Feminism Versus Feminist Film Criticism

This is a post that has been burbling around in my brain for a while, and I thought I might as well just post it.  Plus, it’s been a while since I put up one of those posts that gets everyone talking and angry with me/aggressively agreeing with me.

This is in response to a whole bunch of articles that seem to thrive on picking and choosing buzzwords and tiny elements of a film and making an argument about it.  There were the same articles about the “rape” of Avantika, about the male rape “jokes” in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, all kinds of other Hindi movies that are torn down by the English language press based on tiny elements in the film instead of looking at the film as a whole.  And often the argument they make is based on being “feminist”.  Or, less often, related to class or ethnicity or something else similarly important in the real world but hard to define in the filmic world.

I’m going to start with a radical angry making statement: Being a feminist does not mean you have the training to do feminist media criticism.  It is not the same thing.  In the same way that being a feminist does not mean you are qualified to do abuse survivor counseling, or be a sexual harassment attorney.  You can care about the issues, but that doesn’t make you qualified to address them.  Or at least, not as qualified as someone else could be.

Being a feminist means calling out gender based injustice, of any kind.  Social, physical, financial, legal, anything.

Doing feminist media criticism is a much smaller and less important goal.  Feminist media criticism means looking at a media product through the lens of how genders are presented.  Not looking for justice or injustice or anything as simple as that, but just all the many many ways male and female appear onscreen.

For me, this is what I look for when I am looking at female characters in film:

  1. Presence
  2. Voice
  3. Agency


Presence means, are they even there onscreen!  Most Indian films easily pass this test.  This is the reason the required romance plot is a good thing, from the feminist media criticism perspective.  It means at least the woman has to be there in the film in order for the romance to take place.  The same is true of the “mother” character.  Yes, love interest and mother roles are not the best or most interesting parts, but it does mean a woman is there in the filmic world.  Unlike in American films such as 12 Angry Men, Apocalypse Now (yes, the village women and the Playboy bunnies, but just barely), all the movies about the angry divorced guy who lives alone.

Voice means the woman has her own perspective, her own hopes and dreams and ideals, and the are shown to the audience.  Many Indian films do not pass this test.  But many do, still more than American films.  Something like Kareena’s character in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it is a very small character, but she is able to express what she wants in life and what she thinks about the world.  Or Preity in Lakshya, she isn’t the hero of the film, but she does get to express her thoughts and dreams.  The film can have a male hero and be male focused, and still give voice to the female characters.  Unlike, for instance, Katrina Kaif in Dhoom 3, who never fully says what she wants in life.  Or Deepika in Tamasha.  She exists only in relation to the hero, we don’t hear her “voice” on its own.

And then there is agency, the ability to take those desires and turn them into changes in the world.  This is the part where Indian films most often (and frustratingly) fail.  As does Indian society, the right of a woman to do what makes her happy just because it makes her happy is ever illusive.  Is the woman able to take her voice and put it into actions, make something happen that she wants?  Or is it her place to go along with what happens to her, always reacting instead of acting?  Think of Sonakshi in Dabangg.  Yes, she has voice, she tells Salman that she will not marry while her father is alive.  But then Salman and her father together decide how this marriage will happen, and she is just silently dragged along.  Sonam in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo would be another one.  Gracy Singh in Munna Bhai MBBS.  And dozens of others.

Image result for chandni

(This should be obvious, but almost ANY straight romance film includes these three elements for the heroine.  She has to be present for at least half the film to make the romance work, she has to voice her desires in order for us to understand the progress of the romance, and in most films, she expresses her agency by picking her own happy ending.  Yes, it revolves around marriage which in a simplistic view is regressive, but the larger message is a woman getting what she wants in life)


So let’s look at a romance, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.  On the one hand, it plays into the trope of the man who can only see the “sexy” woman.  And the tomboy who has to reaffirm gender normativity before she can be “rewarded” with love.  But look at it through presence-voice-agency.

Rani Mukherjee: Voices her love for Shahrukh.  Uses her agency to choose to have his child although she knows it may kill her and he would prefer her not to risk it.  Chooses to leave letters behind directing what will happen to Shahrukh after her death, making sure her “voice” is still heard.

Kajol: Voices her love and her feelings more clearly to the audience than any other character.  Plans to voice her love to Shahrukh himself.  Chooses not to, and to leave him.  Chooses to marry Salman, after making him wait until she is ready.  Chooses to go away to her work commitment at the summer camp even though Salman does not want her to.  Chooses to finally “voice” her love for Shahrukh, even though it is to the wrong man as it turns out.  And then returns to passivity at the end, not able to “voice” or “act” or even be “present” for that final speech between the two men.  BAD.  But the rest, GOOD!

(Shahrukh wants her to go, but she chooses to leave.  Because of her connection to Rani, NOT to Shahrukh)

And that is ignoring all the other strong present female characters.  Reema Lagoo, Farida Jalal, Himani Shivpuri, even Sana Saeed has her strong moments.  And they give each other strength too.  Rani to Kajol, Kajol to Rani, Rani to Sana Saeed, Kajol to Sana Saeed, Farida to Sana Saeed, Himani Shivpuri to Kajol, Reema Lagoo to Kajol.  This whole film is a network of women, supporting and sustaining each other.  Yes, the plot revolves around a romance, making Shahrukh the center of that net.  But that does not take away that the net exists.  And nor does Kajol’s make-over moment, or Rani’s mini-skirts, or any of the rest of it.  You can criticize those moments, but you have to also be aware of the underlying structure of the film.


And then there’s something like Dangal.  Which, in superficialities, is wonderful.  No romance, two heroines who succeed in a man’s world and do not conform to gender norms, a clear feminist message.

But does a feminist message make the film itself feminist?  If your regressive old uncle, who is against maternity leave and birth control and worried about false rape accusations, says “it’s too bad you didn’t get that promotion, you are much better than that guy who was up for it against you!”, does that make him a feminist?  Or does that mean that in this one situation he is saying the right thing, but his person as a whole is still a male chauvinist?


Let’s look for Presence-Voice-Agency in Dangal.  Presence, yes, very high marks there.  But a reminder, there are many films that have equal “presence” for their female characters, for instance Rani and Kareena in Mujshe Dosti Karoge have equal amounts of screen time.  But that film was not praised for giving us strong actresses in strong roles, because it was “only” a love story.  The female characters have to break through to a male realm before they are given any credit for strength.  The meta-commentary Dangal inspires by showing that women only have value when they act like men, is itself dangerous.

(Two women expressing what they want, loudly.  And what they want is about their relationships to each other more than to any man.  And in the end, it is THEIR decisions that drive the resolution of the plot)

Voice, kind of.  They talk about their disinterest in wrestling, and then their interest in it, as children.  But they don’t seem to have anything of their own beyond wrestling.  Which is an interest given to them by their father.  Are they voicing their own interests or just repeating the “voice” their father has given them?  I don’t necessarily have an answer for that, but it is a question that should be asked.

Agency, definitely a question.  They have agency, briefly, the oldest breaks away from her father and makes her own decisions.  And then makes her own decision to come back to her father.  But that is the extent of the agency shown.  Is that enough agency?  Again, I don’t have an answer, but it is the important question.  And the meta-commentary of the discussion around the film, that instead of really considering it the answer often is “but their father only wants good things for them!”, is also dangerous.


