of the ‘orphan’. Again, the movie focuses more on flash and form over actual substance.

Prince Charming

Introducing the wedding planner, fellow insomniac and hero Jagjinder Joginder (or JJ). Right from his first interaction with Alia, he sees her as something fantastical, surrounded by dragonflies or ladybugs every time she appears. I suppose that’s love.

JJ’s character is textbook knight in shining armor, as he rushes to rescue any damsel who appears to be in distress. This is first seen during the title song, when the assistant event planner, Sonia, is harassed by a man on the dance floor. JJ jumps in at once, trying to shield her, and when that doesn’t work, he pushes the man aside. However, since this man was Bipin’s brother, the only thing the family focused on was the fact that JJ pushed him. The bounce-back is astonishingly and unrealistically fast, as there was no focus on Sonia’s reaction and the incident was never mentioned again.

Later that night, our gallant knight spots someone jump into a waterfall. Despite it being evident that the person in the water was swimming, JJ jumps in to ‘save’ them. As it turns out, it was just Alia skinny-dipping, or as she put it, bathing. Much later, in a daydream, Alia imagines a situation where she is in trouble and is rescued by JJ on his steed.

While his bravery is laudable, such a one-dimensional portrayal is problematic as it only reinforces the all-too-common stereotype that the helpless woman needs to be rescued.

The Evil Queen and the King’s Evil Mother

Geetu (played by Niki Walia) and Kamala (or Mummiji, played by Sushma Seth) are introduced as the mother and grandmother respectively, who think of every relationship as a deal and the world as a market. They stay true to this description until the very end. They are very clear about the fact that Eesha’s wedding is nothing but a business deal, a sentiment reinforced several times.

Kamala, the grandmother was truly the villain of the story. Accompanied by eerie music, this wheelchair-bound woman terrified her entire family so much so that they didn’t have the courage to even object when she arranged their marriage as part of business deals. She’s the kind of woman who publicly called Alia ‘anaath’ (orphan) and didn’t think twice about it.

These two women fit the trope of the cold hearted, calculating women to the T. Emotionally manipulative, they use any means necessary to get what they want; in this case, salvaging the family business, as they are currently bankrupt.

While it was refreshing to not be subject to yet another saas-bahu struggle, the one-dimensional nature of these two women grew tiresome. They were only portrayed as selfish, manipulative characters, with a one-track mind: saving the family business at any cost. Their selfishness and coercion knew no bounds, as they happily bartered away their daughter’s (and grand daughter, respectively) happiness for a business deal. One that they clearly hadn’t done their research for, as it turned out in a nice twist at the end, since the groom’s family was also bankrupt. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a sinister villain as much as the next person, but even after taking into account the fantastical nature of the plot, these characters still have no basis in reality. Their characters were never fleshed out beyond the description offered in the introduction.

The Fairytale wedding

Perhaps the only thing shaandaar (fabulous) about this movie was the lavish destination wedding. Gentle, sweet Eesha is the only character shown to develop over the course of the movie. She is engaged to be married to Robin, a self-entitled man who obsesses over his eight-and-a-half pack abs and often fat-shames Eesha. (In fact, fat-shaming is a recurrent theme in this film, as several characters constantly ridicule the bride for her weight.) Robin is of the ‘Hum ladke wale hai’ mentality, which reinforces societal stereotypes of the groom’s side being superior in a marriage.

This was brought up again in the Sangeet song Senti Wali Mental Hai Yeh Choriya. It started out with crass generalization and stereotyping, leading to a very Bollywood-esque battle of the sexes, and ended with Robin publicly humiliating Eesha with personal digs. After being told that the wedding was necessary for his family as they were bankrupt, he offers a fake apology, which is accepted far too easily.

Eesha knows that she is just a clause in a big business deal. But fear of her grandmother, and love for the family prevents her from voicing her protest, despite encouragement from Alia. She constantly tells herself that she’s lucky to have found a guy like Robin who is willing to marry her.

The close bond shared by the sisters, and their conversations are the only reason this film narrowly passes the Bechdel Test, as they briefly talk about other things before returning to discuss men. 

The Forgettable Characters

The airhead twins (presumably Eesha’s cousins) and their SMS acronym-speak offer brief comic relief. But aside from spouting these acronyms once in a while, there is little else to their character. Sonia, the assistant event planner mentioned above, is a fleeting and unnecessary character.

And they lived happily ever after…

After being fat-shamed and treated like a bargaining tool all through the movie, Eesha finally summoned the courage to call off the wedding and declare her autonomy in a powerful scene in the last few minutes. I think there should have been greater focus on Eesha, and her path to living life on her own terms, for hers was the only relatable and realistic character in the entire story.

Mainly, this was a disappointing film as it had the potential to explore vastly different characters, but by choosing flash over substance, the writers leave the audience quite confused over what they saw.

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