Bollywood's new feminist wave


Bollywood’s new feminist wave

After years of objectifying women, Bollywood is finally realising their stories are important

By Rega Jha  September 22nd, 2015

It’s 2015, but still, in some movie theatres, men stand up to hoot and holler at item numbers. Bollywood has given us several scenes in the last couple of years that have made me want to do the same. In NH10, when Anushka Sharma beat away several men — her attackers — and then lit up a cigarette; in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, when Kusum (played by Kangana Ranaut) stood up to Tanu (also played by Ranaut) and, in her flawless Haryanvi accent, delivered some third-degree feminist burns; in Dil Dhadakne Do, when Farhan Akhtar taught Rahul Bose what everyday sexism really looks like; and most iconic of all, in Queen, when Lisa Haydon and Ranaut sat in the back of a car and burped freely, openly relishing their release from the precise ways in which girls are taught not to behave. Those burps — unladylike, irreverent, hilarious — did more for women in India than some Bollywood men have done in their entire careers. (That’s right, Sajid Khan. Just take one second to think about the fact that Kangana Ranaut’s smelly, drunken belches are more productive than everything in your filmography. Combined.)

It seems that, in the last couple of years, Bollywood has finally come around to acknowledging that women have stories too, and that those stories are worth telling. By raking in Rs 100 crores in its first weekend, Tanu Weds Manu Returns proved that those stories can also shatter the box office and make staggeringly giant heaps of money. Bollywood, it seems, has bridged the once-petrifying chasm between movies that find commercial success and movies with a conscience. That means we’ll be seeing more of the latter. And it’s about goddamn time.

Off screen, the industry’s growth-spurts toward feminism have stayed alive in viral videos of Bollywood’s leading ladies shutting down various agents of sexism. My personal favourite was when Parineeti Chopra walked up to a reporter at a press conference and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he needs to “start respecting girls”. Anushka Sharma telling Barkha Dutt that it is “primitive” to call her a distraction to Virat Kohli screeches in at a close second. And nobody missed Deepika Padukone’s slam-dunk tweetstorm against The Times Of India, when they published a surreptitiously-taken photo of her cleavage coupled with the horrific headline ‘OMG! Cleavage show!’

The industry’s most relevant players are increasingly members of a younger, more socially aware generation. They call it like they see it. They talk about issues like mental health and body image more than any of their predecessors did. They are proponents for equality between the sexes. They face mob-driven heat on social media for their briefest slips into social irresponsibility. They know that intelligent, thoughtful and progressive are, more so every day, requirements for ‘cool’.

That doesn’t mean everyone’s getting it right, though. While marketing geniuses in boardrooms across the nation know that the empowerment of every marginalised demographic is 2015’s viral gold, they aren’t always consulting experts before pushing out their ‘empowering’ content. Case in point: Padukone’s recent feminist PSA ‘My Choice’, which had all the right intentions but ended up issuing lofty non-sequiturs and condoning marital infidelity. It went viral all the same, but was helped on plenty by the haters.

On the other hand, sometimes we get it so wrenchingly right, it makes my feminist heart want to burst with joy into a thousand Bollywood-esque dance numbers. Tanu Weds Manu Returns, for instance, which pits Tanu — Ranaut’s irresponsible, unfaithful, selfish incarnation — against Kusum, her Haryanvi small-town girl who gets into Delhi University on a sports quota and falls in love (but not helplessly) with Madhavan. Kusum stands for a breed of feminism that social media and its largely urban patronage doesn’t serve up too much: rural, not well-off, non-English-speaking. One criticism of the global feminist movement is that it breeds various elitisms — it favours white skin, it favours expensive education, it favours intellectualism that most women can’t afford. Subtly, with more nuance than we were ready for, the film held up a mirror to Tanu’s faux feminism in the form of Kusum’s real, albeit less glamorous version, and made us confront our own assumptions about what an empowered woman looks like. 

