Nothing Humourous About It
Despite a marked increase in feminist viewers and activists speaking up against sexist jokes in Hindi films, the truth is that the audience and media continue to have a high tolerance level for patriarchy, misogyny and sexism on screen
One of the film’s scenes shows Aisha obtusely comparing Manju to a “puraani gaadi” (old car) while Manju likens her to a high-maintenance “nayee gaadi” (new car). This is not the first sexist joke in the film: the morning after their maiden meeting, Aisha sniggers over the possibility that she could have been raped by Ashish when she was passed out – of course she does not call it rape, she cheerily asks why he did not do her when he had the chance, which gives him the perfect moment to slip in a swipe at rape survivors, “I do not give women the opportunity to cry rape using the pretence of having been unconscious as their excuse.”
Perhaps director Akiv Ali’s De De Pyaar De escaped a stormy reaction while Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh did not because Ali is less overtly virulent in his animosity towards women, wrapping it around a sedate-looking hero who is never shown assaulting women, unlike Kabir. Much of the misogyny in De De Pyaar De is also strategically written into dialogues spoken by the women themselves.
That said, the brouhaha over Vanga’s film may give cheer to north India’s women’s rights activists, but a celebration would be premature as is evident from the box-office success of Kabir Singh and the comparatively muted criticism of De De Pyaar De. Both developments point to the fact that despite a marked increase in demands for accountability from Hindi filmmakers since the anti-rape protests that followed the December 2012 Delhi gangrape, the truth is that the audience and media continue to have a high tolerance level for patriarchy, misogyny, sexism and sexist humour including rape jokes on screen.
After all, the audience that was vociferous about Kabir Singh has been far gentler on Luv Ranjan, co-producer of De De Pyaar De, who has built his entire career on humourising hatred for women in his directorial ventures Pyaar Ka Punchnama (2011), Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 (2015) and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018).
Like him, more high-profile directors too have gotten off lightly for trivialising rape in the past decade or so. The critically acclaimed ones among them include Rajkumar Hirani whose 3 Idiots, produced by the equally acclaimed Vidhu Vinod Chopra, featured a long speech in which a character is tricked into repeatedly saying “balaatkaar” (rape) instead of “chamatkaar” (miracle). The scene was positioned as the high point of hilarity in this 2009 blockbuster. In 2007’s Jab We Met directed by Imtiaz Ali, the otherwise likeable Geet (Kareena Kapoor) and Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) casually toss the word “rape” between them in scenes designed to be cute and funny. In Ali’s Rockstar in 2011, when Heer (Nargis Fakhri) and Janardhan (Ranbir Kapoor) exit a shady theatre where they were watching a low-grade film called Junglee Jawani, he chuckles as he says, “If we stayed any longer in the hall, you’d have been raped,” to which she replies with a laugh, “That’s fine, it would have been Junglee Jawani Part 2.”
It may be argued that these three films were released pre-2012, when feminist viewers were less vocal and less Hindi film critics were vehement in their opposition to sexism. The reality though is that those who speak up are still outnumbered by those who support such cinema. Even the claim that Kabir Singh’s misogyny was largely derided by critics is false – the film got plenty of positive reviews too. In fact, some of the voluble backing that sexist Bollywood has received in recent years is very possibly a backlash against the increasing space for discussions on women’s rights in the news media since 2012.
On the flip side, the very public nature of the post-2012 feminist discourse has bred film personalities who have jumped on to the bandwagon, treating feminism as just another commercially viable formula. During the promotional period of Pink in 2016, Amitabh Bachchan released an open letter to his granddaughters about the challenges they are likely to face as women. “Don’t let anyone make you believe that the length of your skirt is a measure of your character,” he wrote. Yet in 2018, Bachchan’s articulation skills betrayed him when the nation was rocked by protests against the Unnao and Kathua rapes made all the more shocking by the ruling party’s apparent support for the alleged rapists. When asked for a comment about these gruesome crimes during a press conference for another film, this one not on women’s empowerment, the superstar told reporters, “I feel disgusted even talking about it, so don’t rake it up. It’s terrible to even talk about it.”
Bachchan’s selectiveness is greatly overshadowed though by the opportunistic feminism of Akshay Kumar whose films for nearly three decades have been hostile towards women. Kumar discovered sensitivity in the past couple of years, coincidentally after it became clear from the success of various Vidya Balan starrers and Queen that although misogyny remains a hotsell, concern for women sells too. This is a man whose voiceover in the title track of Tees Maar Khan (2010) – sadly, a film directed by a woman – featured the quip, “tawaif ki lootthi izzat ko bachana aur Tees Maar Khan ko qaid karna, dono bekaar hai” (it is pointless to try and prevent the rape of a prostitute or keep Tees Maar Khan imprisoned). This is a star whose character stalked and forcibly kissed the heroine (Sonakshi Sinha) in an extended passage presented as comedy in 2014’s Holiday. In the years since, he has been courting a different off-screen image as a family man, thoughtful father and supportive husband to a tough-as-nails feminist wife, all of which stood him in good stead by the time Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Padman (2018) rolled around. In Toilet his character’s love for his wife prompted him to run a campaign for toilets in homes, while in Padman he played a campaigner for menstrual hygiene.
An appearance of caring lends polish to a star’s image that no amount of multi-crore collections with crude comedies can achieve. And that is how it has come about that a star who was once a flag-bearer of misogyny in Bollywood is today the face of a movement to promote the use of sanitary napkins.
This is not to suggest that there is no hope. There are, after all, many more members of the public and media calling out misogyny in Hindi cinema today than in the past. Kabir Singh loyalists have been furious with critics who they believe were silent about the Sonam Kapoor-Dhanush-starrer Raanjhanaa in 2013 yet have lambasted Kabir Singh for what they consider similar content. Raanjhanaa was, without question, deeply regressive, and if there are indeed critics who have displayed double standards in this matter, flowing with the tide as the likes of Akshay Kumar are now doing, then by all means expose them, but the optimistic take on this scenario is that at least some people have evolved between 2013 and 2019 precisely because of the voices that did not stay silent back in 2013.
As with any discussion on social and cultural evolution then, a debate on misogyny, patriarchy and sexist humour in Hindi cinema ends up being a matter of a glass half full and simultaneously half empty. The stupendous success of and parallel backlash against Kabir Singh could either cause Shahid Kapoor and Sandeep Reddy Vanga to dig their heels in further or reconsider their attitudes, but it is almost certain that those speaking up against such horribly backward cinema are bound to increase in numbers. Meanwhile, for the benefit of those yet undecided, or those who feel repelled by Kabir Singh but consider De De Pyaar De harmless fun, it is important to point out that the mindset that prompted an Akiv Ali to have one of his characters equating a middle-aged woman with a “puraani gaadi” while another makes light of a grave matter like consent, is no different from Vanga’s outlook that prompted him to humourise a hero who violates the heroine’s consent, is violent towards her and is rewarded with her love and loyalty.
A version of this article was published in The Tribune on August 18, 2019: