EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Female characters in Bollywood seems to be continuing tale of the same archetypes written decades ago, whereas men are generally driving force of the narrative. Why does the industry refuse to flesh out its female roles, especially when films with powerful female protagonists have been successful?
Zoya Akhtar: I don’t think the industry represents anything well, whether it’s a particular community, a particular sexual orientation, a handicap. There’s no representation of anything that’s done well. I don’t understand why women would suddenly be above this. I think there are good writers and bad writers, and the good writers write strong characters while the bad writers write bad characters, both male and female. I have rarely seen a good film, a film I have really liked, where the man had an amazing character and the woman didn’t.
We are a hero-based industry and so is any film industry. Tom Cruise will get paid more than Nicole Kidman because more people will go to watch his films. More people patronise male protagonists, so more films are made with male hero. Those films get bigger budgets and the actors get paid more. The stars have a long shelf life.
We are in a society which is all about the man, and that is reflected in our cinema. We’re not interested in the woman’s story; we’re not interested in our mothers and sisters! So why are we going to pay money to hear some chick talking about her life? We’re not interested, and that is going to translate into what gets produced and what doesn’t. The stereotypes I put down to bad writing beyond a point, and what we think the people want to watch. And a lot of the people making these films also subscribe to what they put out.
I was watching Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi at the Centenary Film Festival. It dealt with an impotent rage of the male protagonist which resonates with a lot of men, but is rarely seen on screen. Is the male hero not similarly typecast as fundamentally strong, even if they do have certain moral failings?
Dibakar Banerjee: The answers to all your questions lie beyond the realm of cinema. Any industry is there to make money. It has no responsibility towards any representation or misrepresentation, and neither should it. Within that industry, individual voices manufacture that responsibility for themselves, because that’s a projection of the self, and come out with a voice of dissent. So, we must set aside those voices and talk about the industry itself. How do you make money? By reaching out to as many people as fast as possible, and as cheaply as possible. How do you do that? By saying something that is supposedly one-size-fits-all. How do you get that? You get the uppermost handles of perception of that society, how that society perceives itself.
How a society perceives itself is almost never about dissent. It is about trying to maintain the status quo. Trying to maintain the status quo requires a dominant minority, that tells the rest of the people how to live and what to live for. Therefore, when you make something that is supposed to sell to the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of time, you need to get down to those precepts and tenets created by dominant minority, and tell the story through those points. In our context, this means patriarchy, feudalism, hero worship, lack of dissent, lack of individualism, a collective identity. And therefore, everything that you see, whether it is the objectification of women or the objectification of men, is a way of enforcing that status quo.
ZA: But do you feel that this viewpoint comes from a dominant minority? I think it is the majority.
DB: For example, we see the Ramayana as this great moral story of how to behave. Now I’ll give an alternative point of view. I see the Ramayana as a fantastic piece of propaganda by certain north Indian clans who wanted to push down into middle and south India for their territorial gain. What the Ramayana is saying is when we go to Madhya Pradesh, or to Odisha, or to Karnataka, and take over the lands of the village chieftain, I will tell him that I am the moral right and you either come under my wing and enjoy my moral rightness, or you’re the demon. And then I’ll write a poem about killing you and tell it to your neighbour, so that he thinks that you’re the demon and I’m the moral guide to follow. Similarly, Mahabharata could be seen as propaganda by a younger-brother clan who usurped the elder-brother clan’s property and then set upon a very interesting advertising campaign on the battle, and told the whole world that they were done against and had taken over what was theirs by right, and justice has prevailed. So there, one creates stereotype, and for the next thousand years, because of the potency of the message — you’ve got a very good copywriter in Vyas or Valmiki; it works because it has many artistic details in it, because it isn’t naked propaganda, it has genuine truths about life in it — the lie becomes the truth.
