Bollywood’s women: A Reading List

Continuing the theme guest-blogger Diptakirti riffed on in his previous post, here is a compilation of interesting takes on Bollywood, women, misogyny, gender violence, and much else:

Rituparna Chatterjee, movie editor of IBNLive.com, speaks here to her belief that Bollywood is equally culpable in perpetuating the misogyny that is so much a part of Indian culture

And here, Diptakirti Choudhuri speaks of the essential difference (which Bollywood seems unwilling or unable to get, for the most part) between wooing and stalking

And while on that, Anna Vetticad (who with exemplary courage spent a year watching every movie being released in Bollywood before writing about it — here is Jai Arjun Singh’s review) speaks of stalking extensively, in her review of Ranjhanaa

Staying with Anna (and selecting from an exhaustive collection on her blog), here is her review of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, incorporating thoughts of gender equations in the movies

Anna’s review of Houseful 2 deals exhaustively with The Great Bollywood Rape Joke

Bollywood’s women

A guest-post for @genderlogindia by DIPTAKIRTI CHOUDHURI:

Bollywood is usually the go-to guy for bashing. Anything evil in this country is, by and large, attributed to Bollywood’s zestful propagation of the same. Smoking – check. Dumbing down – check. Eve teasing – double check.

The meme goes that Bollywood has made stalking into an art form and otherwise respectable composers- choreographers-costumers have participated wholeheartedly to make this activity into a grand and enduring success.

The ‘stalking song’ is what stars and directors are most reviled for, but I am inclined to overlook it because it is never an end. If the villain does it, there is swift dispensation of justice by the hero. If the hero does it, he either reforms soon after or does something completely monumental (like strangling his Mafia don father’s pet anaconda to marry the girl) that underlines his true love.

My logic is simple: If a molester claims that he got his idea from Akshay Kumar, he should immediately be made to fight thirteen sword-wielding goons to save a girl. Because that’s what Akshay did – right after he teased the girl.

However, this is not to say Bollywood can hold its head high when gender is being discussed. What Bollywood kills us with are the stereotypes it silently perpetuates through stock characters or situations, either for convenience or through not wanting to take a risk. This is – in my opinion – far more damning than a raucous song. Because it is a subtle and, more critically, ongoing message that certain things are ‘wrong’.

Here is my quick list of six stereotypes Bollywood perpetrates. (Please feel free to add more. ):

Heroines don’t do regular work. Unless they are prostitutes or police officers:

Heroines don’t go to offices. (Yes, I know you will jump up and name five movies where they do but that’s exactly my point – those are exceptions.) They study. They are nice people, but they don’t ‘do’ anything.

In the two biggest hits of this year – Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express – we are not sure what the heroine does. In the former, Deepika Padukone is shown preparing to become a doctor in the flashback but in the present day, she is quite happy looking gorgeous, and no mention of her medical practice is ever made. Ditto for Chennai Express.

In the Top 10 grossers in Bollywood history (all of which are from the last few years), only one heroine – Kareena Kapoor of 3 Idiots – uses her profession to make a contribution to the story. The rest just dance spectacularly.

And this has been a standard template in Bollywood. For example, Madhuri Dixit was supposed to be a ‘student of computers’ in Hum Aapke Hain Koun but she never goes even close to one in the film. In Maine Pyar Kiya, heroine Bhagyashree had excellent marks in ‘inter’ but she chose to be deposited in a family friend’s home instead of a working woman’s hostel.

Take the biggest hits (and the not so big ones, as well) and you will see the same trend. The only working girl I can think of in a major hit is Sholay’s Basanti. And she abandoned her promising career to get married.

Working mothers are bad. Actually, mothers are bad whenever they are not doing the act of ‘mothering’:

Basanti’s abandoned career brings us to the subtle messaging about mothers who work. In Taare Zameen Par, the working mother gave up her career to make her sons into class-toppers. In Akele Hum Akele Tum, the career-focussed mother (who left her son for a promising singing career) almost became the vamp till she decided to return to domesticity.

Whenever a child is shown to be in physical danger (road accident, kidnapping etc), the mother is usually doing something frivolous (like shopping) and is meted out some hard-hitting advice (“Tum kaisi maa ho?”) by a bystander – advice that leads to terrible remorse.

