Tag Archives: Bollywood

Pushing Boundaries: Sexuality and Gender in Mainstream Cinema

Note: This blog post contains spoiler alerts for Bombay Talkies and reveals plotlines

As Indian cinema celebrates 100 years of existence, a tribute to its glorious past and the influence of cinema in our daily lives has been released in the form of four short stories called Bombay Talkies. Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap weave stories which are based in or lead to Bombay and the Hindi film industry, stories of urban couples, the working class, children and the small town people.  Of the four stories, it was interesting to see narratives of sexuality and gender becoming the backbone of Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar’s stories.

Johar, known for making sweet syrupy romantic films and family dramas tells a compelling story which requires courage. The characters are layered and deal with complex emotions in the midst of their mundane lives. The story about a young gay man falling in love with his female boss’s husband is a story which was waiting to be told in the mainstream media.

In the multiplex where I watched the film, people squirmed in their seats as the man on-screen revealed he was gay and that he was attracted to another man. There was laughter in moments which did not warrant any, reeking of homophobia. In popular culture the gay man is meant to be a caricature, not human enough to feel emotions. The man who made this film, also made Dostana, a film which trivialized the gay man, stereotyping him. Numerous other films in the mainsteam have stuck to this narrative, propagating intolerance towards gay people and reinforcing the idea that being gay equates with sexual deviance. So there was laughter when Randeep Hooda’s character hit the openly gay man. And gasps of horror when they kissed.

Finally, Karan Johar redeems himself, offering a different narrative of homosexuality. A narrative which needs to be repeated often in the mainstream to normalize the presence of different sexual orientations. A film which makes people question their long held views, which makes them deal with oppositional meaning of the text, is a mark of a good story and direction. I hope that Johar will continue to experiment with his brand of cinema, challenging the norms.

Zoya Akhtar brings to fore a story of a young boy who wants to be a dancer when he grows up and is forced to play football instead. Though the story’s main narrative deals with the aspirations of the little boy and gender stereotyping, there is an underlying interpretative narrative of his sexuality.

Tight editing, well-etched characters and a strong script are the strength of the story. The middle class family where the boy is expected to be the man of the house when he grows up, the wife who meekly retreats when her husband bellows at the boy dressed in a girl’s outfit, makeup and shoes, the sister who can’t go on a school trip because the family budget allows only her brother to attend football coaching, is a theme many in the middle India can relate to.

The film raises pertinent questions of gender roles and the acceptable male behaviour, challenging them when the boy performs on a make-shift stage, his joy palpable as he comes alive dancing to Sheila ki Jawani. His innocent proclamation that he wants to be Sheila when he grows up is a theme which could be interpreted as gender dysphoria or being gay is left undeveloped, given this is a twenty minute film.

However, it is refreshing to see these narratives being played out in the mainstream and while an average audience member might not be able to read the sexuality of the child, he understands the textual meanings of dreams and gender stereotypes. Akhtar shows brilliance in restraint and realistic development of characters.

After hundred years of challenging what is acceptable in our society, showing a mirror to it, at times being progressive, at others regressive, our cinema continues to grow leaps and bounds, entertaining India’s masses, becoming the country’s soft power abroad and through these short stories, once again pushing the boundaries. Of telling stories of love and dreams, of broken hearts and crushed ambitions, of soaring love and triumphant success.  Of disobeying the rules of what kind of love is acceptable and what kind of dreams cannot be followed.

May Indian cinema continue to celebrate life and its stories.

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On Why I Refuse to Dance to Item Songs

They are a rage all over India right now. Go to weddings, parties or any other family events. You’ll see everyone dancing to them. The latkas, the jhatkas and the suggestive lyrics.

Surprisingly for a society which is prude, where women are an indicator of the izzat of a family, where sex is a dirty secret, it is ironic to see men and women dancing to songs which reduce women to objects. Of songs which are a sum of their breasts and butts. Of their sexual availability. Of the sexual prowess of a man. Of a man owning a woman in any way he wants.

And in a case of chicken or the egg, the creators of popular culture say they are a mirror to the society while the society says that popular culture is distorting the old value system. Whatever may be the case, it’s the women who are caught in the crossfire.

An average Indian male who has grown up on a diet of bollywood and pop culture thinks it’s his birthright to pass comments on a woman, sing dubious songs, leer and touch her. In some twisted interpretation of how bollywood heroes always get the girl by these acts, these impressionable men assume the same would hold true in real life too.

At the same time, there are very few references to strong, independent women who might feel offended at such behaviour. There are almost no cultural connects between an urban Indian woman of today with the mainstream cinema or television soaps. There are almost no pop culture or bollywood indicators for most men to draw references that this behaviour is unacceptable. And therein lies the problem.

As women become more visible, negotiating in the public space, challenging them, it leaves men to grapple with changing equations. There’s an interesting project called No Country For Women which throws light on the issue.

But coming back to the point, I detest objectification of women as a sign of progress.

Progress comes with equality and safety of women. And I absolutely cannot understand why sexually explicit lyrics and women in titillating outfits are needed to sell cinema. More than the sexual liberation of the women, it takes the cause back decades.

And that’s why I refuse to dance to item songs.

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