Friday, March 2, 2012

Grow Up, Bollywood Girls!

One of the biggest disadvantages of having a group of friends where everyone is 3-5 years younger than you is that you're always waiting for people to grow up. You keep making excuses for them and keep saying: they'll grow up when they get a real job, they'll grow up when they find a steady girlfriend/boyfriend, they'll grow up when they move out, etc. And there is some truth to that because that is usually how people learn responsibility and maturity. In fact, on the opposite end, the most telling sign that someone is refusing to grow up is that they will do anything (and I mean ANYthing) to not get a full-time job, or what we call a "real" job.

In a way, Bollywood is like these friends of mine: it keeps refusing to let its heroines (and heroes sometimes) grow up. In real life, if someone is responsible enough to keep a real job and live on their own, we also expect them to be emotionally mature. (Of course that expectation can backfire horribly, but that's for a different day to discuss.) But Bollywood, as I have discovered, doesn't like emotionally mature characters. It follows logically that they cannot have jobs (or if they do they're in the artistic realm), live on their own or make reasonable (read: mature) decisions. So... they don't.

We've already discussed that a fair percentage of the male characters have become manchildren (without actually getting to the bottom of why that is, but we might get there in this post), so it's only right to now discuss what type of female characters will suit these boys. Not surprisingly: girls! Not women. Girls. Sometimes (not very often, thankfully!) manic pixie dream girls and other times just girls in the process of growing up along with their hero. But girls nonetheless.

Look around at Bollywood movies from the past two decades: how many women can we count and how many girls? And of those women, how many are the heroine? Moreover, how many of those heroines end up with the hero? Three questions, each worth exploring in some detail.

By the way, as I was writing this I realized that this is a very a-typical post for me because I'm never big on women power. To me everyone is equal and no sex should be more equal than the other. But a few recent stinkers from Filmistan have made me a little fed up with all these cutesy bubbly teenage dream girls that Bollywood (and regional cinema) loves so dearly. And I realized that normal grown-up women have been a bit of a rarity lately. Hence my upcoming rant.

How many women and how many girls are there?

For a while there it seemed like Bollywood was going in the right direction with its female characters, providing some much needed relief from the whiny, spine-less love interests that populated the last decade of the millennium. And here mad brownie points go to Dil Chahta Hai for giving us not one but three female characters that despite being at different stages in their development shared one quality: they all had a level head on their shoulders. Then Southie remakes started happening. And Hollywood "inspirations". And then it all started going downhill again.

While it's understandable that a certain amount of innocence should go with the virginal ideal woman (according to Indian cinema anyway), it's incredible how often that degenerates into ditsiness and childlike behaviour. Even some of my favourite movies manage to slip into this cliche. I adored Dimple in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, but let's face it, mature is not the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe her. One of my favourite movies ever, Jab We Met, features another good example of innocence and airheaded-ness, despite a few well placed dialogues that manage to give Geet some depth. Her behaviour however is not exactly what we would expect from a grown woman. In another intriguing example Kaminey's Sweety is a strange mixture of determination and puerility.

And mind you these are the films that balanced it well and gave us some truly memorable, three-dimensional characters that I will always love. Most films out there either don't even try to give us a round character, or if they do, it reminds us of how we used to be at 15. This is, by the way, much much worse in regional cinema, which is probably why I'm so fed up with them.

Whether that innocence comes from having grown up in a warm family that has sheltered the girl from the evil world, or from simply being a carefree type of personality, the fact is it exists in far too many female character out there. And while I do understand the appeal of a sweet, wholesome, happy and (usually) virginal creature, there is something to be said in favour of a lady who has some knowledge of how the world turns. And who has some depth to her even if that means being manipulative or selfish. No? Too much? Ok, then at least a girl who has kissed a boy before and doesn't look like it's the most miraculous moment in her life when she kisses the hero. You see what I'm getting at here.

But evidently Bollywood does not agree because it keeps serving us these lovely wide-eyed caricatures of women who more often than not seem inspired by high school cheerleaders (or bookworms, depending on the story) rather than by real life women.

Of these Women, how many are the heroine?

This is a startling conclusion that I came to: a lot of times the female characters who seem real and who make mature decisions are not the main characters in Hindi films. Think of Jai's Swiss girlfriend in Love Aaj Kal. Think of Luv's ex in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Think of Tanu's best friend in Tanu Weds Manu. Think of Ria in Monsoon Wedding. Or Raina in Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl. All these secondary characters behave like a normal grown-up woman would in front of a tough situation. They don't call mommy, they don't cling to the hero like ivy to an old house, they don't give up on life. They do what any adult does: deal with the problem. (Or in Tanu's case, they deal with their best friend's problem.)