That’s the starting point, just looking for these kinds of elements, the big big elements of the film rather than the small moments.  But that’s not all, you can take it and use it to explain why you do or do not like a film, to understand more fully why it is meaningful to you, why you as a viewer enjoy it.  To understand the level the filmmakers wanted you to see.  Not just if these elements are present, but how they are used.

Let’s take DarrDarr is about a stalker, played by a loveable young movie star.  I’ve heard criticism that Shahrukh, or the film, is “bad” because it has stalking in it.

But we don’t care about the hero, we care about the heroine and how people relate to her.  Our heroine starts out with presence, but no voice or agency.  She is being sung-at, not singing, in her introduction.  She returns to her home and continues to have no voice or agency.  Her brother and boyfriend talk about what she wants from life, what they are arranging for her, and so on.

Until the stalking starts.  At first, it is handled without her voice or agency.  Her family silences her.  It is only when they start listening, “hearing” her, that the situation begins to be addressed.  She can express her fear, her unhappiness, etc.  But she still has no agency, while her boyfriend is out there chasing and defending, she is just reacting.

And the film shows how her agency is taken more and more away.  Her boyfriend and brother decide she should be married.  Her new husband reacts to danger by locking her in the apartment.  And the film shows that this, the final straw, is more damaging than the danger outside.  The loss of agency, of voice, even of “presence”, being totally taken away from the world, drives her to a nervous collapse.  And just to clarify, the other characters at this point do not hear her “voice”, but the director makes sure it is shouting out to the audience, the only voice we care about.

Finally, in the last section of the film, her husband gives her herself back.  They go on a long honeymoon, she embraces and performs her sexuality, playfully takes control, and when the danger reappears, her husband has learned to respect her as a person, rather than hiding her away from danger.  In the end, SHE is the one to defeat danger, by confronting it head on, and declaring once and for all HER wishes, to be with her husband, not her stalker.


Or look at Jab We Met, for example, which is all about “voice”.  There is a reason the heroine is named “Geet” and the hero runs a communications company.  In the beginning, our hero has shut out all female “voices”.  The opening is silent.  He does not want to hear what his girlfriend wanted which made her leave him, he does not want to hear what his mother wants, he wants to be cut off from other people’s hopes/desires/dreams.  But Kareena’s “voice” is so loud, it breaks through.  Her actual voice, talking at him, but also her whole personality and being, what she wants in life, the way she sees the world, everything about her is “loud” and it gets through to him.  He falls in love with her voice, and because he loves her, he also loves her “agency”, goes along with it, more even than her own family.  She controls her destiny, and he helps her do that.  But what is heartbreaking, both for the audience and Shahid, is when she loses her agency, when her boyfriend takes that right to make decisions away from her, and suddenly she loses her “voice” as well.

Now she is silent, and it breaks our hearts in the audience and Shahid’s in the film.  He has to give her her “voice” back, her identity.  And he has to give her her “agency” as well, while her boyfriend is trying to tell her what will happen, what they should do, Shahid is simply waiting for her to make her own decision.  That is why it was a sleeper hit, a epic romance, still a beloved film.  It’s not about the funny scenes and the cute couple, it’s about a film that revolves around female agency and voice and how important that is.


And this is the explanation for why so many people didn’t “get” Jab Harry Met Sejal.  Jab We Met is easy, our hero is there constantly encouraging her voice.  But in  Jab Harry Met Sejal, our “hero” acts as both the one encouraging her voice and agency and the one destroying it, depending on the scene.  Which is also true to life, relationships have starts and stops and compromises.  But you can’t just look at what the hero is doing, you have to look at the heroine and the film as a whole.  In the end, the heroine gets what she wants, everything she wants.  The hero doesn’t show up to “rescue” her, she has already rescued herself and he is her reward.  All his denying of her “voice” and her “agency” throughout the film results in misery for him every time.  The overall lesson is to listen to women, and for women to speak up and grab what they want.  To be “selfish” as our heroine says of herself.  It’s about so much more than one possible moment of “slut-shaming” or whatever other internet buzzword you choose.  Our hero may not always be right, that’s a radical feminist lesson right there.

(When she leaves, what he is missing is the absence of her voice, her presence, and it makes him realize that she was wiser than he was, that he should have trusted her decisions and her right to control her own life.  He is our hero, but our hero was wrong)


This is something you may sense while watching a film, but it is hard to see or fully understand until you think more about it.  What is easy to see is those one moments that suddenly make you go “nope, can’t enjoy this movie any more!”  And you have a right to those moments!  Everyone has that, the one thing that suddenly breaks the fantasy and pulls them out.  If it is Kajol’s tomboy makeover in Kuch Kuch, or the stalking song in, well, anything, that suddenly turns you off, that is your right as a viewer, and a reaction worthy of discussion.  But it is not your right as a film critic to dismiss an entire movie based on that one element.  Acknowledge it, certainly.  Discuss why it bothered you, absolutely.  But discuss the rest of the film as well.


Calling a whole film “feminist” or “anti-feminist” isn’t something you can say based on that one moment, one element.  You can’t just looking at Dangal and saying “woman succeeding in a man’s world-good!  Feminist!” Or looking at Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and saying “tomboy gets a makeover-bad! Anti-feminist!”  You have to dig deeper, ask real questions, have a real discussion.

The problem is when you, publishing a think piece in a respected legitimate venue, say “this is a bad movie and an evil movie because there is a tomboy makeover scene”.  And there are more and more and more writers saying things like that.  Focusing on their individual reaction, on the small thing that they saw that bothered them, instead of stepping back and thinking of the whole sweep of the film.  Understanding what is going on under the surface, the subconscious messages being sent.


Let me take another one.  Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.  This film troubled me.  Because our heroine starts out with presence, voice, and agency.  And then our hero takes all of those away from her.  He agrees with her, and that is what defeats her.  Because her fight becomes his fight and she disappears from the film.  The message of the film is good, the message is feminist.  But that surface message, the viewer will remember it for a few days or weeks if they try hard.  But the under the surface message, that a woman only needs to speak until she has a man to speak for her, that is harder to forget because you don’t even realize that it is a message you are hearing.

(He is telling her to hit him, speaking out her pain for her.  Her voice, the female singer in the duet, is barely present compared to the male)


That is the responsibility of the feminist media critic.  It’s the responsibility of any good critic to do this for any issue.  To pull those hidden messages into the light, to show them to you so you can choose to remember or forget them.  And when it is minimized to just the surface elements, those cancers under the skin can be missed.

Let’s look at it this way.  An article about the jokes about male on male rape in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, that is the equivalent of a doctor pointing out a new mole that might be cancerous.  You can see the mole for yourself, you don’t need someone else to point it out.  What you need is a trained professional who can dig that mole out, and look at what is under the skin and tell you if it is cancerous or benign.



Okay, now you can all disagree or agree with me or put in your own thoughts or whatever else you want!  Go crazy!

68 thoughts on “Feminism Versus Feminist Film Criticism

  1. Wonderful. This is the kind of post that first attracted me to your blog, and which has become sadly too rare of late. We can get fan fics and drooling over stars in plenty of places, but not this kind of analysis. I hope you’ll do more of them in future.

