By Aarti Pathak
I was aloof to Bollywood for a large part of my life. And I definitely wasn’t one of those who drooled over SRK’s “Palat” in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or Salman Khan’s towel dance from Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya. On the odd occasion that I did catch a Hindi film, I wouldn’t be too bothered by much of what I saw on screen. Dumb storyline? Meh. Vulgar dance and filthy lyrics? It’s time to zone out. Misogynistic plots and jokes? Tsk, it’s just a movie innit?
Then I became a mother. To two boys.
If there’s something you learn as an Indian mother who wants to raise fiercely feminist sons, it’s that Bollywood and its portrayal of toxic masculinity will do everything in its power to stop you from doing so. There’s no way I could be indifferent to either the brazen or the subliminal messages floating around in almost every Hindi film which my sons would be watching too.
It all started with English Vinglish, a film that I liked and asked my boys to watch when it came on TV on a Sunday afternoon. I have to admit, getting them to watch it came with unexpected benefits: It reminded and guilted them into thinking about all the times they were mean to me. And resulted in week-long exemplary obedient behaviour that would make any mother teary-eyed. Moreover, it also introduced them to the idea of being gay and to unrequited love and heartbreaks. And at the tender ages of seven and nine, they didn’t shy away from having an involved discussion with me on these topics.
From then on, watching Hindi films became the preferred past time for my sons. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara became our weekend go-to film and they learnt the significance of friendships. Dangal and Chak De! India could keep them glued for hours and inspired for weeks. Hera Pheri would have us all in splits together. And the little bit of Highway that they saw on TV left them mortally afraid of kidnappers that since then, they don’t leave my hand and run away in public places. Ten points to Highway for that.
But it’s only gone downhill since then. As I soon learnt, finding a film devoid of misogyny, objectification of women, insensitivity, and double-meaning innuendo was easier said than done. How am I supposed to raise feminist sons when they’re freely exposed to Bollywood? How do I explain to my kids what is wrong with “6 din, Ladki in” when SRK is mouthing it as if it’s the most chivalrous way to woo a girl in Kal Ho Naa Ho? And what if my impressionable kids decide to pretend to be gay just so they can become roommates with a desi girl and swoop her off her feet, a la Dostana? Cut a girl some slack, Bollywood, I’m trying hard here!
It’s not like even the most well-meaning Hindi films come with a disclaimer for their problematic portrayals.
For instance, I took my boys out to watch Jagga Jasoos because I’d thought that it’d be a kid-friendly film. And it was so much fun until Ranbir Kapoor tried kissing a half-asleep Katrina Kaif. I almost choked on my popcorn and instantly whispered right there in the theatre that one must “never” kiss a girl without her “consent” and especially not when she is asleep. To drive my point across, I also added for good measure that it’s something that people can go to jail for. Thankfully, they understood but ended up asking if it was so wrong, why was a theatre full of “grown ups” heartily laughing at it.
I wish I had an answer or that it stopped there.
In the process of watching films through the eyes of my two sons, I have stopped enjoying films that I’d liked myself. Watching Sholay entailed having to admit to my kids that Dharmendra was indeed feeling Hema Malini up and not actually teaching her how to aim a gun or shoot. And as much as I loved the frothy Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander, I realised that I had totally forgotten how the film normalised creepy, vomit-inducing weirdos who ogle at girls as if it’s their fundamental right. My kids looked puzzled by the leering Pooja Bedi was gifted in her entry scene. Safe to say, it didn’t go very well.
Then, it dawned on me: Maybe I should try some of the classics that were superhits when my parents were young. But mentally going over their storylines, I quickly got over that delusion. In most of the films of the ’80s, the dolled up heroine existed to choose between a hero (think BA pass or poor, clerk) and a villain (rich, smuggler, or sexual predator), and marrying one of them was her only life goal. Forget my kids, I couldn’t have sat through that crap today. Even worse were the mandatory rape scene in so many of these films where the hero would woo the helpless heroine by saving her from being inevitable assault from the villain. Yeah, I couldn’t subject my unsuspecting innocent children to that meant-to-titillate garbage.
After months of watching movies while annoying my kids by giving them a simultaneous lecture on respecting women and basic human decency, it hit me. If I continue letting my sons consume Hindi film wisdom, there will be no way they won’t believe that stalking is courtship, women are props, and that the true marker of manhood is assuming that a “no” means “yes”.
I had no other choice but to accept defeat. And then I stumbled upon Baahubali. Who would have thought that it would be this film that would effortlessly show them that tough, muscular men could be full of love and care, that women could kick ass, and that even breastfeeding women with babies on their arms can wield a knife? Maybe there is some hope after all.