So this is where it gets really confusing now. I used to look around at all the different kinds of fabulous women that I know and wonder: why is it so hard for scriptwriters in Bollywood to create a character that feels real? Normal women walk around us all the time, why is it so hard to transfer them to paper and then to screen? Why the need to go over the top with these unnaturally bubbly characters? Or worse, come up with flat characters whose sole purpose is to look pretty in a sari and possibly fuel the hero's transformation into a real man. Now understandably if we're talking about a movie like Dabangg or Dhoom 2, we won't take offense at the flatness of the female characters, the movie is, after all, not about them. But why can we not have grown-up women in rom-coms? In love stories? In dramas?

Because it turns out that they can be written. They do exist and they do make it to the screen. Just... not as the heroine.

And the more I think about it the more if feels like I figured it out. In Bollywood where the love story is such an important element, a character who is already developed doesn't have anywhere to go. The whole fun of watching a story that's been told before (which most of the times is exactly what you're watching) is seeing how the characters change. So unless there's some sort of growth (and the growing up kind seems to be the easiest to handle), there is no satisfaction at the end of the journey. Unless, of course, there's action and sparkles and dancing in which case we really don't care about the character development.

Then of course there's also the issue of the fountain of youth which Bollywood is still looking for. There's no telling when it will be found, but in the meantime we're getting some practice with the kinds of characters that a forever-young actress or actor will need to play (ie teenagers). Though credit where it's due, Bollywood actresses are doing a whole lot better than the actors in choosing age-appropriate roles.  

And finally: how many end up with the hero?

A few movies have managed to elevate these independent, strong women from the secondary character status to heroine or at least the "other" heroine. I'm thinking about Dev D.'s Paro, Ishqiya's Krishna, Chalo Dilli's Mihika, Delhi Belly's Menaka, Aaja Nachle's Dia, Luck by Chance's Sona and to a certain extent Riana in Ek Main aur Ekk Tu. All women who know what they want and don't rely on men to build their own happiness.

But strangely, of all these, Delhi Belly is the only one where there is a possibility she will end up with the main hero. In all the other ones they either are never meant to be a couple (as is the case with Chalo Dilli), or they just don't end up doing the "happily ever after" thing for whatever reason.

Actually, it's not for "whatever" reason. It's for a very obvious reason: the hero is not likely to make such a woman happy. Whether it's because he's too immature, or because he's too self-centered, or simply because... she's just not that into him. Puns aside, could we even picture them together? In most of these cases, not really. And not to say that it's imperative for a woman to be in a couple in order to be happy, but... it doesn't hurt either.

Strong women, it seems, don't belong with chocolate heroes. Maybe chocolate heroes wouldn't know how to handle them. The nervous boy who is in love for the first time and doesn't even know it would be crushed by a love interest who isn't herself a shivering fragile lily. So the grown-up women get sidelined and in come the girls who will be more than happy to stick around through thick and thin holding a man-child's hand. The one-eyed leading the blind...

(Of course there are a handful of films where the independent, strong-headed heroine does end up with the hero, but more often than not, their love story is not the main focus. I'm thinking of the adorable Well Done Abba, the intriguing Paa, and the brilliant Swades. Too few... too few.)

The conclusion here seems to be that in order for us to buy the hero and the heroine being happy ever after, we have to visualize that they will evolve together. If the female character is a woman and the male character is a boy, it doesn't ring true to picture them still together in 20 years, which is really what we should think at the end of a good love-story. On the other hand if neither of them has to wait around for the other to grow up, and they're in it together, it's easier to believe that they will make it.

The bottom line...

Bollywood certainly has a firm grasp on this one concept: there is nothing more intense, more romantic and more adorable to watch than two people falling in love for the first time. In fact, because this first-love magic usually happens to us when we're teenagers, Hindi films have gone as far as routinely selling us characters in their mid-twenties who act like teenagers in the turmoils of their first love story (and no, it's not just the female characters, it's both sexes).

But here's something that Bollywood apparently has yet to discover: grown-ups fall in love too. And it can make for some pretty cool stories.

It's not that girls are not fun to watch, don't get me wrong, I love my bubbly energy balls just as much as I love my man-children, but I do find that the stereotype has gone a little too far in recent years. I'm ok with being given a girl instead of a woman, but give me a well-rounded one (and I don't mean just physically in case you were getting ready with a pun here), give me one I can picture surviving in real life. I know... I know... Bollywood is not meant to be realistic. But I find that it's doing a great job with the male characters in that department, so why not with the ladies as well?

