Summer 2016 officially began on June 21 and ended last week on Sept. 21. To give you an accurate temporal snapshot, however, I, like many others, framed my summer as the beginning of June through the end of August. Fourteen weeks. I spent the first nine of those weeks in agony, studying day and night for the mid-July bar exam. No parties, no meaningful outside contact, and no life outside of my home. But I mustered up one way to enjoy my brief and sporadic moments of downtime: Vintage Bollywood movie breaks.
Once a week, I cuddled with my mom, my dog, or my man, and watched one vintage Bollywood film in hopes of becoming better versed in the classical canon of Hindi cinema. My mom and I went together to a local movie shop and bought a stack of DVDs. I let her pick her favorites. Lord, she nearly picked solely movies with Dharmendra as the lead hero before I stopped her and requested that she diversify her gaze to a broader scope of hunks. In the end, our purchases spanned from 1950-1970s Bollywood, featuring everyone from Vyjayanthimala to Madhubala to Hema Malini; from Dharmendra to Dilip Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan when his head and beard matched in color.
To be honest, I was fully expecting these films to be cheesy romantic sagas with redeeming banger songs. And I was right. But I made a few other observations that struck me in terms of the expressive transformation of Bollywood from then to now in terms of feminist themes and positive Muslim representation.
To begin with the feminist realm of my observations, I was surprised to see such strong and deliberate female roles on camera during a time when I was positive they would be cast as one-dimensional entities of subservience.
[Vyjayanthimala in Nagin (1954)/Movie Still]
Anarkali told the Mughal Emperor to shove it, as she would rather die than have him dictate her love life in “Mughal-e-Azam” (1960). Mala, an Adivasi tribe leader’s daughter who broke into orgasmic sweats every time she heard her lover from a rival tribe play his flute, went against her own tribal laws (and family loyalties) to pursue her own desires in “Nagin” (1954). Far more fascinating than these on-screen heroines, however, were the colorful lives that all of these actresses led off-camera.
Madhubala was a key breadwinner for her family from the age of nine when she first started acting in films. She landed her first role as a heroine at the age of fourteen in “Neel Kamal” (1947)—a fact that is both impressive and a little disturbing considering she acted opposite twenty-three-year-old Raj Kapoor. Although she only had fifteen box office successes out of her vast portfolio of films, she was, nonetheless, revered as the most iconic actress of her time. She died shortly after her thirty-sixth birthday from a ventricular septal defect, and yet, she was able to leave an everlasting and profound mark on Hindi cinema during her short life.
Vyjayanthimala was the first South Indian actress to gain national popularity, thus forging the way for other South Indian actresses in Bollywood. In addition to her long career as a successful actress and professional dancer, she has also enjoyed a meaningful political career, serving a six-year term on the Indian Parliament and gaining primary membership in the Indian National Congress Party.
Vyjayanthimala resigned from the latter post citing that the party had eventually lost touch with its grassroots thus making it impossible for her to continue to serve while being at peace with her conscience.
Meena Kumari, donned The Tragedy Queen, was a brilliant poet with couplets that are still reverently recited in her honor. More importantly, she led a life of personal resilience as she struggled deeply with depression and alcoholism. She died at the age of thirty-nine from cirrhosis of the liver. The epitaph that she requested be etched on her grave read:
“She ended life with a broken fiddle,
With a broken song,
With a broken heart,
But not a single regret.”
The power that is nestled in their life stories went beyond any expectations I had regarding feminist examples in the early days of an industry that is largely known for belting out films that would make activist and American feminist Betty Friedan sob. Fourteen weeks of pleasantly surprising exhibitions of twentieth-century womanhood.
On the same wavelength of surprising observations, the depiction of Muslims in pre-1970s Bollywood films proved a far cry from current demonization of Muslims in Hindi cinema as betel leaf chewing villains with violent agendas. For the last two decades, the industry has been dominated by men adoringly known as the “King Khans.” Yet these Khans are consistently cast as Rajs, Devs, and Prems. When Muslim characters are actually written into films, they, especially men, are often used as props for representing moral darkness.
They are the kohl-smeared dons plotting evil from the insides of masjids, while the pure heroes perform aarti (“Agneepath” 2012).
They are presented as normal, everyday characters (finally!), only to eventually reveal themselves as murderous, undercover terrorists—a representation that sneakily justifies prevailing villainous conceptions of Muslim men and contributes to their social alienation (“Kurbaan” 2009).
They always live amidst a turbulent backdrop of violence, suffering, or suspicion, and rarely as leading normal and dignified lives (“Roja” 1992, “Mission Kashmir” 2000, “Fiza” 2000, “Dhoka” 2007, “New York” 2009, the list goes on and on).
Bollywood’s villainous Muslims have led many South Asian Muslims to reject the industry entirely, opting for other cinematic avenues of cultural consumption. While I have not yet explored those alternatives , as a Muslim woman I am all too familiar with the discomfort that stems from Bollywood’s use of Muslims as props for immorality and/or as the non-plot-furthering family next door for the sake of feigning inclusion. Prior to 1970, however, Bollywood sang a very different tune when their films focused on Muslim characters.
The dignified portrayal of Muslim characters in early Bollywood films was a proverbial hug that I did not know I needed. It wasn’t just the overdone Mughal emperors and their glamorous courtesans. I stared, glassy-eyed, as I watched “Najma” (1943), “Chandni Chowk” (1954), and “Bahu Begum” (1967), gawking at the humanization of the business-savvy nawabs and singing begums that are so tragically lacking in today’s films. There were no terror plots, but there were Qawwali battles; there were no militants, but there were naïve princes and overconfident poets. To see your spiritual community positively represented in an industry that has devotedly alienated it during your lifetime is both a form of healing and a form of pain. Fourteen weeks of rediscovering what real and positive representation looks like, because it has become such a foreign concept to Muslims throughout the world today.
These representations were also an appreciated reminder of the beauty that is the South Asian brand of Islam—a tradition imbibed with music, dance and poetry, but now tragically falls prey to the tyrannical criticisms of Saudi clerics who deem all things that fall out of the scope of Arab custom as sinful innovation. This has led to more South Asian Muslims swapping their salwar suits for abayyas, and their musical traditions for more rigid interpretations of proper social engagement, all for the sake of conforming to what they have been implored to believe is the proper practice of Islam. I spent fourteen weeks reuniting with the beautiful intersection of Islam and South Asia.
Fourteen weeks of ravenously drinking the ambrosia of my womanhood and Islam. Fourteen weeks of renewed hope for an industry in which I had nearly lost all hope. If they were once this bearable, they can surely do it again! From dancing heroines challenging the social structures of their conservative villages, to Muslim poets reciting couplets in courtyards dripping in roses, these fourteen weeks of vintage cinema reconnected me with a history I could barely recollect, but deserved to know.
While I wait for the industry to transform positively once again, perhaps I’ll finally spend the next fourteen weeks exploring alternative industries for cinematic consumption (i.e.: Lollywood (Lahori) and Dhallywood (Bangladesh)) as so many other South Asian and South Asian Diaspora folks have done, as it really is saying a lot if the 1950s look like a better place than where we are now. My fourteen weeks of perusing the archives of Bollywood cinema have reaffirmed that as cultural consumers, we deserve so much more than what we receive today.
Elizabeth Jaikaran is a freelance writer based in New York. She graduated from The City College of New York with her B.A. in 2012, and from New York University School of Law in 2016. She is interested in theories of gender politics and enjoys exploring the intersection of international law and social consciousness. When she’s not writing, she enjoys celebrating all of life’s small joys with her friends and binge watching juicy serial dramas with her husband. Her first book, “Trauma” will be published by Shanti Arts in 2017.
It’s always a flamboyant affair of colour, emotions and grandeur when Karan Johar directs a film, and his latest blockbuster “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani” is as K Jo as it gets. After recently being recognised at the British House of Parliament for 25 years as a filmmaker, Johar is back to doing what he does best — bringing together families and star-crossed lovers, but this time with a modern touch. He makes a decent attempt at showcasing progressive ideals and feminist issues while taking us on this family-friendly ride.
“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is a larger-than-life film revolving around the love story of a boisterous Rocky (Ranveer Singh) from a wealthy Delhi family, and Rani (Alia Bhatt), a sharp journalist from a progressive Bengali household. And of course, despite belonging to completely different backgrounds and lives, our protagonists, in true Bollywood fashion, fall hopelessly in love through a string of slow-motion gazes, warm embraces and some truly breath-taking song sequences in Kashmir’s snowy mountains. They are then forced to face their opposing families which brings along the family drama in the second half of the film.
The plot is not the film’s strongest point — there’s no real surprise about what’s going to happen next, and yet the film doesn’t fail to keep audiences engaged and pack an emotional punch. This is down to its strong acting, witty dialogues and K Jo’s classic, beautiful cinematography.
Ranveer Singh sinks into the skin of his character with ease – not only does he make the hall burst into laughter with the help of perfectly-timed gags but he pulls off those dreamy gazes ,expected in K Jo’s heroes, to evoke that typical, fuzzy-feeling kind of Bollywood romance. Alia Bhatt’s intelligent and undefeated character is no less a pleasure to watch on screen — not only does she look breath-taking in every shot but her feminist dialogues earn claps and cheers from the audience as she brings a progressive touch to this family drama.
Albeit, while Bhatt’s dialogues do their best to steer this film to the reformist drama it hopes to be, some of Singh’s gags and monologues on cancel culture bring out bumps in the road. The film could have done better to reinforce its points on feminism and racism without using the groups it tries to support as the butt of jokes.
There is also a case to be made about how long these Punjabi and Bengali stereotypes can go on with often gawkish displays of Ranveer’s ‘dilwala-from-Delhi’ character among the overly-polished English from Rani’s Bengali family. But it is with the expertise of the supporting cast, that the film is able to get away with it. Jaya Bachchan in particular is as classy as ever on screen; the stern Dadi Ji holds her ground between the two lovers, while Dada Ji Dharmendra, and Thakuma Shabana Azmi, tug at our heartstrings showing that love truly is for all ages.
Saving the best to last, it is the film’s cinematography that makes the strongest case for audiences to flock to the cinema. The soul-stirring songs steal the show with their extravagant sets and powerful dance performances that treat the audiences to the much-awaited cinematic experience of a K Jo film. While audiences may already be familiar with the viral songs, “What Jhumka?” and “Tum Kya Mile“, it was the family-defying fight for love in “Dhindhora Baje Re” that really gave me goosebumps.
Overall, the film does exactly what it says on the tin and is a family entertainer with something for everyone. It will make you laugh, cry, and cringe at times, but nothing leaves you feeling as romantic as some old school Bollywood with a mix of new school humour, in true K Jo form.
“Ghoomer,” R. Balki’s latest directorial venture, had its world premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne 2023 (IFFM), earlier this month, and the moment was nothing short of memorable. Lead actors Abhishek Bachchan, Saiyami Kher, and Angad Bedi, were present to unveil their labor of love to the world, and all three were left speechless at the reaction of the global audience; the film received a standing ovation on opening night, leaving the team extremely emotional — a feeling that Bachchan tells Brown Girl is one he cannot put into words.
“Ghoomer,” tells the story of Anina (played by Kher), an exceptional cricket player who loses her right hand in an accident. Downtrodden and with no will to live, Anina finds a mentor and coach in Padam Singh Sodhi (played by Bachchan), an insensitive and brash failed cricketer who helps her turn her life and career around; Anina also has the unwavering support of her husband, Jeet (played by Bedi). Sodhi teaches Anina unorthodox techniques to make her mark on the cricket ground once again. Enter, ghoomer, a new style of bowling.
Balki checks all the boxes with this feature — his protagonist is a female athlete, the film is his way of giving back to cricket (a new form of delivery), and he highlights the idea that nothing is impossible for paraplegic athletes. The heart of Balki’s film is in the right place — Kher mentions that the film is meant to be more of an inspirational movie and less of a sports-based movie. One can only imagine the impact that a film like this would have on an audience that’s hungry for meaningful cinema.
And, to chat more about “Ghoomer,” Brown Girl Magazine sat down with the stars of the show. Bachchan, Bedi, and Kher came together to talk about their inspiring characters, the filming journey, and how their film aspires to change the landscape of cricket and paraplegic athletes in the country. It was all that, with a side of samosas.
Take a look!
The featured image is courtesy of Sterling Global.
It’s never a dull moment with your girl gang; some shots and conversations about sex, right? If you agree, you’re in for a treat with Karan Boolani’s directorial venture, “Thank You For Coming,” which had its world premiere at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival. This coming-of-age story unapologetically begs the answer to a very important question: Why should women be left high and dry in bed?
Kanika Kapoor (Bhumi Pednekar) is a successful, 32-year-old, Delhi food blogger who makes a huge revelation on her 30th birthday: She’s never experienced an orgasm. This dirty little secret (no pun intended!) has now become detrimental to her self-esteem. She feels so down and out that she even accepts the proposal of a very boring suitor, Jeevan-ji (Pradhuman Singh Mall).
But, it’s not like she hasn’t tried. Kanika’s been a monogamist since her teenage years, starting with puppy love in high school — unfortunately, their sexual endeavors coined her as “thandi” (cold) by her first boyfriend — all the way to dating in her adulthood. But, regardless of how great any relationship was, nobody had her achieve the big O. All until the night of her engagement with Jeevan, when the drunk bride-to-be leaves the party for her hotel room and gets into bed. What follows is her very first orgasm. Ghungroo, finally, tute gaye! But, with whom?
The morning after, an initially-satisfied Kanika works herself into a frenzy of confusion and frustration as she makes her way through the list of potential men who could’ve been in her room the night before.
Was it one of her exes? She’d simply invited them to come to wish her well.
Was it her fiance?
Or, God forbid, was it actually the rabdi-wala (ice cream man)?
Boolani takes a straight-forward and on-the-nose approach to drive the point home. There are no cutting corners, no mincing words, and no hovering over “taboo topics.” The dialogue is raunchy, the characters are horny, and no one is apologetic. It’s important for a film like “Thank You For Coming” to be so in-your-face because the subject of women achieving orgasms can’t really be presented in any other way. Anything more conservative in the narrative would feel like the makers are being mindful of addressing something prohibited. And there is no room for taboos here.
But, there is room for a more open conversation on the reasons why many women feel the need to suppress their sexual needs in bed; how generally, women have been brought up to be the more desirable gender and hence not cross certain boundaries that would make them appear too brash. The fight for the right of female pleasure would have been a little more effective if the modesty around the topic was addressed. But, that doesn’t mean that the point is remiss.
The plot moves swiftly along, never lulling too long over everything that seems to be going wrong in Kanika’s life. “Thank You For Coming” is full of all the right tropes that belong in a comedic, masala film, too; the direction very seamlessly takes classic fixings like the abhorrent admirer (enter Jeevan-ji) and effectively plugs them into this contemporary feature that will remain perpetually relevant.
And now, let’s come to the star of the show: the well-rounded characters.
Producer Rhea Kapoor has mastered the formula of a good chick flick and her casting is the magic touch. She’s got a knack for bringing together the right actors — cue, “Veere Di Wedding.” So, just when we think that it doesn’t get better than the veere, Kapoor surprises us with a refreshing trio — they’re modern, they’re rebellious, and they say it like it is. Thank you, Dolly Singh (Pallavi Khanna) and Shibani Bedi (Tina Das) for being the yin to Kanika’s yang — and for the bag full of sex toys your homegirl oh-so needed!
To complete Kanika’s story, we have her single mother, Miss. Kapoor, brilliantly portrayed by Natasha Rastogi. She is the face of a headstrong and self-assured matriarch and a symbol of the modern-day Indian woman. Rastogi’s character exemplifies the fact that with access to education, and a stable career, women do not need to mold their lives around men.
I love the fact that Miss. Kapoor is almost villainized by her own mother (played by Dolly Ahluwalia) in the film because she had a child out of wedlock in her yesteryears, she chooses to remain single, and she brings her boyfriends around the house to hang out with. But, there’s a point to be made here. The fact that Kanika’s mother is being antagonized just highlights that she is challenging the norms and pushing the envelope for what is socially acceptable for women. Miss. Kapoor definitely deserves an honorable mention.
Pednekar’s unexpected yet impeccable comic timing is the highlight of the entire film. Everything from being a damsel in sexual distress to a woman who unabashedly chases self-pleasure, Pednekar puts on a genuinely entertaining act for the audience. From being portrayed as a high-schooler to the 32-year-old, independent woman, Pednekar is fit for each role. Her naivety as a teen wins you over, as does her gusto as a full-blown adult with a broken ankle and some very messy relationships. This also speaks volumes about the versatility of her looks.
And, of course, Pednekar is not new to films that address social topics, but “Thank You For Coming” challenges her to balance Kanika’s droll with the responsibility of delivering a very important message to the viewers. Mission accomplished, Ms. Pednekar!
“Thank You For Coming” is a through-and-through entertainer. Everything from the casting — a huge shout out to the rest of the supporting cast including Anil Kapoor, Shehnaaz Gill, Karan Kundra, Kusha Kapila, Gautmik, and Sushant Divkigar, without whom this roller coaster would have lacked the thrills — to the homey locations and even the glitz and glamor in the song sequences, they’re all perfect pieces to help drive home a powerful message: Smash patriarchy!