 

Pre-marital sex is punishable by death or imprisonment (though, by and large, not both):

If rain, crackling fire, skimpy clothing and sensuous songs cause you to slip (‘behek jaana’) and taste the forbidden fruit before marriage, you will die. Because sex is done by bad girls.

Sometimes the man dies (Aradhana), leaving the woman to a lifetime of struggle (including some jail time).

Sometimes, the woman dies (Trishul), thus getting a version of ‘capital punishment’.

Even in a totally realistic film like Masoom, the woman dies leaving her son in the care of her married lover.

In recent times, the moment of passion is dealt a little less severely — but the non-virgin never gets the hero (Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, for example).

Only prostitutes initiate sex:

As per Bollywood logic, all sexually aggressive women are prostitutes (or similar), though all prostitutes are not sexually aggressive (if she is the heroine).

Traditionally, characters artistes like Helen and Aruna Irani have performed – with great aplomb – the cabaret that caused the hero to sway slightly off the straight and narrow path before he progressed on his way towards the virginal heroine. In recent times, the purpose of the ‘item number’ has been to introduce a guest star who can do the Fevicol-Zandu inspired gyrations while the heroine can dutifully avert her face when the hero zeroes in for a kiss.

[NB: The heroes can sow a few wild oats here and there. If you take the last five films of current heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor, he has been polygamous in three of them unlike his heroines who, without exception,  were steadfastly monogamous.]

Even in an explicit movie like Murder, it is the man who initiates the adulterous relationship. The heroine initially turns away and is about to leave,  when there is an excuse for her to come back (she left her purse behind, you see) and get sucked into the affair. (Maybe an adulterous relationship is not the right example to make a point about women in Bollywood not having a say in sexual activity, though).

Women are allowed to kill villains but only with help from new lover:

There was a time when all of Bollywood was gainfully employed in remaking the Julia Roberts hit Sleeping With The Enemy. Agnisakshi, Daraar and Yaraana faithfully replicated every detail from the original and differed from their source code on only one major front – the hero rushed in to kill the obsessive husband. While the fragile Julia Roberts pulled the trigger herself in Hollywood, a chubby Rishi Kapoor (whose heroines were much fitter than him) and a hungover Jackie Shroff ambled into the last scene to perform the heroic honors in Bollywood.

At one point of time, when Rekha was acting in a series of films as a female vigilante, it was always the hero who rushed in to assist her in the climax. The most famous example is probably Khoon Bhari Maang where she was doing a mean job of chopping Kabir Bedi up till Shatrughan Sinha was made to intervene.

In a love triangle, only the men get to chose the ‘winner’:

A Bollywood woman is, at the risk of over-simplification, property. She doesn’t really have a say in matters of the heart.

From Sangam to Saajan, from Dostana to Dobara OUATIM, the woman is just a method of sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or proving one’s masculinity for the sake of the world).

The friends decide – depending on who saw the girl first, whose relative debts are higher, whose box office clout is bigger – who gets the girl. This often leads to death or the honorable exit of one participant while the surviving one, usually the docile girl, goes with the guy. Simple, no?

And when you see a rather cavalier tyaag by Ranbir Kapoor in favor of his elder brother in Raajneeti, you realize this is a tradition as old as the Mahabharat itself!

Often one wonders about the wasted charisma of Bollywood’s leading ladies, and if the system will ever change to portray them as true role models. Right now, there are lakhs of young girls copying Priyanka Chopra’s tattoo. What impact she would make if she is shown actually working hard to become – say – a boxer!

A Mary Kom biopic – starring Priyanka Chopra – is currently in production. So yes, there is hope.

Diptakirti Choudhuri, everyone’s go-to guy for movie trivia, is a salesman  by day and writes by night. He lives in Gurgaon with his wife, son and daughter. His nocturnal activities result in this blog; this column for Yahoo; and a couple of books (Kitnay Aadmi The, the Bollywood one, is a total hoot), not to mention random musings on Twitter

 

Lights! Camera! Animals!

Got a box of tissues handy? Here you go:

Done sniffling yet? Jai Arjun Singh [if you are into books and cinema, you really need to be following his blog] in his latest Yahoo! column riffs off Moti the almost-human canine of Teri Meherbaniyaan, and contrasts the kitschy with the artlessly artistic use of animals in films. Lovely read. And while on lovely reads, haven’t had much time these last few days to point at other good reading material — so here’s a portmanteau link, to the Yahoo Opinions home page — considerable good stuff has gone up there since we spoke last.

