Sunday, October 26, 2014

THE FEMALE GAZE & BOLLYWOOD / ESSAY PUBLISHED IN HINDUSTAN TIMES’ BRUNCH SPECIAL

(This article by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in the Hindustan Times’ Brunch Bollywood Special Collectors’ Edition in the summer of 2013)

LOOK WHO’S WATCHING

BOLLYWOOD HAS FINALLY DISCOVERED THE FEMALE GAZE. ABOUT TIME TOO!
A feminist’s grateful nod to John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, Salman, Shah Rukh and the rest of their shirtless colleagues for acknowledging the female eye.

By Anna MM Vetticad


It’s amazing how many sensible men are convinced that women don’t have hormones. Maybe this conviction arises from a fear of discovering that their mothers might sometimes be driven by unmentionable female body parts; and worse, that their mothers might, just might, have had sex to procreate.
But the reason lies largely in another possibility: that few of these men source their information about women from women. What follows are blanket assumptions: that women are not sexual beings and therefore, that men could never be objects of heterosexual female longing.
The truth is far from it, and for a change the Hindi film industry has made – and acknowledged – this discovery ahead of most of our society.
Never before was Bollywood’s bow to the female gaze more evident than in Vicky Donor in 2012. Making a guest appearance in the song Rum whiskey, actor-turned-producer John Abraham went beyond the by-now-common scenario of a leading male star going shirtless to reveal a fabulous body. There was John dancing when suddenly, for no apparent reason except that we were expecting him to oblige us, he stood still and two ladies stripped him topless. Other women hosed his bare torso, while he stretched out both arms as if to say: ladies, do as you please with me.
Bless him! Up to the 1980s, female sexuality rarely found overt expression in mainstream Hindi cinema beyond the “cabaret girl”. Unlike the usually asexual or apologetically sexual heroine of those times, the cabaret girl wore skimpy clothes, danced raunchy dances and even had sex. The flipside was that she was always a supporting actress playing the male villain’s sidekick or making a one-dance appearance; and while she provided eye candy to male viewers, there was no male equivalent catering to a female audience.
Though a sprinkling of heroes had taken off their shirts on screen in previous decades, Sanjay Dutt and Sunny Deol in the 1980s were among the earliest to be consistently body proud. It was their junior Salman Khan though who pioneered persistent shirtlessness.
If the initial goal was admiration from male viewers, these heroes got an unexpected bonus as many Indian women – conditioned to be reticent about their appreciation of male good looks – began to air their hormones in public.
The change was driven by economics. The number of women in the workforce had been rising; this meant more women making their own film-viewing decisions instead of depending on fathers, boyfriends and husbands; it also meant more women confident enough to openly cheer at great-looking, bare-bodied heroes.
And so by the turn of the century, when fitness-conscious leading ladies became the norm, leading men followed suit. Cabaret girls of the pre-1990s gave way to “item girls” and gradually, “item boys”. Though male viewers remain Bollywood’s priority, women are now less ignored.
So why has the male gaze historically ruled global cinema? Simple. In a male-dominated society, it is assumed that a human being is a man unless specified otherwise. In a film world led by male producers and directors (all heterosexual or closet homosexual), it is similarly
 assumed that the audience is male and heterosexual unless specified otherwise. Films therefore have not presented men as objects of heterosexual female desire, the assumption being that women are not keen on such visuals since the creators of these films are not.
Today’s Hindi film heroes seem to disagree. Cameras now embrace their every rippling muscle as lovingly as those lingering shots that were once devoted to the female body. The female gaze on heroes is even more pronounced in films by Bollywood’s handful of mainstream women directors. Remember, it took a Farah Khan to put the national spotlight on SRK’s abs in 2007’s Om Shanti Om.
Sadly, the bodylicious hero’s success with women has not yet led Bollywood’s production majors to realise that there’s a vast female audience out there yearning for well-made women-themed mass entertainers produced as lavishly as male-centric projects.
For today though, let’s just see our glass as half full. For today, let’s bask in the pleasure that our modern-day male Helens give us.
In fact, well-meaning activists unwittingly perpetuate a new double standard when they lobby the Central Board of Film Certification to clamp down on female-centric item numbers while ignoring the “item”-isation of heroes. Objectification – whether of men or women – should not be objectionable if the goal is to inoffensively please the gazer while celebrating the sexuality of the gazee. It’s only when the “object” is degraded and demeaned (as when Kareena Kapoor is equated with a tandoori murgiin Fevicol se), that it becomes our responsibility to disapprove.
The equitable objectification of both genders today is that rare ray of hope for women actors and audiences in an otherwise male-focused industry. This egalitarianism is epitomised by 2008’s Dostana which featured a bikini-clad Shilpa Shetty while John Abraham posed in golden trunks and later absent-mindedly scratched his bottom as he wandered around in briefs. In 2012, Rani Mukerji spent the entire film Aiyyaa fantasising about the delectable Prithviraj.
Women, you see, do have hormones after all. Just ask our boys in Bollywood.

