Bad Girls Month: Let’s Talk Definitions! “Bad” and “Strange” and “Good”

Bad Girls month, woo-hoo! Let’s see if this brings views back. Or if I just have to wait until there is another big movie in theaters people are excited about. Or do drugs and rock ‘n roll to go along with my very popular “sex” week.

As I started trying to think about movies and characters I wanted to discuss this month, I realized that not every “bad girl” was created alike and there was one kind I personally find more interesting than the other.

Let me start by defining a “good girl”. Every society has a certain structure that women are supposed to fit within, and if they are outside that structure, they are “bad”. Or, occasionally, simply “strange”. In Indian society, everything is structured super super hard and roles are highly enforced. Women, especially young women, bare the brunt of this.

A young Indian woman is supposed to be vegetarian, respectful of her elders, modestly dressed, good in school, classically trained in some art form (singing, dancing, play an instrument, poetry in a pinch), and knowledgable about traditions. Most importantly, she should be without any form of desire. No ambition in her career, no sexual desire, no greed for worldly goods, no strong enjoyment of food, music, playing sports, anything. She exists as this mild moderate pliable creature who will do whatever everyone else wants.

Amrita is the ideal “good girl”, barely talks or makes eye contact, ready to marry whoever is chosen for her and turn herself in to what her new family needs, and happy about all of it.

A “strange” young Indian woman is one who has the mild moderate personality with one freakish area of interest/expertise that is not expected. The unambitious young woman (still just wants to be a housewife) who is randomly very good at school. Or the young woman who is too tall, too short, too heavy, although otherwise just right. The young woman who is tone deaf, who can’t cook, who is clumsy. She is not the typical heroine, she is not someone who (within the context of the film) anyone wants to marry. In most movies, she gets a make-over and then is “good”. In the best movies, she learns to love herself and finds someone who loves her as she is. These are the heroines of Sanam Tere Kasam, Daawat E Ishq, Hasee To Phasee, Khoobsurat (the new one), all of our favorite films.

“strange” more than “bad”. No one wants to spend time with her, but no one is threatened by her, and she just wants to make the man she loves happy

This same heroine who is “strange” could be “bad” in a different movie. Let’s use the new Khoobsurat as an example. Our heroine Sonam Kapoor is sexually experienced, loud, confident, wears sports clothes in public, likes rap music, and works outside of the home. Those are the behaviors she was born with, that is her natural self, someone who likes a certain kind of music, feels comfortable in a certain kind of clothes, and so on. She is never going to be a standard “good girl” because she wasn’t born that way. But, “bad” is a social construct. Because Sonam’s parents approve of what she is and does, because she lives in a large city where such behavior is not considered immoral, because she works with people who don’t judge her, she has never carried with her a sense of being “bad”. She is just her strange self.

But then let’s look at Bareilly Ki Barfi. Kriti in that likes to wear jeans and t-shirts instead of saris, she goes around town alone, she speaks her mind, she likes break dancing, she smokes and drinks and hangs out with boys. She isn’t identical to Sonam in Khoobsurat, but they are pretty close. Only Kriti lives in a small judgmental community, she doesn’t have a job that takes her into a different world, and her parents only partially approve of what she does. So she is labeled as “bad” rather than simply “strange” both within her own mind, and within her community. The neighbors gossip about her and tell tales, her parents sigh, she wishes she could be “better”. The same with Bhumi’s character in Pati Patni Aur Woh, Taapsee in Manmarziyaan, all these other young women who have to rebel to be themselves, have to accept the public label of “bad”, even though in a different circumstance their behavior would merely be “strange”. Heck, the two heroines of Bahubali show this perfectly. The same behavior that in Anushka was honored as brave and royal and wise, in Tamannah makes her a rebel outside of society.

Taapsee is going to move to London with her new husband, and make new friends who accept everything she did before marriage as “normal” rather than “bad”

This is the “bad girl” I find most interesting. The one who was created by nature, and circumstances. She is “bad” because she was born different. But then society around her labeled her as “bad” and suddenly her options in life shrank down smaller and smaller until she had to do “bad” things to survive. Some films come in at the beginning, the unusual young woman that the neighborhood gossips about, sometimes they come in at the end, the confident young woman living alone in the city and working as a bar dancer, a conwoman, a sex worker. A few very rare films actually follow that transition, the moment a woman who is different turns into someone outside of regular society because she just doesn’t fit in.