Staying with animals for a beat longer — and reprising something I had posted earlier — here’s Joel and Ethan Coen, in a clip from a *roflmao* interview to Playboy magazine some years back. This part relates to the Coen brothers’ experience of filming with animals, in context of Raising Arizona:

Playboy: Was it challenging to direct all the babies you had in that movie?

Joel: It was bizarre. Whenever you have an infant, you have to triple or quadruple them. When we had five kids in the movie, we had to have 15 babies on the set.

Ethan: The picture babies and the standby babies. Cacophonous, nightmarish.

Joel: We had the baby pit—a big padded pit they were tossed into when we weren’t using them. The mothers all sat around the perimeter knitting.

Ethan: Whenever we needed a baby we reached into the pit and grabbed one. It was kind of like a barbecue pit.

Joel: You can’t really direct a baby, which is the problem. You take one out of the pit, put it in front of the camera and see if it behaves. If not, you toss it back into the pit and get another. It’s a lot like working with animals, actually.

Ethan: Yeah, if an animal doesn’t do what you want it to do, you just grab another one. But the rules for working with animals are a lot more stringent than those for working with babies.

Joel: There is definitely no comparison.

Playboy: What can you do with a baby that you can’t do with an animal?

Ethan: A million things.

Joel: The pit. You can’t do that with animals.

Ethan: Believe me, it is remarkable thing to see how animals are monitored. You cannot kill a mosquito on screen.

Joel: When you do a Screen Actors Guild movie that uses animals in any way you have to get the American Humane Society to sign off on it. We blew up a cow in O Brother, which meant we had to send the Humane Society work tapes while the film was being shot. When they saw the cow scene they didn’t believe it was computer generated, but I assure you it was.

Ethan: There is a rule that you can’t get a cow anywhere near a moving car.

Joel: It might cause the cow stress.

Ethan: You can’t upset the animals.

Joel: We had to have a lizard crash pad for Raising Arizona.

Playboy: What’s a lizard crash pad?

Ethan: A lizard shoots off a rock in the movie, and we had to have a preapproved soft place for it to land.

Joel: Yeah. With babies, you don’t have to bother about all that stuff.

Unrelated, except perhaps tangentially — a while ago I’d done a post on Psycho; here’s Kim Morgan in fine form, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the seminal film.

Browsing time has been somewhat rare these last few days, but two resources, and one good read, for you relating to soccer: ZonalMarking, for impeccable analysis of the World Cup games, and Supriya Nair’s Treasons, Strategems and Spoils for more general, equally compelling reading on the game. Any personal favorites among soccer blogs? Links, please?

On my way out the door, the Bangalore-based Joe Christy treated me to this lovely link: Henry Kissinger on soccer.

Got to run… have a good weekend.

If you can’t beat them…

Schrader also gave an insight to the film’s story and said, “American saves the Indian’s life during one operation and they become friends. After completing the assignment, the two go back to their respective homes. The American becomes a cop while the Indian becomes a “bhai” (underworld don).”

“The American’s father-in-law has remarried and has a daughter who lives in Mumbai with her husband. She is kidnapped and the husband is asked to negotiate a ransom with the bhai. It’s a story about obligations and duties. There is also a love story with songs and dances,” he added.

This, from the man who wrote Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Last Temptation of Christ, among others? From IMDB:

XTRME CITY is an action thriller set in the brutal impenetrable criminal orbit of Mumbai, India. Curtis Hawkley, a former U.S. Ranger, is obliged to return to Mumbai when his father-in-law’s youngest daughter is kidnapped by a powerful underworld Don. In order to save the girl he must first find his old friend Raj Rangan, an Indian Special Forces Commando who became a crime world enforcer. After reuniting and saving the girl, the two men are drawn deeper into the “bhai” underworld of Mumbai than they expected. Sense of duty (“farz”) compels them to take on a system of corruption, revenge, and familial obligations

Review: Pazhassi Raja

For three hours and twenty minutes, I watched the latest magnum opus from Malayalam cinema, Pazhassi Raja.

