Dirty Picture Project: Dangal- A truly dhakkad biopic

By Sthavi Asthana and Anushka Sachdev

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Watching Dangal was a truly memorable experience, from the high adrenaline wrestling scenes to the rush of pure pride during the last scene, where Geeta Phogat (Fatima Sana Shaikh) wins the first gold medal in wrestling for the country. It showcases how Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) trained his daughters Geeta and Babita (Sanya Malhotra) to become competitive wrestlers in the backdrop of patriarchal Haryana. The film is a refreshing feminist breakthrough especially when compared to the unfortunate state of contemporary Bollywood cinema. It brings to the fore struggles faced by Indian athletes, especially women athletes coming from a society where sports are seen to be the forte of boys.

Humari betiyaan chhoron se kam hain kya? (are my daughters any less than boys?)

Mahavir was a National level wrestler himself, but had been forced to give up the sport to earn a living, a common enough phenomenon in our country. He had to forego his dreams of winning a medal for his country, but consoled himself with the hope that his son would continue the legacy. But his hopes are dashed when despite several attempts, he fails to father a son. This is where the film so succinctly captures how normal it is to covet sons over daughters, with just about everyone in the village lining up to offer a fail proof ‘totka’ (superstitious remedy) that would guarantee the couple a baby boy. People who brought sweets to offer congratulations would make sympathetic noises and turn away when it is revealed that the baby born was a girl. Even his daughters never questioned why their father wanted a son, why they were not good enough.

However, things change one day when Geeta and Babita beat up two boys for calling them names. Mahavir suddenly realised that even his daughters could carry his dream forward and decided to train them to become wrestlers. This is where we get to see a shift from the ingrained patriarchy. Conditioned to accept established gender roles, Mahavir, and indeed everyone in the village, simply could not imagine that girls could also wrestle. However, once he got the idea, his commitment to their training made him set aside all notions of orthodox ‘modesty’ that was shared by most of the village. This ranged from insisting that his daughters wear the appropriate clothes for their training- t shirts and shorts, to making them wrestle with boys, something that would be considered taboo because of the amount of physical contact required between the contestants. He started to ask “why not” when people told him girls could not become wrestlers, announcing to the world that his daughters were no less than boys.

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In such a situation, would it be right to call him sexist for wanting a son in the beginning? Or was he simply unaware, as is seen when he told his wife “maine toh socha hi nahi…medal toh medal hai, chaahe ladka jeete chaahe ladki” (I never realised, a medal is a medal, whether won by a boy or a girl). The film captures a transformation of perspective in its true sense, when a man from orthodox rural Haryana who was desperate for a son to fulfil his dream, dared to think that why not my daughters!

The haanikarak (harmful) training regimen!

The strenuous training that Geeta and Babita were subjected to by their father has faced a lot of criticism. Some claim that it was borderline abusive, while others questioned the right of the father to foist the burden of his dreams on his daughters, forcing them to endure physical hardship as well as social ridicule.

But the message behind the movie must be kept in mind while critiquing the film. Growing up in such a patriarchal social setup, the concept of opportunity as experienced by the girls would be automatically limited. Their aspirations would be restricted to areas which are traditionally considered appropriate for girls, and it is very unlikely that they would seek to achieve glory in sports on their own, especially a completely male dominated sport like wrestling. In such a situation, some amount of direction would be necessary even if it looks forceful initially.

As for the exacting training, it was no more than the training involved in making any other athlete fit enough to withstand the rigours of competition. The girls eventually began to enjoy the sport and became famous for beating much stronger boys in a sport where physical strength would play such a major role. This would obviously require discipline and commitment on their behalf, something that would be unpalatable to most young children. We must also account for the fact that women seeking to make their mark in a male dominated field must often work harder than men to gain the same amount of respect; they cannot afford to be average. Had the girls not been so proficient in their sport, they would likely have been ridiculed throughout and would not have had a very bright future at all. So, if Mahavir wanted his daughters to break the moulds of society and become wrestlers, he had to train them to win, and winning does not come easily.

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Papa khush nahi honge (Father won’t be happy)

One thing that stood out in the entire movie was the domineering role played by Mahavir, being the father figure in the family. Although a heavy- handed approach might have been acceptable, even necessary when it came to the girls’ training, such behaviour would be less than ideal when it extends to other aspects of the family. Mahavir was the centre of every discussion, had the last say in every argument. He represents the stereotypical father; his daughters are afraid to discuss things with him, opting to approach their mother to act as mediator instead. Their mother too, was seen to defer to his decisions in every matter, and tries to smooth things by telling the girls to avoid acting in ways that would displease their father. The family would literally stand at attention when Mahavir enters the room.

This male centric view does perpetuate stereotypes, but if considered in the context of the type of society the film seeks to represent, it is unfortunately true. The transformation from one generation (their mother- Daya, played by Sakshi Tanwar) to another (Geeta and Babita) -where the mother hardly spoke against her husband, to Geeta wrestling her father, is truly phenomenal. It went from the role of the mother being confined to bearing children and cooking for the family, to the daughters leading independent lives. All of this was solely possible due to the motivation they received from their father and this is what makes the film revolutionary. Mahavir, despite being a stereotypical father and husband, is extremely revolutionary in his actions. However, it was essential to express the original mindset of the family to highlight the transition in his perspective.

The movie successfully passes the Bechdel test. Geeta and Babita have many conversations centred around wrestling which have little or nothing to do with their father. However, it would not meet the requirements of the Makomori test, since the entire narrative of the movie is centred around Mahavir Phogat’s dream of his child winning an international medal in wrestling for the country. But the Makomori test is only a basic test indicating the representation of women in a movie. Passing the test does not automatically make a movie feminist, and similarly, failing it would not make a movie sexist. Dangal may not pass the test but it takes a major step forward by showing women as professional athletes. Such a representation of strong, independent women is of great significance, especially considering the current scenario where most films only portray women in a romantic narrative, or in traditional roles as the mother or wife of the hero.

Dirty Picture Project: Parched

By Aditi Prakash & Sthavi Asthana

Parched is a story of four women: Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a widow getting her 17 year old son, Gulab married to a young girl, Janaki (Leher Khan), who does not want to marry him. Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is a woman who is unable to conceive, and stuck in an abusive marriage. Bijli (Surveen Chawla) is a prostitute who is pimped out by the owner of the local ‘Dance Club’. The story is one of sisterhood, and shows the journey of these three women as they experience life in rural India. It shows how they turn to each other for support, while men in their lives continue to disappoint. It is also shows a slow realisation amongst the women, of their own capabilities and their belief in themselves as agents of change.

Dowry as Bride Price

In an interesting deviation from popularly-seen tradition, the movie depicted a region in India where dowry is paid by the boy’s family. And yet, this too is a custom rooted in patriarchy. While dowry is usually considered a sum paid by the girl’s family for the burden of accepting the girl into their family, here, the boy’s family seemed to see it as buying the woman for a certain price. In a scene where Rani and Lajjo went to see Janaki as a prospective bride, her family highlighted her beauty and accomplishments and then went on to negotiate the dowry amount. The entire scenario was reminiscent of a shopkeeper marketing his wares and haggling over the price with prospective buyers. There are several comments by both Rani and her son Gulab about how the bride should be worth the money they paid for her, bringing in the idea of the woman being bought as a slave – to do the household work, take care of her mother- in- law, provide sexual satisfaction for her husband, and of course provide him with a son. This was again highlighted by Rani’s anger when Janaki revealed her short hair; she felt cheated out of her money.

The cycle of abuse

The movie showcases how it is often very difficult to break out of the moulds women are cast into through the web of patriarchy. Janaki’s life is a repetition of the abuse that Rani suffered but Rani seems helpless or even unwilling to change this. She is initially quite harsh to the 15-year old girl, constantly scolding her for small errors in household work- teri maa ne kuch nahi sikhake bheja kya? (Did your mother not teach you anything before sending you here?) and even accusing her of theft. It is as though she has come to believe that this is the only way of behaving with one’s daughter-in-law.

The movie shows her being disturbed when Gulab rapes Janaki on their wedding night. She gets up and leaves the house, unable to bear the sound of the girl’s screams, but does not stop him. However, even here she blames herself for not choosing a good enough girl for him, and puts it all down to frustration on his behalf. It is interesting to see the lengths to which a man is not held accountable for his actions.

