I confess. I walked out of Chhichhore with a smile. It was like the love child of Karan Johar’s glossy optics of college life, and Raju Hirani’s tear-jerking melodrama. Before you gasp in disbelief at my ostensible disregard for Hirani’s films, I must say that I hold these directors responsible for creating unrealistic expectations about college, and life in general; so much so, that the disclaimers about reality that came from my parents while watching these films were more frequent than the ones about smoking and alcohol. But, the emotional mush in those films was like that little cheat meal you enjoy on a day off from your workout.
For precisely this reason, the Johar and Hirani repertoires have successfully captured popular imagination. They have conquered that sensitive emotional space that we all nurture – one where wishful thinking meets reminiscent lived experience. In Chhichhore, the latter holds more weight. These are characters we’ve seen, lived, and even been at some point in our college lives. There was a lot of emotional weight riding on the movie’s shoulder. Particularly, that dialogue where Maya (Shraddha Kapoor) addresses hostel roommates as “family,” and Anni (Sushant Singh Rajput) immediately agrees, tugged at my heartstrings and reminded me of my Room 101 girls. The emotions in Chhichhore hit that universal sweet spot.
But, this “universal” emotion is what irked me about the film, because it is always defined in male terms. Our film makers still portray the experience of college through men and their conflicts, almost as though women never “enjoy” college life the way these male protagonists seem to. Maybe they are so deeply consumed with their own identities and experiences that they never bothered to look at the other side. Or Bollywood writers just lack nuance.
Writers just have to talk to women like me who have lived in hostels, and I can assure them that it will be worthy of a franchise. We too dance around, prank one another, indulge in impromptu jamming, share clothes, and discuss our (sexual) fantasies. Oh, and period talk and protecting/healing each other from harmful, toxic relationships would make for another movie – a sequel, probably.
Maya didn’t just have to be the one who “listens” to Anni venting out all the time, or smile mutely when he says that his friend’s mother sends homemade food for all roommates. Her own roommate’s mom, like mine, would have done the same. She would have had that “family” too. If the clichéd lack of women in an engineering college bothers its overwhelmingly sex starved heterosexual male student base, the converse is true too. Heterosexual women also struggle to find one “normal” man who isn’t waiting to make a mess of the concept of consent in these colleges, or uses his woke-ness as a means to reinforce his toxic masculinity.
However, it was nice that Chhichhore did not equate winning with success. Often, conventional underdog stories in Bollywood culminate into a success that is tangible, and amplify their hero’s masculinity. For example, in 3 Idiots, Farhan, Raju and Rancho eventually become highly successful in their respective professions. But, in Chhichhore, which operates with the same theme as 3 Idiots, we barely get any details about whether Anni’s friends are doing well in life, except for sporadic glimpses which still don’t offer a conclusive, aspirational standard, and are not applicable to all of his friends.
At surface level, this conceptualization seems novel. But the finer nuances disappoint. Case in point – Chhichhore’s gender politics that are hard to ignore.
I find it surprising that for a country that loves underdog stories, we surprisingly ignore half its population that has historically, and structurally been just that – women. Maya is only a spectator to this boys’ club’s story. In the beginning, the film exalts Maya to the position of an unattainable damsel. She sassily rejects any man who even tries to approach her. Here, she seems like the polar opposite of the men in the movie who are, until then, just fooling around. But the moment Chhichhore’s men find purpose, she becomes a “distraction” – her sexuality is used to disrupt the opponent’s focus on an upcoming game (with her consent, though).
This is a typically Bollywood problem, where masculinity has always been constructed by contrasting it with characters who are inferior- if the hero is a loser, his friend is worse. On rare occasions, when the woman is headstrong and clearly better than the hero (like Maya is shown in the beginning), she is either “tamed,” or pushed into oblivion. Maya never gets to articulate what she “feels” when Anni vows not to talk to her until they taste victory at the General Championship. This General Championship, again is a male sport bonanza, where the one time we get to watch women in sports is also only a decorative, humorous stretch where a 42kg man risks losing to his female counterpart. No points for guessing. The woman does not win.
Even after the big reveal, I didn’t understand why Maya had to nod in agreement with the rest, to say that she did not feel like dying after she became a loser. It was the men who became ‘losers.’ This was never her journey anyway. And will someone please hammer it into Anni’s head that when he chooses to analogize their hostel’s competition with another that’s way ahead of them in the points table using a “murga chasing a murgi” (a rooster chasing a hen) trope, he’s perpetuating a regressive, medieval culture of masculinity where women are seen as conquests.
The fundamental problem with gender in these boys’ college films is to do with the spatialization of these ‘loser’ male characters. In many films, the loser tag is merely nominal and public, and is assuaged by the solidarities that these men form in their private spaces like hostel rooms, where they uplift one another. If we are to analyse the perpetually underwritten female characters in our cinema, it becomes evident that this ‘loser’ tag has endured through many decades, invisibly. While women are sexualized, and even deified in films when they are under public gaze (like Shanaya in Student Of The Year, or Tara in Tamasha), there are hardly any feminist solidarities in real life. They are singled out in a way that only a male hero can fulfil that void. In a scenario like this, perfectly normal, natural female solidarities appear to be revolutionary, and threaten masculinity. This hackneyed ‘loser’ tag is but another covert manifestation of masculinity in cinema.
One could argue that cinema is a director’s medium. And given the overwhelming number of male directors and writers, the stories are bound to reflect the “male perspective.” But it is not entirely impossible to write nuanced female characters even in films that consciously choose to narrate the journey of their men. Consider Happy Days, a 2007 cult Telugu film about college directed by Sekhar Kammula. Each of the 8 characters including its women had arcs that were fulfilled towards the end of the movie.
Kammula, who also wrote the film, gave us female characters that were well fleshed out, and had their own solidarities, even though the narrative was voiced by its male protagonist. The film’s crowning moment was when one of the women slaps her boyfriend who uses her as a reward in a bet with his junior who is in love with her, and strongly expresses her disagreement.
In Chhichhore, Maya just needed to be shown as being more responsive. A couple of dialogues, where she reacts and articulates what she feels would have at least given me the illusion that the writers cared to ensure that her character had depth. But that is what disappoints in Chhichhore – Maya’s silence. In times like these where gender sensitivity should not be confined to “woke” sections of society, our cinema needs to stop using these academically rigorous engineering college settings as justification for insensitivity.
Much like the film’s “Fikar Not” song that is catchy and yet sounds like a rehashed version of Pritam’s older songs, Chhichhore is like that vacation, where women are still in charge of cooking and laundry during the holiday.