    (BTW, I haven’t seen either JHMS or Anupama Chopra’s review of it, but in the past, after seeing her pan many Hindi films for not being “Hollywod” enough — that is, she was judging them by the criteria applied to western films by western critics — I was curious to see how she reacted to Hollywood films, and saw several of her reviews of them. I was not surprised to see that she usually completely missed the point of those HW films, but what was even more surprising was that she was judging them by the tropes of Indian films! For instance, she was constantly using terms like, “the hero does this”, “the villain wants this”, which is not the way HW films are structured, and I was very surprised. Even Baradwaj Rangan hardly understands non-Indian films, IMO. It’s as if the Indian narrative style is in their DNA, and, despite all their pretensions, they can’t let go of it to understand a film coming from a different culture.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words! And it is interesting, how often Indian film reviews fall into that gap of not appreciating or acknowledging the Indian style, while at the same time not fully understanding the Hollywood style. It goes the other way as well, there are many non-Indian background reviewers (Rachel Dwyer leaps to mind) who see Indian film as merely Hollywood-plus songs, without realizing that they are truly a different animal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can far more easily understand (and forgive) the non-Indian critic who judges by Hollywood standards, because there is really no way for them to even learn about “the Indian narrative style”, as Indians themselves are so busy denying that it exists, or acknowledging it only to be ashamed of it.

        Somewhat related — I started watching Kapoor and Sons a few days ago, but I had to stop it after a half hour. Not because it wasn’t well made, but because it was, in a way, too well-made, but in a Hollywood style. It felt like watching an American film where everyone spoke Hindi (at least for half the time 🙂 ) Did you see it and get that feeling, too? Since I only saw the first half hour, I can only comment on how the family dysfunction was shown — to me it felt like a very *American* dysfunction, and not an Indian one. Does that make sense to you?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Very interesting about Kapoor and Sons. Might I add that the setting for the film (quaint hill station full of urbane people and largish homes in the middle of estates with no immediate neighbors) is elitist. I loved this film because I’m extremely familiar with the setting.

          That said, yes, the conflict and the way it was presented was extremely standard hollywood trope. To the point of it being Hollywood masala. 😁

          Your take on Indian narrative style is also very accurate.

          Each industry within India has one too. You can tell the difference between Malayalam, telugu, Bangla, Punjabi, Tamil, Bollywood mainstream, Bollywood blockbuster, bhansali, Bollywood desi, Rajshri, Bollywood college, KJo, etc.

          And we accept them. If Bhansali made Anarkali of Arrah and it looked exactly the same we’d wonder what went wrong!

          I think when we think of Indian cinema critics in the press, we need to analyse them with the same context as we do the various narrative styles. And they do have pretty consistent records and styles.

          In all honesty, a lot of these critics are influenced by opinions already doing the rounds on social media.


  2. Back to your main thesis — how do you resolve the tension between portraying the story and characters “realistically” versus making a feminist statement? Your example of Rajjo in Dabangg is a good example. I once had a discussion with another non-Indian blogger about this. She was lamenting the lack of a good feminist role model in that film, and wished that they might have had a female police officer as assistant to Chulbul. I pointed out that that would be highly unlikely for that setting, but that the fact that Chulbul’s mother, a widow with a child, had a happy second marriage, was itself an enormous “feminist” statement for that milieu. She had to agree, but still wished for her version of a feminist role model, even if it wasn’t realistic, arguing that sometimes you need to portray the ideal that doesn’t exist, in order to inspire people to achieve that ideal. Your thoughts?


    • Agree completely. Dimple being a happily remarried widow is a much more important statement than just having a female assistant at the police station would be. In the same way, the romance being cross-caste is as important as giving the heroine more agency. Which is the other part of good film criticism, if I were to write a full review of Dabangg (which I will get around to one of these days), I would have to balance Sonakshi’s lack of agency, with her status as lower caste, with Dimple’s strong character, with the respect that Salman’s character gives to both of them, even with Arbaaz’s tiny romance, and ultimately would consider the film progressive. You can acknowledge that one element is missing without throwing out the whole rest of the film.

      And of course the big thing, a basic understanding of what is “progressive” for Indian society versus other societies. A cross-caste romance, an explicitly cross-caste romance, is much more important than not having a female constable.


  3. Thank you for writing this. You hit the nail on the head of a certain uneasiness I’ve always felt with many of the English language (Indian) reviewers of Indian films. I’ve never really been able to express it beyond saying they just don’t get it. It always struck me as a lack of intersectionality and little bit of Ivory tower liberalism. They’ll call out a film for anti-feminism but miss entirely that its addressing caste or socio-economic issue or something else well.
    I absolutely think Indian films have a long way to go when it comes to how women are represented on screen and but I also think its hardly ever so simple as that. Films are a reflection of real-life and, to some extent, changes have to happen on the ground before we start seeing that on screen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As you say, they have a long way to go as to how women are represented onscreen, but the first step is for them to be represented at all. It is easy to pick and choose Hollywood films that have wonderful female characters. But that is partly because there are so comparatively few films with notable female characters at all, versus how well they are represented in Indian films. That is the first most important step, and Indian films have already easily overcome it. Something like Fidaa, or Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani or Kaatru Veliyidai, you can’t just dismiss it because of one “problematic” moment, or because it is “just” a romance. It shows real full women onscreen dealing with situations that affect women every day, and that is hugely important.

      And yes, the reflection of real life. Films can deal with female characters outside of the realm of romance and family when women are allowed outside of those realms! Showing a love marriage is still radical and is still a message that needs to be given, it’s not time yet to move on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think Bollywood movies have moved on with the times regarding pre-marital sex,women drinking or swearing etc.It’s not held up as a huge thing anymore.To quote the sexist director from the AIB song featuring Kangana “Haven’t we given you alcohol,swear words etc?” The problem is that Bollywood seems to think that a modern woman’s depiction stop just with that.Much needs to be done.And subtly.Like you say with Sonakshi and Dimple in Dabangg.Without ALWAYS making a huge message movie on it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Anu, you wrote:
          “Films are a reflection of real-life and, to some extent, changes have to happen on the ground before we start seeing that on screen.”
          I think you can have both exactly because a movie can narrate something you wish would change. So, a change can start on the screen before happening in real life.

          Data Blue, I detest “messages” done with a filmic mallet…I tend to strip the movie of the ‘nailed’ message and look at the movie, if it really lives up to that message. I am rather rebellious…maybe that’s why I have so much affection for ShahRukh and his work.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think the key is “to some extent”. One film that bothers me is Shaandar. Because it has this huge message about being body positive. But that is a message that makes no sense in India today! Where you only have to look outside the NRI Hindi films to find all kinds of messages praising the full figured woman over the “skinny” one. And at the same time they are giving this out of touch message, they are ignoring the obvious message that no woman should be forced into marrying a man who hates her. That is the timely message, the one that society is still struggling with, and they are trying to leapfrog past it to some other unrelated thing that only effects the upper 2%.

            On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 2:52 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • I agree – I think movies can absolutely push for change in society or at least get the conversation started. But it has be done right and it also has to feel organic to the film. If it’s forced, I think you’ll just alienate the viewers entirely. Like Datablue was saying, Bollywood film may show a woman drinking/smoking/having pre-marital sex but I’d guess to a lot of women in India, some of that is so far outside the realm of what they can realistically do that it may as well be fantasy. So, I guess the question is how can a film act as an agent for drastic change but still be relate-able? It’s a tough balance.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I think that’s what bothered me abotu Secret Superstar. It showed an everyday problem that has an everyday solution, but instead the everyday solution, it chose to show the fantasy, which is useless to the audience.