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She is on Twitter as @annavetticad)

Note: This photograph was not published in the magazine. For the record, this article was written more than a year before the release of Happy New Year from which this publicity still is taken.

Friday, October 24, 2014

REVIEW 299: HAPPY NEW YEAR


Release date:
October 24, 2014
Director:
Farah Khan
Cast:



Language:

Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Abhishek Bachchan, Sonu Sood, Boman Irani, Vivaan Shah, Jackie Shroff, Cameos: I counted 10
Hindi

‘Narendra Modi’ makes a guest appearance in Happy New Year. Those few seconds, to my mind, exemplify director Farah Khan’s signature: cheeky, many things to many people, designed to attract attention, and definitely not – that word most people, including many of her fans, mindlessly use to describe her cinema – mindless. 

The cleverness of that passing scene lies in the fact that a Modi bhakt may well interpret it as mainstream Bollywood’s flattering acknowledgement of their idol’s unmissable presence in the country’s news landscape, whereas a diehard Modi critic could see it as an oblique message about his penchant for appropriating anything and everything that can be seen as a national occasion. Methinks there’s nothing mindless about a film that can achieve that fine balance.

TEASER KHATAM, FULL-LENGTH TRAILER ABHI BAAKI HAI MERE DOST...

In short, Happy New Year (HNY) serves up some good ol’ Farah Khan-style entertainment. As with their earlier films together, this one too is designed as a platform for every aspect of Shah Rukh Khan’s larger-than-life screen persona: he headlines the story, sings, dances, beats up bad guys, gets beaten up with a purpose, romances a beautiful woman, makes us laugh and cry.

The effectiveness of this Khan & Khan combination is the best evidence of that thing called director-actor chemistry. The same Farah who hit the bull’s eye with the laughathons Main Hoon Naa (2004) and Om Shanti Om (2007) – both Shah Rukh-starrers – also helmed that damp squib Tees Maar Khan starring Akshay Kumar in 2010. HNY is fun if you do not mind the loudness (in tone, colour and decibels), the high-strung nature of its emotions and the manner in which it unabashedly manipulates our tear ducts. For a while post-interval the film slows down, but it picks up again and then there's no looking back. One caveat though…

Here’s how Team Farah-SRK’s films stand in descending order of quality for me: Om Shanti Om, Main Hoon Naa, HNY. And here’s how I’d rank SRK’s last three out-and-out comedies in descending order of quality: Om Shanti Om, Chennai Express, HNY. This is why…

TRAILER KHATAM, REVIEW SHURU...

HNY is the story of Charlie (SRK) who puts together a motley bunch of seeming regular Joes to steal a cache of diamonds. Because we Indiawaale are like this wonly, a lust for moolah can’t be their sole motivation. And so each one has a maa/baap/parivaar/dosti/izzat-related back-story spurring them on. Charlie’s Angels are, in order of appearance: Captain Jagmohan Prakash (Sonu Sood), Tammy Irani (Boman Irani), Rohan Singh (Vivaan Shah), Nandu Bhide (Abhishek Bachchan) and Mohini Joshi (Deepika Padukone). The gang need to get to the finals of the World Dance Championship in Dubai to get a shot at stealing the precious stones.

Political correctness for appearances’ sake has never been Farah’s goal. That’s not a bad thing if you know how not to cross the line from irreverence to downright crudeness. Those who love the American TV shows Two Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory as much as I do will know what I mean. HNY inoffensively stereotypes and/or pokes fun at Parsis, Malayalis, Koreans, older people, non-English-speakers, gays and other groups with disarming equitability of impudence.

Hats off to Farah, her co-writers Althea Kaushal and Mayur Puri for zeroing in on a man’s illiteracy as a source of wit without being hurtful (watch Nandu giving autographs to his fans). As soon as we are told that Tammy gets fits, I began worrying that this would lead to a mockery of his ailment because, well sadly, that’s what Bollywood tends to do. Instead, HNY draws on his illness to deliver a moving example of teamwork when I was least expecting it.

In every other instance, when a character has a weakness, we are invited to laugh with the person not at them. In contrast, the treatment of Mohini is jarring. Her style of speaking is hilarious, her soft corner for English is a hoot, but the writers are highly insensitive in the position they take on a woman driven by poverty to dance at bars before lascivious men. Charlie’s contempt for her is cringe-worthy (at one point he even calls her “breast-taking” instead of “breathtaking”! eww!); he does not regret his misogyny (towards Mohini) and his classism (towards Nandu and Mohini) or apologise for being a pig (I guess a Hindi film hero can’t be shown deigning to say sorry to a mere woman); and it’s inexplicable that we’re supposed to see his redemption – as she does – in his kindness to someone else. Are we to forget his obnoxiousness – as she does – because he does her the favour of falling in love with her? Worse than his attitude is the fact that this behaviour towards Mohini is out of character for the otherwise likeable Charlie. A pity that the only downright offensive ‘humour’ in HNY comes from lazy writing.

The discomfiting Charlie-Mohini equation is not the only disappointment regarding the heroine. Deepika looks stunning, dances like a dream and is captivating in every frame she gets, but the problem is, she doesn’t get that many frames. She makes her first appearance about 55 minutes into the film, and then too she is given far less to do than you might expect for a woman emerging from a year in which she played characters standing shoulder to shoulder with her heroes in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Chennai Express and Ram-leela. It is a measure of Deepika’s charisma and talent that she displays her versatility even in this limited role.

The Shah Rukh we see in HNY is not the Shah Rukh of his stage years, the natural actor who peeped out in Chak De! India, Swades or even My Name Is Khan. Here we get SRK with all the quirky mannerisms that seem to floor his fans, and in that avatar he comes out all guns blazing. That’s disappointing, but inescapable I guess in a film like this. Wish SRK would realise though that he is nice and dignified with a beard in the first part of the film; a look far better suited to his age than the pancake-coated, smooth-faced boy-man appearance of the second half.

The supporting actors are all effective in their roles, though the most interesting performance comes from Abhishek Bachchan whose comic timing is fast becoming his USP. Sonu Sood looks hot, and it is interesting to see the female gaze on him and Shah Rukh. Sonu’s bare body in particular is displayed to us with a sense of humour that matches Abhinav Kashyap’s touch in Dabangg. Those who take a simplistic view of human objectification should see the manner in which Farah’s eye and cinematographer Manush Nandan’s camera embrace the bodies of the two men and Deepika in this film; then contrast it with the leering scrutiny of, for instance, every nook and cranny on Mallika Sherawat’s body in the ‘item song’ Jalebi bai in Double Dhamaal.

Vishal-Shekhar’s music for HNY is unremarkable when heard outside the film, but the songs fit well into the narrative and manage to press all the buttons they’re clearly meant to press in the departments of humour, romance and flag-waving, chest-thumping, emotion-inducing patriotism. 

Team Farah-Shah Rukh are capable of much better in the over-the-top genre that they favour together. Happy New Year is a step down from Om Shanti Om, but if you enjoy boisterous entertainment that is still not entirely mindless, it’s worth a visit.

What works for HNY is that it is unrelentingly unapologetic about everything it does, including a product placement that is rubbed in our faces (same brand that Chennai Express endorsed), almost as if it is spoofing the very concept of product placements while also making money from it. This impertinence is what makes HNY entertaining. In spite of all my misgivings, I enjoyed it.

Rating (out of five stars): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

U
Running time:
180 minutes

PS: Don’t skip the closing credits. Four pleasant surprises await you.