The subject of feminism and women’s rights has always been a controversial one, where debates about women’s wellbeing were constantly being argued over. Questions of ‘the role of women’ in a household, in a workplace, and in the general public scope has consistently been altered, but is typically perpetuated by traditional values imposed from generation to generation. Without previous generations enforcing old values, feminism (especially in an Asian cinema) would have evolved a lot quicker than it actually needed to. In 2017, the world is still subject to debates on political and social policy over what would be healthiest and safest for women, with the woman hardly having a say in the discussion due to lack of representation in boardrooms and political administrations. Indian culture has always had a reputation for being infamously sexist: often times in Bollywood films, the heroine is usually portrayed as someone ‘weak’, as someone who is conventionally beautiful, so that the hero can rescue her from whatever it is in her life she needs to get away from.
Specifically, in older Indian media, such as the worldwide box office hit, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is considered a classic of Indian cinema, one that succeeded both locally and internationally when it was released in the early 2000s. It tells the story of a young girl named Anjali who is given a mission by her dead mother, through a series of eight letters for her to read every year for the first eight years of her life. The letters contain the story of Anjali’s parents (Tina and Rahul), how they met, how they fell in love, and Rahul’s best friend in college, Anjali – the young girl’s name sake – who was a close friend of Rahul’s (played by Shah Rukh Khan). On her eighth birthday, Anjali reads her mother’s last letter, which inadvertently tells her to reunite her father with his old college friend, Anjali. The story is a romantic one, cheesy, cliché and colourful, but that’s exactly what fans love about it.
A Woman’s Place Belongs Under The Male Gaze
The early 2000s was the era where the cute and sometimes slightly trashy romantic comedy flourished, where just about anything romantic was made and released, because it was such a mainstream success. This was especially so in India, a country so in love with love, it’s the main theme of almost all Bollywood’s commercially successful films. This however, lends itself to some very sexist issues in the films themselves.
Adult Anjali’s first appearance is as a tomboy with short hair and is depicted as obviously unattractive (by the standards of all the movie’s characters). Here we see the emphasis India’s traditional and patriarchal society places on a woman, where she is only beautiful if she were to appease herself to the male gaze i.e have long hair, wear makeup, either be clad in a traditional saree or dress. The entire film essentially talks about how Anjali has an intense make-over and “feminises” herself after to win Rahul’s heart, giving up her identity and personal outlook on life in order to become more attractive and lovable. Well then.
Rahul and big Anjali when they reunite – look how “pretty” she got!
What makes matters worse is that when Tina comes into the picture, she is introduced as the sexy, desirable dean’s daughter who wears dresses and short skirt and has long, luscious hair. As a result, Rahul is seduced by Tina, even though it is obvious that his feelings for Anjali are buried deep beneath his love of beautiful women. Beside the fact that Rahul is an idiot who encompasses a stereotypical male chauvinist who is wooed by superficial beauty, Anjali also manages to snag herself a fiancé, who – surprise, surprise – she only attracts after she has completely changed her hair, clothes and even favourite hobbies to become “the desirable woman”.
Big Anjali tries grabbing Rahul’s attention by dressing more feminine. Seemed to work. Kind of.
Source: SRK Universe
It is difficult to simply write off Kuch Kuch Hota Hai as a clichéd film, since it did so well amongst its viewers. There is also the fact that while new Westernized films were being produced in the same era as this film, Asian media was scarcer, especially the kinds that would actually set a standard that would be difficult to overcome or surpass. Still, the portrayal of women in the context of love is an incredibly traditionalist aspect of this film, in the way that it basically tells you that in order to get the attention of the man that you love, you have to be stereotypically beautiful so that he’ll realize that you were beautiful all along, just as Anjali did. The film probably has a point, in that it feels great to be seen as attractive, but the values it presents (you know, things like changing everything about yourself to get a mate) is yet another subtle contribution to the way we structure our societies: women must meld themselves to be attractive to the male gaze, for what else is important to us? Our identity? As Kuch Kuch Hota Hai puts it, ‘nah’.
Everybody does love a good dance sequence, though.
Source: SRK Universe
Within the last twenty years, there have been countless films released in theatres, and some followed common trends and became mainstream, while others attempted to pose a challenge to traditional and conventional values, which gave these films a hard-hitting edge whenever they received praise from their audiences. Dangal is a perfect example of showcasing women who fight against the odds to be different, although the two female leads of the film definitely don’t start out this way.
