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.

The Dirty Picture Project: Highway

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University is running the Dirty Picture project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. This particular review is by law students but anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying the work out is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg at 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 and Hemangini Kalra)

Highway-Movie-Poster

Stockholm Syndrome – NO! It’s Love.

Finally a movie where the rich, pretty, Delhi girl is shown not to fall in love with your stereotypical pretty Punjabi boy, but a truck wallah. It was a bold idea which would be path-breaking in any other context; but a representation of textbook Stockholm Syndrome as a genuine romance is more worrisome than refreshing. The depiction of Stockholm Syndrome as your typical girl-meets-boy-girl-dislikes-boy-no-means-yes-wait-girl-actually-loves-boy stereotype reinforces the terrifyingly widespread idea that stalking and abduction is the quick-fix means to win a woman’s love.

Alia Bhatt plays the role of Veera, a girl kidnapped by Mahabir, a goon played by Randeep Hooda. While this movie had the opportunity of exploring the relatively uncharted waters of Stockholm Syndrome as a psychological disorder, it completely misses its mark, by romanticising the affection shown by a woman towards her captor. If not caused by a psychological disorder, her behaviour, (especially her choosing to return to her captors after running away, as well as letting further opportunities of escape slip by), is absurd. Interestingly, the movie also showed the captor sympathising with his victim, a psychological disorder known as Lima Syndrome, but chose to cloak it as falling in love.

Shh! Log kya kahenge?

Throughout the film women were cajoled into hushing up their experiences of sexual assault, as is the unfortunately ubiquitous norm. Brave Veera finally confronts her “abuser – uncle” but her father’s first instinct, unsurprisingly, was to brush the incident under the 5s45yz0vfwukznff.D.0.Alia-Bhatt--Highway-Movie-Piccarpet. More bothered about gossip mongers, her mother shushed nine year old Veera when she confided in her. We guess confronting an abusive relative is after all more inconvenient than years of hiding abuse. This tendency seems to permeate across all socio-economic strata, as Mahabir’s mother had been sexually exploited when he was young, but she too had endured it silently.

She is hot tamale!

Objectification of women is omnipresent in Bollywood offerings, and Highway is no exception. Throughout the first half of the movie, Veera was Mahabir’s ‘Consignment’, ready to be sold to a brothel at a moment’s notice. When one of his accomplices tried to force himself on her, he was told that she was just a consignment, not a woman. So we imagine it’s okay to assault her if she was treated as a ‘woman’.

One refreshing thing about Highway was that unlike other mainstream movies, it didn’t have an item number. Oh wait, it did. An awkward two-minute scene where Veera does a sensual dance to a song in a misplaced setting with misguided lyrics which left the viewer completely bewildered and just embarrassed for the protagonist. That is not to say that there is ever a right time for a sensual dance to a song proclaiming oneself to be a spicy Mexican dish (‘hot tamale’). Even if the intention was to convey that she felt free and uninhibited in those surroundings, a less sensual song and dance would have sufficed.

I lady, you knight

Despite taking a step forward, and having a woman as the lead character, Veera is the only named female character in the entire movie. Other women (who had a total screen time of under a minute in an approximately 170-minute long movie) are seen in fleeting glimpses, gushing about frivolous things like clothes, jewellery, elaborate engagement proposals, and exotic wedding locales. Ripe with gender stereotypes, several instances reinforced the role of women in the family as nurturers and homemakers. Within the first fifteen minutes, Veera describes her dream life as up in the mountains where she stays home and cooks, while her husband goes out and herds sheep. So internalized is this role of a caregiver, that whenever Veera saw her captor haunted by memories of his troubled childhood, she instinctively rushed to comfort him.

highwaymoviedownloadinhighquality_sandhira_1392965154570At the same time, the converse stereotype of women relying on their knights in shining armour to come to their rescue is on display – right from expecting her fiancé to protect her while driving in an unsafe area, to banking on Mahabir to handle things, should they go awry. Guess it runs in the family, since when the kidnappers call Veera’s mother with a ransom demand, she doesn’t answer the phone, leaving ‘The Husband’ to take care of it instead.

So Close Yet So Far

Must affection shown towards one’s abductor necessarily be a manifestation of a psychological disorder? Can one choose who one falls in love with? What does it mean to be in love and how is it different from Stockholm Syndrome? Imtiaz Ali’s shallow screenplay fails to engage with the very core of the story he presents.

highway02-650x288

More than anything else, Highway was a disappointing film because it had the potential to be a fantastic exploration into the psyche of a victim of Stockholm Syndrome and delve into such complex questions of love and despair; but instead, it cheapens it down to a baffling love-conquers-all (even abduction!) story.

(Aarti and Hemangini are Research Assistants for the Dirty Picture Project at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi)

The Dirty Picture Project: 2 States

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

(By Bhargavi Vadeyar and Sanya Kumar)

Tumhare shorts kaafi short haiTum yahan logon ko excite karna chahti ho?” This dialogue from Krish to Ananya is one of the very few instances of overt sexism in 2 States. There are no scantily clad women dancing in item numbers here. Instead, we get a strong female lead, and witness the breaking of a couple of good old patriarchal stereotypes. Yet, for all this, 2 States lacks proportional female representation, and is essentially a male centric movie.

2-states-movie-talk

The Bechdel Test Marker

The movie scrapes a pass on the Bechdel test, with the four named and speaking female characters talking to each other fifteen times, six of those times being about something other than a man. However, each one of those six times was under a minute, always in the presence of a male character, and usually about marriage and the clash of cultures that the conflict in the movie stems from.

Kavita: The Overly Attached Mother

The movie reinforces an old trope about women, one that we may call ‘The Overly Attached Mother’, who is embodied by Krish’s mother, Kavita. Near the beginning of the film, Kavita asks him why he had to go so far away to study. She also continuously refers to Ananya as having trapped or caught her son, as though she is afraid to lose him to another woman. She reinforces gender roles when she comments that a daughter-in-law is supposed to be respectful, and that they are supposed to be kept on the ‘edge of a knife. Moreover, she becomes offended that the bride’s mother met her, the bridegroom’s mother without a gift, as though the groom’s family is superior to the bride’s and sulks about the same until she receives her share of presents!

1

Krish’s interactions with Kavita constantly bring out the motherly side of her character. When she is angry with him, he coaxes her by saying that he told Ananya how much care Kavita took to raise him and how beautiful she is. This attempt to please her further reinforces gender stereotypes about the worth of women in society; it tells us that women are valued mainly for their good looks or care giving attributes.

Krish also dominates his mother to some extent. When he calls her at the beginning of the movie, he berates her for forgetting to keep her phone with her, and his tone is one of irritation. This reinforces the destructive social norm in India that justifies controlling behaviour as a demonstration of affection and care.

Ananya: The Tandoori Chicken Eating Tam-Brahm

If Kavita is a character that enforces gender stereotypes, Ananya is a character that breaks them. She is portrayed throughout the movie as a strong woman, who is expected to have a good career by her family and by everyone around her. Surprisingly for Indian cinema, on multiple occasions, the film shows her being unable to meet Krish because she is working in office or is on a business trip: something that the movie does not judge her for, and which is a storyline that is usually given to men.

1Ananya constantly challenges the patriarchal ideals of other characters, most notably in the memorable scene in which she confronts Duke, the groom at a wedding in Krish’s family for asking for a bigger car as his dowry. She deeply embarrasses him by asking him his salary and mentioning that she earns twice as much. She shows him that he could never afford to buy the car he wants from the bride’s family with his salary, and that if the marriage wasn’t arranged, he could never have gotten the bride to agree to marry him. On a related note, the character of Duke actually caricatures men somewhat. He is shown to be overweight, with a high voice and a childish manner of speaking, and the movie hints that this is related to his worth as a man.

Another stark example of Ananya challenging gender stereotypes is her encounter with Krish. When she tells him she can’t cook, he looks shocked, so she asks him whether he can cook. He replies in a very obvious tone that he can’t, but that he is a man. Ananya sarcastically says remarks it’s a woman’s job to cook, and he agrees with her jokingly, after which she hits his arm and tells him she can’t do it. While she does end up cooking eventually, this dialogue is rare in popular films, challenging of the traditional gender role of women as cooks.

When Krish asks Ananya if she is trying to ‘excite’ boys by wearing extremely short shorts, Ananya becomes impatient and tells him that she can’t help that. The effect of this liberal push-back is ruined somewhat in the next scene though, where she is shown wearing black clothes which cover her from head to toe for their study session because he got angry and walked off when she wore the shorts.

Her character’s wardrobe is also fairly standard, though she does display more skin than Krish in certain scenes, when she wears off the shoulder or strapless clothing. In certain key scenes though, such as the first time the two of them kiss, she is wearing something completely normal and not at all revealing. However, the wardrobe choices in this movie in general do stick to the unwritten rule of fashion in Bollywood that men on formal occasions wear suits and western clothing, while women wear saris or Indian clothing.

Krish: Punjab da Munda

Unlike Ananya, one can see a tinge of sexism when it comes to Krish. He comments on how the worst thing about weddings is that it spoils all women moods at once. He also comments to the therapist when Ananya cuts her finger while cooking that it is the job of women to create melodrama, even though Ananya was not being all that dramatic, and was angry with him because he had forced her to lie about her cooking skills. However, there are some gender stereotypes that Krish doesn’t reinforce; for example, he takes it for granted that Ananya will have a career, and does not agree with his mother that the groom should not be picking up the bags of the bride’s family.

2The contradictory nature of the movie is further embodied in the fact that Ananya, despite being shown as a strong, intelligent woman, never seems to talk to anyone of her own age apart from Krish; she mentions during the course of the movie that she has no friends apart from him. Also, the movie seems to imply that Krish is more intelligent than her when he offers to give her lessons in economics and then scores higher than her on their test, even though she is a top economics graduate, and he is an engineer.

Dr. Iyer: The Wall

Another interesting character is Krish’s therapist. The first female character to appear on screen, she is shown to be a doctor, which is a position of power. It is slightly odd, then, that the movie never names her directly, that she never speaks, and that the camera never focuses on her. We only see her indirectly. She does matter to the storyline, but is only a plot device for Krish to narrate to. One of the first shots in the shows her hand scribbling on a notepad, and later shots show us the back of her head, or a birds-eye view. This objectifies her, and makes her merely a prop in the telling of the story by the narrator.

All in All

D3espite having a strong female lead, the movie is not overtly female friendly. The female characters are all one dimensional, even to some extent Ananya. The male gaze runs through the film: even when Krish tells Ananya he loves her, it is not her intelligence, strength or courage that he references. Instead, he tells her that he has fallen for the mole on her left check, or that he cannot stop thinking about her.

That the narrator of the movie is a man, and that the director, scriptwriters and producers are all men too, may be the reason for this lack of representation; women rarely ever seem to be at the center of stories that are written and made by men.

(Bhargavi and Sanya are Research Assistants for the Dirty Picture Project at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi)