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: 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.

 

The Dirty Picture Project: Dil Dhadakne Do- A welcome foray into feminism.

By Bhargavi Vadeyar, as part of the Dirty Picture Project

Dil Dhadakne Do is the story of the Mehras, a dysfunctional, Delhi high society Punjabi family, the kind where the women talk in overly sugary tones and the men run businesses and play golf. The line-up includes the narcissistic father, Kamal (Anil Kapoor); the socialite/housewife mother, Neelam (Shefali Shah); the prodigal son and heir, Kabir (Ranveer Singh); and the quietly extraordinary daughter, Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra).

The cast is rounded out by Ayesha’s sexist and controlling husband, Manav (Rahul Bose); Farah (Anushka Sharma), Kabir’s love interest and a dancer on the ship, and Sunny (Farhan Akhtar), Ayesha’s one-time best friend and love interest. Last, but certainly not least, Aamir Khan voices the Mehras’ dog, Pluto, who narrates the film and comments on the hypocrisy of Indian families.

The movie’s premise is the Mediterranean cruise to celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of Kamal and Neelam Mehra. Shenanigans predictably follow as many of the Mehras’ family and friends are forced together for a two-week period.

Bechdel Testing

The movie just about passes the Bechdel Test with a fleeting conversation between Ayesha and her cousins Divya and Putlu about what Divya wants to do with her life, now that she has graduated from college.

This is one of those cases, however, where the Bechdel Test doesn’t paint a true picture. The movie is filled to bursting with subversive one-liners and feminist characters that are completely out of the ordinary for a mainstream Bollywood film. It would be very difficult to talk about every insight the movie provided into the gender roles of the Indian upper class family, so I’ve chosen to focus only on the key elements.

Ayesha, the Superwoman

Ayesha is far and away the most interesting of the Mehras. For a Bollywood heroine, her clothing is not overly sexualised, and she is a well-developed female character. Ayesha is a successful businesswoman who sold her jewellery to start a travel company that landed her in the Forbes top 10 entrepreneurs list (just roll with it, this is Bollywood). However, she has to endure a controlling husband who “allows” her to run her business, along with barbs from her mother-in-law about talking business at the dinner table and never being at home.

She is a self-made businesswoman, but everyone around her just wants her to have a baby, including her husband and her parents. When told about her appearance in Forbes, her father only replies that next year his son’s name will be featured, and later announces in front of the entire gathering that his only wish is for her to give him a grandson (but not a granddaughter, of course). The gender bias is clear: her father, also a self-made businessman, shouts his achievements from the rooftops but is unwilling to acknowledge his daughter’s.

Ayesha, though, is secretly taking the monthly birth control pill. She is deeply unhappy in her marriage and already contemplating a divorce when the return of Sunny finally galvanises her into action. It becomes clear that Sunny and Ayesha were in love before her parents separated them.

The only flaw in the otherwise excellently written Ayesha is that she is unwilling to ruffle her parents’ feathers, often at the cost of her own happiness. She also seems to need Sunny’s appreciation of her achievements in order to be able to value herself enough to finally ask Manav for a divorce. This is slightly irking, but I’ll let it slide because Ayesha’s overall story ark is the best thing about this movie.

Sunny, the “Journalist-Activist Type”

Sunny is possibly the first openly feminist male character in Bollywood, and the film somewhat puts him on a pedestal for it. One of the best moments of the film is a conversation between Sunny and Manav, where Manav lets it slip that he “allows” Ayesha to run her business. Sunny immediately picks up on this and tells him that by allowing her to run her business, he is assuming a position of authority and control, and that this is not equality. This proves his point, he says, that women have not yet achieved equality. The movie portrays Sunny as admirable and intelligent for his feminist views, and Manav as controlling and unwittingly sexist.

Talaq, Talaq, Talaq

Once Ayesha admits she wants a divorce, both families sit together in order to work out what has gone wrong. The movie really highlights that everyone is against Ayesha here; she sits alone, facing her parents, Manav and her mother-in-law. They all treat Ayesha’s divorce as a something hurtful to them, echoed by Neelam asking Ayesha why she is doing this to them.

Both Neelam and Ayesha’s mother-in-law can’t seem to understand that she wants a divorce because she doesn’t love her husband. They both believe that as long a husband can provide a good standard of living and is not violent, there should be no problem, something that the film is quick to make fun of. This is especially ridiculous because, again, nobody seems to notice or care that Ayesha is financially independent.

