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:
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.
(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 Darr. Darr 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!