Mammootty, in and as Pazhassi RajaThen I left the theatre and, during the 15 minute walk home, promptly forgot all about it – and I am not sure whether that stems from the quality of the movie or from my own expectations of the combination of scriptwriter M T Vasudevan Nair, director Hariharan, and actor Mammootty.

Briefly: The film starts in 1796, when the British East India Company meets with the kings of Malabar to deliver a ‘pay up defaulted taxes or else’ threat. A recurring theme in the history of the Raj is how internal feuds and rivalries weakened the natives while strengthening the hands of the Company; that storyline plays out here through Raja Veeravarma [veteran character actor Thilakan in a cameo], the king of Kurumbaranadu, who plots to usurp power from his nephew Pazhassi Raja.

Thanks to his machinations, the British send a troop to arrest Pazhassi Raja, only to find that he has fled from his palace [Padinjare Kovilakam, near what today is Thalasserry]. In the process, the king however loses both his family fortune and his unborn child — and the conflict is set up.

The story of Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma is easily told; this wiki entry and this piece by Sreekumar Varma have all you need to brush the dust off those fading classroom memories. For buffs, an interesting resource is Nick Balmer, the great-times-four grand-nephew of Thomas Hervey Baber of the East India Company who is central to this story.

Balmer on his blog cites the diaries of his ancestor to trace the history of that period: the genesis of the conflict; setting out on the trail of the raja; tightening the noose; and the denouement.

The movie has much to recommend it, and at the top of the list I’d put the combination of Resul Pookutty’s sync sound and Ilayaraja’s background score. You first notice the unusually high quality of the sound early on, in the sequence where the British are meeting with the local satraps. As the clerks read out the Company’s diktat, a candle gutters briefly in the breeze, and a blob of wax runs down its side and plops to the floor. Sitting in the theatre, you hear that hiss, that liquid plop, with such incredible clarity, it puts you right inside that space, in that time.

And then it gets better. Pookutty plays to the gallery in the action sequences – the clash of swords, the clang of shield

Sarath

Sarath Kumar and Mammootty

on shield and the rasping, tortured breathing of the combatants is in itself a good reason to see this one in a theatre with a good sound system. But where he really excels is in the subtle use of the forest and its many moods – the whistle of the wind and the rustle of leaves underfoot, the hoot of the owl and trill of the songbird, and the symphony of untamed water, from the gentle tinkle of quiet-flowing streams to the roar of the occasional waterfall and even the drumbeat of the monsoon play well against the on-screen action.

Ilayaraja, that enduring music maestro from Tamil Nadu, harnesses the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, Leslie Kovacs conducting, to produce an understated score that riffs off the sounds of nature [Raja has a history with this orchestra; they last collaborated in his brilliant recreation of the Thiruvachakam, the compilation of hymns written by ninth century Shaivite poet Manikkavasagar.]

In a story sign-posted by battles large and small, Ravi Diwan as action director has a large role to play – and to his credit he raises the bar from Jodha Akbar, the comparable film in his oeuvre. A minor quibble, however, about employing wire-work in fight sequences: done right, testosterone-fuelled fighters soar in defiance of gravity; done badly, as it is for the most part in this film, the effect is akin to those ‘mobiles’ that you see sold in our street bazaars – so many birds on strings jerking in the wind. The kalari payattu sequences – including a couple of set piece combats – are well done when the combatants don’t take to the air, and I’d suspect a large part of the credit for this would go to the experts from CVN Kalari who worked with the cast.

Sreekar Prasad is yet another member of the much-awarded technical crew; he edits with trademark competence and, in the action sequences, with some flair. I’m not sure if the decision to abruptly cut the fight sequence involving Neeli [more on her in a bit] was his or the director’s – in any event, we are left with no clue about the outcome of her extended single-handed battle against the company’s Redcoats, and that is bad storytelling.

Venu and Ramnath Shetty seem almost overwhelmed by the spectacular beauty of Kerala’s forests. It is impossible for a halfway competent cinematographer to shoot Kerala’s lush topography badly, so the best yardstick to measure their competence is in the action sequences – and the camerawork there is confident, at times even bold.