Later however, the film shows the development of a bond between the two women. Rani stops Gulab from beating up Janaki one night and helps her to get together with her secret lover.

Technology – the corrupter

Technology is considered a corrupting influence in the hands of women. At the village panchayat when the women of the village make a demand for televisions in the village, it is immediately dismissed by the sarpanch as being a bad influence on women (as evidenced by a nearby village where women have started wearing jeans). A phone in Rani’s hands is looked at with disbelief and she excuses herself as having the phone on the grounds that it is her son who bought it for her.

Women: as sexual creatures

The movie must be lauded for its frank portrayal of sexual desires of women. Women as sexual beings in their own right are often not depicted in movies. They are supposed to be the object of desires of men. Many movies show men pursuing women for sex and initiating sex, but don’t seem to realise that women might also have sexual needs.

There was an intriguing scene showing possible sexual attraction between Lajjo and Rani, where Lajjo enters Rani’s house, having been beaten up again by her husband. She takes off her blouse so that Rani could apply medicine on her wounds, and it appears that the two share an intimate moment as Lajjo pulls off Rani’s blouse as well and the two embrace each other. They were interrupted by Janaki suddenly entering the room.

An amusing scene shows Lajjo when she realises that phones can be used for more than just communication (read: as vibrators). Rani’s dialogues often show her desire for sex and her worry about not being sexually attractive. Later in the film, Lajjo has sex with another man, in a desperate attempt to get pregnant. The scene is beautifully tender and shows a direct contrast to her experiences of sex in her marriage.

Testing the Movie

The movie passes both the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests. Since the movie deals with various abuses by men, it is inevitable that men are going to be the main topic of discussion; however the focus in this regard is on their own desires and needs. It is seen that the movie has strong female characters who at the end are able to achieve their emancipation on their own.

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The reality shown by this film is played out in thousands of homes across the world but masked, as on-goings inside the family often are. The movie highlights women’s desire for sexual autonomy and them being their own saviours from their horrible circumstances. The conclusion of the film shows the three women driving away on a bike, with renewed confidence that together, they will look after themselves without needing any man for support. This is a refreshing change from most Bollywood movies which follow the man being a knight-in-shining-armour trope.

Dirty Picture Project: Pink

by Suniti Sampat and Aditi Prakash as part of the Dirty Picture Project.

With Pink, Bollywood has made a bold attempt at making a movie about women and the way society treats them. In a lot of ways, women’s lives in most parts of India have been circumscribed by the dangers the sex faces. Should we venture out at this time? Why is he smiling at me? Why is that car slowing down? Is this dress too short? As women living in Delhi, these are questions we have grappled with all too often. Sometimes, the looming threat of sexual harassment or rape forces us to alter our choices.

This fear has been masterfully captured in the film- showing just how easily harmless fun can turn into a waking nightmare, if women test the invisible boundaries that have been set for them. And society always, always finds a way to affix moral responsibility on the ‘fairer sex’. In this case, three women (Minal, Falak and Andrea) accept an invitation to have dinner with men they meet at a rock concert. Unfortunately for them, these men assume that their acceptance is indicative of their willingness to have sex with them. Completely disregarding her protests, one of the men even proceeds to try and have sex with with one of them. In response to this, she attacks him with a beer bottle. With a wounded ego and eye, the man in question tries every trick in his bag to make life difficult for them.

A Comfortable domesticity

Our protagonists – Minal (Tapsee Pannu), Falak ( Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Taring) are ordinary working women leading a peaceful life in the metropolis. These women are fighters in their own right, living away from family for the independence that such a life affords them. It is revealed that Falak is also paying for the treatment of her sibling, who suffers from a medical condition. But such a life is not exempt from the judgement of prying neighbours. Even Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachhan), who ultimately turned out to be a concerned neighbour, would stare at the girls with a discomforting fixed gaze. However, the camaraderie and comfort the women share is heartwarming. In many a nail-biting moment, they support each other and stand up to the world quite defiantly. In a particularly tear-rendering scene, the girls chase after a police van which takes away their friend. Disturbingly, the calm of their lives was shattered by an extremely shocking incident which took place after a seemingly innocuous interaction at a rock concert.

