By Rohini Banerjee for Cake:
Bollywood—to some it’s entertainment, to some it’s abhorrent, but to some, it’s an integral part of life; and I unabashedly admit that I fall in the last category.I grew up on Hindi cinema and keenly lapped up all of it—the glorious absurdity of it all, the melodrama, the larger than life situations and the garish song-and-dance sequences. But along with all of this also came some harsh realities. Bollywood was, and continues to be mired in sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic stereotypes and has often played these off in the name of either ‘romance’ or ‘comedy’. When I was younger, I was blind to these stereotypes and even thought that they were normal (because popular culture is that influential) so now, as someone who’s not only a feminist, but also queer, when I go back and watch all of the films I used to love as a kid, I am often horrified at the kind of beliefs they stand for. The past week was a particularly conflicted one, because I took it upon myself to rewatch not just some of my favourite 90s and 00s classics but also some of the more contemporary films that I had enjoyed on the first watch. Needless to say, I had a lot of feelings, and not all of them were good ones.
There was actually a time when I used to find this film romantic, and used to actually think that Raj and Simran’s relationship was romantic. But Lord, was I wrong.
During my rewatch I realised what an actual creep Raj was—he pretty much stalks and coerces Simran to pay attention to him and then actually treats her horribly. But shit truly hits the fan when Raj makes an extended rape joke. Yep, I’m not kidding. Remember that scene where Simran wakes up with no memory of what happened the previous night and Raj (like the fuckboy he is) tricks her into thinking that he’d had sex with her and then laughs it off? He was casually talking about date rape, about breaching her consent while she was unconscious, and then turning it into a joke, leaving Simran to panic and freak out. The film completely glosses this over, and then has the audacity to say “bade bade shehron mein aisi choti choti baatein hoti rehti hain”? What the actual f***, Bollywood.
Like many fellow 90s kids, I was thoroughly inspired by Anjali’s hairband-and-basketball aesthetic from this film, and during the rewatch, I realised that I still totally dig how she kicked Rahul’s ass at a largely male-dominated sport and wore sweatshirts and baggy pants with élan. But sadly, the film is frustratingly unfair to this character (who could have been potentially feminist) and all of my childhood hero-worship came to a dramatic end when I saw how she was ultimately co-opted into the traditional idea of ‘femininity’. During the first half, she is constantly told that by being ‘tomboyish’ she wasn’t ‘desirable’ to men, and that turns out to be disturbingly true because Rahul actually realises his so-called undying love for her only once he sees her with long hair, in a saree and actually doing pooja and singing a bhajan.
Thanks but no thanks Bollywood, for telling us that you can only get the guy when you’re not just ‘feminine’ but also sanskaari and susheel.
It is truly unfathomable how I actually liked this film once upon a time. Not only did it have the cheesiest dialogues and most ridiculous premise, but during my rewatch, I also realised that it is pretty much drowning in colourism. That scene where Hrithik Roshan returns from London and is immediately attracted to the fair-skinned Kareena Kapoor frustrates me to no end because he doesn’t even bother to learn anything about her personality or try to get to know her as a person. He’s fixated on her appearance, and ignores Rani Mukherjee entirely because she is ‘dark-skinned’—which of course means that she isn’t ‘beautiful’ enough to be his dream girl. Oh, and let us not forget how the film actually has a song which translates to ‘Dark-skinned girl’. Excuse me while I go barf.
This film was never a plausible one from the logic side of things (but hey, this is Bollywood, who cares about logic?), but one thing I had always remembered liking about it was it’s endearing male protagonist—the bespectacled and bumbling Surinder Suri. But during my rewatch, I realised that he’s the farthest thing from ‘endearing’.
In the first ten minutes itself, Taani (the female protagonist) has been emotionally manipulated by her dying dad into marrying this guy, and it is entirely understandable that she wouldn’t suddenly be lovey dovey with him because hello, she’s just lost her ex-fiancee and her only parent on the very same day and is obviously in mourning. But does Suri care about any of that? Nuh-uh. All he wants is to have her to fall for him and is constantly lamenting the fact that he’s been “friendzoned” (or more like arranged-marriage-zoned).
After this the plot pretty much revolves around his grand (and bullshit) quest to win her love, and throughout, he continues to pay little to no respect to what she actually wants. Umm, why is this film asking us to sympathize with this character again?
To be honest, this movie has the stupidest premise, but I happened to enjoy it the first time because it still ended up being entertaining. Like many Karan Johar films, it had a whole host of problems, but during the rewatch I realised that the biggest one was its forced heterosexuality.
The story arc of the two male leads is oddly reminiscent of an usual Bollywood courtship—they come from different class backgrounds, start off enemies, then due to certain circumstances become friends, and even take each other to meet their respective families (which, by the way, neither of them do with their supposed female ‘love interest’). Literally every scene in which these two are together is underscored with homoeroticism and they share more hugs between them than they do with the girl they’re supposed to be in love with. But in the end, their relationship is made into nothing but brotherly and platonic. Okay then. Sounds fake, but okay.
Oh, how I love rewatching this film every Sunday when it comes on Star Gold. And every time I see it, I find new and improved reasons which make me realise how amazingly sexist it was.
While the film claimed that it was all about ‘loving our parents’, it turned out that the parents in question were a regressive douchebag of a father and an emotionally abused and suppressed mother. That scene where Jaya Bachhan is trying to make a case for love marriages and giving children the choice to pick their partner and is immediately silenced by Amitabh with an extremely messed up ‘keh diya, toh bas keh diya’ makes me go WTF every single time. He pretty much treats her like shit throughout the film and continues to shut her down whenever she tries to express an opinion that differs from his. Oh, and he also makes her stand up on a stool to knot his tie instead of bending down to make it easier for her. This is the kind of family we’re supposed to idealise? Slow claps to you, Karan Johar.
While all of these films now make me actually re-evaluate my life choices and feel like my childhood has been a lie, all is not bleak when it comes to Bollywood. I still love Hindi cinema, and in fact, there are a whole host of recent films with great gender and sexuality representation (from “Queen” to “Kapoor And Sons”) which actually reaffirm my faith in it. But there’s no doubt that the harmful tropes continue to exist in our popular culture and is furthered when films like the above become popular or become cult classics. You need to get your shit together Bollywood, and you better do it sooner rather than later.