How Amitabh Bachchan's contribution to Pink opened up a conversation on masculinity
Meeting Amitabh Bachchan for my book on the film Pink (2016) and misogyny in Hindi cinema remains one of the high points of the journey of writing Pink The Inside Story (HarperCollins, 2017).
After a long gap, there was a film that managed to not only take an unwavering and brazen stance on an issue that concerns millions of women in real life but also came to be seen as a yardstick by which future films addressing socio-political issues would be gauged. This was somewhat rare and even unheard in the context of contemporary Hindi films.
While the primary thrust of Pink The Inside Story was to explore how such a film could manage to get made in the realm of popular Hindi cinema and the trails it overcame, deciphering the manner in which Amitabh Bachchan’s performance impacted the narrative also became a major aspect of the book.
Many journalists, especially the senior ones, believe that Amitabh Bachchan often remains measured while expressing his views and perhaps that is why it is rare to get him to express his opinion on many issues. As a film historian and author of three books, my experience of speaking with Mr. Bachchan was quite the opposite. Not only was he forthcoming while talking about Pink — and by extension, his participation in the making of one of the most important films of recent times — the actor also spoke at length about the manner in which Hindi cinema has undergone a sea of change.
To say that Pink touched the hearts of viewers would be an understatement. It's the story of a Delhi-based woman, Minal (Taapsee Pannu), who along with her two flatmates Falak (Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang), seek legal recourse following a sexual assault by Rajvir (Angad Bedi), a politician’s nephew. The manner in which the realism of the narrative resonated with scores of people across India made it transcend the traditional response to a film.
But a major criticism that found a mention in most of the reviews was the manner in which Bachchan’s character, Deepak Sehgal, the washed out lawyer battling bipolarity who fights Minal’s case, ends up ‘saving’ the day. Many critics felt that the strong message on consent that the film sent out - No means no - need not have been delivered by the man.
For the filmmakers, this was never an issue, as they never viewed Pink as a feminist statement or even a social film in the exact sense of the word. For director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury Pink was a film that was made specifically for men out there who do not get the concept of consent. Chowdhury feels that the message got delivered better when someone like an Amitabh Bachchan became the mechanism.
The fact that Bachchan’s character or the lines from the closing arguments in the case that he is fighting – Na’ sirf ek shabd nahi … apne aap mein pura vakya hai. Isey kisi tark, spashtikaran,explanation ya vyakhya ki jaroorat nahi hoti … ‘No’ ka matlab ‘no’ hota hai. Usey bolne wali ladki koi parichit ho, friend ho, girlfriend ho, koi sex worker ho ya aapki apni biwi hi kyu na ho. ‘No’ means ‘no’ and when someone says ‘no’, you stop … - might have sounded sanctimonious is not lost on Bachchan.
In the course of our interview, the actor mentioned that at a basic level his presence in the film is a casting decision but at a deeper level it can become a part of a longer debate that rethinks the true meaning of the word ‘mard’ (macho) and the expansion of it, ‘mardangi’ (machismo). According to Bachchan, in the context of popular Hindi cinema, both ‘mard’ and ‘mardangi’ have been looked upon as something very potent, strong and un-defeatable. Bachchan believes that changes taking place within society are reflected in popular cinema.
He asks, ‘Why is it always “yaar, tum mard waali baat nahin karte (Man, you don’t talk like a man)”, or “choodiyan pehen rakhi hai (you are wearing bangles)”?’
In many ways, Amitabh Bachchan is also a fantastic bridge that joins difference generations of filmmakers and audiences. Some years ago the characters he portrayed in films such as Lawaaris (1981) or Desh Premee (1982) could have fuelled the mindset that did not look at misogyny as something gravely wrong. That tradition of Hindi film hero from the films such as Shammi Kapoor in Prince (1969), Jeetendra in Priyatama (1977), Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaris, Anil Kapoor in Benaam Badsha (1991), arguably one of the most atrocious films ever made, Aamir Khan in Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin (1990) and an entire barrage of the ones portrayed by Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar etc, in the 1990s, has been recognised as wrong.
One would argue that the same elements from these films can still be seen across a Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya (2017) or Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) but they are more than conspicuous now and are being called out. There is still a long way that Bollywood needs to travel when it comes to understanding its power propagating mindsets and an Amitabh Bachchan doing a film like Pink, where in some ways a message is sent across to men, is more than welcome.
On his Twitter bio the legendary actor, who turns 75 today, describes himself as “Actor ... well at least some are STILL saying so !!”, here’s wishing him many more great roles.