Fun post! I get to complain, and then you all get to complain back at me. It will be like when I talked about subtitles, but worse.
Hindi film has always had the “bad boy” “good girl” divide. It goes back to pre-film, even pre-history, with the Krishna stories. Krishna was charming and loving, and a trickster. He “teased” the girls and romanced the women. But he was so handsome and so wonderful that even a little bit of Krishna was better than all of another man. And he understood women, sympathized with them, helped women to elope with the men they loved (even if that man was not him), understood and appreciate elderly mothers as much as young girls. His misbehavior was about breaking rules, including the rules of love, because he would rather take a crooked path to the right end than a straight path to the wrong end.
It’s not necessarily that the women around Krishna were “good”, just that Krishna was so choatic and tricky that their behavior appeared good in contrast. The Gopis would dance with him all night, Rukmani ran away with him seconds before her marriage, and so on and so forth. The idea is that the main characteristic of Krishna, the thing that makes him different and exciting and interesting, is that he spreads his love around and just doesn’t care what the rules are. The women around him, they have to have a different aspect, you can’t have two Krishnas in a story.
And so we have, for instance, Awara. Raj Kapoor is a conman and a thief, and a charmer. But he has one true love, Nargis. He may trick and tease and misbehave, but he is different with her, because she is beyond his trickery. And Nargis is different, she is straight where he is crooked, but so in love that she is willing to go crooked with him.
And we have Shammi Kapoor in An Evening in Paris, he is confident and good at tricking folks and charming them, is introduced surrounded by women. He meets Sharmila and lies to her in order to woo her. Sharmila sees through his lies and is angry, but won over again by his charm and sincere feelings behind the charm.
In Manzil Manzil, Sunny Deol’s friend suggests a trick, wait until you see a pretty girl leave her car, then take the car keys and put them in your pocket. She will come back, think her keys fell in the grass, you help her look and “find” the keys, you are a hero and have an opening to ask her for a date. He tries this on Dimple Kapadia but she outwits him. After further battles of wits, they finally fall in love.
Shahrukh in DDLJ is constantly flirting with women. His behavior treads the line of unacceptable but does not quite cross it. A woman is safe traveling with him, and he never tells a direct lie. He may say “your eyes are like my grandmother’s”, but he does not say a false “I love you” or try to drug a woman or make her afraid when there is no reason, in fact the opposite. He is a trickster, not a criminal.
Saif in Yeh Dillagi tries to drug Kajol. He has tried his charm and found it not up to the task, and so he crosses the line into using more than charm. This is no longer Krishna, the charming trickster. The point of Krishna is that (unless you were his enemy) you never actually minded his tricks once you found them out. Either they were so minor losses that you laughed, or they were ultimately to your benefit. Saif crosses that line, this is no longer a “trick”, this is an attack. And so, Saif is not the hero. He has revealed ultimate weakness and failure and the narrative punishes him. He is now the poor pitiful brother of the hero, he does not get the girl or the happy ending.
Shahrukh in Kal Ho Na Ho is the ultimate Krishna character. He has one true love. But he loves all of humanity as well, lying and tricking in order to bring happiness to the lives of everyone around him. And he is not above using his physical attraction and charm to make what should happen, happen. He flirts with women constantly. But only to bring joy to the world.
Now, let us look at what happened in the late 90s. As the audience for Hindi films expanded quickly beyond the borders of India, into the metropolitan areas of the west. And as western media entered into Indian (Friends, soap operas, crime shows), the old trickster hero went through a strange change. To attract this new audience, Hindi films decided they had to show the new “reality” of young people, lives of freedom and casual sex. Only because of Indian morality, of course the women couldn’t have casual sex. The end result was that the existing “trickster” Krishna hero was grafted onto the idea of a sexually active man. But once Krishna’s tricks expand beyond, for instance, acquiring a better table at a restaurant and into gaining sex with no commitment, he crosses the line from a “charming harmless trickster” into a disturbing sociopath.
It’s not just what happened to “Krishna” it’s also what failed to happen to “Radha”. When, for instance, Dharmendra tricked Hema Malani in Sholay, his goal was a hug, and then marriage. Hema herself was interested in him (her behavior told him and the audience that this was the case) and more generally she was interested in marriage. He was not tricking her into doing something she did not ultimately want to do already. It is very very different when we see, for instance, Abhishek and John lie to Priyanka in Dostana that they are gay in order to trick her into living in the same apartment as two men, something she otherwise would definitely not want to do.
There is a basic premise that all of these films accept, that young men living in the city are sexually active and experienced, that they are only interested in sex and not relationships. And that women do not feel the same way. From there, the film will move on to introducing a young woman who accepts the same premise (that men are promiscuous and guilt free) and slowly wins the hero over to being a better man.
But the question is, why do we accept the premise? That men are naturally more driven by their sexual needs than any kind of empathy for others? And that any tricks they may pull in order to satisfy their sexual needs are understandable and forgivable. And most of all, that they could ultimately create a happy husband and good partner for a young woman for whom sex was a serious matter, only to be indulged when there is a deep connection with someone she can trust.
Part of this is an extension of the pre-existing attitude towards heroes? Young men in India tend to be powerless in many aspects of life. The generational power imbalance means they cannot control any part of their lives, including who they marry. And so films show the ammoral action hero, the police officer who breaks the rules to get justice, or the criminal who stays outside of society. And in the 2000s, this same fantasy of “the rules don’t apply” was moved into sexual relationships.
Or perhaps it is the Friends effect? When I watch Friends, what I see is a bunch of men and women posturing and saying what they think they are supposed to say but not what they really believe. The boys talk about only being interested in sex, but are constantly falling into deep and real relationships. Not to mention that (at least in the early seasons) it is established that, in fact, the men generally have less experience than the women (Chandler has only slept with a 4 or 5 women, Ross with only one, Joey with many, while both Monica and Phoebe have had multiple sexual relationships and even Rachel is more experienced than Ross). There may be talk about tricks and sex and only wanting one thing and so on, but that’s all it is, just talk. And yet when it is translated to the Indian films of the turn of the century, it is no longer talk, it is how our hero is established. Instead of dancing around joyfully playing tricks and romancing all of humanity, now he is seen with scantily clad young women draped on him, sneaking out of their apartments in the morning or tricking them into leaving his. The heroine may see sex as part of a committed loving relationship, but for the hero women are just bodies, there to satisfy his needs. It is what all men are like, it’s normal.
I don’t think it is normal, and I also don’t think that is what men are actually like. I think men are like women, or more generally, I think people are like people. Some of them have a higher sex drive, some of them are capable of enjoying casual sex. But that doesn’t mean they cross the line into harming others, into deceit, purely in pursuit of casual sex. And the implication that it is “normal” and “charming” even for these men in these films to act that way is not okay either. On a very small level, it makes me unable to enjoy the film because I can’t relate to the hero or root for him to get together with the heroine.
On a larger level, it makes me disturbed with how it plays into a general social message that men can get away with anything simply because they are men. That “good” woman should forgive them whatever they do. I don’t think there is a real concern that men all over India will start seducing supermodels and taking them back to their cool bachelor pads, but I do think there is a concern that men will continue to divide women into the two categories of “Virgin” and “Vamp” and not really worry about what happens to the vamps, or about if the virgins will forgive their own behavior.
Now, who are these turn of the century sociopaths?
Imraan Khan in I Hate Luv Storys: He is a brat to Sonam (his boss) at work, and a bit of a brat to his boss’s boss, Samir Soni. But more disturbing is when he picks up a woman at a bar, so drunk she can barely walk, lies to her about his job, lies to her that he understands love stories now that he has met her, takes her back to his apartment and has sex with her. Then the next morning lies that his landlord will have her arrested if he finds her there, refuses to even give her breakfast, throws her out in the hallway with only one shoe, and happily gives a voice over about how that was one problem solved. In an earlier film, this would be a not-drunk woman, and a flirtation in order to steal a kiss. All that same behavior, lying about his job and pretending to be a little in love and so on, becomes very different when the woman is not drunk, and the only goal is a kiss. But because films have to be “modern” now, she is drunk and they have sex and suddenly a casual fun hero becomes a sociopath.
Imraan Khan in Gori Tere Pyar Main: Imraan is introduced flirting and dancing and drinking with Udita Goswami, his phone keeps ringing and he keeps ignoring it, even makes it part of the song, how family always calls just when you are “getting down” with a woman. He finally picks up the phone to learn his uncle has died. His reaction is irritation that the death interrupted his pursuit of sex. Again, it is all about scale. If this is a boy in a village working up his courage to propose to the girl next door, and then is interrupted by someone running to tell him his uncle has died, then that is a little bit of humor. But when it is a man in the city who ignores calls from his family over and over again in preference for a one time sexual experience, that is disturbing.
Saif Ali Khan in Salaam-Namaste: At first he does not appear as bad as other heroes. He is young and flirtatious and so on, but no more so than his heroine Preity. He proposes that they move in together, but explicitly does not pressure her to have sex just because they are living together. They sleep together at a time when they mutually want it. But then after living together and sleeping together for months, Preity becomes pregnant. Saif wants to end the pregnancy, Preity does as well at first but then changes her mind. And Saif turns into a sociopath. After living with a woman for months, being in love with her, he breaks up with her and throws petty fits about even sharing the same house. He has no basic human concern for her as someone going through a difficult medical situation, nor does he show any concern for the child that will be born with his genes and as a result of his love making. And in this case we have an exact earlier film to compare this with, Kya Kehna?, which also stars Preity and Saif and where they also have mutually agreed upon sex in the midst of a committed relationship which results in pregnancy. In that case, Saif acts the same way, but the film treats him differently. Instead of this being a comedy, and him being the hero who is ultimately redeemed by a last minute proposal (after doing NOTHING besides one late night ice cream run for the entire pregnancy), Kya Kehna Saif as abnormal and wrong for his behavior, gives him a backstory to explain such strange actions, and ultimate does not forgive him but instead has Preity move on with a man who did support her through her pregnancy. Behavior that a few years earlier was seen as absolutely unacceptable is now simply “funny”.
Akshay in Heyy Babby: This is the least disgusting Sajid Khan movie, probably because it was his first one and his sister Farah was heavily involved. The majority of the plot is about three men and a baby (hey, that would be a good title for a movie!). But it includes a flashback to how Akshay seduced the baby’s mother, Vidya Balan. At a wedding, he picked out the not-interested-in-casual-sex friend of the bride as his target. He confused her and lied to her and did everything he had to do in order to get her into bed. He started to have real feelings for her at that point, but when she found out the truth and left him, he forgot about her and moved on to more casual sex with casual partners. The difference between this movie and the American original is that the American original did not (I think) feel the need to specify that the mother of the baby was a virgin, nor that the hero lied outrageously to get her into bed. And the difference between this movie and other Indian films with similar plots is that in the other films, the hero literally has amnesia because that is the only explanation for forgetting a woman you loved and slept with who might be carrying your child.
Those are the first films that occur to me, the ones that made me sit up and go “wait, am I supposed to find that behavior forgivable and charming?” I am sure you will be able to think of more.
The other problem with these movies existing is that they made the other movies, the ones that do not have sociopathic heroes, strive to appear like they do, to put on a layer of being “cool” and “modern” even if at heart they are old-fashioned. If you look at the grand sweep of romances in the early 2000s, the sociopathic hero options end up seeming even more prevelant than they were because of the superficial behavior of other heroes in other films. For example:
Uday Chopra in Neal n’ Nikki: Our hero starts out looking for a lot of sex with strangers before he has his arranged marriage. He is just like all the others. The difference being, he can’t actually manage to go through with it. The film is not about him having sex with a lot of women, it is about him attempting to have sex and not managing it because ultimately he sabotages himself. The only sex scene in the film is between the hero and heroine who are in love and know each other well and want to get married. Both of them have bought into the fantasy sold by those other movies that sex should be casual and meaningless, but this story questions that and instead shows the reality that sex (especially your first time) is meaningful and cannot happen simply because of a few cool lines and cool lies at a bar.
Saif Ali Khan in Tashan: He has an aggressively cool hair style and an aggressively cool attitude, but in reality all we see him do is flirt a little with the female students in his English class, and then fall in love with Kareena. The entire film is about questioning the surface (Kareena as a Femme Fatale, Akshay as a brainless action hero, and so on), and part of that surface is Saif as the lady killer cool dude. He’s not, he just thinks he is.
Saif Ali Kahn in Love Aaj Kal: He meets Deepika in a bar, but that first night all they do is smile at each other and poke each other with one finger. For two years, they date and are together, and then break up. Both of them went into this sexual relationship expecting it to be a real bond between them (not just one night), but also not necessarily leading to marriage. After their break-up. Saif meets another woman, a white woman, at a street party. But he’s not just using her for sex, they are together for months, he takes her with him to India, he sees her as a real person and not just a sex body. It is little different from Deepika moving on and getting engaged to another man.
Ranbir in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani: Ranbir started in Bachne Ae Haseeno, the most sociopathic of all heroes. But this film takes that same image and changes it just enough to make it human. Ranbir flirts with a pretty girl on the trek with him, but he also spends time with his friends and people who are not potential sex partners. Sex, and selfishness in general, does not drive all his actions. And he never actually sleeps with that girl, or lies to her in order to sleep with her, or even really tries to sleep with her. They talk, he makes her laugh, he enjoys observing her body which she puts on display, and that is it. When we return to him as a young man, we see him casually picking up woman, but with a joyful smile. It is not a matter of tricking them and then enjoying getting rid of them, all we see is that he enjoys women. It is a return to the earlier concept of Krishna, no need to spell out that he is only interested in one thing. He is interested in many things.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. There is a film that acknowledges the basic reality that young people want sex, and some young people will have casual sex and pursue casual sex, and then there are films that seem to promote and even encourage an idea that young men will do anything for sex, including emotionally harming others.