Punching Back, One Fight At A Time
Mahavir (played by Aamir Khan) is an ex-national level wrestler but was forced to quit due to the wishes of his own father. From the start of the film, he is shown to be desperate for a son, so that he can impart his dream of winning the championship unto his child, but when he is given only daughters. It dawns on him however, that they have potential when both Geeta and Babita, without any training, beat up a couple of boys who had been harassing and teasing them. Dangal then depicts the young girls’ struggles their hometown taunting them and imposing expectations on them that they had no right to impose at all, a glimpse into what girls must face in sexist communities when they stop conforming to gender roles. The start of the girls’ training was beyond difficult, and they had to constantly fight back aching muscles and crumbling spirits. However, one of Dangal’s more inspiring aspects is when their father refuses to allow the girls to just give in and conform to their society’s traditional values. Particularly in Asian culture, it is sometimes difficult for the father of a girl to allow her to create a life of her own, especially one that strays away from tradition and was much closer to something people considered “a man’s job”. In the general sense of the word, Asian culture dictates that a daughter must always be and act a certain way in order to bring honor to her family, but it becomes apparent that that is not the goal of this film.
Mahavir Phogat’s first appearance.
Throughout the film, neither Geeta nor Babita is shown to have a love interest, secret or not. While there are moments where Geeta is inquisitive and wonders about a life that she hasn’t been given before, she stays true to what her father has taught her for her entire life. Of course, that is not without a few hiccups. Overall, releasing a film that deals with a stereotypically masculine sport like wrestling, and making women the focus, has broken boundaries and stereotypes in Indian society that makes Dangal an incredible film to watch, one where everyone will leave it feeling like they could break down a door (or preferably, the glass ceiling).
Dangal is an all-around gorgeous film, because it touches upon the familial love that is demonstrated between Mahavir and his two badass daughters. Moreover, despite the limb-threatening training he puts Geeta and Babita through, he still loves them immensely. Of course, the two girls doubt this fact, but are quickly given a slap in the face by their friend whose own father has played into the patriarchal society and has married her off to a man she barely knows. With a tearful piece of advice, she tells both Geeta and Babita that their father loves them and believes in them, and that’s why he is trying to give them a life that is different than other girls’ lives.
At the start of their training, the girls suffer greatly, but their father still pushes them to work harder.
In fifteen years, it is evident that feminism has had a radical impact on Indian culture, especially with the power of Indian cinema growing and telling women that they really can be anything they want to be. The main message found in Dangal, which could not be found in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, is that women are capable of brilliant things, and of being something beyond a stereotype. They could be wrestlers, dress in boy’s clothes, be unconventional and in short: change the lives of people around them as they know it. It teaches its audiences to pursue things that are not stereotypically of their gender, with Geeta and Babita both working to fulfill their father’s dream by making their mark on Indian culture, with the radical act of even participating in an all-male sport.
Mahavir’s wife worries that maybe, his dream is just unattainable, and that maybe, he just needs to be a father to his children.
Overall, there is a brilliant change in the portrayal of feminism throughout all media, but delightedly so in Hindi films, what with female characters being bold enough to not have to worry about traditional values such as arranged marriages or raising a family. The mark that makes Dangal so great is that it’s one of many movies in a new wave of Hindi films that tells young girls that it’s powerful to say “no” to sexist and traditional values, and that they can be their own people without needing approval from other people. Dangal being such a successful film is a huge deal in India, a country that known for its heavily conditioned rape culture and abuse towards women. When Geeta and Babita first enter wrestling competitions as part of their development as wrestlers, we are shown men watching them wrestling make disgusting comments about their strength as women and their bodies – a reflection of the casually sexist conversations men have that perpetuate the sexist standards these societies are subject to.
Mahavir and his champion daughters in one word: Power.
Female representation in even the most commercially successful films from all across the world still has a long way to go. But in this inclusive millennium, there has been a call for directors to create films with women being the heart and soul of the story, actual people with real feelings and dreams, and whose dreams will not simply be squashed by a more patriarchal society. We are proud to be at the start of a time where films in even the most patriarchal of countries is starting to move towards representing the women are the ones shaping their own lives, not the men who are in their lives as a result of circumstance.
Written by Qistina Azman