After doing my Prabhudeva Birthday post, I was suddenly in the mood to watch my favorite Prabhudeva movie. So I decided to indulge in a bit of a guilty pleasure. And not “guilty” like it’s usually used, like something you know is bad for you, but like something that is bad for the world and I know I really shouldn’t be encouraging, but it just makes me feel so good!
I talk a lot about “stalking” in my posts, because I write about Indian film and it’s a thing in Indian film a lot. I can give all kinds of explanations for why this director is playing with the meaning of it, or why this father overreacts, or that heroine misunderstands. But I’m not watching the movie thinking “ah, see how the director is questioning the assumptions we make!” At least, that’s not my first thought. My first “thought” isn’t even a thought, it’s a feeling, a gut check. Just like I learned in my self-defense class before college, if you suddenly feel scared, trust it and get out of there!
So I can watch all kinds of movies with “problematic” moments that I can kind of deal with intellectually and just shrug it off, doesn’t bother me. And then there are some movies where I go “Gah! Not good! Hate this! GET ME OUT OF HERE!” But this is the rare movie where there are moments when I am going “Gah! Not good!”, but then there are other moments that I like sooooooo much! So I feel guilty every time I watch it, that there are some parts my gut is telling me are more than just “problematic” but are actually dangerous. And yet I am contributing to the spread of the film by giving viewership to it! So yeah, real guilt with this one, not just “oh I shouldn’t have another piece of pizza” guilt.
But then, on the other hand, it’s a fun Shahid performance, and the dances are great, and even the fight scenes are pretty good. And the romance at the center of it is this odd combination of fist-pumping moments of awesome, and scary moments of teaching bad bad lessons to men.
I guess the big problem is that the film as a whole supports the idea of women as an enemy to be conquered, beaten down and “won”. And then once they are won, they just stand there, brainlessly, at your beck and call. Sometimes the “Stalker” romances are appealing because they feel like an extended foreplay metaphor. The hero is slowly working on the heroine until she reaches the peak of romantic ecstasy. But this one feels a little more like an extended rape metaphor, he is torturing her and trapping her and forcing himself on her until eventually she just gives in in order to survive. And it’s supposed to be “sexy” to the male audience not because it is about the joys of slowly working on a woman until she responds to you, but because it is about the joys of forcing a woman until she submits completely. And once she has submitted, you’ve “won”. And you can leave her in a holding pattern while you go about and do the rest of your business.
But again, such style in this film! And such great songs! And even the plot, I kind of like. If only the romance weren’t so rape-y and scary.
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One thing I like about the film is how comfortably morally relativist it is. It starts out by introducing us to this particular area, where everyone grows poppies for opium, the police are corrupt, and everyone is on one side or the other of a gang ware between Sonu Sood and the older more established landowner of the area. And Shahid arrives and immediately picks a side almost at random, because he is a gunda and it’s a way to make a living, nothing more.
Skipping way ahead, I also like how this is resolved. It doesn’t end with Shahid defeating Sonu Sood or anything simple like that. It ends with Shahid and all the other paid gundas from both sides joining together because they are sick of being used as pawns in someone else’s war. And they all choose to follow Shahid not because he threatened them or has some power of them, but because they respect him as a co-worker. It’s an odd sort of workers’ rights unionization moment.
(And this is management joining hands to oppress the workers)
And from the “workers’ rights” side of things, I also like how they don’t pull any punches with Shahid’s character. He isn’t secretly a cop or the son of an old rival or even educated or upper class. He isn’t even ambitious, is perfectly happy following orders for someone else’s gang. He’s a straight up gunda, just like all those disposable henchman we usually see in movies. This is a movie about the oppressed working man in the criminal industry being inspired by love to draw a line and fight back against “management” (in this case, the head of his gang).
This is also a movie about a landlord’s daughter falling for that gunda just as he is, enjoying his crudeness and lowerclassness. And that’s my favorite part! I love the middle third section which is all about Sonakshi sneaking out to meet Shahid and being all delighted with his crudity, and him being all delighted with her classiness and especially delighted with those moments when she drops her classiness and is just and crude as he. This is not a movie that wants it’s heroine to be sexless and pure, it wants her to be just as sexual and aggressive as the hero.