            On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 3:41 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Right, Anu, it’s – in any way – a matter of how relevant in which context.
            SecretSuperstar missed the opportunity by switching the tone (and again it was a man who did the important deeds ‘for a dream come true’…*sigh*)
            Shaandar missed the opportunity by focussing on a minor aspect.
            But there are movies like Dor, f. ex….or Anjaam


        • Yes, exactly. Sex, drinking, language, those are bandaids on the real problem. The same with showing successful career woman. That is easy. What is hard is to make those women the center of the plot, and make sure the entire plot supports them. English/Vinglish, our heroine never did anything “unladylike”, and yet it was extremely feminist. Queen isn’t feminist because Kangana takes a drink and talks about sex, it is everything else. And so on and so on.

          On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 2:13 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. What are your thoughts about female villains? Don’t they have presence,voice and agency? More than a whip wielding Hema Malini,anyway.Let’s start with the familiar.The evil mother-in-law say Bindu in Ghar Ho to Aisa.The men in her family- ie her husband,sons and son-in-law have no agency and bows to her dictates though they are no angels themselves.It’s only when Meenakshi Sheshadri comes along and usurps her authority that the household changes.But even strong Meenakshi is put in her place by our hero Anil Kapoor.Or more recently that nasty madam in Mardaani who sells young girls? She made her presence felt even though her role was minuscule compared to Rani’s.


    • Yes, absolutely. This is why films with strong female villains can certainly be feminist. Kajol from VIP2 would be another great one. Or Ramya Krishnan in Padayappa. The mere fact of them being the villain does not make the female unfeminist. But if there are other women in the film who lose voice/agency and the film treats that as good, or if the “happy ending” is the villain losing voice/agency/presence (not just being taken away to jail, but being taught how to be a “good” woman), then it is not. And we see that all the time, right? the “evil” woman who just needed one tight slap from her husband to be put in her place. Or the “evil” woman who just had to fall in love with the hero and learn to follow his wishes, and then she would turn good. Or the “evil” woman who is set up in contrast to the “good” woman and the “good” woman is the one who is always silent and obedient.

      On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 1:58 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • One reason I love Bansali’s Devdas, even though it doesn’t follow the novel, especially in having Aish and Madhuri meet, is the wide range of women characters. Women in that movie are all kinds of complicated, and all kinds of morally gray. Just to take Devdas’ sister-in-law as an example. She’s really not nice, but at the same time, can you imagine how annoying it would be to be Devdas’ sister-in-law? I might resort to some pretty underhanded tactics myself.

        I chuckle at Devdas thinking he has any right to judge any of them, when he owes any goodness in his life to women. You just know he had one or more women in London feeding him, caring for him, and probably doing his homework too! 🙂

        I don’t tend to judge entertainment as feminist or not, unless it is blatantly misogynistic, but I’ll comment on that after I read all the interesting comments!


        • I really don’t like Bhansali’s Devdas, but not for lack of female characters. Absolutely agree, a wide variety of women present onscreen, not all “saintly”.

          On Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 5:46 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

  5. This nails why I loved Fanaa. Kajol has presence, voice and agency through the whole film. She chooses to go to New Delhi against her father’s wishes. She chooses to spend time with and ultimately have premarital sex with Aamir against her friends’ wishes. She raises her child, apparently without shame and with the support of her father. And ultimately she chooses to kill Aamir even though she loves him deeply all the way to the end. And this is all done within the context of her being a good daughter, wife and mother. Kajol’s performance is spectacular through the whole narrative as she grows from being a girl who is blind physically and to the ways of the world to one who sees more clearly than anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like those analytical posts of yours which doesn’t fail to give a very clear picture of what you want to convey.
    Strangely (or not) I agree with everything you wrote and I also agree to Moimeme. Although I never look at movies with certain ‘points’ on an inner list (like you rightly do with “presence, voice, agency”) because I have no interest to be a film critic, I still have the same regard when I ‘value’ the position of a girl or woman gets both in the narration and in the filming (presentation).
    I may vince at what I think of as a laps when the rest of the movie doesn’t disappoint my sense of fairness and partner-like relationship (which in general extends to almost all the human realtions I encounter), but it would be a crumb and I only look for something in the crumbs if the most important thing is there.
    When I started to watch Hindi movies I was astonished that I had no difficulties to understand the different way a society with its trappings, flaws and strengths is pictured in Hindi movies because till then I only was accustomed to European and American cinema (with some forays into oscar awarded global cinema). The reason may be my kind of watching movies…it is like watching real people (regardless how unreal they are because in a movie everything is ‘real’)…I try to connect with them on an emotional level…and emotions don’t depend on East-West-North-South, religion, class, status etc. If I cannot make a connect, I will immediately ask myself why not which will lead me either to a second watch or result in a “forget it”.
    I only analyze movies when talking or writing about with other people…which I tremendously like to do 😀
    My feelings about KuchKuchHotaHai are those you put in words. My feelings about JabHarryMetSejal you got to read (I could still continue to write about this movie). My feelings about Dangal was disappointment (I did see almost nothing of this ‘feminism’ with which one labled the movie…there was much much more feminism in ChakDe (a very mature movie!). However, I found it VERY interesting how easily the public opinion could be manipulated only by giving an intelligent-sounding stamp on a subject/person/narrative when basically the intelligence was hidden in the marketing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me, the analysis starts by looking at my own feelings. Did I feel like I could relate to the female character? Did I enjoy the film? Okay, then there was something there under the surface that was coming through to me, and it is my job to dig it out. And that is more important than any small “crumb” like you say that causes a momentary wince.

      On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 2:43 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  7. I’m fascinated by your Presence-Voice-Agency analysis — and feeling pretty ignorant for not having been previously aware of that criteria. When trying to apply it to other movies, I was thinking that Najeera seems to score high on all three. Or am I missing something?


    • Presence-voice-agency described in this simple way is just my thing, but they are the standard words you hear in feminist critique, real critique, and this is what they mean when they are used in that way.

      And either you are mentioning a movie I don’t know or Najeera is a miss-spelling and now I am very curious!

      On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 3:04 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • Yes, exactly! That is why Neerja is the one I keep referencing as such a wonderfully feminist film. Not only does our heroine have presence, she is the one sustaining presence of the film. And her voice/perspective is the one we are locked in to. And her decisions drive everything not just in her life, but in the lives of all her staff and passengers. And that’s without even getting in to her having survived an abusive marriage, her relationship with her mother, the mention that her parents wanted a daughter more than a son, and giving little girls a real true real life heroine to look up to.

          And all of this without turning her into a woman who acts like a man. She isn’t violent, she doesn’t have casual sex or drink or swear, she doesn’t even raise her voice.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I totally get what you are saying, and love how you explained it and offered specific examples. There is a similar issue in fashion, where certain styles are described by the fashion press as “liberating” but when seen through a feminist lens, are just the opposite. Also, like you, I distinguish between my personal political stance as a feminist and my professional work as a fashion historian who uses feminist theory as a lens. There is a bit of overlap, but I generally try to separate my description of what is from my prescription of what “should be”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What makes it really complicated is when my identity as a feminist is actually in conflict with my feminist analysis. For instance, as a Feminist I don’t like Aitraaz, with Priyanka as the predatory woman in a man’s world and Kareena giving up her career to get married. But through feminist film theory, it is great, because both characters have strong voices and loads of agency. I just don’t like what they do with them.