These are just examples. It has nothing to do with the question. But this is how dominant minority engages and kidnaps the thoughts of the majority. Our films are doing just that; they are generally product of a dominant minority who are still hugely traumatised by the Partition, hugely traumatised by the absolute loss of their land and the breakup of their families. And till date, a large majority of our films have been about the consolidation of the joint family and the consolidation of wealth. The love aspect to that is a small subplot.
That seems to be a bit of a stretch…
DB: When you see all the ancient Indian love stories, there are two kinds. One kind is about the amazing sex you have before marriage, the other is about the amazing love of a married couple. The first beginning of illicit love, or love that is not supported by society, started with the Radha-Krishna myth, which started with Jayadeva’s Geet Govinda in the 12th century. That is a subculture which is a rebellion against the paternal, feudal, patriarchal marriage ceremony. The young people rebel through that tale, because they can’t rebel in real life.
In the Bollywood love stories of 1950s and ’60s, man falls in love with a widow, but the widow dies. The love is shown, but ultimately, the widow will die. Or, if they get married, she was never really a widow. She was disguised as a widow because someone else had died.
ZA: Kati Patang?
DB: Kati Patang is the apt example, but there are many other stories. What happens is that you show all the yearning to break and go for the person you love, because you are in a terribly repressed society. Where do you find love? We are all forced into marriage by the time we are 24 or 25, and we are told to go for that job. Let me tell you, all our parents in the ’60s and the ’70s had extremely stultifying lives. Hence, if you see ’70s and ’80s, the dominant theme for male songs is the ghazal. Take these lyrics: Jag ne chheena mujhse, mujhe jo bhi laga pyaara. What it means is, “Oh, I was born in Meerut and my father married me off, and I work in Gas Authority of India Ltd, and I never got to love anyone. My wife is there, my children are there, and I’ll never taste love. Let’s turn on Pankaj Udhas or Jagjit Singh, and I will live my pain through that.”
In the last 20 years, there’s been a change, because what Adi (Chopra) and Karan (Johar) did, they turned that rebelliousness a little up, and it showed the youth fighting with their parents and going after their love. But, because the films were essentially made with a patriarchal and feudal sensibility, ultimately the father said, “Ja, jee le apni zindagi.” And everybody was happy, but what it shows is that everything except for the climax is true, and the climax, like that of Khosla ka Ghosla, is a kind of “You’re also right, I’m also right.”
ZA: But why is everybody so scared? Why is ‘honour’, which is an absurd concept, attached to ‘chastity’?
DB: Money! I, as a feudal lord, need to fix the marriage of my son to the best candidate of the other feudal lords, so that their progeny enjoys both properties. And for that, my progeny must not have any individual will as to who they will marry. They must agree to what I and that neighbouring feudal lord decide 20 years before they reach a mature age. It’s the core of feudalism.
So izzat is the propaganda tool in this case.
DB: Absolutely. After a while, the people who are propagating this, forget it. It really becomes about their izzat. The brilliant thing about cultural propaganda is that after a generation or two, people forget the economic viewpoint and get into the secondary core. And you’re willing to kill for that, even if you lose money in the process.
But as filmmakers, are you not supposed to engage with these questions in your films?
ZA: Yes, of course. However, just because I’m a filmmaker, should that be my natural responsibility? I don’t think so. I think it’s an individual choice. I believe that when a film out, it’s putting an energy out there that’s going to live longer than you and will hopefully be seen by more people than you will ever talk to. You should think about what you’re putting out there. But it’s a choice.
When it comes to the objectification of women, very often one has to objectify. How you do it is part of your aesthetic. Mirch Masala is an amazing example, because the whole movie is about this subedar who is lusting for a woman. The whole film is about him wanting to bonk this woman. And you never look at her unless it’s full-body. He’s looking at her through binoculars, but Ketan Mehta has never shown us what he’s looking at. And you’re totally getting it; Smita Patil in that movie is the most beautiful, the hottest woman alive. The whole film is based on this, but you never see one shot which is exploitative. You never see her body in pieces. You see her as a human, which is why you are so connected to her. What objectification does is it dehumanises you. It shows your body parts, and it’s not about you any more. You’re a pair of legs; you’re a stomach; you’re a navel.
