By Edwin Thomas:
On October 8 2016, New Delhi was witness to a one-of-a-kind gender empowerment conference called ‘The Bridge Talks’ organised and hosted by The Caravan at the Imperial Hotel.
A forum to talk ‘women empowerment’ and feminism, the day-long conference saw the likes of Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, author Urvashi Butalia, activist Mona Eltahawy, politician Mani Shankar Aiyar, actors Sharmila Tagore, Nandita Das and many more.
Determined not to spare the audience from some terrible viewpoints, one of the sessions featured choreographer-turned-director Farah Khan in conversation with Anant Goenka of Indian Express. You would think a person like Khan, who has been in the industry for a long time, would have some unique perspectives on issues regarding women in cinema.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned. In fact, to say that she spouted some questionable ideas on feminism and Bollywood is putting it very kindly. Thank goodness I was live-tweeting the entire session to showcase Khan, unedited.
To her credit, Khan spoke in frank and intriguing terms about what it means to be one of the very few commercially successful female directors in Bollywood. But warning signs of the avalanche that had yet to make its debut were present: “It’s wrong to say my movies aren’t feminist because I am taking on male directors,” said Farah when questioned on the ‘feministic’ aspect of the films that she has made.
It is, perhaps, a reasonable argument to make in the sense that her movies may not have themes that are necessarily empowering but she’s playing in the boy’s club and even beating them at their own game – maybe a shitty game, nevertheless, a game at that.
I quote Chinua Achebe’s famous work to describe what happens next. On the topic of item songs in Bollywood, Farah Khan took the audience for a ride.
“In an item song, the actress is not the item. It’s just item because it has nothing to do with movie,” said Khan of actresses in her item songs. There is a huge difference between objectifying women who seem to have no agency of their own but to entertain the male gaze, either through visual or auditory means; and one where a female subject explores her sexuality through terms defined by herself.
Unfortunately for Khan, that concept seems to have fallen flat. Inadvertently, in a conventional item song, the actress becomes an item. “When you’re talking about feminism, you don’t want to think about women who want to be in item songs.” Choice is a concept that is central to feminism but it is also crucial to look at the kinds of choices made available based on which women can exercise their agency. However, this aspect has usually been overlooked to counter feminist narratives by misleadingly inserting the aspect about ‘choice’. Talk about flipping the script when you know that you’re so close to losing your shit. The feminists have been shamed.
“I don’t think I have shown any girl in an obscenely sexual [manner] in any item song,” mused Khan as many must have thought to themselves what they missed about third wave feminism in “Sheila Ki Jawaani” and an intricate intersectional approach featured in “Main Lovely Ho Gayi“.
“Only actresses who don’t get item songs say that they don’t want to do item songs,” proclaimed Khan when asked about the numerous female actors who have refused to do item songs to get ahead. “Madhuri Dixit got fame because she did sexy item songs.”
While it may not have been necessary to shame actors who have refused to feature in item numbers, she did have a surprisingly simplistic view about actors who do go for them anyway. When asked about what was so feminist about Kareena Kapoor dancing in “Fevicol Se“, Khan had this to say: “Nobody put a gun to Kareena’s head to do an item song.”
With that comment, Khan managed to show how years of experience in a particular industry doesn’t necessarily equate to a complex understanding of the same when it comes to gender dynamics. It would be anyone’s guess as to why a lot of female actors in Bollywood have such constrained career options to begin with – a structure determined by years of selling cinema to a largely male audience. So yes, Kareena may have danced in that song by her own volition but to not acknowledge the systemic bias that exists is appalling.
Keeping it real, Khan had an MRA approach to perceived discrimination in Bollywood – by dismissing its very existence.
“Bollywood doesn’t care if you’re a woman or man. Only success is measured. Discrimination always from press.” Wish things were that simple where the idea of ‘merit’ is supposed to be an equaliser that is blind to all forms of identity markers but in reality, it is almost always based and centred around the success designed for and by a dominant group. But hey, blame the press.
On the gender pay gap in Bollywood: “”Piku” will not make more than “Sultan”. How can you be paid equally? The minute women get those audiences, only then they will be paid equally.” For a woman who had to make it big in a man’s game, she clearly doesn’t have any empathy when it comes to selling women-centric cinema in a man’s universe. And then to place the onus on women is a class act by itself.
Forget empathy, she doesn’t seem to want to leverage her power position to help even things out: “People will make only what is selling,” she said, “We should make women-centric films but I find it difficult to get a budget.”
And here’s a shout out to India and its problems with feminism: “Its very easy to say all problems in India stems from item songs. It’s not the case.” Thanks, but no thanks for empowering the genders, Farah Khan.