Pink, Kapoor & Sons, Dear Zindagi: 10 stand-out moments from Bollywood in 2016
Bollywood in 2016 saw Amitabh Bachchan discussing consent, SRK making conversations about mental health mainstream, and a film like Kapoor & Sons introduce and explore the concept of homosexuality without any sensationalising. Bravo!
In many ways, 2016 was almost tragic for the Hindi film industry. This will, after all, go down in history as a year in which a director was brought to his knees by fascist forces demanding a Rs 5 crore donation to the Army as “penance” from him because he cast a Pakistani star in his film; an elected representative of the people holding a Constitutional office brokered that abominable deal; all this after the same filmmaker had issued a conciliatory video message promising never again to work with artists from “the neighbouring country”. It later emerged that he had drastically changed the content of his film to remove all references to Pakistan, to avoid further controversy.
Bollywood made several good films that we can be proud of in 2016, but if you are a cinema lover who believes in freedom of expression and choice, nothing can overshadow the heartbreak of watching Karan Johar make that video apology for having cast the wonderfully talented, wonderfully handsome Fawad Khan in his film.
Still, we must at least try to repair those hearts and scan the sky for silver linings, if we are to maintain our sanity. I did and the result is this list of stand-out moments from Bollywood in the year gone by – milestones crossed, corners turned and glass ceilings breached.
In order of significance – social, political and cultural – here they are:
Milestone #1: A legend said, “No means no”
In a country with a shameful track record in the matter of crimes against women, the issue of consent has been widely debated but little understood. Hindi films themselves continue to suggest, through aggressive and predatory heroes, that when a woman says no she means maybe and when she says maybe she means yes, that the way to a woman’s heart is through harassment and that stalking is a legitimate form of courtship.
So when Amitabh Bachchan playing a lawyer in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink lambasted a creepy misogynist with these simple words, they meant way more than the time it took to say them. Three words: no means no. So obvious, and yet for the socially conditioned, so confusing.
It came in a film where a character played by Angad Bedi, who had tried to rape one of the heroines, had spat out this line in court: “Aisi ladkiyon ke saath aisa hi hota hai” (this is exactly what happens to such girls). Pink was not flawless and its marketing was disconcertingly opportunistic, but that sterling sentence will go down in Bollywood history for its socio-cultural importance. No means no.
So has Hindi cinema been forever reformed? Obviously not. Just a couple of months earlier, Sultan’s exceedingly affable director Ali Abbas Zafar had told me in an interview: “There are two ways of stalking. One way is ugly, one way is politically correct. Sultan does not misbehave or send texts. He does not assault. He just follows her. He’s not obnoxious or sleazy. You can’t say that is stalking. If I want a job in a company and I go repeatedly for interviews, will you question me? No. The day I prove myself you will give me that job. So the idea was, the day I earn respect you will let me in your heart. That is what Sultan pushes, that nothing comes easy, prove yourself.” Sigh.
Bachchan too has not covered himself in glory in this area. His filmography is filled with roles that romanticised patriarchy and normalised sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment. Remember how Tiger, the man he played in Hum (1991), virtually molested Kimi Katkar’s character to the song Jumma chumma de de? When such a star, now a cinematic legend, gets to a place where he plays a character fighting for women’s right to say no, you know film writing has evolved, even if the collective mindset within the industry has not.
“No means no.” Yes, Bachchan played a man who said that in 2016.
Milestone #2: Homosexuality came out of the closet
Mainstream Hindi cinema so far has used homosexuality as a source of cringe-worthy caricatures or at best, inoffensive humour. No doubt some gay jokes, like the Kantaben track in Kal Ho Na Ho and the entire storyline of Dostana, have served to spark off a continuing conversation in mainstream society, but these were not films with any degree of gravitas in the matter. Sensitive films with LGBT themes – including Onir’s splendid My Brother Nikhil and I Am – have all been consigned to niches.
So history was made in 2016 when Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions – as mainstream as it can get in Bollywood – produced director Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), a film with all the trappings of a commercial, mass-targeted project (songs, dance, drama, romance and conflict) that featured a mainstream, glamorous male star as a gay man without turning his sexual orientation into the ‘issue’ around which the film revolves. It is worth mentioning that Johar was the producer of both Kal Ho Na Ho and Dostana.
Just weeks before Kapoor & Sons came the real-life-inspired Aligarh, in which Manoj Bajpayee gave us the performance of the year as a reticent academic hounded out of his teaching position in Aligarh Muslim University because he was gay. And shortly afterwards we got Dear Dad, in which Roja boy Arvind Swamy made a Bollywood comeback as a middle-aged father coming out to his school-going son.