The Bechdel test would not serve as a fair tool to judge how the women in the film have been portrayed. While the women are primarily seen discussing the men, the discussion revolved around how to deal with the ramifications of the incidents from the night of the concert. However, the film passes the Makomori test (which looks at whether the women in the film enjoy an independent personality of their own) with each of the three women having strong, well-defined personalities.

Trial of morals

The misogyny of the men is put to open display in court. The manner in which the women are questioned highlights society’s double standards. Women’s personal lives undergo intense scrutiny while men are excused from suffering this indignity. It is also seen that these women lose so much in the fight- relationships, jobs – all is sacrificed. This drives home the point that women can be harassed in so many ways when men control a system steeped in patriarchy. In such a situation, it might not always be possible for a woman to possess the resources to put up a fight. Another telling instance is when even the police officers are reluctant to register a complaint on behalf of the women and the character assassination that starts from the police chowki and continues well into the last stages of trial. The film also gives a glimpse into the use of sexual molestation by the boys to get back at her and put her ‘in her place’.

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In the film, the women’s counsel (Deepak Sehgal) speaks about certain rules of conduct that women must follow to ensure their own safety. Through these rules, it is evident how women are constantly de-humanised, being forced to refrain from even seemingly harmless conduct such as laughing and making any kind of physical contact with the other sex, lest it be taken as an invitation to be assaulted. The idea of law as an objective tool is dispelled by the film, which shows how the women are constantly harassed by the functionaries of the legal system.

While the examination-in-chief of Minal was going on, it was being purposefully established that Minal had had sexual relations with men in the past. In doing so, the movie drove home the point that the fact that a women is sexually active does not make it okay to subject her to any kind of unwelcome sexual advances.The beauty of the film lies in how realistically situations have been portrayed. The manner in which the women were judged for drinking and having dinner with men they had just met, is accurately reflective of prevailing attitudes. At the same time, the men themselves found nothing wrong in indulging in the same acts.

Consent 101

Pink starts a discourse- one that has been avoided so far, coloured and diluted by social conceptions of morality- a discourse on Consent. Is it rape if she was drunk? What if she was smiling at him? What if she is his wife? What if she was a prostitute? What if she said yes and later said no? The answer is an unequivocal NO MEANS NO. Kudos to the film for focusing on the concept of consent. While lawyer Deepak Sehgal was saying and doing all the right things, the film could have gone a step further by having a female lawyer defend the three women, instead of sticking to the old knight in shining armour trope. When Minal spoke emphatically of her feeling of utter disgust at being touched against her will, we knew that the film was making a strong political statement. However, it is the male lawyer who ultimately hasthe last word on the topic of consent. As his baritone resounded across the courtroom, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a woman speaking about the same issues would be taken just as seriously?

Pink is a telling story. It shows that India has progressed – women can enjoy the freedom of living alone and having an independent lifestyle- but this freedom always comes with certain conditions. While the city may be able to boast of the snazziest buildings and the trendiest bars, the ugly reality of a society still mired in patriarchy continues to haunt us- ask the women, we all have stories.

Dirty Picture Project: Sarabjit

By Devdutta Mukhopadhyay and Vidya Dronamraju as part of the Dirty Picture Project. 

The Leading Ladies

When we decided to review Sarabjit, we looked forward to a break from the typical mindless masala entertainer that Bollywood is notorious for churning out. Moreover, examining the ordeal faced by Sarabjit from the point of view of his sister seemed like an interesting take on the heart breaking affair.

For the unaware, Sarabjit Singh (Randeep Hooda) was an Indian farmer who was arrested by Pakistani authorities after he inadvertently crossed the border. After prolonged torture, he admitted to being responsible for terrorist attacks against Pakistan and was given the death penalty. The film follows Sarabjit’s sister, Dalbir Kaur (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), as she fights against all odds to secure her brother’s release. Besides Dalbir, Sarbjit’s family consists of his wife, Sukhpreet (Richa Chaddha) and their two daughters.

Dalbir: The Crusader Sister

The film begins with a search party frantically looking for Sarbjit who has gone missing. When their efforts prove futile, Sarabjit’s family approaches the Panchayat and seeks their help in filing an FIR. The Panchayat members are dismissive, and one of them even insinuates that Sarabjit may have another illegitimate family in Pakistan that he has gone to visit. When Dalbir objects to aspersions being cast on her brother’s character, the village elders taunt her because she is childless and does not have a family of her own. This becomes a recurring theme through the movie, and Dalbir’s inability to conceive a child and consequent separation from her husband are used to silence her at several important plot points.

