Friday, August 17

Bollywood’s Commodification of the Delectable Urban Indian Feminist

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My Choice,” the infamous video released by the #VogueEmpower campaign in 2015, creates a narrative arc through visual and auditory spectacle. The two and a half minute film featuring Bollywood darling Deepika Padukone begins with slow shots cutting between a seemingly heterogenous group of ninety nine women. The music is sombre, ominous. The women are closed off at first, one clutching her knees to her chest, another holding a sheet up to hide her body. As the music picks up beat, the women begin twirling, smiling, looking coyly into the camera. As it builds up to a crescendo, Deepika says, “My pleasure may be your pain, my songs, your noise.” The women in this sequence are angry. A women in black dances with fluid, bold movements, bringing us to the music’s peak.

Stop.

The music starts up again at its earlier upbeat pace and, once again, the women are smiling, gentle, appeased. The last shot features Deepika looking straight into the camera, her hair blowing effortlessly. She proclaims: “I am the universe. Infinite in every direction. This, is my choice.”

Within hours of the video’s release, comments flooded in on YouTube accusing it of being “sexist hypocrisy,” and a “cancer which will destroy Indian society.” Criticism ranged across the spectrum: that it was too elitist, that its production by Vogue India, a magazine known for its promotion of unrealistic beauty standards, represented a hypocritical double standard, that its message was selfish rather than liberating. The responses to “My Choice” represent a poignant revelation in the mainstream discourse on feminist activism. People were beginning to become attuned to the way profit-motivated organizations and enterprises had begun to hijack the anger around women’s struggles in India, appropriating it to contemporize their image and exploit a trending hashtag. “My Choice” provides a fraught, contentious example of the coalescing issues that come out of the need to cater to the “empowered independent woman”, something of a feminist trope in contemporary India.

The “empowered Indian woman” is the woman who can afford to buy the feminism that cultural productions like the #VogueEmpower campaign are selling; the woman who demands to see her aspirations represented and fulfilled in the cultural commodities she buys. Representations of the “real world” take a backseat to wish-fulfillment.

Veere di Wedding, Bollywood’s most recent women-centric production, literalizes the desires of this feminist consumer. Featuring four girls navigating different relationships, the film brands the women through cliches of the Sex and the City version of womanhood: Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor) as the commitment-phobe, Avni (Sonam Kapoor) as the perfectionist desperately seeking an ideal marriage, Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar) as the to-be divorcee with a raunchy streak, Meera (Shikha Talsania) as the harrowed mother with a non-existent sex life. The film produces a narrative arc through the steady decline in Kalindi’s relationship with her fiancé, driven along primarily by his infuriatingly traditional family. Along the way, we see the other women dealing with their own marital and family problems, all meant to typify womanhood within the urban elite.

The film’s liberal agenda makes it hard to question its intentions. The girls are #fightingthepatriarchy, questioning tradition and liberating themselves from the norms of society. They ask the right questions: “Why should marriage define a woman’s life?” “Why shouldn’t women have the right to pleasure?” and they critique the right norms. What they do in equal measure however, is buy into the neoliberal model of female liberation that commodifies empowerment and sells it as a lavish package for the urban elite to aspire to.

In Veere di Wedding, the main characters indulge in a Sex In the City-type of feminism that equates empowerment with self-indulgence.

In the most extreme display of this agenda, the women jet off to Phuket to take Kalindi’s mind off her broken marriage and the tension between the girls. In a somewhat meta moment, when Sakshi proposes this idea, Sonam exclaims “Sakshi Soni hai, apne baap ke paise thoke bina usse chain nahi aata” (This is Sakshi Soni, without throwing her dad’s money away she is never at peace). Even the girls are aware that in their lexicon, to “fix” one’s problems is to engage in a fantastical utopianism that can only be achieved by throwing around money. This might be the closest the film comes to acknowledging its firm affiliations with urban elitism and the commodification of empowerment. The film cannot maintain this self awareness for long, however, and dissolves, as we cut to the next scene, into a montage of the girls rollicking in Phuket to triumphant background music.

As the women drink and dance away their apparent sorrows, they seem to heal and return to India with an unexplained ability to resolve all their problems. Meera admits to her girlfriends that she hasn’t had sex in a year and, on returning to Delhi, miraculously has sex. Sakshi admits that her divorce is a consequence of her having been caught masturbating and finds the courage to reveal this to her parents back home. Avni has an uncharacteristic revelation about the pressures of finding a husband and comes back with a newfound ability to “keep things casual.” Only Kalindi’s narrative falters a bit, yet is redeemed soon enough through some deft manipulation by her friends. Tertiary relationships are mended and the wedding is brought back on. With a series of convenient deus ex machinas, we find ourselves bopping along to an upbeat credits sequence at the wedding that renders all the unresolved conflicts and contradictions irrelevant.