But while one camp within Bollywood is flexing all its muscles to pull the industry toward the future, another is keeping an anchor firmly in its sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic past — a past built on appealing to the masses’ basest tastes with no regard for social responsibility. While I’m writing, for instance, Twitter is frantic with chatter about Kareena Kapoor’s new item number, in which she wears about as much fabric as it takes to make a table mat and thrusts every thrustable part of her body at a mob of drooling male spectators. She looks damn good (as always), and I’d be the last person to shame someone for how they’re dressed or for being openly sexual. You do you, Bebo. But the underlying monsters in every item song are dancing at the heart of this one, too. The ones that use scantily clad, hypersexualised women as props to lure us to the theatres by promising high-definition sexiness. It reduces the female form to an object that exists for the male gaze. (Besides, the number of recent movies that have found commercial success without one proves that, today, if your movie needs an item number to sell it, the rest of it must not be very good.)

Honestly, ladies, we should be livid at Bollywood. We should be lining up outside Mannat and Galaxy and, while tourists plead for selfies with their inhabitants, we should be demanding apologies. Bollywood has given us lots of things — entertainment in quick snippets of four hours each, staggeringly catchy jams, Hrithik Roshan’s exemplary torso — but the problem lies in the lessons it has given men simultaneously: that stalking is romantic, that ogling is funny, that “Chhod do aanchal” is anything but an explicit command, that consent is negotiable. In the last two years, after decades of teaching India all the wrong lessons when it comes to women and their rights, the smarter faction of Bollywood is finally making amends.

Since December 16, 2012, when an unforgivably and unforgettably gruesome crime launched words like “rape”, “empowerment” and “consent” onto our front pages and prime-time news tickers, India has been in the throes of a revolution. History books will remember this as the decade when our centuries-old patriarchy came under the microscope and we, slowly, deliberately, finally, started doing away with its most harmful elements. While India fights for its women on every platform — on the streets, on the internet, and in court-rooms — we’re all slotting ourselves on either side of a battle-line: you are either for change, or, even by doing nothing at all, you are against it. And Bollywood’s writers, producers, directors and stars are no exception.

As India’s largest purveyor of mainstream pop-culture, Bollywood is implicated in India’s problems and their solutions, both. It should be at the front of the march, holding up the biggest protest signs, chanting the loudest rebellions. Every smart movie that turns a profit should make it even more shameful for those who still insist on using women as props rather than protagonists, and depicting minorities as punchlines rather than people. And anyone within the industry who’s still playing by the rules of an outdated world order isn’t just falling short of the mark — they’re falling on the wrong side of history.  

It’s 2015, but still, in some movie theatres, men stand up to hoot and holler at item numbers. Bollywood has given us several scenes in the last couple of years that have made me want to do the same. In NH10, when Anushka Sharma beat away several men — her attackers — and then lit up a cigarette; in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, when Kusum (played by Kangana Ranaut) stood up to Tanu (also played by Ranaut) and, in her flawless Haryanvi accent, delivered some third-degree feminist burns; in Dil Dhadakne Do, when Farhan Akhtar taught Rahul Bose what everyday sexism really looks like; and most iconic of all, in Queen, when Lisa Haydon and Ranaut sat in the back of a car and burped freely, openly relishing their release from the precise ways in which girls are taught not to behave. Those burps — unladylike, irreverent, hilarious — did more for women in India than some Bollywood men have done in their entire careers. (That’s right, Sajid Khan. Just take one second to think about the fact that Kangana Ranaut’s smelly, drunken belches are more productive than everything in your filmography. Combined.)

It seems that, in the last couple of years, Bollywood has finally come around to acknowledging that women have stories too, and that those stories are worth telling. By raking in Rs 100 crores in its first weekend, Tanu Weds Manu Returns proved that those stories can also shatter the box office and make staggeringly giant heaps of money. Bollywood, it seems, has bridged the once-petrifying chasm between movies that find commercial success and movies with a conscience. That means we’ll be seeing more of the latter. And it’s about goddamn time.

Off screen, the industry’s growth-spurts toward feminism have stayed alive in viral videos of Bollywood’s leading ladies shutting down various agents of sexism. My personal favourite was when Parineeti Chopra walked up to a reporter at a press conference and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he needs to “start respecting girls”. Anushka Sharma telling Barkha Dutt that it is “primitive” to call her a distraction to Virat Kohli screeches in at a close second. And nobody missed Deepika Padukone’s slam-dunk tweetstorm against The Times Of India, when they published a surreptitiously-taken photo of her cleavage coupled with the horrific headline ‘OMG! Cleavage show!’

The industry’s most relevant players are increasingly members of a younger, more socially aware generation. They call it like they see it. They talk about issues like mental health and body image more than any of their predecessors did. They are proponents for equality between the sexes. They face mob-driven heat on social media for their briefest slips into social irresponsibility. They know that intelligent, thoughtful and progressive are, more so every day, requirements for ‘cool’.

That doesn’t mean everyone’s getting it right, though. While marketing geniuses in boardrooms across the nation know that the empowerment of every marginalised demographic is 2015’s viral gold, they aren’t always consulting experts before pushing out their ‘empowering’ content. Case in point: Padukone’s recent feminist PSA ‘My Choice’, which had all the right intentions but ended up issuing lofty non-sequiturs and condoning marital infidelity. It went viral all the same, but was helped on plenty by the haters.

On the other hand, sometimes we get it so wrenchingly right, it makes my feminist heart want to burst with joy into a thousand Bollywood-esque dance numbers. Tanu Weds Manu Returns, for instance, which pits Tanu — Ranaut’s irresponsible, unfaithful, selfish incarnation — against Kusum, her Haryanvi small-town girl who gets into Delhi University on a sports quota and falls in love (but not helplessly) with Madhavan. Kusum stands for a breed of feminism that social media and its largely urban patronage doesn’t serve up too much: rural, not well-off, non-English-speaking. One criticism of the global feminist movement is that it breeds various elitisms — it favours white skin, it favours expensive education, it favours intellectualism that most women can’t afford. Subtly, with more nuance than we were ready for, the film held up a mirror to Tanu’s faux feminism in the form of Kusum’s real, albeit less glamorous version, and made us confront our own assumptions about what an empowered woman looks like. 

But while one camp within Bollywood is flexing all its muscles to pull the industry toward the future, another is keeping an anchor firmly in its sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic past — a past built on appealing to the masses’ basest tastes with no regard for social responsibility. While I’m writing, for instance, Twitter is frantic with chatter about Kareena Kapoor’s new item number, in which she wears about as much fabric as it takes to make a table mat and thrusts every thrustable part of her body at a mob of drooling male spectators. She looks damn good (as always), and I’d be the last person to shame someone for how they’re dressed or for being openly sexual. You do you, Bebo. But the underlying monsters in every item song are dancing at the heart of this one, too. The ones that use scantily clad, hypersexualised women as props to lure us to the theatres by promising high-definition sexiness. It reduces the female form to an object that exists for the male gaze. (Besides, the number of recent movies that have found commercial success without one proves that, today, if your movie needs an item number to sell it, the rest of it must not be very good.)

Honestly, ladies, we should be livid at Bollywood. We should be lining up outside Mannat and Galaxy and, while tourists plead for selfies with their inhabitants, we should be demanding apologies. Bollywood has given us lots of things — entertainment in quick snippets of four hours each, staggeringly catchy jams, Hrithik Roshan’s exemplary torso — but the problem lies in the lessons it has given men simultaneously: that stalking is romantic, that ogling is funny, that “Chhod do aanchal” is anything but an explicit command, that consent is negotiable. In the last two years, after decades of teaching India all the wrong lessons when it comes to women and their rights, the smarter faction of Bollywood is finally making amends.

Since December 16, 2012, when an unforgivably and unforgettably gruesome crime launched words like “rape”, “empowerment” and “consent” onto our front pages and prime-time news tickers, India has been in the throes of a revolution. History books will remember this as the decade when our centuries-old patriarchy came under the microscope and we, slowly, deliberately, finally, started doing away with its most harmful elements. While India fights for its women on every platform — on the streets, on the internet, and in court-rooms — we’re all slotting ourselves on either side of a battle-line: you are either for change, or, even by doing nothing at all, you are against it. And Bollywood’s writers, producers, directors and stars are no exception.

As India’s largest purveyor of mainstream pop-culture, Bollywood is implicated in India’s problems and their solutions, both. It should be at the front of the march, holding up the biggest protest signs, chanting the loudest rebellions. Every smart movie that turns a profit should make it even more shameful for those who still insist on using women as props rather than protagonists, and depicting minorities as punchlines rather than people. And anyone within the industry who’s still playing by the rules of an outdated world order isn’t just falling short of the mark — they’re falling on the wrong side of history.