Beyond Dangal, and Pink: Five feminist and sexist Bollywood films of 2016

Pradeep Menon

Dec 30, 2016 11:34:48 IST

As far as Hindi cinema is concerned, 2016 will be remembered primarily for Pink and Dangal; not just because these films wowed the audience, but also because no film in recent times has done as much to sensitize the audience about gender equality as these two films have. Yet, one irony that didn’t escape notice was that both films needed a strong patriarchal figure to handhold the audience through the fallacies of society’s patriarchy.

So, while fully applauding the two films of the year, let’s celebrate instead, five films that showcased how feminism could fluidly make its  way into mainstream cinema. These films were brave because they risked alienating a large part of the audience – the part that is easily offended by the f-word. Some of them succeeded commercially, while some others didn’t. But these films seemed to truly understand the significance of feminism, and its portrayal on the big screen.

While we’re at it, let’s also shame the films that continued to shamelessly revel in regressive sexism despite the fact that we urgently need our world, our society to, well, get with it. So here goes: five important feminist films of 2016, followed by five horrendously sexist films of 2016.

Feminist Five

Beyond Dangal, and Pink: Five feminist and sexist Bollywood films of 2016

(L to R) Radhika Apte in Phobia, Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi and Sonam Kapoor in Neerja.

Dear Zindagi

While her spouse’s film – R. Balki’s Ki & Ka – tried to be a beacon of feminist thought but ended up a mansplaining mess, Gauri Shinde’s sophomore serving at the movies was a little charmer.

Alia Bhat’s Kaira was a wonderfully complex character that had to live through the perils of being a young urban Indian woman - the judgement, the hypocrisy, the frequent pleas to ‘settle down’. Yet, Kaira survives, just as those real people she represents. Dear Zindagi made the parents of millennials understand them a wee bit better, while reinforcing the fact that future generations are increasingly seeing the world without the prism of gender.

Neerja

There’s a beautiful little moment in Ram Madhvani’s Neerja, when Neerja’s father tells his daughter that he supports her, no matter what. You see, Neerja is married to an abusive, exploitative, regressive man, and she’s suffering. Not every woman has a parent like Neerja, because most of them would just tell their daughters to adjust to married life and just do their duty.

Despite the backstory, Neerja isn’t a film about a daughter or a wife. It’s the story of a person who just did their job right and went beyond the call of duty when she really needed to. The film shows you two different parts of Neerja’s life – her personal and professional – and it’s heartening to see that one does not necessarily have to be reflective of the other. Bravery, courage, sacrifice – these aren’t ‘masculine’ things, no matter how much Hindi cinema tries to convey otherwise. Neerja Bhanot’s real and screen story are testament to this.

Kahaani 2 (Spoilers ahead)

There is a chilling scene in Kahaani 2, where Jugal Hansraj hums ‘ladki ki kathi’ from Masoom – a film that made sure Jugal Hansraj never grew up in the eyes of the public. This scene is chilling because the Jugal Hansraj that we see humming the song is a sexual predator in the film; a paedophile who abuses his little niece.

It seemed like the most innocent possible face of the male establishment had grown up to become a monster. With this scene and many others, Kahaani 2 frequently challenges your conditioning, reminding you that we live in an era where the battle for complete equality is being fought daily; and new ground is being made in this battle, inch by inch.

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

Hear me out.

Somehow, no one expects Karan Johar to make a film with any heft. And most people seemed to slot Ae Dil as just another ‘candyfloss KJo film’ or things of the sort. But if you look at the gender portrayal of the characters in the film, you’ll notice that your buddy ‘KJo’ understands the vagaries of gender better than many others.

Ranbir’s Ayan isn’t a macho hero. He’s a bit of a brat, a cry-baby and a romanticiser. His basic character itself avoids many trappings of masculinity that we’ve come to expect. But then, he is a man after all. And so with the territory comes patriarchal conditioning, manifesting itself into thing like an innate sense of entitlement in a relationship with a woman, a tendency to bare a violent streak, and so on.

