Thinky Post: Pop Culture and Progressiveness, Understanding the Difference Between “Then” and “Now”

What a fun title! Just makes you eager to read the post, right? Way more fun than “who is the sexiest man/woman”.

I just watched the new Enola Holmes movie on Netflix, which is well-made with some little clunky bits. Mostly what I appreciated about it was that it understood Sherlock Holmes’ world as a place of terrible injustice, and Sherlock himself as a feminist. The new Sherlock show, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch, lost me when it introduced Irene Adler and started to make Sherlock into a bit of a misogynist. That’s not the case at all, only a very superficial reading of his books would have you come away with that.

Byomkesh Bakshi and the Mamata rate of growth - columns - Hindustan Times
By the way, the same is true of Byomkesh Bakshi. If you can get a copy of the books in English, I highly recommend them! Very open progressive kind of stories, for the time.

Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character and part of fictional stories written in a particular time and place. Our stereotype of that time and place was that everyone was less “progressive” than we are now. We are ready for misogyny, racism, classism, etc. etc. And so as soon as we see a horse drawn carriage, or read about a man calling a woman “Madam”, that is what we expect. But that is not always the case, or even often the case. Especially with pop culture, the reason pop culture becomes popular, and remains popular, is because it speaks to the populous, the common man or woman. I’ll put it another way, the reason someone would create pop culture is because they believe the populous has value, they are interested in them.

Sherlock, again and again, works for a female client. He helps woman escape abusive guardians, blackmailers threatening them for past romantic affairs, men pursuing them romantically, and over and over again simply intelligent women who have stumbled upon a mystery and know that Sherlock is the only man in England who will trust their judgement. In England at the time, women were trapped by the law and by society, and by the newspapers, and by the railways, and all the other modes of “progress”, in the same way that they were freed by them. This is what Conan Doyle hit upon in his stories, the way the tools of rapidly changing England could be used to both free and trap Holmes’ clients. His clients, who were often female, often lower class, often foreign outsiders, all kinds of powerless who gained power through Sherlock. Its the flipside of the other recurring Sherlock theme, his rejection of cases offered by the rich and powerful. He is egalitarian, he has no interest in helping the rich stay rich, he is only interested in interesting cases.

Popular culture and progressiveness is not about meeting some magical perfect timeless standard, it is about pushing an ever changing standard. In the time in which the object was made, what was the most radical dangerous message the filmmakers could say? What were the messages that were easy then and perhaps dangerous now? And what were the compromises they had to make to get the (at the time) more important message out into the world?

Shah Rukh Khan rejected 'Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge' four times: Here's why
This was the first big hit mainstream Hindi film to have a fully NRI hero. Not study abroad, not worked abroad, but born and raised abroad. And today, in 2020, that is so ordinary as to not even be consciously noticed. But in 1995, it was risky and revolutionary.

In Trishul, there is a scene where Shashi is angry because his younger sister dares to marry for love, without her father’s permission. There are many scenes in which Shashi aggressively hits on woman. In today’s world, this is “bad”. But on the other hand, the lesson of the film is that Sanjeev, the Patriarch, is wrong in the way he takes advantage of women from his first girlfriend to his loyal secretary, and to a lessor degree that the laws of the day are unfairly restricting business (a very radical message at the time). Oh, and there are also many scenes with two confident independent working women, Raakhee and Hema Malini, who casually have romances all on their own without any thought to what their male relatives will think about it.

So we have Shashi being angry with his sister, and Shashi hitting on women. They are both casual things thrown into the film without much thought, by the rules of the time they were not issues. And then there is the main lesson of the film which, by the rules of the time, was radically progressive (arguing young uneducated but successful business people should be allowed to succeed was radical, and questioning the patriarch is always radical). And finally there are the things that at the time the film was made were not radical at all, but have become so, especially the way the two romances and heroines are handled.

Hema Malini with Shashi Kapoor in Trishul | Vintage bollywood, Hema malini,  Shashi kapoor
In Hema’s entire romance with Shashi, any idea of her father’s opinion mattering, or her having some maidenly “sharam” or any of that, just does not come up

If I were to look at this film through modern eyes, I would find the most important part our independent working heroines who have no cares for parental opinions on their love lives. I would hardly notice the pro-business and anti-government regulation message since that is not an issue in modern India. I would be very disturbed by Shashi’s behavior, and I would be puzzled at Sanjeev’s punishment since The Patriarch is always correct.