Here the film also draws a stark contrast between the generations. Ayesha, who is financially independent, can divorce her husband. Neelam, on the other hand, has been forced to pretend that she is unaware of Kamal’s affairs for years because she has nowhere else to go.

Of Sons and Daughters

The movie also highlights the differences between the treatment meted out to sons and daughters. Once Ayesha is married, her birth family effectively disowns her to the point where her name is not mentioned on the cruise invitation cards, even though she planned the whole trip. Kamal also repeatedly insists that her home is now with her husband’s family.

Kabir, on the other hand, is being pressurised into succeeding his father as CEO of their flailing company, Ayka. This is despite the fact that it is clear he has very little interest or aptitude for business, while Ayesha runs her own business successfully. After Kabir refuses to run the company, Neelam asks what they will do with the company if he doesn’t run it. They don’t even consider the possibility of Ayesha being her father’s heir until Kabir points it out to them.

The Pilot and the Dancer

Kabir is the youngest member of the Mehra family. Overall, his character is also rather feminist, as he is unwavering in his support of his sister and is one of the few who acknowledge her success. Kabir falls in love with Farah Ali, who appears to be a very strong character until you scratch the surface. She is a dancer on the ship who ran away from home because all her parents wanted for her was to become someone’s housewife. Her story and her advice inspire Kabir to follow his heart and refuse to give in to his parents’ pressurising about his career.

Farah’s character is the where the film trips up slightly; it isn’t very well developed, which definitely puts her on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl scale. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character that enters the (always male) hero’s life to change it for the better without ever changing herself, a role that Farah fulfils here. However, every character who is not a Mehra is similarly underdeveloped, so this film doesn’t seem to make a gender-based distinction on that front.

In Conclusion

Dil Dhadakne Do’s feminism is probably down to the fact that the two screenplay writers are both female: Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. The film is certainly a step forward for Bollywood, and I can personally assure you that the film’s social commentary even improves on repeat viewings, a rare feat for any Bollywood movie. Dil Dhadkane Do is definitely worth a watch, for its rare nod to feminism and for the catchy songs that I’m sure I will be humming for several days.

*

For more information on the Dirty Picture Project, contact Aarti at aarti.bhavana@nludelhi.ac.in

The Dirty Picture Project: Hunterrr

(By Bhargavi Vadeyar)

Hunterrr is a movie that seems to be going in several different directions at once. While it objectifies women heavily (for example, the three ‘Rs’ in the title ‘Hunterrr’ shown during the opening credits are actually made up of the legs of women wearing only underwear), it also has some redeeming feminist aspects.

hunterrr

The film describes through various flashbacks the life of a middle class heterosexual male called Mandar Phonkse. His sole purpose in life appears to be to seduce and sleep with as many women as possible and he sees himself as a vasu, or a “player”.

Such sexual activity in general is not the problem; what is troubling is the way that Mandar actually treats women. For example, he stares at almost every single woman he sees in a way that would be genuinely disconcerting were anyone to encounter him in real life, and he only thinks of most women only in sexual terms.

Bechdel Testing

While the total cast is made up of quite a lot of named female characters, the film miserably fails the Bechdel test. There is only one scene with more than one named female character in it, and conversation revolves around how the son of one of the women resembles his father. Considering that this is a film about a man and his interactions with women, this isn’t very surprising.

Mandar: The Wonder Years

The flashbacks show us Mandar’s childhood and how his passion for the opposite sex begins when he accidentally goes to watch an adult film. One of the most troubling aspects of the film is its depiction of the exploits of Mandar and his friend as children.

They spend their days eve teasing women by pretending to turn around and bump into them in order to get a feel of their breasts or brushing up against a woman’s backside while she is leaning over to pick vegetables at the local market. The boys congratulate each other on being able to pull off such stunts without getting caught. This kind of behaviour is laughed at by the film in a boys-will-be-boys sort of way that trivialises the demeaning nature of this kind of harassment.

The film also plays to stereotypes when Mandar tells a rapt audience of boys that the secret to being able to get a girl is to aim for the second most attractive girl in any group, as she will be most likely to be flattered by your advances. After all, he says, any girl is good enough.