In flashbacks, it is revealed that Dalbir’s daughter was stillborn and her husband blamed her for the child’s death. As the child’s body was being taken away, he cruelly remarked that her womb is cursed because it has no place for a child to thrive. Their relationship takes a turn for the worse, and two years later, Dalbir finally leaves her matrimonial home after her husband refuses to let her visit a hospitalised Sarabjit. Dalbir’s face is visibly bruised and it is abundantly clear that her husband is physically abusive. However, it is concern for her brother that ultimately convinces her to call it quits on her marriage, rather than the violence that she has been subjected to for years.  The underlying message is clear: as self-sacrificing creatures, women will only prioritize the interests of one man over the other but never their own.

After returning to her parents’ home, Dalbir adopts the role of the doting but responsible elder sister. She good-naturedly indulges Sarabjit’s love for wrestling but locks him out of the house when he shirks his duties and forgets to pick up his daughter. After learning about Sarabjit’s conviction, she runs from pillar to post trying to clear his name. Her persistence earns her an appointment with the Prime Minister but she is sent back with hollow platitudes. When she tries approaching the Chief Minister after the 2001 Parliament Attacks, she is attacked by his commandos. Finally, a dejected Dalbir sits down in the middle of the road in protest, and slowly, many other people join her. Media outlets and several human rights group eventually take notice of the plight of an innocent man who has been rotting in jail for decades, and it becomes a national campaign.

In a very telling scene, a male politician tries to hijack the agenda and talk on behalf of Sarabjit’s family. However, Dalbir refuses to remain voiceless and grabs the mic. She quotes verses from the Quran and pleads with the Pakistani government to release her innocent brother. She does not want to create a false binary between Hindus and Muslims, and though well-intentioned, the speech sounds superficial and preachy. Unfortunately, Dalbir’s moralistic sermonizing becomes a recurring problem with the film.

When Sarabjit’s execution date is set, Poonam (Ankita Shrivastav), his younger daughter, tries to burn all his photos and belongings. She is tired of living a half-life, and wants to symbolically finish his funeral rites so that they can all move on. She lashes out at Dalbir and accuses her of prolonging the inevitable because she does not have a family of her own.

In a last ditch attempt, Dalbir blocks a minister’s car and gets visas for the family to go to Pakistan. The women are accompanied by Dalbir’s ex-husband and his 180 degree turn from abusive partner to gallant escort is disconcerting to say the least. With a single kind gesture, the film effectively erases his history of violence and allows him to redeem himself.

Dalbir’s spirit finally breaks when it is discovered that the prisoner who has been released is “Surjeet”, and not Sarabjit. She attempts to commit suicide but is saved at the last moment. The women go on a hunger strike to save Sarabjit but it is too late because shortly thereafter, he is attacked by fellow inmates as a part of a larger conspiracy, and he succumbs to his injuries.

Sukhpreet: The Half-Widow

By contrast, Sukhpreet is a far more flawed and human character. One of the initial scenes show her putting up missing posters across town with an infant strapped to her back and another child clinging to her leg. She loves her husband immensely, but years of waiting have taken a toll on her resolve and made her bitter. Compared to the indefatigable Dalbir, she gets very little screen time perhaps because her own struggles and disappointments do not serve to advance Sarabjit’s story. After Ajmal Kasab’s mercy petition is rejected, there is major backlash in Pakistan and only Dalbir gets a visa to meet Sarabjit. Sukhpreet is sick of being second to her sister-in-law, and remarks that as far as her husband is concerned, she and her daughters have no rights but merely a duty to wait. When Dalbir tries to commit suicide, she accuses her of trying to be a martyr. She tells her that she has contemplated taking her life on many occasions too. However, she did not go ahead with her plans because she had faith in Dalbir.

The emotional challenges that Sukhpreet faces are much more realistic but sadly, they are not theatrical enough to make the cut. Her wavering devotion to her husband and her ability to criticize the perfect Dalbir provide a much needed break from Dalbir’s forced martyrdom. She is more grounded, more rough around the edges and more real but her pragmatism is cast negatively instead of what it really is; a narrative that a lot of women can relate to.

