‘Women are stupid. Just, like, inherently.’ This could well be the tag line of the newest Bollywood feature ‘When Harry Met Sejal’. ‘Extraordinary! Sets feminism back 100 years in the space of just 180 minutes’, should be one review on its movie poster. ‘So unoriginal it’s almost offensive’, another should read.
‘Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist’, George Carlin has said. Get ready, because we’re about to get all cynical and idealistic up in here.
Bollywood films are excellent for escapism. Finals didn’t go to plan? Stick one on and watch as Varun Dhawan shakes that fine red leather trouser clad booty atop a Lambo stood in the driveway of a mansion you could never afford, while a hundred backup dancers in colour coordinated outfits do backflips over fireworks being set off into the air, which is scattered with glitter falling from a rainbow in the sky being pooped out in real time by a giant, friendly leprechaun. Or something. What are finals though? What is uni? Where am I? It worked!
Another reason Bollywood movies are devoured so eagerly, particularly by South Asians living in the West, is the connection they provide to their identity. Seldom in Hollywood do we see South Asians as central characters. If they are not the quirky, supportive sidekicks, they are silent taxi drivers or unnamed extras. In Bollywood, they are the loud and proud, singing, dancing protagonists- and, admittedly, seeing someone like yourself on screen is inexplicably yet intensely addictive. Even as adults, seeing successful, attractive versions of ourselves (Bollywood characters are usually rich and always beautiful) drives our ambition. Such is the power of film. Such is the power of Bollywood.
However, all this razzle dazzle may cause us to overlook the less savoury elements scattered into these features for cheap thrills. For example, music videos with no relevance to the plot featuring a scantily dressed actress enthusiastically lip syncing to a song flaunting her promiscuity and sense of sexual adventure are not only a common feature of mainstream Bollywood films, but are also called ‘item songs’. Yup.
Last weekend, watching the latest Bollywood film ‘When Harry Met Sejal’ has brought these more problematic elements starkly to the fore for me.
Harry and Sejal (the eponymous male and female protagonists, respectively) are relative strangers who are brought together on a quest to find Sejal’s missing engagement ring, lost during her trip across Europe with a tourist group supervised by Harry, their tour guide. Sejal enlists Harry’s help, in a fashion that is not dissimilar to that of an ill- mannered, petulant child put in charge of hiring their own babysitter. Their relationship begins, and Sejal’s character only gets more infuriating.
The most important thing to Sejal is that she is HOT. Hotter than a hot tamale on fire in the summer heat of a super tropical country. She is insulted when the male protagonist, Harry, calls her a ‘sweet, sister type’. She wants to be HOT, ok? This ambition has nothing to do with agency- it seems the central goal of this woman’s life is that men she her as desirable. She constantly seeks the approval of Harry, to the point where his male gaze is indistinguishable from her own opinion of herself.
I do not know any women who have dedicated as much time in their life to this end goal as this woman has in a 180 minute movie, or any who are so deeply obsessed with mens’ opinion of them. Women aren’t like that. They just aren’t. They have aspirations that extend far beyond how attractive they are to the opposite sex, obviously. Such cringe inducing moments made me wonder if the writer had ever even met a woman – like, an actual real life one.
Sejal is an educated professional who works as a family lawyer. But she is incredibly naive. While staying at a hotel in Amsterdam during the trip, she sneaks out to go to a sleazy nightclub by herself and gets scarily approached by a creep, having refused to listen to the sound advice of her rational, level headed male counterpart who has warned her not to go. Why does she do this? Because she’s stupid. It doesn’t matter how well educated you are apparently, if you are a woman, you are stupid so you make stupid decisions.
Some may say that these are all traits of a naive, sheltered girl, a common product of restrictive South Asian cultures. Age, education or common sense has nothing to do with it. In fact, they may say, this character is a critique of the repressed, disapproving culture that keeps girls ignorant of such dangers to their own detriment, under the guise of ‘protecting’ them and their reputation.
Maybe so. I would argue though that very few women in 2017 are actually like Sejal. If anything, she is an extremely patronising depiction of modern, young women. And, for better or for worse, Bollywood is the main source of representation of South Asian women the world over – as I’ve said before, such is the power (and arguably the subsequent responsibility) of the industry.
Conversely, several Bollywood movies do feature a typically ‘strong’ female lead. Anushka Sharma plays a young entrepreneur in ‘Band Baaja Baraat’ (2010) who maintains a strong sense of integrity while also being fiercely driven to start a successful, profitable wedding planning business. Another of Sharma’s roles in ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ (2012) sees her as a passionate and focused film maker. Alia Bhatt’s character in Badri ki Dulhania (2017) is a career-oriented woman who yearns to break out of her small Indian town life and see the world on her own terms, by starting a career as an air hostess. While it’s undeniable that much of their characterisation is woefully underdeveloped (and that they often remain manic pixie dream girls in relation to their male co-stars) I think this is a huge step in the right direction.
At a time when feminism is being so widely discussed in pop culture, Bollywood is making its mark in this global conversation. It is being receptive to the demands of an audience that is hungry for strong female leads, symbolic of the progress of women. But we can not let its shortcomings slide. We need to talk about them. We need to think about what messages these widely watched films are putting out into the world, and what the audience will take from them. ‘When Harry Met Sejal’ has disappointed me in this regard.
But maybe I’m being cynical when I perceive Bollywood as a money- making machine whose responsibility seems to be exclusively to the capitalist process; its priority to provide a supply for whatever is the demand of its viewership. Apart from this, it demonstrates little accountability about the moral or political ideals it upholds, and this makes me wonder if I should accept that it will never exactly be a gold mine of feminist art. ‘Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist’, George Carlin has said. This disappointed idealist is still holding out hope.
~ A Disgruntled Bollywood Fan