Now, if I were to look at a movie like Gully Boy through old eyes, I would be upset by the way our heroine is controlled by her family and everyone around her seems to accept that as normal. I would be confused by the lack of discussion of the governmental role and government laws in society, and by the invisibility of industry (government versus industry being the big issue of my time). And I would be delighted at how our hero is Muslim, and working class, and is able to succeed and gain respect in the world, which would have been unheard of in my era.

Gully Boy' Subverts Some Gender Stereotypes, Reinforces Others | The Swaddle
Gully Boy, in many ways the same as Deewar, but he is Muslim, he gets out through music instead of violence, and there is no punishment for the way he upends society. That’s the radical part through 1970s eyes, no censor making you uphold law and order. But through 2020 eyes, that was the smallest part of the film, not a risk at all.

Do you see what I am trying to say? Popular culture moves with culture. Things that were unthinkable a few decades back are now accepted, and things that were accepted are now unthinkable. The only film that perfectly fits the rules of today is the film made today, because the rules keep moving.

What matters to me is honoring the fights of the past by recognizing that in the past they WERE fights. Look at Prem Rog and say Rishi is too old, the plot is too extreme, but also see what it is saying about widow remarriage. Maybe now this all seems over the top and old-fashioned, but it mattered THEN.

Prem Rog' clocks 33 years, Rishi Kapoor thanks fans | Entertainment  News,The Indian Express

There’s a trend today of clickbait articles that say stuff like “I rewatched [beloved film of 20 years ago] and now I hate it as I see that is really [racist, sexist, rapey, whatever]”. Well, sure! Because you saw it 20 years ago when it was 20 years ago. At the time you saw it, it wasn’t racist, sexist, whatever. Because it was of the time it was. And you were of that time too. Now you are coming back to it in the present, and you see it differently. You can’t look at it through your eyes in the present, you have to look at it through your eyes then, see why it mattered to you THEN, see what it was saying to the world as it was THEN, not as it is now.

And the corollary, when looking at the films of today make sure you are looking at the world as it is today, not as it was yesterday. Aligarh is more progressive than Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga is also. Because they released THEN. They released before homosexuality had been given the governmental seal of approval in India, before it was an acceptable thing to support, before it became the kind of topic that could lead to a hit box office. It’s not about the content of the films alone, it is about the times in which they released.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got, what do you have?

21 thoughts on “Thinky Post: Pop Culture and Progressiveness, Understanding the Difference Between “Then” and “Now”

    • HA! Well, this is clearly just trying to work within the specific copyright laws. Also, HA!!!! I don’t feel like crawling through all the early Holmes stories and trying to find proof of humanity, but I’m pretty sure it’s there. Obviously Doyle’s writing style changed as he aged and life happened and stuff, but pretty sure Holmes-the-character cannot be separated in a legal fashion one era from the other.

      I wonder if someone has tried a similar argument with Anne of Green Gables? There’s the same gap and then the last 3 books are copyright and the others aren’t. I guess that is why all the Anne adaptations veer strongly from the books at certain points, and adhere strongly at others.

      (also, of course, I care deeply about copyright just because I am waiting for stuff to show up on Project Gutenberg. I’m not paying for the last few Anne books on kindle if they are going to show up for free in a few more decades!)

      On Fri, Oct 2, 2020 at 10:37 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. Yes the lines move all the time (I’ve been thinking a lot about this in connection to Hamilton) and it’s important to understand context, *and* at the same time I especially value those beloved films and books and shows of the past that did not throw in the gratuitous caricature or storyline that makes them hard to revisit with the same pleasure. Because even if something is broadly accepted (racist caricature, sexist scripts, regressive attitudes) the acceptance is never universal. There is always some part of society pushing back against it and calling it out as wrong. Even in the 60s, for example, before the movement for Japanese American civil rights had gotten momentum, there were critics who understood that Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was an offensive caricature. There are authors like Conan Doyle writing at the same time as every proper novel featuring a heroine who bucked society’s rules ended with the heroine killed off for her impertinence.

