Below is the second installment of the Brown Girl Magazine “Bollywood Social Consciousness” series, where we will examine our favorite B-Town films through a contemporary social lens.
It’s no secret that India has come under glaring international scrutiny with respect to sexual violence. This scrutiny has resulted in the bifurcation of interested minds—while some recognize the grim realities of sexual violence and speak out against the institutions that perpetuate them, others remain in denial regarding its significance by asserting the red herring argument that India is not the exclusive home of sexual violence, therefore, there is no need for heightened Indian scrutiny.
Quite famously, a journalist criticized Mallika Sherawat in 2013 for speaking on an international platform about the issues that Indian women face both culturally and systemically. The journalist’s criticism was incited by an ideology with which much of our BG readership is familiar: shame culture. Mallika was criticized not because of the accuracy of her statements about Indian society being regressive for women, but because she essentially made India look bad. The very stuff of log kya kahenge(what will people think?) that has been stifling valuable discourse with respect to social justice and cultural reform in many pockets of the world.
Although Mallika aptly rebutted this assertion by explaining that she simply would not lie about the regressive state of Indian society—evidenced by alarmingly high rates of female infanticide, honor killings, and sexual violence—I remained bewildered by this assertion that such issues should not be discussed on an international platform so that India’s reputation can remain unscathed. As though this is a bad report card that your parents want to keep a secret from your nosey aunts and uncles.
Concededly, it is true that India has no monopoly on sexual violence and that this issue is certainly one that ensues in its most horrific forms throughout the world. However, the realities of the disposition of women in South Asian societies, (and how these realities directly contribute to both misogyny and an evidently thriving rape culture), cannot simply be concealed for the sake of avoiding perceived international humiliation.
It is also of no benefit to dismiss these issues simply because they happen in other cultures as well. Resultantly, it is from the spirit of Mallika Sherawat’s commitment to truth that this month’s Bollywood Social Consciousness Series was conceived. What does Bollywood—the largest film industry in the world, consumed by tens of millions of viewers—teach us about rape culture and consent?
To be clear, rape has never been outright glorified in Bollywood and Bollywood did not birth rape culture. However, other behaviors that breathe life into rape culture are normalized over the 3-4 hours that it takes to get through a single film. The incorporation of item girls, for one, has been extensively discussed as one of these behaviors.
Item girls are essentially hypersexualized women, who appear mid-film for extremely racy dance numbers while male background dancers drool over them. These dance sequences, and their corresponding item girls, generally carry no significance with respect to furthering the plot of the film and involve tiny outfits, copious pelvic thrusting, and a sea of sexually entitled men. Ironically, Mallika Sherawat is one of these famed item girls. Awkward.
Now, women are entitled to their sexual agency. Wearing tiny outfits and reveling in being a sexual being is not the obvious issue with these illustrations. What is at issue is the behavior of the men in these songs that convey an overarching message of male entitlement to the female body.
These songs communicate that when a woman does choose to embrace her sexuality, it is for the pleasure of her male counterparts—the age old she was asking for it mentality. This normalization of male dominion over women in film lends itself to the daily menaces of eve teasing and harassment. Behaviors that can render a society inhabitable for its women.
There is a far greater evil, however, other than hypersexualized item girls, and that is the hypermasculinity that is devotedly attached to our Bollywood heroes. Men in Bollywood are seldom portrayed as anything less than aggressive and violent machismo oozing with excess testosterone, all while fighting off ten men with their bare hands and keeping their gelled hair in place.
The cult classic “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (DDLJ) exemplifies this depiction of glorified violence. When Shahrukh Khan’s character, Raj Malhotra, is first introduced in the film, the patriarchal implications of optimal manhood practically burn your eyes like acidic projectile vomit. Raj can outrun both a soccer team and a small plane. He swims, wins car races, and bowls straight strikes. In the film’s closing scenes, he is successful in thrashing a crowd of men within inches of their lives. He is the patriarchy’s wet dream and this is a dream that has been recreated a hundred times over in the Bollywood canon.
These repetitive depictions of masculinity paint a picture that equates manhood with violence and this violence and hypermasculinity largely translates into staggering high levels of violence against women in South Asia. If our cultural expressions legitimize these behaviors, why wouldn’t they infiltrate the basic tenets of daily life? The conflation of manhood and aggression is also extremely damaging to our men, as this sires tormented developmental years in pursuit of these unrealistic and outrageous masculine standards—a guaranteed byproduct of the patriarchal agenda.
The matter of consent interacts with these aforementioned hypermasculine behaviors for a dubious cocktail legitimizing rape culture. And in this culture consent means nothing. Nothing quite encapsulates this cinematic translation of steep social regression like “courtship” songs. We have all witnessed those musical segments in Bollywood films devoted to showcasing how the hero courts his lady. We have all probably enjoyed them, hummed them, and maybe even performed them for our third cousin’s sangeet. And yet they are the most nefarious instances of complete disregard for consent.
The hero follows the object of his desires. She shouts at him to leave her alone. He grabs her arm. She pushes him off. He forces her into his arms. She struggles out of it. In some films, his group of friends join in on the harassment and entrap her further. Yet somehow after this de facto molestation, the film has found a way to make this abused woman fall in love with their hero, thus imparting the harmful false truth that “no” doesn’t really mean “no.” Instead, a woman’s lack of interest is simply a challenge for a man to overcome, just as Shahrukh overcame the crowd of fighting men. This screams that if a man is proactive and consistent, he will conquer the woman he desires.
Courtship songs thus teach Bollywood’s male viewership that consent is theoretical. A theory that can be deconstructed with enough tenacity and stamina. Even worse, offensive displays like these are often packaged as comedy—something to laugh off heartily and not to be accepted as legitimate mechanisms for informing social behaviors. To return to our cult classic, DDLJ painfully jokes about rape immediately after the jovial “Zara Sa Jhoom Loom Main.”
In this scene, Simran wakes up with the mother of all hangovers and Raj thinks it would be funny to lie about taking advantage of her while in her chemically induced comatose sleep.
This irresponsible dismissal of the necessity of a woman’s consent epitomizes the groundwork for the diseased male privilege and the related rape culture that continues to thrive in South Asia.
As a result of these grim realities, South Asian women are heavily surveilled by their families throughout their lives, as it is easier to teach our girls how to prevent themselves from getting raped than it is to teach our boys not to rape them. The latter is concededly a hard lesson to teach when the world’s largest film industry teaches men that they have birthright ascendancy over the female form.
Again, Bollywood certainly didn’t conceive rape culture and all of its patriarchal implications. However, it does serve as a potent medium through which these behaviors are exaggerated and glorified on the big screen for mass consumption. Sex aside, rape is about power. And these films markedly and directly endorse the notion that male dominion is the climax of masculine power, thus necessitating heightened aggression toward women.
In order to break down the cultural structures that preserve regressive societies, our arts must emulate a more obliging depiction of love and romance—free of the glorified violence against women that has become normalized in our cultural consciousness. In order to inspire a change in our arts, we must be able to discuss these issues openly without fear of the proverbial shame that Mallika Sherawat was accused of inciting.
Rape culture is a lucrative venture. The masses fund these productions, all with their racy item girls and problematic courting techniques. It will only cease to be lucrative if, as a collectivity, we demand responsible cultural commodities—an ideological conclusion that is inspired by the concededly flowery doctrine of supply and demand. Without our voices, stagnation will reign over potential cultural progression. And our Brown girls around the world will suffer because of it.
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 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!
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.