I get asked about objectification a lot, especially on panels. But every film in the last three months that objectifies women, they’ve gone and watched! I don’t understand; you’ve seen the promo, you don’t like the song, why are you going to the movie?
This is what the CBFC were saying at their workshop in the festival as well. If you don’t like the fact that we’ve allowed a certain item number, don’t watch the film. And if you do, inundate us with letters so we can justify not allowing something similar in the future…
ZA: Who doesn’t like item numbers? What does this mean; I don’t like to watch women dancing? I love Helen, I love Beedi Jalailey.
DB: Tell him what we were doing last night.
ZA: We were watching only item numbers, from the ’70s (Laughs).
Of course, the vamps and their dance numbers in the ’50s and ’60s were the first glimpse most film-watchers got of an independent woman comfortable with her own sexuality.
DB: You’ve hit the nail on the head. A woman who was rich, a woman of independent means, a woman who drank or smoked was always negative.
ZA: No, but in Pyaasa, Waheeda Rehman was a hooker.
DB: She was a golden-hearted hooker. But you never actually concentrate on the fact that she’s a hooker, or that she may like being a hooker. You see, that need to turn her into a golden-hearted, subservient woman always insiduously creeps into the storyline treatment. If everything that celebrates the sexuality of a woman is turned into slightly negative, what you’re doing is you’re attributing a negative aspect to the very positive attribute of lust. Lust is positive; it is the urge to mate. But when you, over centuries, add guilt to lust — that’s what religion does — the moment a man feels lust for a woman, it becomes either guilt, or slightly dangerous, because now the man has to force lust upon a woman.
Therefore, you’re talking about a film that is anti-rape, but when the rapist sees the woman, unlike Mirch Masala, you totally start showing parts of the woman’s body, which makes each and every member of the audience, for five minutes, a rapist. It cajoles them into feeling that guilty lust. Whereas, till the late ’90s, no hero would feel lust for a genuine, golden-hearted woman. He’d always want to kiss her and the heroine would go away. Everything that has to do with the positive aspect of man-woman lust has been ingrained with guilt and violence, and what that means after 500 years of this kind of brainwashing, what you’re going to do is indulge in that violence. Because it’s a guilty pleasure. So because you’re repressing, you are perverting.
So what do you mean when you say you don’t like item numbers? You may not like this item number against that item number, but are you repressing and titillating at the same time. That is the most insidious way for controlling a large number of people for money.
ZA: See, between film and TV, you’re defining popular culture. There is nothing else. There’s no other education coming to you on how to speak to a woman. It’s not happening at home. It’s not happening in the neighbourhood. You’re watching how a film star is approaching a woman, and that’s what you’re copying. Having said that, yes, you should be responsible, but you can’t tell people what to do. You cannot want freedom to make what you want and then tell people they can’t make what they want. Who am I to tell people what to do? I can keep putting out stuff, I can keep speaking, and hopefully, it will change. At the end of the day, no movie, no TV show, is as influential as your parents. You need to take responsibility for yourself. Teach your kids. It’s not my responsibility to teach your kids.
DB: But the fact is that we are vocal, we will run anywhere they allow us to speak, but you will not find us giving this interview on the front page of an entertainment daily. Why is that? Because those newspapers are owned and run by people who have that nexus with Bollywood to sell as many stars and as many films, which are easily consumable. Hence, they have to conform to those racial, sexual and social stereotypes, so that they can sell more things. It’s all about consumerism, which is why we will always have a huge mainstream entertainment conforming to everything that helps sell.
Which very nicely brings me to my next point. Zoya, your father’s body of work as a scriptwriter channelised a lot of the popular frustrations over the direction this country was going in. However, the masala entertainer has changed over the years, and Bollywood seems to have disengaged itself from the prevailing social questions of the day. Filmmakers, it seems, refuse to take a stand on anything political.
