Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dil Chahta Hain: Or where have all the Bollywood feminists disappeared?

Bollywood isn't exactly a bountiful hunting ground, when looking for feminist role models. I can't remember the last film in which the heroine actually worked and made a living. And the more upscale and urbane the films are becoming, the more regressive their portrayal of woman is getting.

Let's take for example, Dil Chahta Hai: the archetypical urban film, hailed by many as the first to reflect the life (and perhaps, the lifestyle) of urban India. What did the two heroines -- Preity Zinta and Sonali Kulkarni -- do in the film? Precisely nothing, beyond waiting to get married. In fact, Zinta atempts the ultimate K-serial good Indian woman act: try to sacrifice her love for her family obligations. The only woman to work was Dimple Kapadia, and we know what happened to her: she died of consumption, lonely and sad, too gutless to accept the love of a much younger man.

How about comparing these characters to that of Vidya Sinha's in the quiet, middle-class 1975 film Choti Si Baat? It is a character I find fascinating for its unfussy boldness, seldom seen in Bollywood.

At first glance, she seems like an unlikely feminist role model - Sinha sports ugly saris and hairdos through the film, a far call from the sophisticated and chic Zinta, Kapadia and Kulkarni of DCH. But think about it. Sinha is portrayed as a young, independent woman living and working on her own in Mumbai. (Her family was not referred to even once in the film.) And it is more the vivaciousness of her personality than her beauty that has her two suitors - played by Amol Palekar and Asrani - eating out of her hand.

She confidently accepts lunch date offers, and shows no misgivings about meeting her two suitors one-on-one even though she is well aware that they are trying to woo her. She has a gorgeously wicked sense of humour, and shamelessly gossips and giggles about her escapades with her friend in office. All the same, she is far from a bitch. She prefers Palekar to Asrani for being a kinder, better person.

But what I like most about her, is that it is finally she - tired of the game of one upmanship going on between the two men - who asks Palekar to cut the bullshit out and marry her. In every situation, she seems to be in more control that either of the two heroes.

I particularly think of this contrast between DCH and CSB when I look around at women in Mumbai. An American photojournalist friend, Sam, on his first trip to Mumbai a few years ago, remarked how surprised he was to see women sport jeans and tank tops with such elan in Mumbai. He took it as a sign of their liberation. In response, my thoughts immedietely went back to so many of my rich Marwari classmates in Sydenham College, who would easily fall into this liberated category based on clothes. Yet, they tamely married guys chosen by their families the moment they stepped out of college. So much for their tank tops and low waist jeans! By contrast, many of the sari-clad women jumping out the 9.00am local train and fighting their way to Mantralaya - much like Sinha in CSB - may hide Sam's liberated Mumbai woman.

To what extent, can we judge a woman's independence on the basis of their clothes?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Quantum of Solace: Or care to join the "Bring Back Bond" campaign

I knew James Bond was in trouble the moment he stepped out of a pool -- water glistening over his over-built muscles -- in Casino Royale. It was all wrong. Bond had lost his sexual confidence. He had waxed his chest hair, given up on one-liners and raised eye brows, built up bulk and developed a pout. Verbal smoothness had given way to bodily smoothness. Bond was no longer eyeing women, he wanted to be eyed by them. He would no longer have women falling in love with him. He would be falling in love.

The just-released Quantum of Solace just pretty much killed him for me. He is no longer the person I knew and loved - full of humour, irony and complete shameless devilishness. A man who joyously went about seducing women, bringing down buildings, crashing cars, and just, by the way, saving the world. QoS sucked all the joy out of poor Bond. He is just another silly secret agent now, who kills and broods.

What's up with all this brooding heroes, anyway: Brooding Bond, Brooding Batman, Brooding Bourne. It is as if all the men of world have simply forgotten how to have fun, while playing hero and winning hearts. They are too busy getting their hearts broken. Sure it is real, but really, it is no fun.

I would excuse Batman's broodiness, especially in his new new Joker movie. The multilayered plot is trying to make a point about real heroism involving willingly letting people misunderstand, or worse hate, you - as long as it serves a larger purpose. The cause is greater that your personal misery or joy.

In Bourne series too, it makes sense to some extent. It begins with him quitting the life of an action hero -- so naturally, it couldn't have been terribly pleasant.

But our new Bond is not fighing for any larger cause. He was quite willing to quit the cause for a life of on a beach with his girlfriend in Casino Royale. Which means that he was either working for the money or the joy of it. In Quantum of Solace, the joy was replaced by revenge, which he managed to get too. So really, he is going on for for no reason other than money or sheer cussedness. Either way, I refuse to feel sorry for him.

Instead, I call for the creation of a "Bring Back Bond" movement. Care to join anyone?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tail Enders: Or Why I didn't get Marley & Me

Just finished reading this book: Marley & Me. It is about man and dog -- a fuzzy, warm, soppy 13-year long saga of a mad, slightly psychotic, but ultimately big hearted, happy Labrador Retriever (Marley), the writer (Me) and not to forget, Me's growing family (we live through his wife's four pregnancies).

No, I didn't like the book. It has little tension or drama -- it is like reading a rather entertainingly written daily diary, which ultimately amounts to nothing. We live through one crazed antic of the lab to another. Unfortunately, taken together they never manage to say anything more than the tired "Dog's my best friend" cliche.

My favourite man-animal book is Life of Pi. Now, Martel there, axes the fuzziness of man-animal fiction with one sharp swoop, and gives us a tight-rope tense narrative of a man and a tiger stuck on a boat drifting in the sea. And thank heavens, they DON'T become friends. They remain competitors, with Pi, our hero, at a slight disadvantage of having to come up with schemes to ensure that he doesn't become the meal-of-the-day. Just to ensure that our Disney-fed sensibilities don't go into complete shock, Martel allows Pi and the tiger to begin drawing an uneasy sense of comfort from each other's presence as they drift along. But that is as far as he goes.

I think of Life of Pi whenever life throws a relationship at me that I have to treat with trepidation. Like the one between you and your boss. Now, not all bosses are like Pi's tiger, but a little caution is always better when dealing with them. The difference is that if things get really bad, you can always jump boats.

Update: Oh no! Now Marley & Me is a film.