Pune: Parul and Jyotsna

On the positive side, Hunterrr does appear to disapprove of Mandar’s later relationships with women. Near the end of the film, he attempts to seduce a woman he meets at the airport, not realising that she is his relative. When he finds out, he is horrified and regrets the way he has treated women, particularly the two women he was with during his college years, Parul and Jyotnsa.

Mandar dates Parul while he is in college and it is implied that they sleep together. While they are in a relationship, Mandar begins an affair with a married woman named Jyotsna who lives in the building opposite his and who has a young son. He consequently ignores Parul, breaking her heart. At first, Jyotsna appears to be conflicted about starting an affair; while she calls Mandar and asks him to meet, when she arrives at his flat she tells him to leave her alone. He, however, convinces her to give him a kiss and the affair begins.

Ultimately, Jyotsna’s husband does find out about the affair and the film attempts to address the inequality in the situations of Mandar and Jyotsna. When Jyotsna comes to see Mandar for the last time, for example, she tells him that there have been strange men calling her house and asking to speak to her and asks him to stop giving out her number. The film hints here at the reality that in Indian society, a woman who is seen to be sexually active is viewed as someone who has lost her respect and dignity, and who can therefore be harassed. Later in the same scene, Mandar tries to tell her that they will work it out, but Jyotsna refuses. Mandar can run away, she points out, but she has nowhere to run; as a woman, she is trapped in her marriage in a way that men are not.

Sunita and Tripti, The (Sort-Of) Redemptions of Hunterrr

In stark contrast to Jyotsna, who Mandar somewhat coerces into a relationship, is Sunita. She is also a married woman, but she has no qualms about carrying on an affair and regularly invites Mandar to her house while her husband is away. It is unusual in Bollywood to show a woman driven by sexual desires in the same way as a man, and even more unusual for her to not suffer any horrible consequences for this behaviour, so for that Sunita deserves an honourable mention in this review.

Tripti, the ultimate love interest of Mandar, is similarly a refreshing heroine in an industry that tends to view girls who are sexually active outside of marriage as fallen women who cannot have a happy ending. Take a look, for example, at the film Cocktail, in which the woman who is more innocent and less sexually experienced ends up with the male protagonist.

Mandar meets Tripti as an arranged marriage, and the two get engaged. There is a kind of reversal of gender stereotypes, in that Mandar hides the truth about his sexual exploits from Tripti. She, on the other hand, is unabashed about her sexual exploits and never tries to hide them from Mandar. She openly admits to having had multiple relationships and even one live in relationship.

Unfortunately, she is not really a very well developed character, and so I have somewhat mixed feelings about her. To me, she is somewhat reminiscent of the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The MPDG is a woman who exists solely for the purposes of changing the life of the male hero and has no story (and often, not much character) of her own. In other words, she is exactly what the doctor ordered for our wayward protagonist.

What makes Tripti a milder version of the MPDG is that she is essentially the female version of Mandar, and therefore the only kind of woman he could ever marry. She thinks his friend is hilarious when he does a silly and slightly vulgar dance that ends with him ripping his shirt, she too likes to objectify women and she is experienced sexually. All of this sets her up to be just what Mandar needs in order to finally forego his philandering ways and fall in love.

Furthermore, at some moments in the film, her motivations are unclear and her behaviour seems rather improbable. When Mandar finally comes clean to her at the end of the movie about his sexual exploits, she is not angry with him for keeping his past from her while she was completely open about hers. Instead, she forgives him almost instantly. While this could just be bad writing, it does take away from her as a feminist character.

After the Credits

Hunterrr has been touted as India’s first movie about sex, but I think that it actually somewhat reinforces the taboo on sex in Indian society. Mandar is fascinated by sex partly because it is whispered about and forbidden, which is something the movie never addresses. While the characters are open about wanting and having sex, there is always a furtive undertone. There is a sense that of immaturity, as though the film makers are teenagers talking about sex for the first time, and the entire film seems to rest on this novelty of talking about sex openly. Although, to be fair, this probably comes from Bollywood and the rest of society as much as from the film makers.

In conclusion, Hunterrr is not going to win any prizes for feminism. The film objectifies women constantly, and while it hints at the differing gender standards for sexual experience that are acceptable in society, it does not come close to addressing it in any meaningful way.

(Bhargavi works as a research assistant with the Centre on the Dirty Picture Project)

The Dirty Picture Project: Dhoom 3

[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@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)

Aaand the prize for the worst score on the Bechdel test goes to…you guessed it folks, it’s Dhoom 3! With only four named female characters, who never share screen time, let alone speak to each other, and with the motorbikes getting more on-screen presence than all the female characters combined, this film is a total no-no for gender equality.

Victoria: The Barbie

The blonde Victoria works for the Chicago police. You would think that having a female policewoman would be a good thing, but (surprise surprise!) she is never shown exercising her authority or doing anything meaningful to further the plot, while the two men, Jai and Ali, are constantly discussing the plan of action and giving her instructions. This is even stranger when you consider that she is the one with the only legal authority in Chicago; her motivations for continuing to help Jai and Ali when they fall out of favour with her own police department are never explained.

Obviously, unlike her male counterparts, she has to always wear revealing clothing and red lipstick, which seem to attract more attention than her almost non-existent dialogues. She appears all of 9 times in the movie, in which she speaks one word once, one line twice, five lines once and not even a single word on five occasions. Even though she is one of the main female protagonists (not that that’s very difficult in a cast with only four named female characters), in the movie she has a total screen presence of only 296 seconds.

She has no personality; we are introduced to her only when she meets Ali and Jai. In that scene, it is immediately signalled that she exists solely for the men (and the viewer) to ogle at. She drives up on a motorbike and shakes her hair in slow motion while Ali and Jai check her out from head to toe. When she introduces herself, they both flirt with her immediately. A major portion of Victoria’s screen presence involves featuring in Ali’s perpetual fantasies about marrying her and fathering his children, which start exactly four seconds after he sees her for the first time. In all of these fantasies, Victoria is (naturally) wearing skimpy clothing, ranging from a bikini to the Marilyn Monroe blowing-in-the-wind-dress, to further sexualise her image.

Furthermore, it is clear that she does not return Ali’s interest in her, but the film makes this into a running joke. For example, when Ali shares a chair with her, she is visibly uncomfortable, but again, this is meant to be comic relief. This sends the troubling message that it is somehow alright to pursue and even to borderline sexually harass a woman, even when she does not return your affections.

Aaliya: The Asian Goddess who Sings and Dances like Liquid Electricity

Aaliya is the main female protagonist in the movie, whose role is full of oomph but pretty hollow otherwise. Her role is mostly limited to two sexualised song numbers, her circus antics and a romantic subplot in Samar’s dreams. The objectification of women in the movie is more than evident when Aaliya is used as a means by the police to catch the two thieves; she appears on the bridge in the final scene, appearing to be a device to convince Samar to turn himself in.

The most memorable part about her role in the movie is definitely her audition (read: strip tease), rather than anything she says. She begins in overalls but ends up not wearing much more than a bra and a pair of shorts. At one point, she has a strip of cloth wrapped around her torso; she gives one end of the strip to Sahir and spins around so that he, in effect, undresses her, which we find creepily reminiscent of Draupadi’s disrobing in the Mahabharat.

katrina_kaif_in_dhoom_3-wide

But let’s give this painful movie some credit for having implied that she takes over the Great Indian Circus at the end of movie, thereby suggesting that she could be more than just a love interest for the two brothers. She definitely has some personality, and is ambitious and determined, which she proves in her audition (by stripping, of course – it’s still Dhoom 3!).

The Best of the Rest

The other two speaking characters are Rina Ray, a reporter, and Jennifer, a bank teller. Don’t worry if you can’t remember who they are – Rina Ray, who interviews Jai, Victoria and Mr. Anderson, has a total screen presence of 136 seconds. Jennifer, the bank teller, accompanies Sahir to the locker and has a screen time of 112 seconds in which she asks about his general well-being and makes a comment about her boyfriend. The fact that we’ve included these two as one of the four named female characters shows just how misogynistic the movie is, and how underrepresented women are in it.

In Summation

Dhoom 3 is the movie that gives feminists sleepless nights; for the most part, the women in the movie exist to be either objects of desire or love interests. Mr. Anderson, in his attempt to ridicule the circus, has given us an apt description of this sickening movie: “Circus [Dhoom 3] is a woman in a short skirt putting her head into a hippo’s mouth. Circus [Dhoom 3] is stupid; that’s what people pay money for.”