Alisa/BollywoodNewbie inspired me in another post, the way she does, by pointing out something I was so lost in that I was blind to it: Indian film plays in to certain specific types of romantic fantasies, types that do not work equally for everybody.
In terms of academia, there are two foundational ways of looking at erotic romantic fiction, the pre-Janice Radway version and the post-Janice Radway version. Both of which are now somewhat out of date as the world has moved on. But popular culture and attitudes towards romantic fiction have unfortunately NOT moved on from these two studies, so I want to define them both very quickly so you can go “oh yes, I’ve definitely read ‘feminist’ rants that use this as the basis”.
The pre-Radway studies came from all kinds of perspectives, literary criticism and feminist studies and so on and so forth. And they all reached similar conclusions, romantic fantasies are a way of propagating the patriarchy. They teach women to be submissive, men to be aggressive, they are filled with stories of damsels in distress falling in love with rapists. They weaken women and are bad bad bad.
Then Radway came along and put in the missing piece of the study, instead of looking at the books, the texts themselves, she looked at the readers. She talked to woman and learned that they don’t like books with heroes who cross the line into rape. They don’t like books with stupid heroines either. They like books with strong intelligent heroines and deep emotional heroes. They are using the books to fill in gaps in their lives, the books are helping them survive the situations they are in, not making those situations worse.
I first read Radway in my very first grad school class. And the teacher was terribly dismissive. Her interpretation was that Radway showed that romance readers were bored trapped housewives who found strength in these terribly trashy books. We all had a good laugh at those foolish people who were stuck reading romances because their lives were so empty.
I really wish that hadn’t been my first grad school class, and that I had read so little romance at the time. Now, if I had a time machine, I would go back and tell her that romance novels are read by all woman, from the successful professional to the housewife with a high school degree to the grad students sitting in her classroom. And I would tell her romances are written by extremely educated intelligent woman. The most popular authors today have PhDs and law degrees and probably more credentials than she does. These are not stupid books, Radway was right that the readers use them to feed emotional needs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also feed intellectual needs. And it doesn’t mean that the readers are unaware of what they are doing, are unaware of how they are picking and choosing fantasies based on what they need and prefer in the moment.
I think, for most romance readers/viewers, there is a conscious awareness of “this bad thing happened today, therefore I feel like this, therefore I need to self-medicate with a particular kind of fantasy”. The films/books aren’t mind control changing people, they are tools being used by people to alter their minds and emotions in the way that is needed in the moment.
And the other thing, that I think Radway herself missed a little, is that they are used by the readers/viewers in different ways person by person. The reasons I like a particular fantasy are not the same as the reasons someone else will like them. I can only speak for myself.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at romances in Indian film and why I, personally, find one version or the other more or less appealing. And I will use a simple description, “Alpha” versus “Beta” versus “Zeta”. Or, Aamir versus Akshaye versus Saif, to put it in Dil Chahta Hai Terms.
Alpha/Aamir: The super confident, super in charge, super perfect hero. This is the romance where the hero confidently pursues the heroine while she smilingly flees, where he grabs her arm and whispers in her ear, where he forces himself into her dreams at night. It never crosses the line into actual threat (that is the “no rape” part that Radway found consistent in the readers she studied), but there is definitely a “take charge” attitude.
This is the hero I loooooooooove. Whether it is Prabhas in Bahubali or Shahrukh in DDLJ or Aamir in DCH, this is like catnip to me. I like it so much that it didn’t even occur to me until Alisa pointed out that she didn’t like it that this is really a matter of taste, not a universal.
I know why I like it too, it’s a pretty obvious fantasy. I’ve been living alone and taking care of myself since I was 18 years old. It’s stressful, I hate making decisions all the time like what to eat for dinner or where to put the furniture. Just the little day by day build up of all the million things I have to decide all by myself pulls me down.
Plus, I have a personality that tends to end up in leadership roles. Even when I was 6 years old, my teacher told my parents that all the other kids were always coming up to me and asking my advice. And now I am the one my friends call when they think they found a bedbug or want to know how to register to vote or anything else. Largely this is just because I am tall (it’s true, if you look up to someone literally you are far more likely to look up to them metaphorically). But it’s also EXHAUSTING!!!!
And then there’s my “can’t stand to hurt feelings” problem. I think mean things, but I can never bring myself to say them. I always say “it’s fine it’s fine, I don’t mind”, even if inside I REALLY REALLY MIND!!!
So, that’s my fantasy, to be in a situation where there is someone who takes charge so I don’t have to make decisions, for myself or anyone else. And someone who is so strong and confident that I don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings. Those moments when Shahrukh teases Kajol in DDLJ? I love them not for the teasing, but because that kind of guy would be someone I could be really nasty too and not feel bad about it, or worry about his feelings.
(This. It’s not a male fantasy of a drunk girl, it’s a female fantasy of finally being just plain horrible and not caring because you have a guy with you who is even more horrible and deserves everything you do to him)
Of course, this is only a fantasy. The reason I live alone since I was 18 is because after about 2 days living with other people I am desperate to be in charge of myself again. I am the strong one because I can’t fold myself down (literally or metaphorically) and make myself into the weak one. And I truly don’t like hurting people’s feelings, whenever I do it by accident it bothers me for days on end. So instead of changing my life (which is really pretty much the way I want it), I have the little steam release valve of watching a movie or reading a book that let’s me live in a situation (usually a romantic situation) that is the opposite of what I have in real life.
Beta/Akshaye: The nice understanding softer one. He will step back and let you take the lead but strongly support you while you do it. This is the romance of the guy who dreams of the heroine, patiently waits for her. He doesn’t demand anything, he doesn’t even ask anything, he is just there if you need him.
This is the guy I can sometimes see the appeal of. For me personally, it is when I am sick of people nagging at me. After a hectic committee meeting, no conflicts but a lot of feelings going back and forth, I have this desire for just blankness, a calm surface I can project myself onto and feel my inner power strengthened and reflected back at me.
It’s not when I’ve been attacked, it’s when I’ve been worn down. Lots of people asking little questions and having little doubts. I’m just tired and feeling small (not a common feeling for me, since I am very very large). And that’s when I want someone else who feels even smaller than me.
It’s also when I am just plain sick. I don’t want Shahrukh striding around the room while I am hacking my lungs out. But Nagarjuna smiling at me under his mustache, or Nani making me laugh, or Diljit singing to me, that seems nice. These are the caregiver types, not the hero protector types.
The fantasy here is that you go about your life, ordering it in your own way following your own plans, but you’ve got kind of a cushion to fall back on. Just like in Phillauri when Diljit helps Anushka to get her poetry to a wider audience, or Irrfan in Piku helping Deepika with Amitabh, or Aditya Roy Kapoor in Deewat-E-Ishq following Parineeti around and feeding her. You don’t even need them to do anything, sometimes it is better that way, to just pretend there is someone somewhere out there loving you from afar.
And again, it’s just a fantasy. Speaking for myself (because I can’t speak for anyone else), I would get sick of that kind of behavior pretty fast. I don’t want someone to just sit back and tell me I’m awesome, I want someone to challenge me. That’s why I do all these things that exhaust me, chairing committees and so on, for the challenge. I don’t even like people taking care of me when I’m sick, I like taking care of myself. The reason I want to fantasize about the “beta” type is that it is like creating an echo of myself, a temporary and imaginary figure, and then once I am back to being able to be sufficient within myself, I have no more need for that fantasy. A quick rewatch of a few DVDs, and I am settled.
Zeta/Saif: The broken one, the desperate one, the one who needs you. He drinks and/or does drugs, he is desperate and self-destructive, he goes a little crazy, sometimes he has an artistic cough. This is the romance of writing poetry and making mad gestures and threatening suicide.
I hate this guy. But that isn’t a judgement on those who do, it’s just an awareness of who I am. In the real world, I feel like I am surrounded by people who rely on me. The last thing I want is to fantasize about yet another person hanging on me like a dead weight.
But then, those same people who rely on me in the real world also respect me and listen to me and make me feel important. It’s great! Everyone from my little doggie who makes eyes at me until I give her a walk to my co-worker who makes eyes at me until I go buy her coffee. They all love me because I take care of them, and I love being loved. I mean, everyone does, that’s what civilization is based on. People love being loved.
(That one person sobbing at your wedding because your marriage is DESTROYING THEIR LIFE is a great little ego boost)
But even I have a very very rare situation where this might be the fantasy. When I feel overlooked, alone in a crowd, sometimes I want that one person who really needs me, who looks up to me, who makes me the center of their world. Of course I don’t really want that in reality, in reality I want the happy jostling of many people around me, and being the sole focus of one person would be over-whelming. But it helps me get through a very rare and unusual rough day, imagining there is one person who really really needs me, just me.
The thing I realized when I started writing out these fantasies is that all of them, especially the first and last, have been spun as “bad for you”. That woman are idealizing alcoholics, or abusive dominant partners. That woman are told “stand by your man” and “the love of a good woman can save him” or that “he just does it because he loves you” and “he knows you want it”.
And yes, they could be bad for you. In extreme uncontrolled situations. But the point of fiction, whether it is romance novels or films, is that we (the audience) are ultimately in control. All 3 of those fantasies listed above are more or less equally available in all romantic fiction. And woman, in my experience, pick and choose between them based on personal taste and even mood. There is no forcible brain training happening because you are not forced to choose one over the other, all three fantasies are very different and all are available everywhere.
(Do you want a nasty Aamir, a messed up needy Saif, or a dreamy and supportive Akshaye? You can find all three in one film! Pick your poison!)
In the same way, the mere fact of these options appearing in a romantic setting is not brainwashing either. Sex is sexy, for lack of a better way of putting it. Why would you fantasize about a protective dominant father? Or a blindly soft and supportive brother? Or a damaged and needy son? I mean, you can, I’ve read plenty of books that have those plots buried in there somewhere, but it’s a lot more fun to put it in a romantic setting.
These character types appearing in a male-female setting, that’s not optional, that’s what makes them powerful. These are the fantasies of the underclass and how they want the overclass to behave. It has to be female fantasies of men. Female fantasies of woman exist as well, I don’t mean same-sex love stories, I mean fantasies related to how woman relate to each other. But they are completely different from these, serve different contexts. They are about loyalty and understanding and strength, the virtues you fantasize that you have within yourself, not the behavior you wish to see in others.
(This is a fantasy for women about women, totally different, it’s that you have a friend who is enough like you to enjoy and appreciate you, but different enough to test your boundaries)
The only damage could when you self-medicate too much, lose track of what the problem is that you are trying to hide from. These stories can be so powerful that reality begins to fade away, to lose its bite a little bit. And you forget that they should be a temporary escape, not a permanent solution. It’s not the specific content of the fantasy, it is that you are using fantasy at all.
Romantic fiction, especially romance novels and Hindi film (in my experience) is a bit like the drug therapy your therapist might give you. It takes the edge of, gives you space and strength to heal. But it isn’t meant to be a permanent solution, just to give you the time to find that permanent solution before any more damage is done.
For instance, I read all 4 Twilight novels during the 3 weeks that my apartment was being treated for bedbugs. I had to throw away half my furniture, clean the whole place multiple times, and live out of a suitcase in the guest room at my parents’. It was a baaaaaaaaad time. And Twilight got me through, I essentially sedated myself and when I woke up, it was all over.
(This video really makes me far happier than it should)
But then back in college I first got into Hindi film. And it became all I did, I had some friendly acquaintances at my campus jobs, people liked me in class, and I had two very close friends. But I didn’t really do anything else, I just went back to my room and watched movies all evening and all weekend. It was easy, it was safe, and it gave me that wonderful high that got me through. Now, I look back and realize that was no good. I should have put away the DVDs and gone out in the world more, found a club, found a group, found something. It didn’t ruin my life or anything, but if I hadn’t had the crutch of the movies to fall back on, I would have done a lot more during that time.
I think most people here use Indian movies as that little pick me up as needed. A bit of emergency medicine. Some of you don’t even use them that way, it is a purely intellectual experience. I don’t think anyone is using them to fully escape their life, because if you were, then you wouldn’t be here talking analytically about them.
But when I look at my 3 types up there, that is the only danger I see. You aren’t going to fall for an alcoholic just because you like Devdas, but you might take longer to realize that you need to move out and get your own place. You aren’t going to fall into an abusive relationship because you like Bahubali, but you might take longer to realize you need a vacation from your demanding job. To put it in the Indian context, the real danger is that woman trapped in lives of drudgery, in marriages they didn’t choose, working long hours in the fields or in the home, with everyone demanding everything of them, expected to be perfect all the time and take charge and clean up after the men without getting any credit for it, will be too happy. Will be so satisfied with the fantasy that they won’t notice their rights eroding away. Will be given this little candy filled with empty calories to keep them quiet and complacent.
However, I think that is a very small percentage of the people who consume these fantasies. I think the far larger percentage are the ones who consume them and they go home and are forced back into the reality of their lives, bringing with them the bit of strength and hope they got from the fantasy. And using that to drive the reality of their lives just a little bit to the fantasy of their dreams.
(Rab Ne understood this whole thing on a deep level, she needed the fantasy and escape of “Raj” because she wasn’t ready for the reality of Surinder. The danger was that she would find the fantasy less of a short term medicine and more of a life long addiction and would never be willing to risk her life on Surinder)