      On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 4:23 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 2 people

  9. Presence-voice-agency just gave me a lightbulb moment on why I loved Fanaa so much. Kajol is the driver of her own narrative throughout the film. First she chooses to go to New Dehli against her father’s wishes. Then she chooses to embark on a romance with Aamir against her friends’ wishes. She chooses to have premarital sex thinking she will never see Aamir again and chooses to raise their son as an unmarried mother (with the support of her father). When Aamir resurfaces in her life she chooses to marry him even after she discovers his true identity. And in the end she chooses to kill him even though she still loves him and honors their relationship (contrasted with Aamir who can’t bring himself to shoot her in the end).

    Kajol plays the hell out of this woman, starting out as literally and figuratively blind to the real world, then maturing into someone who has her eyes wide open and a strong moral compass. And she does this in the context of being a good daughter, a good mother and a good wife. Aamir got equal billing with her but this is her movie, 100%.

    What’s amazing is none of the reviews I read touched on Kajol’s agency throughout the movie, even saying that she was led by Aamir into all her actions which is clearly not supported by the narrative.

    Dangal was definitely the father’s story, not the story of the daughters. But I read that the area where it’s set has a very high rate of selective abortion and child marriage. So it’s not feminist but on the other hand the father valued his daughters for their talents in a way that was far out of the mainstream culture. And that’s interesting too. Just not a huge step forward for feminism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you about Fanaa and also the (very important) step in Dangal…and I would have wished the marketing of the movie would have concentrated just on this important step…it would have been more honest.


    • Yes!!!! That is it exactly! you are so smart. Fanaa in plot could be “regressive” because it’s all about a woman as a daughter-lover-mother and so on and so on. While Dangal could be considered progressive because of the story of female achievements. And yet it doesn’t necessarily feel that way when you are watching it because of how it is presented.

      And yes to the Dangal message, Aamir also did this really cute ad:

      On Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 4:25 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Have you seen this Newsweek interview with Aamir? He addresses why Dangal is told in the father’s voice: http://www.newsweek.com/bollywood-icon-aamir-khan-secret-superstar-worldwide-success-dangal-and-688775

        “I was very fortunate to have two scripts come my way, both talking about similar issues in different ways. Dangal has a strong male protagonist leading the journey, and that’s an important voice, because it speaks to the men in Indian society. India is a very patriarchal society. Here, you see a man who is telling other men that this is something I should be doing. He thinks a son was going to fulfill his dreams, but it’s a daughter that fulfills his dreams. That’s a big message to Indian society. Dangal primarily speaks to parents.”

        Secret Superstar is about the same issue, but it’s through the voice of a 14-year-old girl and is about her dreams and desires. It’s a story that speaks to a young teenage audience and tells them they have the right to fight for their own individuality, their desires, their hopes.”


        • I don’t know if I saw that particular interview, but I remember hearing him say it during the promotions of the film. It’s a tricky one, because the structure is still not feminist, that’s just what it is. But I’m not going to fault the message necessarily, and at least they are aware of why and how they made it like that. But ultimately, it’s still not a movie made to teach little girls to be strong and independent (which Aamir himself says). Secret Superstar on the other hand is feminist in structure, but the ultimate message of “the only escape is a fantasy” bothers me.

          On Sun, Nov 5, 2017 at 12:59 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

  10. In Jab We Met, I’ve always been intrigued by Kareena’s make-up and costuming during her “depressed” period — particularly her makeup or lack thereof. (Actually, I think she looks great with little or no makeup (or made up to look like no makeup)). Anyway, she’s still “present” with a voice and agency in the film sense by being NOT present in the worldly sense.


  11. Pingback: Monday Morning Questions Post! What is Your Favorite Indian Film for Women? | dontcallitbollywood

  12. Thank you for such an educational post! I like the distinction you and joyomama have drawn between professional analysis (in any field) with a feminist lens and personal feminism as a political stance. Of course both do inform each other, and should, but I think one should be conscious of, and perhaps let your audience know, how they are informing each other.

    I’m glad that mostly we, as commenters, talk about whether we like movies or not and why–including how they relate to wider societies–rather than do media analysis of them. I’m quite glad to read your more analytical posts, but I like that even in those you usually tell us your personal reaction as well as your critical reaction.

    Quick summary of my brand of feminism–skip if too tedious! For me, feminism is a political movement to liberate women, as a class, from patriarchal society. This goes beyond “gender equality” and the tactical priorities are those that benefit women as a class and substantially improve the material conditions of women’s lives. Acknowledging that women are a class with mutual interests is part of the analysis, and another part is intersectionality–the fact that some women face multiple axes of oppression, along race, ethnicity, caste, sexual orientation, disability, and other lines. As a white, currently abled, straight, middle class feminist I try to follow the lead of marginalized feminists.

    I think non-Western feminist movements are much more likely to bring about structural changes in society than Western ones, because we’ve been sucked into individualistic “empowerment’ narratives that focus on achievements of individual women. Feminism has largely been turned into a personal identity that informs what we consume (including media), not so much a political stance that informs political action with other feminists.

    Which brings me to your criteria of presence, voice, and agency. I agree that they are useful aspects to look at how women are represented in film, or any type of story. But aren’t they, again, a bit individualistic? Could there be an additional criteria about whether sex-based power differentials are made explicit (wouldn’t have to be in a preachy way–they can just be noted explicitly, or shown clearly but implicitly)? Or how about “perpetuates stereotypes about how men or women “are” and what men and women are “for”? Just thoughts, I don’t know.

    About Hindi movies–I LOVE how many women there are in them, how many women-centered stories there are (or at least women-centered subplots). You are right that B’wood beats H’wood totally in the “presence” category. I also LOVE how intergenerational Hindi movies are. Not in some kind of idealized way, but in a way that shows old people, especially old women, as real people still. How many H’wood movies have ever shown multiple generations of a family dancing together? It seems to happen in every 3rd Hindi movie I see. Both feel validating to me as an aging woman.

    But overall, I don’t judge entertainment as feminist or non-feminist–unless there is a woman-hating theme to a movie that seems to advocate violence toward or domination over girls and women as somehow proper or necessary. Entertainment is very personal and other commenters have eloquently talked about the relationship between entertainment and society–each changing the other.

    Finally–I have to say something about Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Sorry this is so long already! What I object to in KKHH is the use of the tropes that a girl doesn’t become a woman until she loves a man, and that, once in love, her purpose in life and her competency are lost. It goes way beyond the “makeover”. Two things would have gone a long way to fixing this problem. 1. If Anjali had still beat Rahul at basketball even dressed in a sari with hair and make-up done; or 2. If she had lost and Rahul had been disappointed and contrite about exploiting her femininity, rather than exultant that he had put her in her place. Rahul falling in love with Anjali when he sees her 1. in a very feminine avatar, and 2. as mother figure to his own and lots of other little kiddies, that is a clear message about what women are “for”. Blech.

    But I claim no objectivity in applying these standards! Shah Rukh in One 2 Ka 4 is a paragon of toxic masculinity, only loves Juhi when he sees her as a housewife and mother, and is infuriated (at first) when she reveals herself to be a clever professional who has fooled him. He’s also a massive dick to his housemate and the poor little orphans. But I love that movie. 🙂

    Thanks for reading!


    • I think you end with what is so important, that you claim no objectivity. Which, in a larger sense, means you would not go around saying “if you like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, you are a bad feminist, because I don’t like it for feminist reasons”. People can see different things in films, it is highly subjective. It is a rare film that I would say “No one should watch this because it has a dangerous message”. And yet, it seems like I am seeing that in some article about every film that comes out!!! Because there is one bad thing about it, suddenly no one should enjoy this movie and if you do enjoy it, you have to defend your enjoyment.

      And, as you mention, there is also the cultural component. To beat up on poor Kuch Kuch some more, it has a terrible message of a woman reaffirming gender norms, yes. But it also has the very important message of a daughter being the center of everything. Rani died to give him a daughter, Shahrukh was comforted in his grief by how wonderful having a daughter is, it was never even brought up that part of the reason he should remarry is so he can try for a son, the daughter was spoiled and adored and considered the gem of the household. Which is a small element and doesn’t change the other areas that are less good, but is a message that is very important for the Indian audience, while it is commonplace for audiences from elsewhere. I know I have heard from my friends who were little girls when the film came out how wonderful it was to see a little girl onscreen, how much they identified with the “Little Anjali” character. So if you are watching it as a little girl who never sees little girls in Indian cinema, or as someone who has had a lot of reinforcement for how every parent wants a boy, that might leap out.

      But that’s just one element of the film, there are many elements there, and depending on your background, and mood, and all kinds of subjective specific things, one or more element might leap out at you. And that’s fine and good and all of that, I just hate it when these think pieces come out that focus on the one tiny element to the exclusion of all else.

      This is something I see more and more in the Indian English language press, and I think it is in imitation of the western English language press without the background that many western reviewers have. In the reviewers I enjoy in Western press (most of them with advanced degrees in film or media studies), there is a better balance of “this is all the good stuff, this is the underlying structure, and now let me point out the one moment that doesn’t fit”. Instead of just focusing on that one moment to the exclusion of everything else.

      On Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 6:28 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • Reviews that present ‘a balance of “this is all the good stuff, this is the underlying structure, and now let me point out the one moment that doesn’t fit”’ are certainly the ones I enjoy the most–whether for US, UK, or Hindi movies.

        I agree that liking or not liking a movie, or book, or style of clothes or shoes, doesn’t make someone a good or bad feminist. My motto is “by their fruit you shall know them” when it comes to any political movement, and I tend to judge at the group level, not the individual. We’re all human after all! 🙂


        • And then we get into the whole “performative feminism” thing, which is a whole other conversation! But also drives me batty and seems to have an overlap with this topic. It’s easy and fun to repeat talking points about why a particular film is “bad” and feel like you are making a difference. It’s a lot harder to actually go out in the world and try to make a difference!

          On Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 8:21 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


          Liked by 2 people

          • Exactly! Especially because, how often do the people who “call out” others on the internet, actually speak up in real life when they see injustice occurring in front of them?

            On Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 9:21 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


            Liked by 1 person

          • I’m hearing these two terms “performative feminism” and “call out culture” for the first time. I think I got their general meaning from the context, but can you tell me if there are official definitions. Let me confess, so much of what is called “feminism” seems to be the complete antithesis of what we were all fighting for in the 1960’s and 70’s, that I almost don’t want to call myself a feminist. 😦 So I’m trying to learn the current terminology (and have already learned several that led me to the earlier conclusion). Thanks for your help.


          • I don’t know if there are official definitions, beyond just how they are used. For me, “performative feminism” is the same as “performative anti-racism” or “performative liberalism”, There’s a good way to do it, modeling correct behavior, like if you are in a staff meeting and someone refers to the office staff as “girls”, and you carefully call them “the women in the office” in your response. But most often now it seems like people are doing it not in order to teach others how to behave, but in order to gain the applause of others who already agree with them. Acting out feminism in order to get a response of “oh wow, she’s so feminist!’ rather than with an actual goal of doing good in the world.

            “Callout culture”, I think, is related. It’s where we are now where social progress has turned into a Where’s Waldo game. The first person to find and “callout” the problematic element in a comment or a film or anything else “wins”. And again, there is no goal beyond calling it out, no idea of creating an alternative narrative or even thinking about why this element might cause issues in the world, or how to help with those actual issues instead of just pointing them out.

            On Tue, Nov 7, 2017 at 5:51 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


            Liked by 1 person

          • I admit that I have a certain dislike for -“isms”. For me, basically, it is all about respect and acknowledgement. And there is no age limit. I even interact with a baby about thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes only in another way.
            I respect Anjali a lot, the grown-up one and the young one and I felt that the grown-up Anjali has not lost her panache. I also truly doubt that she would have married Salman. Salman’s respect for Anjali and for love being the base of a marriage makes him act like he does in the end…It’s a very positive message. Well, and I also got the feeling that Rahul was loving Anjali long before acknowledging it. He did not fall in love because it was Anjali in a Sari, he became conscious of his love because of her presence.
            I think it is not the most important, which roles plays a woman throughout her life but how she feels herself in the roles she takes over. Raees mother was not (what we call) an educated wife but she gave an education to Raees that made him respect women, and she stood up against the authority. She filled her life with the purpose she found important.
            Little Anjali was a strong girl not only admonishing her dad for not respecting her by being late but also acting against his wish or tricking him into action.


  13. Pingback: New Youtube Video! Feminist Film Theory Briefly Explained | dontcallitbollywood

  14. Thank you for this. I now have a better understanding of the difference between a feminist point of view and feminist film criticism. I, too, have thought that some of the English language reviewers of Hindi films are “off” but I hadn’t been able to articulate it exactly. It appears that they may be feminists but are not really engaging in feminist film criticism.

    I have wondered to what extent those reviewers are affected by the state of feminism in Indian society. As you have rightly pointed out, the ability of women in India to exercise agency in their lives at all is limited to a small percentage of those women. So perhaps focusing on a small part of a film which seems regressive is partly a reaction to where Indian society is at this moment, and concern or unhappiness that a film has failed to “move the ball forward.” Having said that, it is frustrating when the big picture gets lost because of that focus, especially when there can be multiple big picture messages that are positive for women.

    I especially appreciate your views on Dangal, which is a movie that really, truly bothered me because of the lack of agency of the two daughters (although I didn’t know enough to phrase it just that way). I just couldn’t understand all the hoopla around this being a feminist film, when it seemed to me that it was all about that father, and how he wanted his daughters to fulfill HIS dream. Yuck! Annoyed me no end!

    And a little side note about Twelve Angry Men: You know, of course, that women were not permitted to serve on juries in all 50 states when it first aired as a teleplay on CBS in 1954, and then when the movie was released in 1957. A “jury of one’s peers” was usually considered a male-only jury. You may be interested to know that subsequent stage productions which include women have been renamed Twelve Angry Jurors, and that an all-female adaptation has been written and performed called Twelve Angry Women.


    • Thank you for bringing up 12 Angry Men! I picked that one on purpose. Because it brings up a series of questions. The answer to the first one is “well, there are no women because women were not allowed to serve on juries”. Then the question can be “why are we watching a movie that is in such a segregated place, why are we expected to care about a story that only has men in it?” I mean, if it were an Indian movie, they would insert a flashback to a scene talking with a wife, or a romance with the court secretary, advice from the wise old cleaning woman who comes in to empty the trash, SOMETHING. Once you start to think about it as completely unacceptable to have an all male cast, you realize that the world can always open up, women are everywhere. Not that I’m saying 12 Angry Men shouldn’t be a cinema classic and so on, but it’s still a movie without women and it says something that was so unnoticed. The Women, the whole “hook” of it is that there are no male actors. 12 Angry Men and other films, that’s not the first thing you might think of.

      For me, and this might just be me, but some of the “feminist” criticism of films feels like it comes from a place of privilege on the part of the reviewer. They have the privilege of living in a way where, say, “bodyshaming” is a thing. Unlike other women who are living in a place where they just want the right to control their own bodies. And therefore some reviewers might miss the forest for the trees, complain about a moment of objectifying a female character and miss that the female character is shown taking control of her own life and defying her family and society to do it, with the support of the narrative and the hero (that same hero who might have been objectifying her two hours earlier for 2 lines of dialogue).

      Liked by 1 person

      • “miss the forest for the trees”…yeah, one would think that the forest is more obvious but halas! Far too often I get the feeling that people simply look out for the tree to have an excuse to dismiss the forest…maybe the forest is either too much or too scary to be considered.


  15. Ha! A lot of comments to catch up on here, and a very interesting discussion. I actually meant to follow up my earlier comments that day itself, but didn’t have the time and focus to write what I wanted to say properly. So, if we can go back to that earlier place in the discussion, I wanted to ask you how you would compare and contrast Dangal and Sultan. Sultan was criticized a lot by these same kind of reviewers because they said the heroine’s decision not to pursue the championship because of her pregnancy was “regressive.” (Now I thought that was just a piece of lazy writing — pregnancy as a plot device almost always is. Why hasn’t anyone in these stories heard of birth control?) But, using your criteria of presence, voice, and agency, Aarfa (Anushka’s character) was certainly present throughout the film, and she made this decision herself — no one forced or pressured her. In fact, her father even argues against it, and she clearly defends her action, saying this is what she wants to do. Now again by your criteria, can you call Sultan a feminist film? While it is the hero’s journey and story that is told, every single major turning point is driven by Aarfa’s actions. She is the reason why he becomes a wrestler in the first place, she is the one that encourages him to go on for the championship, even though she won’t be going, she is the one that breaks up the marriage, she is the one that gives him the new goal in life (the blood bank), and finally, she is the one that inspires him to win at the end. So really, his story is all about her and her decisions. He is reacting to her actions for the entire movie.

    A couple of other quick points:

    1. A lot of this kind of criticism comes from political ideology (not feminism as political ideology) and party affiliations. “Feminism” is just a convenient nail to hang it on, and that again is part of the greater political ideology driving the narrative. I don’t expect you to be up on Indian politics, but, for instance, that was behind a lot of the criticism of the first Bahubali film. And there is also the kind of reviews you mentioned, without any political motivation, where people really are trying to be “feminist” according to their lights.

    2. I get the feeling that a lot of times you are characterizing “Indian society” by what you read in the Indian English media and/or academic treatises, rather than lived experience of either you or people you know. It is a just a caution I want to sound, to keep in mind when you (or others) make generalizations about Indian society. An example would be the way some people above have said things like “Indian women have such little say in their lives.” I won’t even quibble about “which Indian women?” or “in which parts of India?”, but just point out that people apply this judgement to what women do outside the home. But, since a large majority of Indian women work and live inside the home, it is worthwhile looking at their lives within that social structure. The power structures and dynamics within families are quite complex, and many women indeed wield a lot of power there.

    3. I am bothered by your repeated usage of phrases like “it’s great to have baby girls”, or, “they think it’s wonderful that they have a daughter” in contexts that seem to imply that parents shouldn’t want to have sons, but only daughters. How is this any better than parents wanting to have only sons, and not daughters? Surely the goal of equality is that both should be equally valued, whichever the chances of nature throws up?

    Sorry for the comment marathon I seem to have been on tonight. I just had some free time after weeks of intense work, so you are the victim. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was noticing your comments, thinking maybe you are bucking for that Christmas card this year!!!!

      For your 3rd point, this is one of those good “performative” things. Some parents want/expect daughters, some want sons. But obviously in Indian society there is extra pressure to have sons, and to want sons. So I like it when a film goes out of the way to show “see? Some parents want and are happy with daughters, and that is fine and healthy”. Because there are already plenty of messages about how it is okay to want sons. If I were talking to an actual person, I would be fine with either preference. But if filmmakers have the option of choosing between the two, I appreciate that they are modeling how you can love and want a daughter.

      On Tue, Nov 7, 2017 at 6:16 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • This reminds me so much of the pro-daughter message in Pakistani dramas. It’s like a major male actor in that industry no longer says “I want a son” or “I would like a son” in any story anymore.

        It seems forced. You understand that it’s a message deliberately given and repeated despite the ground reality not really changing.

        Indian cinema is different. If anything, it’s slow to catch up on what’s already trending in the country. Either that or it presents a complete fantasy. Like cabaret in the 60s and 70s. IRL, there were no iconic cabaret clubs in India where the rich could go with their wives and watch a show. You had ghazal and classic music performances but not cabaret.

        Same with most stage dance performance with dance troops. That exists maybe in college even today. Not beyond that. Paid dancers at events are rare because organisers have to accommodate long speeches by VIP guests at formal events.

        Swearing came to Indian screens via MTV Roadies. MTV Spiltsvilla and other music channel reality shows resulted in the drinking, swearing, Western outfit wearing new Indian woman becoming “cool” or desirable for Indian films. Indian fashion industry has been churning out racy shoots the kinds Indian films can’t even imagine putting on screen.


        • I love the way the daughter thing was handled in Zindagi Gulzar Hai, not just as a “message” thing, but as the driving force of our heroine’s entire identity.

          On Sat, Nov 11, 2017 at 12:44 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • it being woven into the story makes it a plot device. It being forced into every drama as a rule makes it seem very PSA-ey. But maybe they need the cool, upper class actors saying it over and over again for it to become normal IRL there.

            Contrast that with Indian television. Where the actors and actresses and writers and makers reap the benefits of feminism and liberal attitudes IRL but they’re more than happy projecting and propagating toxic patriarchal (sometimes illegal and immoral) values in reel life. It’s not a scandal for the housewives that their favorite TV bahu wears the skimpiest of outfits IRL (there are half hour specials around 2-3PM everyday on multiple news channels that focus exclusively on TV recaps, TV actors’ interviews, behind the scenes, etc where you do see the actors wearing western clothes) but the same person, in TV universe, losing a dupatta is something discussed in detail IRL by the audience. Indian morality is funny.

            there’s a saying: bad acha, badnaam bura, meaning it’s ok to be bad, it’s bad to be notorious. So, you can actually be a serial killer but if you have 10 people claiming you have a heart of gold, you’d be known as a person with a heart of gold. If you’re the best kind of person but there’s one perceived character flaw (which may be totally made up), there’s no redemption. This is why there’s such an emphasis on “what will people say” because that’s important. You have to rise above that pressure and stick it to the chaar log (it’s actually very easy to do) if you want to do your thing.