To be fair, the film certainly does things that challenge the narrative of mainstream Bollywood. As the cast has touted over and over, this is perhaps the first big mainstream Bollywood film with no male hero. And although Sonam and Kareena are the big faces of the film, Swara and Shikha, with certainly less conventionally sexualized appearances, are considered worthy of screen time.

India’s urban elite take centerstage in Veere di Wedding.

Yet for all its contentions of being new and unique, the film is rooted in a narrative that’s been trending in Bollywood since the feminist explosion of India after the infamous gang rape of 2012: the narrative of success, of the empowered Indian woman. A narrative that leaves no space for failure. For failure is a fact of Indian womanhood that few, if any producers are willing to back. Films like Veere have glamorized a certain narrative of empowerment: women fight, rage, and fantastically come out unscathed. Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), Veere di Wedding’s most direct predecessor, offers a specimen of this need for triumph at its most disconcerting. Like Veere, Goddesses is a film clearly aimed at the urban elite. The film features five college girlfriends from different metropolises in India coming to Goa – a Western tourist and consequently liberal haven – to celebrate their friend’s impending wedding. The five women, Frieda, “the bride,” Mad, the “singer,” Pam, the “cooped up housewife,” Suranjana, the “uptight businesswoman,” and Jo, the “aspiring actress,” all share largely similar experiences of being female in the urban liberal sphere. The characters, therefore, lend themselves to what has been touted “the first female buddy film” in India.

The plot consistently throws up highly implausible situations that expose how each woman lacks an individualized personality beyond the “empowered woman” archetype. All through the first half of the film, Frieda refuses to reveal who she is getting married to. Multiple scenes touch on this narrative subplot until the girls ambush Frieda while she is doing a Maurn Vrat (Fast of Silence). Unable to speak, Frieda agrees to act out who her partner is through a game of charades. The girls begin to guess as she acts out a series of rather oblique clues until she performs “coming out of the closet” by walking through a doorway. What follows is an absurd sequence in which Pam stares open-mouthed at Frieda and asks “gay as in happy, right?” When Mad responds “no, gay as in homosexual,” Pam’s eyes glaze over and, in by far the most ridiculous scene of the entire film, she topples backwards and faints. Once revived, she continues to look absolutely horrified by this turn of events while the other girls question Frieda about who the bride is. After much prodding, it is revealed that Nargis, the “activist” who has been staying with the five in the house is Frieda’s fiancé. The girls hug and congratulate her. Inexplicably, Pam joins in on the celebration.

The wish fulfillment of the scenes borders on bizarre. After years of being steeped in conservatism, Pam sees her friend in love and is converted to the liberal cause instantly. Without either of the girls’ inner lives, or their struggles being delved into, their problems are solved, their opinions changed. The film’s audience becomes its deus ex machina, roped in to “fix” obstacles getting in the way of the girls’ triumphant narrative arcs by wishful thinking alone.

Angry Indian Goddesses was hailed as India’s “first female buddy film.”

This utopianism is taken as far as it possibly can in the second half of the film, with the insertion of the horrifying rape. Jo, the seeming peacemaker of the group, gets upset after being made fun of for her accent and takes a walk along the beach to calm herself down. Next, we cut to the girls frenziedly searching for her with Frieda despairing that she might have lost her cousin forever. After much angst and foreboding, the girls find Jo’s body on the beach with clear signs of physical and, as we learn, sexual, assault. The police arrive and question the girls intrusively, giving clear indication that they see Jo’s rape as inevitable because of the way she was dressed and where she was walking. After the humiliation and defeatism triggered by this exchange, the girls return to their shack only to realize through pictures taken on Maya’s phone that Jo’s rapists were men who had harassed them earlier while they were out. The scene that follows indulges in a surreal, righteous vigilantism in which Suranjana and Mad find the men on the beach and shoot them, tearfully surrounded by the other girls in an intense display of female solidarity.

Through their vigilantism, the girls score a victory for the feminist cause. Through the display of solidarity, the film makes the claim that all of society should come together to validate this victory. The feminist gaze annihilates realism and representation, substituting these with what it purports as empowerment: vengeance actualized through fantasy.

Goddesses and Veere’s model of female empowerment, with women fighting the system and emerging constantly triumphant, invites a healthy dose of skepticism. Contemporary feminist cultural productions seem to have been coopted by a neoliberal agenda that seeks to peddle empowerment as a delectable, aspirational commodity. Films like Veere and Goddesses package this narrative and produce glorious victories for the feminist cause. These are not bad films. They are, often, important films. However, they have become a norm in a society where the vast majority of women find no identification with the utopianism of such stories. We need more stories of the ordinary, the mundane. We need stories that deem women’s desires, their fantasies and their struggles and worthy of representation even when they are not bedazzling or successful. The suggestion that women’s stories are worth telling regardless of their potential to empower opens up the path to a feminism that rejects saviorhood in favor of acknowledgement and empathy. It allows us to move from feminism as a fight to feminism as solidarity.

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