Put To The Feminist Test

Dalbir’s over the top struggle and high-pitched calls for universal brotherhood make it difficult for the viewer to relate to her. While her devotion to her brother is admirable, she doesn’t have an identity beyond fighting for his cause. The saving grace of the movie is the realistic tension between Dalbir and Sarabjit’s wife and daughters. Women fighting among themselves and being unable to get along is a common trope used by many filmmakers. However, it works in this case because it showcases a range of different but equally legitimate reactions that women can have when faced with difficult choices.

The movie does not pass the Bechdel Test because the entire plot revolves around Sarabjit, and consequently, every conversation between the female characters is about getting him justice. Since the Bedchel Test has its own limitations, we decided to put the movie through the Mako Mari Test which looks at whether a female character gets a narrative arc that is independent of a man’s story. Unfortunately, the movie even fails this test because Dalbir’s sole purpose in life is to save her brother from the gallows, and we learn little about her beyond that.

The film’s questioning of nationalism is superficial at best and it remains loyal to the dominant narrative about terrorism. In one of the later scenes, when posed with a hypothetical situation, Sarabjit’s daughters boldly declare that they would not accept their father’s release if it came at the cost of freeing a terrorist like Afzal Guru. What is conveniently ignored is that even a “terrorist” like Afzal Guru is someone’s father, and much like Sarabjit, could have very well been scapegoated by a broken criminal justice system.  With its shallow progressivism, Sarabjit is a disappointing watch that we would recommend you skip.

Dirty Picture Project: Two Bollywood Virgins (pro) Take Down Sultan

By Lily Xiao and Victoria Christie[1] for the Dirty Picture Project. For more details on this project, write to Aarti at aarti.bhavana@nludelhi.ac.in

Upon its release, the immensely popular Sultan was screening at our local PVR no less than ten times a day. With Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma at the helm, Sultan is a must see for many Indians this summer. Sultan follows the journey of the titular Sultan (Salman Khan) as he slow motion wrestles his way to glory no less than five times within three hours. After marrying fellow wrestler Aarfa (Anushka Sharma), Aarfa mourns the death of their newborn son while Sultan is in London, winning Olympic gold. To add to their misery, their son died from severe anaemia, and Sultan’s rare blood type was capable of saving him, had he not been away being a cocky, macho scumbag. The movie opens on this devastated version of Sultan, who has separated from Aarfa, and given up wrestling to fundraise for a blood bank in Haryana. Luckily for our hero, Sultan is asked to step back into the ring as the underdog in the fledgling Pro Take Down league, which pits boxers, wrestlers and other fighting styles against each other. After enduring his second Rocky-style training montage, life-threatening injuries, and crippling self-doubt, Sultan overcomes his demons to win the tournament and Aarfa’s heart once again.

While the plot was overwrought and, at times, ridiculous, these two Bollywood virgins had a fantastic time, and despite not understanding most of the dialogue, we were able to follow the narrative. However, as feminists, we took issue with the movie’s representation of Aarfa as merely an obstruction and accessory to Sultan’s path to glory.

Aarfa deserves better

Sultan features a single female character, and although she is the lead, Aarfa is framed only in terms of her male counterpart, Sultan. For example, when Aarfa falls pregnant before the Olympics, dashing her childhood dreams of winning a gold medal, her narrative quickly becomes one of a woman sacrificing her dreams for Sultan, while he is busy becoming a national hero. The movie focuses on Sultan’s journey to Olympic glory, while cutting back to Aarfa watching him win on TV, and little attention is given to Aarfa’s sacrifices and her emotional journey as a woman. Additionally, we were disappointed at the movie’s failure to acknowledge Aarfa as a wrestler in her own right. Although she is shown to be a national, and later world champion, Sultan fails to afford her the same heroic treatment as it does Sultan, with crowds chanting his name. This is reflective of how women are treated in sport worldwide, not just in India, who are paid less and treated as pale imitators of their male counterparts. Lastly, the movie doesn’t even put itself in a position to pass the Bechdel test, by failing to provide another female character for Aarfa to talk to about anything besides a man. These criticisms should not take away from Sharma’s performance, as she injects heart and sass into the one-dimensional character she is given, and utterly shines in comparison to Khan’s overdramatic and brutish performance.

