Like many other diaspora Indians, I enjoy watching Hindi films. I grew up excitedly awaiting our Friday evening trips to the Indian movie store, where “garam-garam” copies of the latest romcoms lined the shelves and counters.
When I was a child, I eagerly watched classic romcoms like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but as I grew older I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the misogyny which underlies these movies. In K2H2, for example, the male hero’s college friend Anjali is a tomboy with short hair and a talent for basketball – and she’s painted as totally undateable until she grows her hair, dons a sari, and lets the hero beat her at her own game (literally). Why does Anjali have to change so drastically in order to appeal to a man who offers her precious little in return? Why does she need clothes which she expresses clear discomfort in wearing, and why must she give up a sport she clearly enjoys in order to become a “good” wife and mother?
Image Description: Anjali from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, before and after her misogynistic male-gaze transformation.
Awful depictions of women are disturbingly common in Hindi films. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the hero’s life interest Anjali (weirdly, also played by the same actress as K2H2’s Anjali) is depicted as unstable and ludicrous. Dil Se’s male protagonist Amar stalks and harasses the female protagonist Meghna and calls it “love”. The film may have been intended as a metaphor for India’s treatment of the Northeast, but the “love” angle was incredibly disgusting and the toxicity of Amar’s actions toward Meghna was downplayed massively. Notably, the film portrays Meghna as a rape victim, and seems to imply that this is why she’s uncomfortable around Amar – not because he’s a creep, but because she has trauma. After all, Amar is in love! He can’t help himself.
These are far from the only instances wherein Bollywood limits women to roles as hypersexual vamps (especially in item songs), virginal sanskaari angels, or tragic victims doomed to an early death. It’s an awful trend which too often leaks into real life – constant romanticisation of crass misogyny can influence people to accept it as a natural part of a relationship, when we should be condemning it and eradicating it from society. Some of the most awful, crude, unrepeatable comments I have received have been direct products of this “filmi” culture of commodifying and caricaturing women into playthings for men. I don’t mean to say that all Indian men have bought into this norm, nor do I intend to act like only Indian men are capable of misogyny. Neither statement is remotely true. But the fact remains that Indian, and Indian-diaspora, communities have deep-rooted problems with treating women as equal to men – problems which have been exacerbated by flat film portrayals.
That’s why I am drawn to movies which expose misogyny instead of celebrating it. Some of them have been extremely dark – I wept while watching Deepa Mehta’s Water, about the plight of child widows in colonial India – but I think they are far more worthy of attention than any of the so-called lighthearted romantic comedies which paint harassment as “flirting”.
Last Saturday evening, during my weekly movie session with my brother, I watched a film in this feminist vein: Pink, which deals with rape culture in India. The movie deconstructs the distinction so many Indians (including members of the diaspora) draw between “good girls” and girls who “deserve” abuse because they did something as egregious as go out with friends at night, smile at a man, or wear a short skirt.
I cried during Pink. Not from sadness or fear – from anger. I cried because Pink did an incredible job highlighting the complexities of navigating the world as an Indian (or even Indian-American) woman and having your behaviour scrutinised to justify any harassment you may receive from “decent” Indian boys who have been groomed to judge you based on your attire and appearance and ethnicity (one of the characters is Northeast Indian, and is subject to racist hypersexualised remarks). I cried because the standard for being a “good girl” is so arbitrary and flimsy, designed explicitly to allow men to hurt women without feeling guilty about it.
I may have shed tears, but I’m so glad I watched Pink – and I’m even gladder that my brother watched with me. Every Indian boy or man who chooses the Pinks of the Bollywood world over the Kuch Kuch Hota Hais is one more person who supports the fight against pervasive misogyny.