A surprisingly gender sensitive view from traditional Bollywood came recently when Shahrukh Khan announced that his films henceforth would carry the leading lady’s name before his, in the credits. Even if we were to dismiss this as tokenism, it is a reflection of how much our cinema has changed since the days when the male was the all encompassing figure around which the women, relegated to playing the supporting roles of lover/ vamp/ item girl, revolved.
It is fit that this gesture comes from an actor who has been in the vanguard in changing the image of the Bollywood hero from the macho man to the softer, sensitive metrosexual male. The much tarnished image of Bollywood, especially in the wake of the recent escalation of violence against women in the news, could well do with more such gestures if its sheen is to be restored.
Seventies: ‘Twas the age of angry young men
In the nebulous space between society and art, and the effect of one on the other, we often react to the portrayal of ourselves and especially women on celluloid with criticism, laying the blame squarely at cinema’s doorstep. Sometimes we forget that its primary job is entertaining us, and we make it the bogeyman, at whose feet we rest our failures as a culture and as a society. The critics of mainstream cinema point that the portrayal of women as sex objects, the culture of stalking, titillating images of rape and violence have had such an effect on our psyches, that we are now Pavlovian followers of our screen heroes.
Stretching this mantle of responsibility to the past few decades, we can analyze the antics of our on-screen idols and their bearing upon our behaviour. Their idols were Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and the angry young men of the eighties. Men who physically fought for the honour of their women, mostly because the violation of their sweethearts and sisters meant the humiliation of the family, and by extension themselves. Post the punches thrown to the villain, and the successful rescue of the said sister, she disappeared from the narrative and was relegated, one assumes to the kitchen and confined most certainly to the home.
In the breezy romances fronted by Aamir and Salman Khan, the blood and gore quotient was a bit toned down, for this generation was not one of rebels, with an angst against the system. Love became their rebellion and class differences their battlefield. But the narrative remained traditional. The heroine was still at the mercy of beasts and it was the man’s job to protect her from sexual assault (Maine Pyar Kiya). She dressed in western wear only for her lover and the rest of the time she chastely sat by his mother shelling peas, and helping in the kitchen, doing what all virtuous women do. The villain in this film in fact is a westernised working woman mocked by the hero and his friends.
The precursor of cinema’s tradition of stalking as a means to woo, was of course Bachchan’s character who pestered his woman for a kiss ( Jumma Chumma De De) in full public view. Aamir Khan, in Dil , followed in his footsteps, and his idea of romance was tormenting a reluctant college girl, described in song as as a pole giving out electricity. Finally, of course, as was the popular narrative of that time, she succumbs to his charm.
Shahrukh Khan in the 90′s romantic comedy, Kabhi Haa Kabhi Naa
Along came a man at the start of the nineties, that women had been waiting for all their lives. A completely ordinary looking man with floppy hair and an unimpressive physique. And he had a whole new way of wooing the girls. The characters Shahrukh Khan played did not throw any punches or save them from villains. He just let them be. In an early film Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, his lady love is a working woman. She helps him climb the ladder of success and shares his dreams. He loves her without telling her to change, to quit her job, to dress differently, and that is when the girls of India discovered that maybe there was another way to love. So even when he did not get the love of his life in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, after lying, scheming (but never beating up his rival who is also his best friend) and finally repenting and letting her follow her heart, the love he received from the audience more than made up for the onscreen loss.
Crafting a masterpiece of the genre in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, debutante director Aditya Chopra instead of making his hero a macho man and getting him to run away with the woman of his dreams, makes him stay stay to woo not her, for she has already given him her heart, but for her father. Shahrukh Khan refuses to raise his fists or even his voice through most of the film. He does the most unmanly, unheroic tasks imaginable- arranging for laddoos and flowers, stocking kitchen supplies, selecting saris and feeding pigeons. Turning on its head the regressive ritual of karva chauth,the woman’s fast for her beloved, he wins hearts off and on screen by starving for his lady love, a feat no man has dared attempt before. Love now meant getting along with the beloved’s father and family, and the new age woman fell in love with a man who was ready to court rather than battle her father for her hand.
In film after film, Shahrukh Khan played the emancipated romantic, respectful of his women. His women were ruthlessly ambitious as in Yes Boss, where they went as far as going out with other men to serve their interests, and he continued to love them anyway. The girls in his films were never just glamour dolls thrown in for the song sequences. They played strong women characters with author backed roles. Madhuri Dikshit as the avenging angel in Anjaam, Rani Mukherjee as the wife who dares to walk out in Chalte Chalte, Karishma Kapoor and Madhuri Dikshit as rival actor dancers in Dil To Pagal Hai and an entire hockey team of girls in Chak De were as important as the male lead, if not more and there was always the possibility of them outshining Shahrukh Khan. But here was an actor confident enough to play a parallel lead, even a loser. Here was an actor with the ability to match up to a strong leading lady.
Shahrukh took on roles where he shared screen space with empowering female characters
Did society copy cinema then? Did men become more considerate lovers after watching these films? Did they wear their heart on their sleeves? Take no for an answer with grace? Treat women as equals? A small portion of the audience probably did, though to cite the influence of this kind of cinema as a major cause would be to undermine the sensitive urban Indian male subject to a host of influences. As society continued to evolve, more and more actors and filmmakers saw merit in the strong silent hero who let his eyes, and not his fists do the talking.
Shahrukh, the sensitive lover already belongs to a different era. For the time being, the cult of Salman Khan has taken over. And what he does best is beat up trainloads of bad men to save a girl from getting raped (Tere Naam) to audience applause, teaches amateurs the art of snagging women (Partner), makes infidelity seem glamorous (No Entry) and stalks a pretty helpless girl and then marries her (Dabanng).
Did the sensitive Indian male simply vanish overnight? If the contention is that films are the cause of our attitudes to women, why is it that only the ones that advocate misogynistic attitudes seem to work? Does it tell us something about how we are intrinsically as people? And should we even blame art for our attitudes? For our filmmakers and actors, like our villians, our stalkers and rapists all come from the same society. The conversation about art and its impact on society is a complex one and our conclusions, like our cinema need to be nuanced.Tags: Amitabh Bachchan Salman Khan Shah Rukh Khan