Why Indian entertainment in the age of OTT continues to peddle regressive content as feminist dialogue

It is important to credit recreational entertainment for taking steps in the right direction. However, it is equally important to be critical of spaces that are propagating the same regressive narrative they claim to discredit.

Shanaia Kapoor August 04, 2020 16:07:37 IST
Why Indian entertainment in the age of OTT continues to peddle regressive content as feminist dialogue

With a cultural shift towards new-age, feminist mainstream media, cinema has become instrumental in imploring this pivotal evolution. Scripts following strong female leads, radical ideas of empowerment and sexual reclamation are currently trending. It begs a pertinent question regarding the motivations behind these new releases — relevance or reform? The commercialisation of a modern feminist movement leaves room for debate, dialogue and when required, downright defamation. It is important to credit recreational entertainment for taking steps in the right direction. However, it is equally important to be critical of spaces that are propagating the same regressive narrative they claim to discredit. This essay attempts to explore aforementioned ideas by examining recent films and web-shows, namely She, Love Aaj Kal and Fleabag, with a focus on Amazon Prime Video’s Four More Shots Please (FMSP).

Is Indian entertainment afraid of the ‘liberated woman’?

With censorship largely filtering out the possibility of brave and progressive entertainment on the big screen, OTT platforms provide hope for reform. However, recent shows have continued to be conservative in their exploitation of this new-found liberty. The question then arises – was censorship really the problem, or was its roots lodged far deeper than the industry would like to admit? Imtiaz Ali’s Netflix debut She is an example of the inability to shrug off the male gaze when portraying female sexuality. With Mumbai’s criminal underbelly as its backdrop, the series follows Bhumika Pardeshi (Aaditi Pohankar), an undercover cop posing as a prostitute to take down a drug cartel. A lower-middle-class Marathi girl, Bhumika is seen weaponising her body. She uses aspects of gender politics to manipulate information from corrupt criminals and dodgy drug lords, with a weakness for — you guessed it — sex.

One could argue that the show tackles sexual ownership and empowerment with its female lead and subconscious erotica. However, Bhumi’s character is given little to no agency. Her relationship with her own sexuality remains mostly conceptual and glossed over with incoherent flashbacks and training montages. She's thrilling premise carries abundant promise, but manages to marginally explore sexuality through an intersectional lens due to its geopolitical setting. What stops this show from being something pivotal, however, is its fetishisation of sexual awakening. It uses male counterparts as instrumental devices to showcase liberation, taking away from the intimacy of Bhumi’s personal journey. With “there’s something about her” dialogues, followed by a speaker calling that ‘something’ a ‘scorpion between her legs’, the series is a familiar indication of a man attempting to tell a woman’s story, and expectedly failing at it.

Why Indian entertainment in the age of OTT continues to peddle regressive content as feminist dialogue

A still from She. YouTube screenshot.

Additionally, Imtiaz Ali’s lens seems to need a little dusting. It would be unjust to not mention his latest 2020 remake of his 2009 film, Love Aaj Kal. Zoe (Sarah Ali Khan) has been depicted as an antagonist in the light of modern feminist cinema. Attempting to portray a career-driven woman, the script finds her oscillating in the face of new love. She is seen feeding into the age-old debacle of a woman having to choose between work and desire. This antithetical approach to a progressive film’s narrative leaves no space for strong female characters in supporting roles. The movie is not only conceptually paradoxical, but is also painfully unrelatable. The final scene brings anything but redemption. Instead of discarding the need for professional compromise, the protagonist cries into Veer’s (Kartik Aryan) arms, accepting her inability to strike a balance between her personal and professional lives saying, “I want to make this mistake with you.”

Four shots too many: A severely classist hangover

Even with an (almost) all-female crew, director Anu Menon’s ‘Cosmoesque’ two-season Amazon original fails to represent a new-age feminist narrative. The show follows four ‘unapologetically flawed’ women, as they navigate the perilous South Bombay terrain of misogyny, marriage, moral dilemmas, men and the murk of the avant-garde. This ‘pretty’ show with its ‘pretty' women is, unfortunately, restricted to being just that and not much else. With flowery montages and jazzy outfits to match, the series remains largely elusive and unrelatable to an audience that lives outside the peripheries of South Bombay.