But Karan Johar systematically breaks down any semblance of this patriarchal conditioning through the film, until Ranbir is finally shorn of any of it. Yes, the film glorifies unrequited love unnecessarily. But the more you watch it, the more you realize that Ayan and Alizeh exist as characters devoid of gender. There is no man-woman dynamic. And Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Saba reflects the strengthening feminine presence of today – a woman who cuts her losses when she has to, not letting herself be sucked into the vortex of male entitlement. Indeed, her character will always bear the unique distinction of dumping both Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor in the same film.

Phobia:

What does a survivor of sexual assault really go through? What must it be like in their heads? Why is it that feminism calls out the whole spectrum from rape to what so many consider as ‘harmless flirting’ (or whatever kids call it these days) as misogyny? Gender dynamics are often so complex that it becomes necessary to understand the grey areas that define them. What Phobia does so well is that it takes the most common questions that feminism raises – indeed, every question that Pink raised related to consent, judgement, issues of morality, etc - and completely cloaks it in a thrill-a-minute flick that doesn’t ever have the time to sermonise.

It is a grotesque, complex film because you can’t always make out what’s in the character’s head and what’s actually happening; and it leaves you only with questions, no answers. But the film also pushes back hard against the patriarchal establishment without ever making the film about the battle, instead focussing on the lead character. It’s a film that doesn’t just deserve to be watched and appreciated, but also deeply analysed for the feminist messages that it communicates with such nuance.

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Well that’s done, so now it’s time to shame!

Sexist Five

year ender 6

(L to R) Sunny Leone(s) in Mastizaade, Salman Khan in Sultan and Kareena, Arjun in Ki and Ka.

Sultan

The biggest culprit of them all. The film is all male -  all about the abs, pecs, brawn, muscle, aashiqui, loverboy, baby’s love for bass, et al. The worst part is that it pretends to give some sort of empowering message, but all it does is reinforce the glory associated with female sacrifice.

When Anushka Sharma says ‘mera medal toh yahi hai’ when she learns that she’s pregnant and has to choose between a spot at the Olympics or motherhood, it represented the single biggest blow to any good that cinema has done in recent times, to make us aware of gender equality. Weakly excuses about the film ‘portraying the reality of Haryana’ don’t hold up, because real life sporting heroes Geeta Phogat and Sakshi Mallik owned 2016 even as Sultan wanted us to feel that motherhood is the greatest achievement of a woman.

The film may have made big bucks and may even be passably entertaining, but it’s the sort of film that must take a long, hard look at itself because of how harmful the underlying messages it gives out are.

Ki & Ka:

I must admit, this film isn’t an automatic choice on this list. And no one can deny the intent of the filmmaker in trying to actually expose some of the societal trappings of gender. The problem lies in the fact that with the whole inverting gender gimmick, the film fails to communicate or even understand what feminism and gender equality is truly about.

The film falls prey to body shaming, to its own level of stereotyping even while trying to talk about stereotypes, and ultimately to the male and female lead characters reacting exactly how male and female leads have done over the years in our films. The man needs to ‘man up’, and the woman needs to ‘tone down the woman in her’. No one watching the film would have taken away what feminism is truly about – the fact that every human being is equal, regardless of not just gender, but also class, caste, religion, sexuality and so on.

Mastizaade / Kya Kool Hai Hum 3 / Great Grand Masti:

This isn’t laziness, clubbing three films together. This is just genuinely the fact that at some point, these films look exactly like one another, so you can’t quite tell which is which. But in the name of ‘adult comedy’, these films had the audacity to continually subject the viewer to vile misogyny, blatant objectification of the female body, homophobia and crass humour; all of which make you feel ashamed to exist.

Watch Sunny Leone talking about milk and cream in some weird sexual context; or listen to words like ‘boobsurat’, or characters named Lele and Kele; or watch juvenile, distasteful and offensive ways in which women are hyper-sexualised and deemed to exists for one thing and one thing alone – to be a sex object; and you cannot wonder just how such filmmakers think and operate. The old excuse of giving the public what it wants isn’t holding up anymore, because this year has frequently shown that if you give the public genuinely good content, they will consume it. Hopefully, these will be the last of the sex un-comedies for a while.

Updated Date: Dec 30, 2016 17:29:06 IST