Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Catfight Myth, and about female friendship in general.

Why hasn't there been a female Dil Chahta Hai? An all-girls' version of Dostana?

For that matter, can you name two actresses who are friends within the Hindi film industry?

These are just some of the questions that popped into my head as result of watching the magnificent duo of Rani Mukherjii and Vidya Balan on an old episode of Koffee with Karan, the appallingly shallow chat show, where Karan Johar does the duplicitous tango by making it out like he's everybody's best friend, and then actively stirring up drama between anybody who will take the bait, and giggling gleefully when they do so. In the episode, both Rani and Vidya show excellent camaraderie while promoting their joint venture, No One Killed Jessica. They giggle, share inside jokes, and then talk about working on the film and being professionally influenced by one another.

Karan politely takes all in this and comes back with an observation that female friendship unravels "when the make-up comes off" (or goes on, I do not remember the exact wording), because at the end of the day, women just don't do friendship, and it all ends in catfights over men or popularity or fashion, right?

This really set me off, because it's a vicious narrative constantly told by the media surrounding the film industry. There's a tendency to pit actresses against each other for "the top spot", even on top of all the criticisms they can garner for their fashion sense, or movie choices or weight fluctuations (the last one is a rant for another day). There'll always be rumours of affairs and such, but the often faked stories of cat fights always push this idea that two actresses cannot, absolutely cannot, have a functional friendship - or even just a professional relationship, when working on a film together.

Of course, it'd be ridiculous to claim this was all media-made, but consider about the ease of stirring up controversy by just making up things. If somebody you know tells you a friend has said awful things about you, even once your friend says it's not true, the suspicion that they're lying to cover it up will remain in your head. Now consider if this is a friend you're not particularly close to, but have some links through mutual friends and work connections, and of course there's all this gossip around - maybe there are rumours that this friend has flirted with the person you're romantically involved with, or said even more horrible things about somebody you do consider a close friend.. The sheer level of mean-spirited cattiness in the film industry circles must be through the roof, so who do you trust, at the end of the day?

Rani is sometimes criticized as being too diplomatic in her answers. In Koffee with Karan, she refuses to align herself with this, that or the other. She's friends with Salman, Shahrukh and Aamir. She likes all the new up-and-comer actresses. In an industry so full of camps and alliances, you could argue she's being dishonest for the sake of continuing to get work, but could it be more than that? Maybe she's decided it's better not to play these media games, and say catty things about people you barely now, just to get a laugh out of a talk show host who loves his "film fraternity" gossip (note how it's "fraternity", not "sorority" or even the gender-neutral "community"). That it's more professional to say nice things about everybody, and keep any negativity you might have silent, because it is essentially a work environment - and there's nothing more poisonous to a work environment than idle gossip.

It's not like the men of Bollywood are immune to these sorts of bust-ups. In fact, you could argue that the media machine is often just as horrible about male friendship (or lack thereof). It is a business, and at the end of the day, people are competing against each other, despite any personal fondness towards one another. Still, I've always sensed that there is this general myth about actresses and friendship - that all of their friendships are fake, all the ladies are catty towards one another and fighting it out, over men or over films or over fame. Some of the stars play their own part in manufacturing these rivalries, because if you're not making headlines, you're not a star. How much have Kareena and Priyanka gained over their well-documented rivalry ..but you could also ask, how much have they lost?

It's a cycle; the idea that there is no female friendship among actresses perpetuates the idea that female friendship overall is a phony concept, and therefore why would you make films about it (or female-centric films overall), and even if such a film was being made, no two actresses would sign up to do it because they are always in such strong competition with one another, without any chance of friendship, or solidarity, or even just professional politeness. And of course, female-centric films do not fare well at the box office, or so the common belief goes, and thus a lot of top actresses are reluctant to sign up to do such films in the first place.

What gives? I hope for some people to be brave enough to break this cycle. Producers, directors, actresses themselves.. We've seen steps in the right direction, No One Killed Jessica being one example. Now let's race towards that direction.


Annie said...

You are so right, and it's a problem in Hollywood as well. More troubling, it spills over into real life; I remember how when I was going to university, some women seemed proud to declare that they prefered to be friends with men because, "You know how women are, so catty." Personally, I think it's all part of the constructed narrative that strives to keep women defined solely by their relationships with men. Think about it, we hear that "women don't make good friends" and we also hear that "women and men can't really be platonic friends" which, if bought into, really leaves women with nothing to consider a genuine, heartfelt relationship except a romantic relationship with a man. But women need each other, too.

Now I need to see No One Killed Jessica.

Deepti said...

Karan's concept of women explains the female characters he writes.

Other than Salman, I can't think of any top Bollywood guy who is close with his perceived rival. But the men don't have to compete for roles the way the women do. Prakash Jha and Rohit Shetty will always pick Ajay Devgan. Shahrukh has the Johar-Chopra camp. And so they can afford to ignore each other. The actresses on the other hand don't get director-producer loyalty the same way. Which means there is a fight over every role that is perceived to be a winner.

veracious said...

Annie, absolutely agreed. Hope you like NOKJ! It's not amazing but I loved the leads and their performances, so it's worthwhile for that.

Deepti - really excellent point. Can't really think of a director-actress loyalty right now. I suppose SLB and Mani Ratnam have a bit of that with Aishwarya Rai, but nothing else comes to mind immediately. The very real competition is then just exaggerated by the media to a ridiculous degree.

Daddy's Girl said...

All so well said. Could not agree more. I blogged about this when NOKJ was about to come out: And it's sad that some actresses love to play these games and perpetuate these ideas. One of the reasons I've always found Preity Zinta so refreshing.

Beth Watkins said...

YES! Well written!

I wonder if part of it is related to the stereotype that exists in the normal world too, that a woman with no female friends is not to be trusted or is in someway off or different, with its usual implication that the reason said woman has no female friends is because she is too successful gaining male attention in whatever arena (usually romantic/sexual) (and put finger quotes all over that sentence). For as much as we love to love celebrities, we also love to hate them.

veracious said...

DG - Yep, it's very refreshing when actresses intentionally don't play into it. It must be frustrating, though, considering how easily journos will fabricate rumours..

Beth - very true, though I usually find that stereotype perpetuated by women themselves in self-description, ie "I have no female friends because women are bitches, can't be trusted" etc. Really sad, all around.