Saturday, March 20, 2010

What if Rancho was Radhika? Genderswitching Indian films.

The recent hullabaloo regarding Disney's Rapunzel changing its title to Tangled (along with other changes) to attract boy viewers have made me think about gender in cinema and television, once again. When even Disney's dreamy princess fairytales (which have been critisized for providing regressive portrayals of gender; girls are there for boys to rescue) are being sold to attract boys, because apparently only boys matter as viewers, it's like, what gives?

This lead me to thinking about Hindi cinema, or most of what I've seen of Indian cinema on the whole, and how much of films are men's stories and purely men's stories. This is the sort of thing one comes to accept as a fact, so much that I tend to forget about it, and then I see something that is an exception and it's a jolt, a surprise. In Hollywood we've got problems of a different set; women directors not being taken seriously, thinking they can only make a certain genre, and female characters only on-screen to talk about men (see also: Bechdel test).

I look at my DVD shelf and do a count of films I own that could be considered women's stories; Seeta Aur Geeta, Meera (70's film), Aaja Naachle, Chak De India, Dor, Ek Hasina Thi, Dil Bole Hadippa (kind of? maybe?), Namastey London (again, kind of).

Then there are a bunch of romantic movies which I really enjoy, because the heroines in them are active and brilliant, and nicely fleshed out characters, like Hum Tum, Bunty Aur Babli, Jab We Met, Kaminey. Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, which most people hated but I loved, could also be considered a semi-female-centric movie.

On the Southie side, I can't see much -- though I enjoy some characters a lot, like the spunky Jothika character in Dhool and Kaadhal's awesome heroine who actually pursues the hero and is not afraid to show her sexuality.

But why am I bringing this up? Because I like to play a game of genderswitch - "what if so and so film had female leads, not male ones?" Just like Ramesh Sippy did in the 70's, when he decided to remake Ram aur Shyam, not starring Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Shashi Kapoor or Amitabh Bachchan, but with Hema Malini as the twins. A good show of how this "what if" game can actually wield results. So let's get to it.

Dil Chahta Hai is the first one I've seen people long for - show girls having deep-rooted friendships, show them break up and make up, and find love and then rekindle their friendships with one another. The closest we ever got to this was Chak De India, a rare film where we see girls have the same epic, complex relations that are usually reserved for boys in films.

A genderswitch version of Dostana would probably be the boldest mass entertainer in recent years. Showing girls pretend to be lesbians because they like a guy they moved in with? This would be a much more interesting film than the actual Dostana, but also questionable - there's a lot of sexist and homophobic thinking out there that all lesbians need is a love of a man to make them straight (ugh). So perhaps it's best to change the ending somehow - maybe the girls really fall for each other, but being competitive as they are, they end up in a matchmaking competition, each trying to set up their male flatmate with a girl of their choice. Eventually the flatmate gets fed up with this, confronts them, the girls make up, and they continue living together in harmony. Happies ending!

3 Idiots is another obvious one; a movie centered around guys in an all-male institution, learning important, epic lessons about life and learning itself. A movie like this being genderswitched might result in some interesting discoveries about the value of female education (and how it is being consistently undervalued by some), parental pressures of a different sort (both to a career choice and to get married) etc. But at the core the message wouldn't change much - female students also need to begin realizing their full potential by going for what they desire in life, not what they are pushed towards.

Some movies would be so starkly different they wouldn't work on the same level. Consider for example any film where a hero goes through consider amount of violence. The heroine who could withstand that, fight back physically, and come out on top would be exceptional and that would change certain things about the movie. However, it's not impossible - Mumaith Khan and some other heroines have done full-on action roles in the South industries.

I'm not sure if I have a closing thought. I guess I wish somebody in current Indian cinema would do as Ramesh Sippy did; spin a male-centric story into a female-centric one, and make gold. But something's stopping them, and I am not interested in hearing excuses (it wouldn't make any money, none of the current crop of heroines are good enough, people go to see heroes, not heroines..), I just want to see the film happen. If you make a good enough film, it'll be a hit. But who's brave enough to make the effort and take that leap?

Here's to hoping somebody is.

[Ladies in this post; Jothika, Katrina Kaif in Namastey London, Hema Malini in Laal Patthar, Konkona Sen Sharma in Omkara, Vidya Balan in Guru.]


Anonymous said...

First, this has happened at least twice in HOLLYWOOD cinema, and both have made for rather compelling films - Jodie Foster's Flightplan and Angelina Jolie's Salt. (Salt isn't out, but it's gotten rave reviews at preview screenings). In both these instances, the producers couldn't find the actor they wanted for the script, so when Jodie and Angelina showed interest in them, they just changed the sexes.

Second thought, what emerges from your post is Kunal Kohli. I thought Hum Tum, TPTM, Fanaa showed phenomenal, well-evolved women. Even Mujshde Dosti Karoge I found that the friendship between Kareena and Rani was fleshed out and as close to Dil Chahta Hai as I've ever seen.

If any writer/director can pull this off, I think it'll be Kunal.

veracious said...

I agree, Kunal Kohli has nicely fleshed out female characters. On the other hand, I'm not sure if he would be that inspired to write a full on female-focused film. Who knows, perhaps. I'd certainly love it if he would (as I like all his films a lot).

Shell said...

Very interesting post and something that I haven't given much thought to, but now that you've got me thinking about it, how wonderful would it be to have a great female ensemble film. Maybe we'll get something close to that in Stepmom with Kareen and Kajol.

A full on female action film would be so fanastic! Even though it would be a shared platform, I thought a Hindi version of Mr & Mrs Smith would be fantastic.