  16. I recognize your PVA structure as an effective tool to analyze representation broadly, whether it be the female, the race, the sexuality, or what have you. Lack of representation is particularly problematic with gender because females are 50% of the human population! But when it comes to race, sexuality, etc, the analysis oftentimes stops at P – we don’t even get to V or A. A big reason I starting shifting away from American films around Y2K and toward Hindi and international film was because I was tired of seeing a whitewashed America in the theaters and on the television, to the point where I feel invisible or erased or excluded from society (which is exactly the point you make too), when in reality America is very multicultural and multiracial. In the tv show Friends, why is everyone in Manhattan (not just the 4 friends) white? Why is everyone in Game of Trhones – a fictitious land – white? Some shows maybe should be all white, like The Crown or Sopranos or Stranger Things. But if the setting is clearly multicultural or fictitious, it feels very racist and oppressive to me to see an all-white cast – forcing a skewed mirror of America on us, not to mention denying so many PoC actors jobs & careers. (The only time I have ever dined at an all-white restaurant was in Hollywood – all 200 patrons and employees were white. This just speaks to the supply and demand for white actors vs other actors in Hollywood.)

    I’m sure similar things could be said for the lack of representation of various groups and classes in Bollywood, Hindi film, and/or Indian cinema. Having regional industries helps offset that. Also, Indians tend to embrace content where they see the subgroup(s) they identify with represented, so we see a larger variety of content with representation created for them to consume.

    Anyways, I didn’t mean to hijack the topic from feminism to race, I only meant to support your PVA analytic approach as an effective technique to critique lack of representation for any group.


    • Yes, absolutely it can be used for any marginalized group. In the Indian film context, you could ask for PVA for religious minorities (Jain, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim), or for lower caste groups (anything not miscellaneous Brahmin/Kshatriya), or for ethnicities outside of the standard northern belt (Punjabi, Gujurati, Bengali mostly).

      And my complaints about how it is handled can be used that way too! Something like, everyone jumping on on one particular joke in a TV show or movie, and missing that the larger context gives such rich lives to such a wide variety of characters. Or the reverse, a TV show or movie getting high marks for a particular episode or moment, but no one seeing the problems with the larger picture. Like, I think Fresh Off the Boat was criticized early on for casting a Korean heritage actor as a Chinese heritage person, and the thicker accents on some characters. But that misses that it is an entire sitcom about an Asian family and everything else that is important in the basic structures. Not that we can’t ask for them to be perfect in everyway, but acknowledge teh big picture before looking for the tiny flaw!

      On Wed, Nov 8, 2017 at 5:27 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • In your quest for “presence”, you need to make sure you are not promoting tokenism. Thank goodness that most Indians aren’t so hypersensitized about their identities or their representation. I am prompted to make these remarks because of your mention of Jains and Buddhists. By now no one thinks of Muslims as being a religious “minority” in India. Their numbers are estimated to be between 20 to 35% of the total population (with some Muslim groups making claims of being 40%, including all the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh). Their complaint was not having lead roles. It is interesting that when I started reading about these complaints in modern days, i.e., in the Khan era, I was curious why lead Muslim characters weren’t more common, given that the top three stars were Muslim. At that time, neither SRK nor Aamir had played a single Muslim character! Salman had played two or three, where their religion wasn’t made a fuss of (as you noted in Sultan). Around this time SRK played his first Muslim character, in Hey Ram, and here of course his religion was very much the point of that character. Actually I think Aamir had also played a Muslim character in the film that was based on Cracking India. So again his being Muslim was the point. But during all this time (that is for many decades before this), Malayalam cinema was humming along with lead characters (male and female) who were Muslim, Christian, and Hindu, more or less reflecting the demographics of that state. And similarly with the other language film industries.

        Sorry, didn’t mean to go off on such a huge tangent. I’m actually wondering how old (or young) Reflects on Life is, if she thought in 2000 that Hollywood was presenting a “whitewashed” image of the U.S. I say this only because I felt there was great progress made in the “presence” category, from, say, the 1960’s. Although actually I recall several shows with lead black characters from that era, which were much stronger than shows that came afterward.

        Anyway, Margaret, are you going to answer my question about Dangal and Sultan, and which is a more “feminist” film? I am really curious to hear your take on it.


        • Oh yes, that’s exactly what I meant about the religious minorities. They need presence AND voice AND agency. And preferably their religion is more than just the name of the character. I think Sultan for instance did a great job with that, the main characters were Muslim, but it didn’t define their entire characters. But it also wasn’t hidden away, it was woven into their lives in a natural way.

          There’s many many articles and discussions about representation in American popular culture, it definitely ebs and flows. For instance, it’s generally accepted that things were good in the 70s on TV (The Jeffersons, Redd Foxx, Good Times, etc. etc.). And then slowly it started to slide, if you are talking about big broadcast shows. The 90s was another down era of whitewashing, and now it is getting a little better again. There are objective measures on all of this, number of people of color on TV, in movies, and behind the scenes as well, and it has always been a range of terrible to completely invisible. There’s various legal changes and market changes and all sorts of things that go into it, but the end result is that there still is not anything near accuracy of what America actually looks like shown in American TV shows or films. Onscreen or off screen.

          Oh, for Dangal and Sultan, I think they are a really interesting comparison of structure versus content. Sultan absolutely is more feminist in structure. The heroine makes her own decisions straight through, without regard to what her father or her husband wants for her. Just what she wants. And the film centers on her, her wants and needs and desires, and the “happy ending” is her happy ending, returning to her career.

          But in terms of message, Dangal is obviously much stronger, showing two women who do not conform to feminine ideals, never have a romance, and are Indian heroines all on their own.

          But if I am thinking about “what movie can better influence the audience?”, I think I might land on Sultan. It tells little girls they can control their own lives and their own bodies. And it tells men that they should think about what their wives and daughters really want and listen to them.

          At least, that’s how I feel today, I may change my mind tomorrow 🙂 Not on the rest of it, but on the conclusion.


    • We already have affirmative action in real life the form of reservation in public jobs and public education for the economically weak and historically oppressed sections of society.

      Indian literature is full of writers from every group. But Indian cinema doesn’t pick up stories from this pool. It picks up stories from Hollywood or goes with whatever the producer thinks will make 100 crores.

      The Indian audiences are very aware of the difference between reel and real life. We’re almost glad our real life doesn’t make it to reel because it would be too much to handle and it WOULD spark riots. Since every group is also a vote bank, forced representation for everyone would end up as a propaganda tool for political parties.

      Another reason why we don’t see better representation for every group is because the core Hindustani identity covers everyone. The value system and social structure and political presence doesn’t shift radically enough from Hindu to Buddhist or from Muslim to Jain to make the representation stand out. It’s like how Disney has been making the story with girls from different cultures but you always know it’s the same story and the same value system only the girls’ costumes and hair look different.

      That’s not to say there aren’t brilliant films that can use nuances of specific groups to make amazing films but then again the Indian film industry as a whole is about the mass genre. You will find group specific films, just not in the mass genre.

      Liked by 1 person

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