I’ll leave Mammootty for later; among the other members of the cast, Tamil veteran Sharat Kumar is a standout in the role of Edachena Kunkan Nair, the orphan boy who in time becomes the king’s military commander and the backbone of the resistance. Manoj K Jayan as tribal hero and archer par excellence Thalakkal Chandu, and Padmapriya as his warlike fiancée, are equally impressive, with Neeli’s Tamil-accented Malayalam adding an unintended touch of verisimilitude to a period piece set at a time when the boundaries between Tamils and Keralites were considerably more fluid than today. This being a period piece, the support cast is too large to detail by name and role; veteran character actors like Mamu Koya, Captain Raju and Lalu Alex are sadly wasted in under-written roles – more so, considering that these actors essay characters that were crucial to the history of that period.

The real problem begins with the British characters, led by Harry Key in the pivotal role of Assistant Collector Thomas Baber. The dialogs written for them are insipid, uninspired – and Key and the others in pivotal British roles are not good enough actors to overcome the handicap. The result is an odd juxtaposition of well-acted native characters counterpointed by caricatured Brits [none so jarring as Dona, Baber’s fiancée, as played by Linda Arsenio] that dilutes the impact of many sequences. Unfortunately, less than pitch-perfect writing also reduces veteran Telugu actor Suman [Pazhayamveedan Chanthu], Jagathi Sreekumar and even the brilliant Nedumudi Venu to the status of broad caricature.

All of these are however side issues – central to this film is the combination of scriptwriter MT Vasudevan Nair, director Hariharan, and actor Mammootty. The last time this troika combined was twenty years ago – and magic happened; this time they – particularly, and sadly, MT – disappoint.

The thing about historical fiction – in literature, movies, whatever – that sets it apart from the dry narratives of schoolroom texts is the ability to delve into character, into motivation and to explore the interplay of relationships. In a recent post, my friend Jai Arjun Singh while writing of Hillary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall made a pertinent point:

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own.

It is what MT did brilliantly in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha; it is also where the writer fails signally with Pazhassi Raja. The key to the Raja was his messianic ability to fire a motley crew of tribals and assorted others of the disenfranchised, to imbue in them his own passion for his land and to fuse them together in a guerilla band that, for nine years, resisted and even at times humbled the far superior British forces.

At no time does the screenplay conjure up this messiah [In fact, on the only occasion where the protagonist is shown speaking to his people, the film-makers chose to superimpose a song on the visuals rather than let the audience, along with his people, listen to the Raja make his case for rebellion]; at no point do we in the audience catch fire from his spark – and the result, sadly, is a visual rendition of history that leaves us emotionally uninvolved, unmoved. Equally, the heart of the story is the confrontation between the Raja and the Company’s dynamic assistant collector – and again, at no point do we get a sense of this titanic clash of personalities and interests. The ambitions, dilemmas, weaknesses and strengths Jai speaks of, that should have powered the narrative are missing from MT’s script, and the biases and prejudices have been reduced to shrill stereotype.

Finally, Mammootty – who won one of his three national awards for his visceral portrayal of the mythical character Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. Old timers talk of Kesavan, an elephant in Guruvayur who was pretty much the same size as most others in the stable but who would, once the deity was installed on his back, gain prideful inches and tower over the pack.

Mammootty is to acting what Kesavan was to temple processions – give him the right role, and he harnesses face and body and trademark bass voice to perfection, and visibly swells to fill the screen with an awesome majesty. Pazhassi Raja offers him almost no scope to test his abilities – and that perhaps is the greatest indictment of this film from the MT-Hariharan team and most especially the former, who fails to give the actor the kind of lines he could really work with.

It’s a decent enough film – the pity is that with so much going for it, the movie remains merely a technically updated version of the 1964 movie of the same name, and stops well short of being a truly great addition to the historical genre.

I’ll leave you with some clips. The first is the official trailer of Pazhassi Raja; the others are choice segments from Oru Vadakkan, a 20-year-old film that, for me, is an evergreen example of what is possible when a great writer, actor and director get their game on.

Co-incidentally…

So, since Wanted has been released and is doing well according to reports, I wanted to check out the Tamil remake of the Telugu original the Hindi version is based on [Yeah, tracking creative inspirations in our films is a skilled occupation].

Did a double take when the DVD opened with this message, in these exact same words:

All the characters shown in this movie are co-incidental and does not show any resembles to anyone living or dead…

The film-makers could in the interests of full disclosure have added that any resemblance to a story line is also, like the characters, ‘co-incidental’.