At least, in the middle third it does. Let me back up, I’ve been jumping around a lot and if you haven’t actually seen the film, this won’t make sense. The actual plot is that Shahid arrives in this town and gets a job working for Sonu Sood. At the same time, he also sees Sonakshi (niece of Sonu’s landed gentry rival) and falls in love at first sight. She constantly repulses his advances and is generally just disgusted with him, a reaction he ignores entirely. Halfway through the film, for no particular reason, Sonakshi gives in and decides she is in love with Shahid. At around the same time, Sonu sees Sonakshi and also falls in love at first sight. He joins hands with Sonakshi’s uncle as a business partner in order to bring off the marriage. With both gangs for it, Sonakshi very dramatically runs to Shahid in the crowd of gundas, and he declares that no one will marry her but himself, and if he could fight so fearlessly for money, imagine what he will be able to do for love? He also establishes that the final showdown will take place on the day of the wedding, when he will return to collect his bride. In the meantime, Sonakshi is sent back home to her uncle where she and Shahid constantly flirt on the phone and meet in secret. In the end, on the day of the wedding, we learn that Shahid was sent to this town by another bigger opium dealer for whom he worked before. But that dealer is convinced to turn against him in return for favorable terms from Sonu and Sonakshi’s uncle on their product. Betrayed by all 3, Shahid is stabbed and buried and left for dead. But appears at the wedding after all at the very last minute, fights Sonu, and then after defeating him, when the other gundas are ordered to attack, they refuse and instead attack Sonakshi’s uncle and the out of town dealer.
Okay, now I can go back to jumping all over the place! Like I said, I really like the whole idea of a straight up gunda as the hero, and the whole management-worker dynamics that it brings about. And I love the middle third of the romance, featuring such things as Shahid pretending to be an assistant at a sari store and sneaking into a dressing room with Sonakshi. Or Sonakshi being caught on the phone with him and defiantly finishing the conversation complete with a kiss.
It combines the whole old familiar “sneaking around and having a secret connection” appeal, with a somewhat new appeal of Shahid being this fearless rude and crude gangster, who still almost faints at the merest touch of Sonakshi’s hand, and Sonakshi being this upperclass girl who enjoys all the lascivious blather from Shahid and responds to it. And I also kind of like the idea of Shahid showing his power by protecting Sonakshi in abstentia. Technically she is spending all her time being wooed by Sonu, and under the thumb of her uncle. But Shahid just has to hear of her being beaten or abused, and he will track down the abuser and make sure it never happens again. And Sonakshi is completely fearless as well, calm in her knowledge that “her man” is capable of taking care of her.
And then in the last 3rd, blech! We go back to our usual boring passive heroine. Shahid seems to be beaten, and rather than Sonakshi reacting by fighting back, she just cries. And then he shows up again, alive, and rather than her running to him, she just stands there with one perfect tear and waits for him to finish “winning” her. Because her personality as established doesn’t matter, that final face-off has to be between Shahid and Sonu and she is just the prize to be won.
Even worse, we find out that at least part of Shahid’s defeat was a plan between him and his best friend and fellow gunda. So, he shares this plan with his best friend and not with the woman whose life it most directly affects? And who should be his first priority and closest connection?
Again, none of this is stuff I was actually thinking while watching it. It’s not about the little details of the plot, it’s about how they come together and make me go “yuch!” Something about the idea of Shahid and his friend gleefully planning how to put one over on Sonu, while Sonakshi is waiting to be raped, just feels off. Remember in my Udta Punjab review I talked about how Alia’s situation was introduced purposefully early so we would have that sense of urgency, that the reformers couldn’t afford to spend time sitting around waiting for stuff to happen, because Alia was in danger right now? That is the opposite of how this film feels. The filmmakers honestly don’t think we will be worried about Sonakshi, they forget about her entirely, because the female character, and the threat of rape, just isn’t something that interests them.
(See how different this feels from the song above?)