We Salman Khan’t buy this movie’s romance

Although we are Bollywood virgins, we had heard of Salman Khan and his scandalous reputation as a womaniser, so we may have gone into Sultan a little wary of his hip-shaking ways. However, our bias doesn’t make Sultan’s pursuit of Aarfa anything less than harassment. Despite her repeated protestations and outright disgust towards Sultan’s advances, he pursues her aggressively, following her around, telling his friends she was his girlfriend, and stalking her to her father’s training centre. While we immensely enjoyed the boys vs. girls Bollywood song and dance number, it trivialised Sultan’s harassment and romanticised it as part of the inevitable love story between the two leads. It is disturbing how familiar this trope of the woman inevitably giving into the man’s advances is, even as Western viewers we could recognise that Aarfa’s initial rejection was going to lead to her eventually falling for him.

Another problem we have with Sultan’s romance is the fantasy Sultan has of Aarfa. When he first meets Aarfa she literally crashes into his life on her motorbike, and he is smitten because she doesn’t fit his expectations of a woman; she’s different. In a pivotal moment in the film, Sultan sees Aarfa smiling at him when he’s down-and-out in a fight. Her kind smile and encouraging eyes inspire him to get up and win the fight. However, she is shown to be merely a hallucination, a fantasy. She’s his manic pixie dream girl; she’s sporty, doesn’t care about her appearance (but miraculously always looks perfect), and inspires him to be better than who he thought he could be. Unfortunately, we’re not given enough time with Aarfa to know her outside this fantasy.

Sexy Sultan

We went into Sultan knowing that kissing was not common in Bollywood films, and yet were still shocked (and frankly, a little disappointed) that the two lovers were only ever able to touch foreheads suggestively. However, Sultan wins points in our book for sexualising Khan’s body far more than it does Sharma’s. We lost track of the number of slow motion fight scenes or scenes with Sultan looking at himself in a mirror, while the camera poured over Khan’s topless body. Comparatively, Aarfa’s wrestling scenes were shot as a tribute to her athletic prowess, rather than as a male fantasy. Unfortunately, just as there was little sexualisation of Aarfa, there was no exploration of Aarfa’s own sexuality. We recognise that this may be a symptom of Sultan being a Bollywood film made for wide release in India, but we are all for a greater recognition of female sexuality in Bollywood films, and films worldwide.

Overall, we’re glad we popped our Bollywood cherries, and Sultan was an enjoyable movie going experience with a rowdy Tuesday night crowd. However, from a feminist perspective, Sultan left a lot to be desired.

[1] Lily Xiao and Victoria Christie are students at the University of Melbourne. Lily interned with CCG this summer.

 

[Dirty Picture Project] Ki and Ka : Well-intentioned, but not quite there

by Suniti Sampat and Anushka Sachdev

With Cheeni Kum, it was ageism. With Paa, sensitization about degenerative diseases. With Ki and Ka, R Balki attempts to take on gender stereotypes. However, along the way, he seems to forget how multi-faceted the problem really is. While attempting to highlight stereotypes, there is always the risk that one ends up propagating them. Sadly, such is the case with Ki and Ka.

Kiya (Kareena Kapoor), a marketing executive with a promising career ahead of her is married to Kabir (Arjun Kapoor), who seeks to emulate his mother by becoming a home-maker. While the movie is based on the unconventional relationship the couple shares, Kiya’s mother plays an important role in the film.


The Proposal
The movie certainly begins on a good note, with the heroine stating how conventional Indian marriages are unfair to women, who are expected to be extremely sacrificial when in the relationship. So here we have a woman who thinks that marriage is an inconvenience for a career woman and hence steers clear of it. On the other hand, we have a man who is willing to stay at home to manage her home. Seems like a perfect fit, no? So Ki and Ka decide to tie the knot and the awkwardness begins.
Kiya’s mother is portrayed as an uber cool mom, the kind who asks her daughter if she’s had sex with the guy before she takes the plunge. Yet she asks Kabir if he’s in it for the free meals, devaluing household work in a nonchalant manner. She also seems to believe that most women’s love for their husbands is dependent on the financial security they receive from the relationship. If things weren’t going bad already, Kiya gleefully announces that Kabir will be her wife- perhaps it was meant as a joke, but it reinforces the stereotype that household duties are those of a wife.It’s ironic that Kabir has to clarify that he is not gay and likes whisky, after he bravely admits his desire of being a house-husband. Disappointing, yes.

Asli Mard
The film focuses on and struggles with the question of who is an ‘Asli Mard’? In a rather uncomfortable discussion that Kiya and Kabir have with the latter’s father, Kabir’s father attempts to humiliate Kabir for his inability to perform his (socially-determined) gender role. A nuanced discussion about masculinities and gender stereotypes could have followed. Sadly, this did not happen. According to the film-maker, the proof of manhood lies in one’s chaddi (underwear). A classic example of phallic-centrism, the film simply ignores gender identities and deals with masculinity in the most stereotypical way imaginable: with a penis.

Miss-representation
The film is guilty of a grave injustice to women : misrepresentation of the women who work at home. The film would have you believe that all housewives need fitness classes, go for kitty parties and hang out with a homogenous pool consisting of other housewives. Now that Kabir has donned this role, all his new friends are middle-aged women deeply concerned about losing weight and are dependent on Kabir for ‘fitness’ classes.
While mocking stereotypical roles, it reinforces certain ideas. For instance, the notion that the home-maker must always be at the beck and call of the bread-earner, waking up at the crack of dawn to prepare the beverage of their choice without expecting the same from them. God forbid, if they falter in their ‘kartavya ka palan’ (duties), the home-maker would be sent to their ‘maika’ (mother’s home) !
Credit must be given to the filmmaker for the portrayal of Kiya and her mother as independent working women who know their mind. Their comfort with Kabir living with them without contributing (at least, at the outset) to the household income is telling of their comfort to do away with generic notions of gender roles. However, there is a lot of stereotyping that the movie is guilty of, while portraying modern career women. Apparently, such women live in extremely untidy homes, skip breakfast and are unable to take care of their health.
As for the bechdel test, the movie does not pass muster. The female lead has a few conversations with friends and colleagues, but these are either really brief or about Kabir. The long conversations that take place between females are those between Kiya and her mother, which again, are centred on Kiya and Kabir’s relationship. However, It may be noted that the film successfully passes the makomori test. The character of Kiya is well-written. She is shown as having an independent personality, independent of the male lead’s character.

Separating Gender and Roles
The film has highlighted the idea of dominance of one gender over another by showing that even after the so-called reversal of gender roles; one dominates the other in a marital relationship. Despite flipping stereotypical gender roles, they maintain the power equation of the bread-earner over the home-maker. This is reflected when Kiya becomes insecure on Kabir becoming successful, and tries to dictate his professional choices, or when he gets shouted at for leaving her mother alone. While it is fun to see the woman lord it over the man for a change, it’s troubling because it devalues the work done by a housewife. The film completely ignores the struggle undergone by housemakers for a standing at par with the primary earner’s and continues to demean housework and trivialise the person who does it. This continues to be problematic because housework is usually done by a woman, so by constantly demeaning it, the film furthers gender stereotypes.
The movie concludes on a strange note. The filmmaker would have the audience believe that the problem does not lie with gender, but with the hierarchical relationship that exists between the earner and the home-maker.The film-maker does not acknowledge the fact that housework is perhaps not given its due because it is women who are traditionally performing it. Perhaps if men were traditionally performing the same, they may have been given more credit and importance for the same. Even in the film, Kabir’s role as a home-maker is celebrated, with him receiving so much adulation for the same. While this may be due to the novelty of the situation, it’s difficult to miss the irony of the situation, as women have been performing this thankless role for centuries! While credit goes to the film for highlighting the fact that the home-maker never gets her due, the film ignores this gendered aspect of division and valuation of labour. Perhaps, the filmmaker could have acknowledged the fact that Kabir was only receiving so much praise because it is rare to see a man in such a self-sacrificing role. This begets the question – can we really separate gender from these hierarchical roles? Does the systemic subjugation of women to roles that have been undervalued by society since time immemorial mean nothing? Dear filmmakers, please wake up and smell the sexism.

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.