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    • And there are people who were pushing the lines at the time, but now might seem behind the lines. For instance, I just randomly saw a movie in which Anna May Wong had a small part. She played a maid who lived in Chinatown with an old wise accented grandfather who was played by an actor in yellowface. So, very stereotypical. But she ended up giving the testimony that released our hero from prison and was treated as an honest person who wanted to do the right thing. So in 1947 when the movie came out, they were pushing the stereotype, giving her a role with motivations and ethics and something more going on than just “maid”. But in 2020, you see another young Asian woman in a servile position, with a ridiculous stereotypical wise old grandfather.

      Or the people who knew exactly what they were doing when they put in the bits that are shocking and leave it up to us to decide how to handle it. Huckleberry Finn, what do you do about that? You don’t want kids to think the n-word is okay, but you want them to read the book. Do you take out the n-word and lose the shock value that Twain wanted the book to have? Do you not let anyone read it until they understand the historical context and what Twain was doing by having this kind of language spoken by his characters? Do you just ban the whole thing?

      Anyway, yes, I agree about Breakfast at Tiffany’s. To my mind, that kind of completely unnecessary and even at the time called out element can just be edited. The film loses nothing. I don’t think it is censorship, I think it is righting wrongs. So long as the original version still remains somewhere for reference. But then there is other stuff that might seem questionable to our eyes but, in the context of the time, was a respectful treatment, like Anna May Wong playing a maid. And then there’s Huck Finn which is just impossible.

      On Fri, Oct 2, 2020 at 10:59 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I think this is a totally different issue in Indian films than in free industries because in India there is a censor. That means that makers have to jostle issues or make compromises where filmmakers in another industry do not. A film therefore expresses two moral opinions: a social one, and a political one

    This is how you get things like in Sessue Hayakawa films, where an Asian man and a white women could romance on screen, but always had to break up in the end, when that’s not what the audience or the makers wanted at all. Indian films are full of weird compromises like that, and I always keep it in mind when judging their moral points. But critics never seem to blame the censor for anything, they put it all on the movie.

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    • YES! And it’s not just that there is censorship, it’s that there is an ever changing censor board. Now, Jodha-Akbar could never be released and even just squeaked by 15 years ago. Then, Mughal-E-Azam was easy peasy to release, but you couldn’t have a criminal who got away with his crimes like you see all the time now.

      Look at Main Khiladi Tu Anari. The Shilpa-Akshay romance is really gross to modern eyes, but what the filmmakers managed to sneak past the censors at the time was the clear references to the mob involvement in the film industry.

      On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 2:35 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yeah, I was just thinking that about Jodha-Akbar yesterday. It’s why it’s also not fair to compare Ek Ladki and Shubh etc. because the first came out under the old insane censor board that was responsible for Padmaavat and for that weird blurring of all cleavage in films on TV for a few years (as well as blurring naked statues).

        I’ve said this before, but when old movies from the 70s are shown on TV now they are BUTCHERED.

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        • Oh! And that’s a fascinating part of this! People who only see the old movies in the censored modern versions, or even just the cut up damaged partial versions, make ethical judgements on them without realizing that they aren’t seeing the real thing. Judging a movie in particular as “bad”, either ethically or in quality, without realizing you are seeing the modern messed up version, is just not fair.

          On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 8:51 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • What worries me is that it means people think movies in the past had the same mores as movies now, when it’s not true at all. So I’m more worried about them thinking it good than bad, I guess.

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          • So you are on the side of “keep Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”? So people are aware of what has changed and how we have moved forward?

            On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 2:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yeah absolutely, if you’re going to show something, show all of it. Not that I’m saying you should show it, or show it without context. That’s up to you. People don’t tend to realise how horrifying things like minstrel shows were because they’re not exposed to it, but if you sit down and actually watch a minstrel show, you’ll see it’s not harmless fun. It makes “good old days” ideas harder to keep up. And if you also show the progressive media from that time, that also contributes to that.

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          • Oh, yes! I like your final point! Show Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also show Flower Drum Song where Asian Americans are treated respectfully. So the whole “It was the times, they didn’t know any better” just doesn’t work.

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  3. In Russia also there is a genre “I rewatched [beloved film of 20 years ago] and now I hate it as I see that is really [racist, sexist, rapey, whatever]”, especially about two films that were and still are very very popular romance – Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears and The Irony of Fate (which was remade in hindi as I Love New Year). People have been discussing for last 20 years if are the main protagonist of this films worth love and respect or they are manipulative alcoholics. Surely these articles and posts are clickbait but I see a useful point in it. We all were grown up with these films and many others as role models because in childhood we are not critical and perceive everything “as is”. And for this reason exactly we need to reconcieve it when we are adults – as films made THEN and as stories and characters tipical for THAT time not ours.
    That is why I for example am very happy when I see posts and article about stalking of girl in indian movies – the non-allowability of such things should be very pronounced

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    • But let me throw something else into this. I agree it is good to look at things with fresh eyes as an adult. But what if you were already an adult when you first watched it? Or already had a critical perspective? Sometimes that genre of article points out things you may not have previously noticed, but sometimes it goes into “so you must reject the entire film because of these points I have made”. That is what concerns me. For one thing, especially with Indian film, the points the article is making are not new to me, personally. I came to the films as an adult and pretty quickly started taking film classes and reading critical studies, I already saw those disturbing things in the movies, and I find it a little insulting to have someone assume I did not. And second, as someone who already saw those things, I have already sorted them into the place they belong in my own head and determined whether I can still enjoy the film or not. I don’t want to have an article telling me “This thing you probably didn’t see” (but I did see it) “means that now we should all hate this movie” (but I saw it already, and determined that I still love the movie).

      I’m probably not being clear, I guess it’s just the idea of critiquing past films from present perspective as though everyone is on the same journey as the author.

      On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 6:53 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Well yes, but you’re a fully trained film critic. I’m really at risk of overlooking [racist, sexist, rapey, whatever] elements of a movie when I first see it. And if they are pointed out to me a few years later, yeah, I’d feel bad about myself, and therefore probably about the movie.

        But you’re right that there’s an element of time to what is acceptable in a society. A healthy way to move forward would probably include looking at why I was able to overlook those elements at the time. I guess if I can forgive myself, then I can find it in myself to forgive the movie. And then we can celebrate how far society has come and start looking for the things we are overlooking right now.

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        • And look for the good we are overlooking too! Both now and back then. You can look at a movie you really loved in the past and say “I enjoyed it without thinking back then, and now I can see all the things that are wrong about it”, but you can also say “I enjoyed it without thinkinf back then, but now I can see what’s really special and why I loved it”. I always like looking for the good, of course.

          On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 11:13 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. I agree with you. I usually don’t have problems seeing films within the context of time and place it was made. And I’m equally irritated with those clickbait articles mostly about popular Hindi films, most of their issues seem to boil down to the stalking and courtship methods of earlier films. Even though I watched them as a child and teenager, somehow it never bothered me, I was always aware that some things are not meant to be replicated in the real world and only work in films. Even after being a victim of stalking, I never looked at films differently. Maybe I was being naive, but I thought people should know what is right and wrong behavior irrespective of movies!

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    • Yes, the whole concept of behavior being directly replicated from films just doesn’t work for me. An overall idea of disrespecting women, sure, but something like seeing a guy onscreen follow a woman on a bus being the only reason you follow a woman on a bus, doesn’t work for me. Especially if the same movie has the woman otherwise being respected and so on.

      On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 12:33 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Meant to ask earlier, did you say you read Byomkesh Bakshi? I love them! I read them growing up, and like you said, the mature, progressive themes were the highlight for me, when compared to other stuff I was reading.

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        • Yes! Of course I read English translations and there are a lot of variations floating around, but I read as many as I could find. Just like Holmes, strong intelligent women, a message of free speech and thought and stuff, and our hero is sort of understanding of human nature in a kind way. The SSR version is really good, not faithful to the books in terms of details, but very faithful in terms of the feel of the time and place.

          On Sat, Oct 3, 2020 at 4:44 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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