And now I am going to rewind all the way back to the beginning and talk about why the first third of the romance bothers me in the same way. Firstly, I don’t like how casual the film is about rape and harassment in general. It’s a fine line, when it crosses over into camp comedy and has no relation to the real thing, and when it feels like it is still related to the real thing and the filmmakers are laughing about it. For instance, there is a scene when our corrupt cop is introduced. We see through the door of a cell that a woman’s hand is struggling to be freed from his grip, forced onto the floor, and we hear vague sounds of pain from her. We don’t see anything more because the wall blocks it. And then the cop is called to the phone, and we see him move past the wall into view, re-arranging his clothes. If we had heard clear sounds of pleasure, or seen that the hands were embracing instead of his pushing hers down, it would have been a funny moment of us being introduced to the cop through his total lack of morals in having sex in a cell in his office. Or if we had a brief moment of interaction with this woman, seeing her pulling her clothes back on and crying in the background, it would have felt like we were supposed to empathize with her pain. But instead there was an implication that rape is titillating, and the audience will get some naughty pleasure out of the idea of this cop having just raped a woman moments earlier.
Shahid never rapes Sonakshi. He never even tears her clothing or otherwise touches her without her permission. But he does break my rule for “stalking” in film, in that he actually does scare her. And he doesn’t follow her direct requests.
Shahid sees Sonakshi over and over again through random coincidences. And he reacts to her slaps by kissing her hand as it hits his face, he tries to block her car in the road, he stands in front of her in the market and follows her around. And she isn’t just angry, she also feels a little afraid (at least that’s how it feels to me). And Shahid doesn’t respect that, or her, at all. No matter how clear she is about what she wants, he just keeps trying to “win” her.
Aarya is a really good comparison for this. Not only is the heroine not afraid of her “stalker”, when she does finally clearly ask to be left alone, he follows her wishes immediately. He respects her. And more than that, he likes her! It is love at first sight followed by stalking, but he also gets to know her likes and dislikes and enjoys listening to her conversation and so on and so forth. In this movie, Shahid never gets past the superficial in his interactions with Sonakshi. And he clearly doesn’t respect her. And that, combined with the way her reactions mix fear and disgust with anger, makes it uncomfortable for me. It is encouraging a wish-fulfillment fantasy for young men that I don’t want encouraged, that if you do a great deed she will “owe” you her love, that all you want from a woman is her body and not her personality, that it doesn’t matter how many times she hits you or tells you to go away, you are proving your devotion by never letting go. Just, Blech!!!!
And then it ends with a scene that combines all the worst of this. Shahid breaks into Sonakshi’s bedroom and catches her undressing. He laughs (and the audience is invited to join him in laughing) at her fear and upset with his presence. He dares her to scream. And finally when she is about to scream, he grabs her physically for the first time and puts his hand over her mouth. At which point she sees and recognizes the tattoo on his wrist, and now knows that he was the man who saved her life weeks earlier whose face she never saw. And that makes her fall in love?
Again, let’s compare it with Aarya. If you remember, I felt like the ending of Aarya when our heroine finally learns that he risked his life for her was more about her learning that he had never been willing to hold that over her, than the actual fact of the rescue. It was the combination of knowing how much he loved her, and how much he respected her right to make her own choices without pressure, that made her choose him. But in this film, none of that complexity! He risked his life to save her, so now she owes him and gives herself to him, poof!
Finally we enter the section I like, when they are mutually in love. But I still have these little doubts. Because Sonu is the “bad guy”. Only, what makes his love/lust for Sonakshi that different from Shahid’s? She is firmly and vocally not interested in either man. They ignore her wishes. They sacrifice to prove their love (Shahid through risking his life, Sonu through changing his business). Is it just that Shahid was first? Is that all that goes into who a woman is allowed to marry, that Shahid beat Sonu by mere days and now she loves him instead?
And yet, even thought I know all this set-up is wrong, the end result is SO GOOD!!! We have this fancy landlord’s daughter happily in love with the disgusting gunda and rejecting the advances of the similarly fancy (although it hides a brutal streak) rival landlord. And we have the gunda cheerfully confident in his love and ready to throw over his entire life to defend it. And that’s the good stuff, that’s what draws me back over and over, even though I know it is wrapped in material which makes me feel a little nauseated.