“Dekhiye,” snaps Kajol, staring fiercely into Shah Rukh’s playful gaze. “Please leave me alone.” Her words are powerful, and her message is clear. It’s a warning sign, one as clear as crystal and firm as stone. Yet her words are accompanied with the romantic theme song of the age-old, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Violins lilt dramatically. Suddenly, the wind is a little softer, the moon is a little larger, and the face of the nation’s “heartthrob” appears onscreen. Women swoon in their seats, almost as though they were background dancers to a film they were not part of. Somewhere in the distance is the noise of a high-pitched whistle. Wrapped in the joyful embrace of background music and Shah Rukh’s laughter, the theatre is filled with a gradual sense of mirth.
And the warning is gone. The intensity, forgotten. The message, futile.
With humble roots in the heart of Mumbai, India’s movie industry slowly won our hearts—and tickets—with a creative splash of culture, music, emotion, and messages. What began as Dadasaheb Phalke’s 1931 debut Raja Harishchandra, evolved into a lasting cultural legacy. Actors turn into idols of worship as television screens turn into realities. Times and perspectives gradually changed and the work of Bollywood captured the imagination of a nation. Today, these movies are released worldwide as diasporic Indians flock to the theaters to catch the latest release.
Yet like India itself, Bollywood is confused—stuck between two generations’ perceptions of true freedom. From writer to director, critic to audience, various perspectives are evident in Bollywood. While there are opportunities for people with different backgrounds to enjoy and relate to the movie, where does the naach gaana blend into the issues of a harsher reality? The efforts of the many-headed creature that is Bollywood to address those issues is but a mirror of our own.
Just Say “No”
The concept of giving a woman, or rather, a heroine, the opportunity to just say no—is one that is yet to appear frequently in mainstream Bollywood cinema. A glimpse at a myriad of Indian films provides dialogs, characters, and plotlines which undermine gender discrimination and harassment.
A 1990 film Tum Mere Ho features a festival in which village women are publicly and physically coerced into marriage. In Tere Naam, acclaimed actor Salman Khan reinforces the message of what constitutes the Stockholm Syndrome as he plays the role of an abductor with a supposed “heart of gold,” who forces the heroine to fall in love with him.
Switch screens. Switch channels. And Bollywood changes its colors with a flutter.
This year, an abundance of woman-empowering movies swept the Indian film industry. Pink, a meaningful drama that deals with rape is a prime example. After three young women are sexually assaulted, they are the ones forced to pay the price. Amidst corruption, assault, and India’s hypocritical double-standards, these three protagonists struggle to gain what will truly free them all: justice. This thought-provoking movie is one that confronts India’s rape crisis with the simple yet significant line, “No Means No.”
A Tough Nut To Crack
Just as spontaneous dance numbers, dramatic dialogue, and comedy scenes are essential ingredients in a Bollywood movie, equal emphasis needs to be placed in having strong female characters. Currently, the difference between a strong woman and a “macho” one is rather blurred. Sonakhshi Sinha from the movie Dabaang and Dabanng2 may seem tough at first, with her deep voice and marriage refusals. Yet she is a prime example of a woman who depends upon male approval and a “prince in shining armor.”
Despite the fact that Salman Khan threatens her with, “Pyaar se de rahe hain, rakh lo. Varna thapad maar se bhi sakte hain, ” [I propose to you with love, so be happy. Otherwise I can give it to you with a slap] Sonakshi inevitably marries him. In the sequel of the same movie, Sonakshi’s husband is attacked near a temple—yet she melodramatically shouts instead of taking control of the situation or at least looking for help. Her resilient attitude is but a facade, veiling the very inaction and weaknesses which Bollywood movies should contradict.
What girls in front of television screens and laptops require is not a woman who can perform action scenes and boast wildly about being stronger than a man. What they do need is a woman who faces everyday issues and retaliates with realistic, relatable strength. Female empowerment comes from within; female issues cannot be faced with superficial power.
What We Stand For
It is evident that Indians discriminate in everyday life, one of the most notorious being skin color. Light skinned women are more likely to get marriage proposals, light skinned children are known to receive more parental attention, and light skinned artists of all kinds are more likely to rise to the top of the industry. Beauty standards are built heavily around skin tones, and Bollywood is the center of the “fair is beautiful” epidemic.
Without shame, various Bollywood stars endorse fairness creams that act as a “cure” for those with darker complexions. From acting legend Shah Rukh Khan to acclaimed actress Priyanka Chopra, famous Bollywood actors use their widespread influence on Indian communities to encourage this perverse attitude.
But Kangana Ranaut, Abhay Deol, and Nandita Das take a stand against this form of racism and stereotyping. Das, for example, is part of the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign called “Women of Worth.” Though the industry may display bias towards lighter-skinned women, Das is ready to prove her worth as an actress just the way she is. Undaunted, and unafraid, these three figures embrace the color of their complexion, without trying to yearn to be something they are not.
While the Bollywood industry “rears its ugly head” in favor of colorism and stereotyping, it also strides forward towards a future of natural beauty and equality.
Looking at the myriad mixed messages coming from Bollywood, I can’t help but think that the glimmering screens and the messages that filter through hold up a mirror to our own confusion. Do we want female heroines to say “no” on screen? Or, do we wait for them to swoon when the hero coerces them?
What about us—do we speak out against sexual assault while also buying tickets to the next Bollywood thriller where we see heroines do more of the same? Do we sit in the theater as we watch a movie like Pink, and applaud ourselves with sanctimonious nods of approval when we hear ordinary women speaking out? Hypocrisy reigns supreme in our hearts and on screen. Double-faced and double-edged is the sphere of Bollywood, which slides between perspectives as an attempt to please its diverse audiences.
And, where does that leave us?
Stuck, like the very movies we devote our Saturday evenings to.
Lost, like the Indian media companies that flip between Kangana’s “mental” disorder and photos of Deepika Padukone’s wardrobe malfunction.
Baffled, like the various actors and actresses told to spoon-feed the public with the same inane, repeated lines.
Each and every one of us waits for someone else to break this damaging cycle between progression and relapse within the Bollywood industry. Like Kajol herself, we long for our own hero to break the shackles we cling to. Just as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’s female lead pines for her lover in a field of yellow flowers, we roam in a field of our own—one of weeds planted by hypocrisy and judgement. And neither Kajol nor us ever find our way out of this maze—entirely because we chose to do nothing about it.
Yet perhaps life need not continue this way. Perhaps, in its own subtle and enigmatic way, Bollywood has the answer.
In one of the most iconic scenes of this infamous Bollywood blockbuster, Kajol runs towards a train in slow motion. A train towards a foreign land in which no one can control her actions. A train in which she learns to live—and to let go. We all see the train of progress rush by us, whether we gorge on Bollywood movies or not. I know we are afraid of things we do not understand. But so is Kajol. Follow her lead. Take the first step towards that train.
You just might catch it.
Kanchan Naik is a dreamer. Writing is an ocean to her where she dives to find the right words, drowns to breathe emotions, and dabbles in darkness to find the light. She is a ninth grader at Quarry Lane School in Dublin.
First published in November 2017.