It could be argued that Kapoor & Sons’ Fawad Khan, popular though he is, is yet to become a major star in Hindi cinema; that Bajpayee, after all, is a character artiste; that Dear Dad was a tiny film and Swamy is barely recognised by the current generation of Hindi film-goers. Well then, there is more. In the John Abraham-Varun Dhawan-starrer Dishoom released in July, box-office darling Akshay Kumar did a cameo as a gay gangster who is funny no doubt but definitely not a joke.
Kumar’s surprise appearance in Dishoom should end all arguments. That he was willing to play a gay man is an incredible turn of events. Even if his character had been formulaic, it would have been a risk for a star whose roles tend to be patriarchal and directed at patriarchal male masses. Yet he took the plunge, and as it happens, the character is not a cliché.
The year-end brought us Kaira’s gay friend in Dear Zindagi, another corner turned since he was not a punching bag for her gang and his sexual orientation was not the theme of the film. We do need LGBT-focused films that dwell at length on the subject of discrimination, but we also need films where some characters just happen to be gay because because.
In a year when the Supreme Court agreed to take another look at Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which is interpreted to criminalise homosexuality, a usually stereotype-driven Bollywood gave the country’s embattled LGBT community more good news than the greatest optimist might have predicted.
Milestone #3: Mental illness was mainstreamed
Mental illness is almost an alien arena in Hindi cinema. When the subject has occasionally been visited, it has usually been through over-the-top portrayals of wild-haired, screaming people with physical quirks muttering gibberish to themselves.
Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi defied this ridiculous norm, seeking instead to normalise therapy and discussions on mental/psychological well-being. That in itself was a happy turning point. Better still is the fact that it was not an art-house venture, but a heavily marketed commercial film starring two among the country’s most saleable stars: young Alia Bhatt and superstar Shah Rukh Khan. SRK played a therapist, Bhatt his patient who seeks him out to cure her insomnia but ends up resolving a severe childhood trauma as a result.
Surprise surprise, the same year brought to theatres Pavan Kirpalani’s excellent Phobia, with a heroine (Radhika Apte) who develops agoraphobia – a fear of open spaces – after she is sexually assaulted. It was smaller and promoted far less than Dear Zindagi, but the fact that it was made at all matters.
Who would have thought formula-ridden Bollywood would ever exit the OTT ‘paagalkhanas’ (lunatic asylums) of its past to make thinking cinema on mental health? In 2016 it did…at last!
Milestone #4: A woman from Meghalaya played a woman from Meghalaya
A foreigner seeking to discover India through Hindi cinema is unlikely to realise that the states of the North-east exist at all. Bollywood has rarely written characters who are from anywhere east of West Bengal. Then in 2014, Omung Kumar made Mary Kom, a biopic of multiple international-medal-winning boxer M.C. Mary Kom who is from Manipur. In the heroine’s role, Kumar cast Priyanka Chopra who, as we all know, is not from Manipur or its vicinity – she is part Punjabi, part Bihari, part Malayali.
Critics lambasted the casting as a racist move, but the truth lay elsewhere. Bollywood is star-struck. PC is an established star. Non-star films are commercial risks producers prefer not to undertake unless they are launching a kid from a film family or a top model or so on. Since characters from north-eastern India do not appear in Hindi films, no actor/actress from the region has had the opportunity to become a Bollywood star. And so the cycle continues…
In late 2016, producer Shoojit Sircar and director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury cast Andrea Tariang of Meghalaya to play a woman called Andrea from Meghalaya in Pink. Yes, she was a debutant, but Sircar and Chowdhury knew what other filmmakers should have realised decades back: that there is no star greater than a strong script. The decision to cast Tariang turned out to be a winner, since she received praised all round for her performance in the film, with Messrs Sircar and Chowdhury garnering kudos too for having picked her instead of someone from another part of the country. As things stand, Pink without Tariang would have been a pale cousin of its present self.
Milestone #5: A female star in her 40s was acknowledged as marketable and heroine-worthy
After a long hiatus following the birth of her baby, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is on a roll. Jazbaa floundered in 2015 but in 2016 she still moved on to another lead role. Sarbjit may have been a terrible film, but it is a development worth celebrating that a major production house thought it fit to cast her in the film and promote it entirely on the strength of her stardom.
The former Miss World crossed another frontier for women in Bollywood when at 43 she played an ultra-hot, super-glam character being wooed by a man played by a male superstar a few years her senior, SRK, and in a live-in relationship with a man played by a star nine years her junior, Ranbir Kapoor. (For the record, she rejected them both.)
Not that being attractive to men should be a signifier of feminine achievement, but in an industry that has conventionally discarded women post 30, and deemed 40-somethings unsuitable for romance, confining them to Mommy/big sister roles instead, it was unusual to see this 43-year-old being acknowledged as gorgeous in a film and not condemned for being romantically interested in a man. In an industry that routinely casts male stars as the lovers of women half their age but never the opposite, although the age difference between Kapoor and Bachchan is hardly that, it was interesting to see that theirs was written as an older-woman-younger-man romance yet a big ruckus was not raised about the age difference. Baby steps, but worth chronicling.