One can concur on the fact that the show’s objective is an important step towards feminist cinema, much like what She claims to be. However, boiling these series down to montages of female friendship and fight sequences tends to turn them simplistic, ironically. With problems that remain blanketed in comfortable solutions, pop-coloured lipsticks and Jeh’s (Prateik Babbar) famous vodka shots, FMSP reduces feminist morality to classist aspirations. The series’ viewership is not limited to the minuscule percentage it represents; issues of misogyny do not discriminate, as a result of which exclusivity in their representation seems irrelevant.

Why Indian entertainment in the age of OTT continues to peddle regressive content as feminist dialogue

Love Aaj Kal (2020) by Imtiaz Ali, starring Sara Ali Khan and Kartik Aryan

Unlike She, which manages to somewhat explore tropes of sexuality on account of its premise featuring the dark underbelly of Mumbai, FMSP portrays a jarringly elitist conception of the same. The show ensures that its protagonists are all from the upper-class, upper-caste, urban and privileged elite, thereby alienating a large section of its audience with un-ironical use of classist idioms, whether through its representation of ‘sexual liberty’, a ‘NoBo’Amit (Prabal Panjabi) blaming Geeta didi for his scattered laundry, or anti-national publicity, mental health retreats, or even using privilege as a punchline in a comic set on empowerment — “Par main toh privileged hun naa…material kahan sae aayega?”

Breaking down criticism: ‘Cool’ content bias and performative pretence

Counterclaims might point to critics being too critical of the OTT platforms’ attempts at expanding the feminist discourse in Indian pop-culture and media. However, women's liberation cannot be represented by and limited to employing hackneyed culture shocks that are rendered synonymous to being the only markers of modernity — alcohol, cigarettes, and a lot of...censored sex. Consumed by its opulence and glamour, FMSP unfortunately tends to lose the plot. Addressing this obsession with seeming ‘Western’ tropes of modernity, actor Kirti Kulhari said in an interview: “Indian audiences have applauded similar shows from the West”. Using Amazon’s show Fleabag as an example, she questions why, despite receiving similar criticism as FMSP in the West, the show remains widely accepted and revered in India. Kulhari attributes this reaction to an apparent ‘cool’ content bias towards international and particularly Western entertainment.

In response to this allusion, it is fair to conclude that the difference lies in the levels of authenticity displayed by the respective shows. Fleabag’s wit is in its ability to do its characters justice. The element of truth is central to its biting satirical take, aided by the absence of the fourth wall. FMSP’s protagonists, on the other hand, tend to portray fantasies that play out as fantastical fiction. The show talks about body-positivity and embracing the non-normative, — thereby setting its rhetoric apart from other Indian content in recent times — and yet, fails to sink its teeth into either.

Why Indian entertainment in the age of OTT continues to peddle regressive content as feminist dialogue

A still from Fleabag

This, coupled with the casual and regrettably un-ironical comments like “Men like curves, dogs like bones”, “Baby, you don’t know how hard it was for me to keep dating all those women. I still jerked off thinking about you after the divorce”, and a bartender actually refusing to make a specific cocktail on account of it being too ‘sissy’, ensures defeating the purpose the show set out to fulfil.

Ultimately, some may argue that accepting the plurality of the term ‘feminist’ itself is essential to owning its title. This, however, begs a fair question — are we not, in our harsh assessment, then complicit in the same reductionist narrative we accuse this entertainment of propagating? It is, in fact, important to acknowledge these creators’ intentions, because with overly-sexualised tropes, Twitter trolls and films about women being derailed by men, cinema has historically been a difficult place for women to assert themselves in. Recent mainstream entertainment can therefore be seen as an attempt at cementing the gaping hole in India’s cultural repertoire.

The entertainment space has definitely undergone a form of visionary evolution, and creators and producers can no longer hide behind the excuse of censorship. With a platform now available for honest, progressive content, the litmus test is that of legitimate bravery and the thirst for cinematic evolution. Is it not justified then to ask women to condemn what perhaps under-represents, if not misrepresents them? Should entertainment platforms or media messengers not be held accountable in this regard? At the end of the day, responsible, accurate, and intersectional representation is key to feminist reform, whether on screen, or off it.

All images via Facebook, except where indicated otherwise

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