Rani in Bunty Aur Babli, starts out knowing she is different and doesn’t fit in but trying to succeed following an acceptable path. When that is closed to her, she has no other option but to be “bad”.

The “bad girl” I find least interesting is the “good” girl who circumstances force to be bad. Rani in Laage Chunari Main Daag, a perfect daughter and sister and future wife who, against her will and not through any fault of her own, is forced into sex work. BORING! In Deewar, the reveal that Parveen Babi’s glamorous confident call girl secretly dreams of a traditional marriage, DULL!

Cocktail is fascinating, because Daisy and Dips end up in the same place in life, but with Dips it is because her nature made her unable to fit anywhere else, while with Daisy she is a “good girl” who is trapped by circumstances. Of course, the hero picks the “good girl”.

Next least interesting is the “bad girl” who is actively evil. She was born “bad” and then chose to become evil. Priyanka in Aitraaz, Ramya Krishnan in Padayappa, they are straight up villains. They are more fun to watch than the suffering good-girl-forced-to-do-bad-things type, but they don’t have that weird little anti-social statement of the bad-girl-who-isn’t-evil-just-doesn’t-fit-in-society’s-narrow-definitions.

Image result for puli sridevi
Obviously still excited to see Sridevi play an Evil Sorcerer Queen

In Bad Girl month, I am going to be talking about a lot of heroines who are that “born different but not evil” kind of bad. A few heroines who are that “saintly good girl forced to do bad” kind of bad. And a few who are that “straight up evil just like a man” kind of bad. But I think it’s important to work through these definitions to begin with, and understand the nature versus nurture question.

Does that make sense? Do you have additional comments? Am I reminding you of a follow up discussion question, or a favorite movie of yours that I didn’t promise to cover?

12 thoughts on “Bad Girls Month: Let’s Talk Definitions! “Bad” and “Strange” and “Good”

  1. My favourites are “strange” girls and bad girls who don’t fit so they found their own way and discover they are better and freer outside the strict rules.

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    • Sometimes, especially in 70s movies, it feels like we came in after the end. The heroine is a happy conwoman, or dancer, or singer, or whatever. She must have had a whole journey to get there, to accept herself and what would make her happy, but we missed that part.

      On Tue, Mar 3, 2020 at 7:41 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. The other piece is the story, the film itself. Is the bad girl reformed or punished, or is her character used to show us that something is wrong with our narrow definitions of feminine goodness? And what is the wider context? Is the film consonant with trends in society or is it trying to make the audience ask questions?

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    • Oh oh! Let me expand this! If the bad girl is the lead of the film, then (following the narrative rules of Indian cinema) she will get what she wants at the end. That’s settled. But what changes film to film is what exactly it IS that she wants. Is it just marriage? And if so, is it marriage to a spectacular wonderful man, or to a nice average man? And is it a marriage that will let her stop being “bad” or let her continue being “bad”? Or, on rare occasions, is it something BESIDES marriage???? So you have Tashan, where Kareena wants revenge above all else, and secondly marriage to a man who loves her and doesn’t want to change her. And you have Bareilly Ki Barfi, where Kriti truly wants to be married and part of standard middle-class life. Aiyyaa, Rani wants Prithviraj and also a slightly unconventional married life (not marrying within her ethnic group, but to an outsider who leads a strange existence).

      Seeta Aur Geeta versus Chaalbaaz is a flip I find fascinating, because they cast the son of the original hero as the hero in the second one, but changed who the “bad girl” wants. In the 70s, Bad Hema wanted an educated worldly broadminded man, not a sexy but limited in his thinking man. A life where she could wear roller skates and go to hotels and just generally the whole global expanded upper middle class urban Indian existence. But in the 90s, Bad Sridevi wanted a sexy drinking party boy for sex. The powerful free thinking woman went from belonging in the upper middle class educated world where those traits were appreciated and valorized in the 70s, to belonging with a rich party boy who went slumming because the new 90s “respectable” society is not where a powerful free thinking woman belongs any more, she needs a rich party boy not a rich doctor.

      On Tue, Mar 3, 2020 at 8:34 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Ooh, yes. The Seeta Sue Geeta vs. Chalbaaz comparison is fascinating, exactly what I was wondering about.

        Framing the narratives in terms of what the bad girl wants is interesting. It makes me think of Queen, where the whole character journey is from wanting a traditional married role to rejecting that life in favor of personal freedom. Or OK Kanmani, where the heroine starts out rejecting traditional marriage, and ends up still rejecting the traditional constraints but finding love and fulfillment in a marriage-like stable relationship.

        So many examples still revolve around marriage as the defining fact of a woman’s life! Thinking about a professional ambition or other kind of “badness” story. Kind of Ho Mann Jahaan, though that still ends in a wedding. Kind of Gayatri in Swades…

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        • There’s a couple of great vengeance movies where the romance is just a bonus on top. But otherwise, yeah, a woman just wants a man (whether she’s good or bad). Or else she’s the boring female commando type who doesn’t have a personality.

          I suppose you can also look at marriage as a life choice for a woman, her profession. Does the bad girl dream of being rich, or being with the bad boy, or what? What does she want in life?

          On Wed, Mar 4, 2020 at 8:08 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Emily’s questions made me think about Gantumoote. The heroine is the opposite of bad , at least in my western POV: she is school topper, good friend, nice person. But she falls in love and even though she does nothing wrong (only some innocent kisses etc) it’s enough to destroy her reputation. I was watching the movie on the edge of my seat because I was frightened what will happen if somebody finds out. And her only “sin” was that she is young and feels attraction for a boy.

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    • There’s something similar in the movie June. Our heroine is a good daughter and good student, and then goes off for one afternoon with a group of boys only, and her parents punish her and yell at her, and if she had continued to disobey them after that she would have been labeled “bad”.

      On Tue, Mar 3, 2020 at 4:05 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. P.S. Just thought of Kareena in Jab We Met. She would fit your definition of strange, right? And if her family knew the truth of her story with Shahid and where she was all those months, that could switch her from strange to bad.

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    • Yes! Exactly! And Kareena’s family knew she was “strange” which (I think) is why they were so eager to get her married, and then so grateful and open to Shahid when they thought they eloped together. They wanted to keep their “strange” daughter safe from being slanted over into “bad”. Also why Shahid was so furious with her boyfriend, his rejection of her really did make her “bad” (at least in her own mind) and drove Kareena to living like a sinful woman.

      On Wed, Mar 4, 2020 at 8:11 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. When I heard you were doing Bad Girls Month, this was honestly the post I was looking forward the most to, because I think a “bad girl” in India is so different from a bad girl anywhere else, because the lane of a “good girl” is so thin and hard to stay in. I don’t have much to add to your thoughts, but I definitely agree with all of them, especially that the most interesting “bad girls” are the ones who are only deemed bad by Indian society, when American society might not. That might be why I haven’t seen much older Hindi cinema, why I love movies like HTP so much, and why Khoobsurat 2014 was so charming.

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    • Oh, you should definitely check out older Hindi cinema. Well, in between Hindi cinema I guess. The 90s were a bit restrictive in their heroines, part of the whole swing towards romance because romance heroines tend to be super perfect. 80s, there were a lot of action movies where the heroines didn’t have much to do. But 60s and 70s heroines were AWESOME. Like, the 2010s heroines WISH they were that cool. India was in transition and had this drive towards modernization and stuff, so the “good girl” lane suddenly got real REAL wide. Mumtaz lies to her Dad and takes off to solve her sister’s murder in Teesri Manzil, then falls in love with a rock singer. Sharmila Tagore goes to Paris to get over a string of failed love affairs and is picked up by a man on the street in An Evening in Paris. Raakhee has a long term relationship with Shatrughan Sinha and then, after he dumps her, gets over him and falls in love with Dharmendra in Blackmail. And those were the Good Girls! The Bad Girls (but the ones who could be viable romantic partners for the hero, so not that bad) were conwoman, sex workers, nightclub singers, businesswomen, all kinds of cool things.

      And I am so glad you liked this post! I was thinking kind of fuzzy when I wrote it (long weekend) so I wasn’t sure if it was clear enough.

      On Sun, Mar 8, 2020 at 8:09 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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