Milestone #6: A heroine was not written off
There was a time when a couple of flops was enough for the Hindi film industry and media to turn their backs on a leading lady. Not any more, it seems. Vidya Balan – pioneering seeker of substantial roles as a female star – has been going through a rough patch ever since Ghanchakkar flopped in 2013. A string of indifferent performers at the box-office have followed, including last year’s Hamari Adhuri Kahani, but oddly enough, the industry appears not to have lost faith in her yet and the media seems still interested.
2016’s Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh gave her top billing in the credits and in the story, and its marketing revolved entirely around her. The film has not fared well at the box office, but Bollywood still retains a sliver of hope that the tide will turn. A decade back, she would by now have been relegated to playing Mum to male superstars her age. Not in 2016.
Scripts with sound central roles for women are still hard to come by, but the fact that she has not been written off by the industry and film press, is a sign of the changing times.
Milestone #7: The spotlight sought out seniors
In the second phase of his career post-Mohabbatein in 2000, Amitabh Bachchan has enjoyed unprecedented career longevity, and in recent years, box-office success and well-written roles. In 2016, he played the lynchpin in both Pink and Te3n. After years of struggle, Rishi Kapoor has been fortunate to get a second innings – of success, solid roles and performances – since Hum Tum in 2004. In 2016, he earned kudos for his role as the grandfather of characters played by Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan in Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921).
So yeah, fate has been smiling on them for a while now, but in 2016, the spotlight persistently sought out other seniors too. Shabana Azmi in Neerja, Ratna Pathak in Kapoor & Sons and Nil Battey Sannata, Rajat Kapoor also in Kapoor & Sons and Naseeruddin Shah in Waiting, played characters of substance and significance.
Age, it appears, is no longer a death knell in Bollywood for those with talent who are not one of the three Khans.
Acknowledging your vintage – something mainstream heroes have rarely done so far – apparently ain’t such a bad thing either. Two of the Khans, Aamir and Shah Rukh, opted for roles in which they were not pretending to be half their real-life age (which is 51). The result was box-office success for both.
Milestone #8: Salman Khan surrendered his star persona to a script
Yes he did. After nearly three decades of playing himself and making no effort to camouflage the lack of acting effort, after years of directly addressing fans by staring right at them into the camera while mouthing his lines, with Sultan Salman Khan finally surrendered his star persona to a role, a director and a script.
Ali Abbas Zafar got the best out of him that any director has managed so far. He is still far from being a Shabana Azmi-grade actor, but the fact that he is trying is noteworthy in itself.
Milestone #9: Shah Rukh Khan went in search of roles
He was a risk-taker before he began to play it safe. He was the one who played the anti-hero in films like Baazigar and Darr, when other emerging male stars of his generation preferred to play Goody Two Shoes. Then stardom, superstardom and megastardom happened in quick succession and SRK began sticking to the tried and tested primarily in the romance genre, barring a couple of exceptions like Chak De! India and Swades. 2016 will go down in his future biographies as the year in which he began taking risks once again in a quest for challenging roles.
Fan was songless, danceless and revolved around a risky theme. In Dear Zindagi, he entered the picture about 50 minutes into the story, in a role subordinate to the heroine’s. Both performances have earned him shabaashes from serious film buffs and critics. What’s more, although neither has earned the kind of sums we have come to expect from an SRK blockbuster, they have earned considerable money. The new path this Khan is taking cannot but be a good thing for Hindi cinema.
Milestone #10: A hero said sorry to a heroine
In an industry where heroes unblinkingly rough up their heroines, an apology from a man is a rare occurrence. There was a time when Jeetendra demanded that his wife – played by Rekha – should forgive him for an instance of infidelity because after all it was, he said, “ek hi bhool” (just one mistake).
Unprotesting acceptance has been the expectation from women wronged by heroes who, of course, have characteristically not given expression to their contrition if at all they felt any. So when Salman Khan – he whose fan following thrives on his overtly macho image – apologised to his leading lady in a film in 2016, it was not to be taken lightly.
The sorry came when the titular character in Sultan chose to be away from home for a sporting tournament in the late stages of his wife’s pregnancy, as a result of which she found herself alone with her sorrow when she lost their baby. She broke off all ties, reconciling with him much later when he offered her an unqualified apology.
This is not to say he has overnight become a feminist. Far from it.Keep in mind that in this film’s promotional period Khan made a casual comment about rape. But in an industry scenario that remains dismal for women, every straw is worth clutching at, even as we persistently keep the apostles of misogyny on their toes.
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