Maybe when mainstream Bollywood finally discovers adults we'll be treated to some real women, who act like they're firmly in their twenties or thirties. Or fifties. Who think for themselves and know what they want. Who make the right decision for themselves, not for mommy and daddy, not for the boyfriend or for anyone else. And who don't end up alone.

Until then we'll have to make do with girls who assert their independence through teenage rebellion acts such as *gasp* smoking, drinking and driving a scooter at high speed. In traffic. Whoa.

PS: This post was brought to you by Adam's Rib, a Totally Filmi initiative, made possible by the generous support of Bloggistan. For more women power (and for less cynicism than what I just served you) keep an eye on her blog for links to all the participating posts. I promise after I'm done celebrating the male power of Ali Zafar in London Paris New York, I will sit down and write a nice happy post about the ladies of Indian Cinema.


me said...

A really good read, thanks. Not only do I not find anything to disagree with, I think it's possible there's an example you didn't mention which reinforces your argument. In Band Baaja Baarat, many people object to the way Shruti regresses from a driven, focused adult to a shrill, emotional child in the 2nd half, but it's only in that state she finally "gets her man".
The other reason I really liked this post was because it touches on something that I would love to see addressed in Hindi cinema. Roles for WOMEN, not just girls. For me, the most ground-breaking thing about DCH was Dimple's role, and now that I'm in my 40s and see so many GREAT actresses in that age group, I wish Bollywood would use them well. Aaja Nachle was a grown-up romance and it tanked, I think? Thank you so much for a wonderful post, and I hope that someone in Bollywood takes notice of it.

katherine said...

Terrific, such good food for thought here. I've been torn about this month, because I'm not terribly about the whole "woman power" thing, but I'm equally frustrated that we don't see a range of women (and men, though as you point out, it seems to be better for the men) represented on the screen.

I love the girls, too, and would hate to see them disappear. Just would prefer to see more women of all ages and stages represented.

dustdevil liz said...

Lots of great food for thought. You mentioned "Paa", which immediately made me think of Balki's other film "Cheeni Kum." Tabu's character is a clearly adult woman.

I think there is a stock "confident, but uptight, sexy, but pure career woman" character in a lot of recent films (Dostana,Munna Bhai films,Bluffmaster). Definitely an adult, but as you noted, not much of a growth trajectory.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post Dolce. :-)

I also think a lot of the girlishness of the female characters has to do with the giggly, bubbly quality of all the A-List actresses today, and how young they usually are. I'm sure that a lot of female characters would come across very differently if portrayed by an actress with more maturity and depth than the average BW actress today has.

I'm pretty interested in Talaash, the teaser isn't much to go by, but I am hopeful that the film will give us two fabulous female characters who are all grown up. Adding to your list of adult women who get the guy: Jodhaa from Jodhaa Akbar, the book publisher's wife in Shor in the City, Shabana Azmi in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd.


Dolce and Namak said...

Yay! I finally got around to responding to these! Happy to see everyone pitching in with more ideas on this one!

@ maxqnz: Yeah, BBB is a different kind of animal. It's hard to judge it too harshly because its heart was firmly in the right place: it's a movie that wanted to give us a hard-working, highly independent female character who drives the relationship for pretty much the entire first half of the movie. So that's why I don't want to take anything away from it.

But I do agree with your assessment of Shruti's regression in parts. She does become immature and irresponsible, so in that sense you're totally right to lump her with the girls, but to me she "gets her man" when she snaps out of that actually. After all the fighting and all the ridiculousness, I found her speech at the end of the movie quite sobering and a good display of emotional maturity, and that's the turning point for Bittoo, so I guess this is one we can argue both ways. Personally I'm leaning more towards Shruti 'the woman' getting her man.

But great example to analyse, for sure! I'm glad you brought it up!

And yes, so true about all the actresses in Bollywood who are getting to that age now where they could really pull of some cool roles, and in all fairness Bolly is getting better. Thankfully along with all the silly rom-coms and superhero flicks we also seem to be getting some real meat in some movies. It's not a lot yet, but it gives me hope that another Aaja Nachle in 5 more years wouldn't tank again. :) Baby steps... baby steps... :D

Dolce and Namak said...

@ Katherine: I know, I hear ya! It's hard to draw the line: what's too much women power (ie: American shows such as SATC and the like), and what's just right. Personally I'd be happy to see BW evolve to the "just right" stage, but it may take an over the top stage to get there after all. Seeing some of these career-women roles in the past 5 years (Fashion, What's Your Rashee, parts of Bachna Ae Haseeno) makes me think: be careful what you wish for when it comes to empowerment because you may get more than you can handle. Sigh... :)

@ Dustdevil: Argh!!! You just had to mention that! :) I've had Cheeni Kum sitting on my shelf for 2 years now but the leads are both so unappealing to me that I keep postponing watching it. But Adam's Rib might be just the push I needed to finally do it. :)

And yes, you made a good point about career women, which I was trying to touch on in my reply to Katherine as well, that can't be all there is to independent women! :) After all there are plenty of strong women out there (and I would imagine even more in India) who are not VPs of big companies or hard-nosed lawyers. Those are so cliche that it's hard to even consider them a step forward.

Dolce and Namak said...

@ Sanyogita: I wondered about that too. Is it the writers or is it the actresses? But as much as that may apply to someone like Katrina who is herself rather on the childish side, I think Kareena, Priyanka, Anushka, Rani, Koko, etc totally have what it takes to play other kinds of roles too. They just... don't believe in them, I think. Maybe Vidya will open some doors for other actresses too now, it seems that it's all on her this year to represent. :D

Oh, and thanks for reminding me of Shabana in Honeymoon Travels! Such a good role that one! :) Wish there were more like that!

As for Talaash... well... it may very well be one for Adam's Rib next year the way things are going! :D

Aline Cinehindi said...

Hi Dolce and Namak!

This was a great read and I do agree with you too. Many of the heroines today (that do end up with the hero) make me think that roles are written in the desperate search to recreate Madhubala's innocent and childlike charm. Around the same period, Nargis was doing some roles that were a bit different already though... I wonder why the bubbly cute chick is what pulls in crowds more in current days. I do have to say I liked "Wake Up Sid!" a lot because it had a great female character and she does end up with the guy (or should I say the lucky guy does end up with her). Great writing! Looking forward to reading you more! :-)

Chanz said...

Hey Dolce and Namak,
I just came across your blog and especially this post, and I really enjoy the depth into which you wrote this! I'm glad that you mentioned Konkona's character in Luck by Chance, and her role in Wake Up Sid was also very defined and mature. It's sad that actresses that actually participate in these types of roles are not given as many opportunities to act. However, the roles that actresses are approached for are made by the directors/producers, who make films based on what the Indian public wants. So until the public becomes more mature about what they want to see in a film, I believe that actresses will have to continue roles that do not fit the age they should be playing.
Also, you can check out my Bollywood blog if you would like, it's

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Aline, always happy when other Wake Up Sid fans give it some love. :)

I've only seen Madhubala in a couple of movies, same for Nargis, but somehow even when they were playing the innocent maiden they never really gave me the impression they were... ditsy. Ok, except for Barsaat, Nargis was a total airhead in that. I think I'm bothered more by the fact that we don't get well rounded, believable characters anymore than I am by the fact that they play innocent girls. I don't mind girlish, but even 17 year olds have some depth to them in this day and age. Just wish that was reflected in the movies...

Thanks for coming by! And thank you for reposting this! :) I'll make my way down in a minute and comment on yours.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hi Chanz, welcome to the blog! Just checked out yours, now I know where to keep abreast of all the song promos coming out. :) (And always pleased to find other Lil B fans who think he just got the dirty end of the stick in this industry!)

I totally agree with you on the scripts for actresses, but not as sure about the public. The box office agrees with you for sure, but movies that have less ditsy characters seem to find success too. No One Killed Jessica didn't break any records, but it was well received I believe. So was Delhi Belly. And Kahaani. I think change can come from either side. If more directors start believing in making movies with real women (like London Paris New York did) and if all these new female directors don't get sucked into the "males drive the box office" mentality (like Zoya Akhtar did with her second movie), then I think there's opportunity for change. I guess we can only wait and see...

Thanks for stopping by!

yves said...

What a pleasant post, and thanks for your balanced views, which you seem to look upon as cynicism, but I'd say that in fact you are being pretty respectful of Bollywood's marketing recipes. Because naturally this is what it all boils down to: if there was an audience for 40ish women dealing with professional problems, the industry would make the movies!
So it's true the industry has to grow up... But the audiences as well! We need more Mahesh Bhatt and Sai Paranjpe, but we also need people to want to go to the movies and pay for something else than escapist dreamy young things...

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Yves, thank you! :) Yes, that's the line that we keep straddling: the fine line between what the audiences want and what the artists can make them want. I still think audiences can be taught what to want if the artists manage to make the education process appealing, but yeah, right now we're still very much in the escapist frame of mind with Indian movies. We'll see if anything changes when women start having a legitimate say in what they want to watch. And hopefully they won't just demand chick flicks like they do in North America. :P

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