Sunday, March 8, 2009

Geetas, Basantis and Hasinis: thoughts on women and feminism in Indian films.

Or: Am I a bad feminist for liking Indian films so much?

For those of us who aren't Indian and haven't grown up watching Indian films, especially those of us who're women and claim to be feminist, some people may wonder, why do we enjoy movies where a woman is more often a housewife than a lawyer? Films where the hero might slap the heroine and everybody, including the heroine, thinks it's okay? How can this be? Or is this really a question at all? I mean, not every feminist in the world picks apart representations of women in movies and books and song lyrics. At the same time, I think everybody has those lines that can and will be crossed. Some feminist theories emphasize the need not to make women feel guilty about enjoying this or that, but rather focus on why they enjoy what they do, and how they interpret it themselves.

One example I remember reading a semi-academic article on, was the "morning after" scene in DDLJ and how British South-Asian youths interpreted the scene. I can't link to the article now, but nevertheless, the interpretations of the scene brought up thoughts in me about how I personally saw the scene. As a huge fan of the movie, but not a very conservative person, I saw the part where Raj tells Simran he knows what honour means to an Indian woman, rather a statement about a fact (that honour/virginity is the most important a woman can have, as I certainly don't believe that's true), but rather as a show that despite his earlier, assy behavior, he respects Simran's values. Of course, you could argue it's a fair bit of assumption on his part to assume she subscribes to the "Indian" set of values despite being NRI, but perhaps through their time spent together, he knows her enough to know this much.

But I guess at the end of the day, it comes down to just that: interpretation and varying viewpoints. What offends one may be okay to another. I myself try not to get too deep into feminist issues, representations of women etc when watching Indian films, or any films for that matter. I find if I start to make things that are fiction hold up a certain standard of how this or that character should be, should do, should behave, I just end up disappointment. So I tend to go with my initial reactions: if a heroine is kickass and interesting, I'll go with it. If they're bland, annoying or boring, I'll shrug and try not to dwell on it. If they're interesting but make peculiar choices thanks to the conservative ideology the film is trying to send me (see also: Laal Patthar review), I might dwell on it but I rarely get very upset by these things.

There's a lot of bad things happening to women in Hindi/Tamil/Telugu films. I'll say that now, but I'd rather not dwell on it. At the end of the day, not even Hollywood films meet certain feminists' standards, so you know, it's all rather relative. What a fantastically original conclusion, is it not? I know, I know. This is a post I feel like I need to write, even though writing it is a struggle, as I cannot avoid generalizations.

Some facts speak for themselves: heroines are still secondary to heroes. They draw less audiences, get paid less and rarely get first billing. Especially after the cotton candy family melodrama became popular in the 90s, heroines, it seemed, had less and less to do on-screen. Women-centered films rarely achieve box office success. I'm not trying to argue this is always the case, there will be exceptions, I suppose, but in general, the rule seems to apply.

But in an attempt to focus on the positives, let's look at this way; things are constantly in motion and there's no way to predict what the future will bring. There was once a day when heroines did get first billing, and were the main draw of a film (I believe this was in the 1950's). In the 1970's plenty of heroines had jobs and distinct careers of their own. Perhaps we will see roles for women with more substance one day. Perhaps we don't need to have every movie pass the Bechdel Test (by the way, having taught about the films that would pass it, I can only really think of Chak De India and ..holy crap, is that it?). Though not that I think of it, perhaps it'd be better if more did..

I titled this post with mentions of famous "spunky" characters played in famous films (Geeta from Seeta aur Geeta & Geet of Jab We Met, Hasini from Bommarillu, Basanti from Sholay). But at the end of the day, I don't really want to inspect the characters through this lense; it's unfair to desire all representations of women to be like this. Just like the heroes, the heroines can be roughly divided into archetypes. In some ways, the treatment is equal regardless of gender; if you want to accuse characterizations of heroines in Indian films of being shallow, take a look at the heroes - they are not much less shallow, when it comes down to it.

This is a crappy thinky post because it's one where I hardly run into any conclusions. The matter is difficult and I don't really want to settle on one perspective to filter through all my various thoughts on the matter. As often, there's a fear of overanalysis somewhere in the back of my head: if I think about this too much, will I stop liking it?

So as usual, my approach is more instinctive; if it works for me when I watch it, it works. If it rubs me the wrong way, annoys me, or makes me want to critisize it, then I accept that. What I feel like I need to work on is to learn how to make judgments and stick by them; I mean, it's only a movie. While I will no doubt try to wrap my head around the cultural background of said film (as to understand its context), I can't just excuse whatever message the film might be sending that feels unacceptable to me simply because I'm not from the culture the film is from. It's not to say I disapprove or judge the culture, because as I said, I always try to put it into context and see why somebody from that culture might be more okay with it. But if a movie upsets me, on some feminist standpoint, or any point for that matter, I'll try not to put those feelings aside.

This isn't some kind of manifesto to say you'll be seeing critical feminist readings of Indian films from now on in this blog. No way, I still watch Indian films because I love them to death and wish to see more of them, not because I want to pick them apart from a particular prism. But as it's International Women's Day, and I've been trying to finish this damn post for months, I figured this is a good enough note to end it on.


dunkdaft said...

To anyone, who talk about women in Bollywood, I strongly recommend Dor. A brilliant movie, one of my all time favorite by Nagesh Kukunoor.

veracious said...

Dor is indeed a good, rare women-centric movie.

dri said...

See, I don't think the two should be incompatible at all ...

Just because we watch them doesn't mean we approve entirely of every facet ... maybe we're even better equipped to analyse and interpret our reactions than someone who hasn't thought about issues of women and power in culture. Nothing to apologise for. As you said, things are changing so fast and it's completely fascinating to see how representations of women are changing in the movies of such a traditionally patriarchal culture.

And just in case it needs to be said, I think coming from a different culture and being a feminist viewer of Bollywood gives you a distinctly objective and valuable viewpoint as opposed to the no less valuable viewpoint someone like me who is Indian and a feminist and a Bollywood lover.

Go you, I say! :p

btw, hello, I'm dri. Been reading your blog for a few weeks now, enormously delighted, and I for one would not be appalled at seeing critical feminist readings. Cos, after all, critical doesn't necessarily mean negative, does it? :)

Smitha said...

Fashion passes the Bechdel Test too.

I call myself a feminist and neither Bollywood nor Hollywood nor other foreign films have ever been safe from my criticisms. But being critical of something doesn't mean I stop enjoying it at the same time. It just means recognizing there's work to be done and perspectives to be changed amidst all the filmi fun.

veracious said...

dri - Hi & welcome! :)

Thanks for the encouragement. You are right that critical doesn't always mean negative, though people tend to view critiques as such often.

Smita - You're right, not even Hollywood is that awesome when it comes to portrayal of women. Hollywood's latest romcom's make my head hurt, and even though I love portrayal of male friendship in movies, I am beginning to tire of that trope in recent films, as well, especially when it comes to portraying women. Sigh.