ZA: No, people are taking a stand on political things. The first film that comes to mind is Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuha, that deals with Naxalism. But we’re also the flux generation, with the Internet and other changes. The middle class has increased. In the ’50s and ’60s, the middle class was a very small proportion, and they were all educated professionals. Today, the middle class has increased, and with them, it’s about money, not necessarily about culture or education. People are just subscribing to something more aspirational. The thought is, “It’s all screwed up. Nothing is going to change. Am I going to get the life I want?” I find that the essence of most people I meet. That in the middle of all this, am I going to get my house, my car, my girlfriend, my trip abroad?
DB: Absolutely. I think there are two aspects to this. Today, we see the ’70s or the ’80s Parallel Cinema as this phenomenon that was very prominent and upfront in the cultural mainstream. But the fact is that it was not. It was as alternative, as subterrannean as many of our films are today. In those days, these films were seen as something that people never saw. Those films came, and there were a few Siri Fort releases and those films got as drowned out by Himmatwalla or Suhaag as any film today. Today we look at it because a few of us, who are Western-educated elites, remember only those films from that era. The fact is that it was fighting for space even then.
Now, the films that you mention, the Angry Young Man films of Salim-Javed and all that, they are more a creative victory than a social one. It’s just that there was a group of people who were erudite, who were poets, who were rooted in the language of India, who knew what interior India was like. They happened to come into this new industry, and what they had to say — which would have been more alternative if they had written it as a poem or story — found a mass cultural medium. I think it was an accident.
ZA: I also don’t think that they were aware. I think it was what they were and where they came from. They were angry at the system, and I think they were just writing what they liked. I don’t think they had some sort of context that people are feeling this, let’s put it out. Now when you look back at them, it seems like a social phenomenon, but all that came after. And they had people willing to work with them.
How has that changed today? Why is that not happening today? They were still mainstream…
DB: There is Zanjeer and Deewar, and there is Manthan and Ankur. Zanjeer had Amitabh Bachchan and Pran. Now, Amitabh Bachchan was no Rajesh Khanna at that point, but neither was he an Anant Nag. When Shyam Benegal makes Ankur with Anant Nag and Shabana Azmi — who was not yet the Shabana Azmi of Parvarish — you see the rebellion of the village tribal against the dominant middle class. You see the same in Manthan. You are seeing a social rebellion, which is being projected by a genuine dyed-in-the-wool Western-educated elite like Shyam Benegal, but he has completely taken the side of the downtrodden. The fact is that there was a section of the middle class which wanted to rebel, for whatever Leftist associations. What happened in the ’90s was the complete collapse of Leftism the world over and the complete victory of consumerism. Over the last 20 years, all Leftist and alternative theory has been banished to subaltern studies. What it does is that it convinces the middle class, “Boss, forget rebelling and get on the bus.” It’s not an Indian phenomenon; it’s happening the world over. And a change will come. What you’re asking is why the 2010s can’t be the ’70s; what I’m saying is that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and after that things can’t be the same.
But it’s not just that people aren’t taking a stand. Have people have stopped commenting on it?
DB: That is what Zoya was saying. When you take a terribly deprived nation and you suddenly move it at a breakneck speed towards mainstream consumerism, it’s the fascination for the new and the hunger of the hungry that dominates thought. The middle class, which wants to get its grip over the assets of the whole country before anyone else does, will never speak about poverty and analyse it. It’s only the dissidents, only people who are schooled in some kind of thought which saves space in your brain for the Other, they get into this exercise. And most of the time, it becomes a bleeding-heart exercise. The poor can’t make films, because films need money. The poor can write songs, they can write stories, they can paint pictures. Cinema is essentially a middle class and upper-middle class technique, because it needs organised infrastructure and capital to make it. There is no way you can sustain the film industry without the bourgeois middle class.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW