Cinema, commerce and causes

This graphic consists of pencil sketches on paper in caricature form of the faces of key actors from the films discussed in the accompanying article. The sketches are presented in two rows, one above the other. In the first row are Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan; in the second Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Amitabh Bachchan and Manoj Bajpai. The background is made up of handwritten repeat text consisting of the names of the films – ‘Aligarh’, ‘Dangal’, ‘Dear Zindagi’, ‘Kahaani 2’, and ‘Pink’. The text is in all capitals but in small point size, and seems to form an intricate pattern on which the sketches of the faces are placed. Graphic credit: Shubhrajit Roy

Insight, Cinemascope, Nov '17 (long read)
Campaigns and dates to highlight different human rights issues are just past, ongoing or round the corner. Last year saw a spate of Bollywood films with leading actors that portrayed many of these issues. Several were commercial hits; all had their share of controversies. How true to the cause were these films? Cinema lover Nitin Karani (with inputs from Pawan Dhall) looks back in an e-adda with writer Vikram Johri and social researcher Dr. Priti Prabhughate

Inset: Vikram Johri is a Bengaluru-based writer and English / mathematics trainer. Dr. Priti Prabhughate, a mental health practitioner and social researcher, is Senior Technical Specialist at the International Center for Research on Women in Navi Mumbai.Nitin: First up, a film about a story that's close to the hearts of many queer people: Aligarh. Initially, of course, it was in the spotlight for the performances of the cast. The film probably did justice to the late Prof. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras but do you think it also did anything for two of the key issues at hand – forcible imposition of traditional morality, and right to autonomy and privacy?

Vikram: I think any film that talks about homosexuality – and certainly Aligarh did it sensitively – deserves to be made and shown. It's very hard to quantify what change it brought about on the ground, but perhaps that is no bad thing. The role of cinema is at best as an enabler, getting people to talk about issues. To that extent, Aligarh played an important role. That it did not light fires may be down to the art house nature of the film which is where I have come to gingerly agree with Karan Johar's formula of wrapping new ideas in candyfloss for a mass audience.

Nitin: This next thought again comes from the idea of film-as-a-catalyst-for-change but without speculating about the motives of the film's producers or their constraints (self-imposed or external). Would a documentary have been a better approach than a feature film to spotlight the social issues that were part of the Siras story?

This graphic is a combination of a text box and two photographs below it. The text is a quote from writer Vikram Johri: “I think any film that talks about homosexuality – and certainly ‘Aligarh’ did it sensitively – deserves to be made and shown. It's very hard to quantify what change it brought about on the ground, but perhaps that is no bad thing. The role of cinema is at best as an enabler, getting people to talk about issues. To that extent, ‘Aligarh’ played an important role.” The first photograph is a face shot of a smiling Vikram Johri. The second shows a laughing Vikram Johri playing with a toddler who he has lifted high in his arms; the toddler is also in splits. They are inside a room in a house. Photos courtesy: Vikram Johri

Vikram: I think if we are talking about social impact then the fictional format works better. Documentaries are hardly released on a wide scale and they suffer the same malaise as art house cinema, of not being watched because they are not considered entertaining enough for the mass market. To that extent, I think Aligarh, the way it was made, was good enough, especially given that a well-known actor like Manoj Bajpai played the protagonist.

Priti: I think that no single movie or documentary creates any social impact. I would like to think that having multiple media products such as movies, documentaries and plays that all talk about the issue are needed constantly to grab and sustain viewers’ attention beyond three hours. People talk about a film for a week at the most and then move on to the next release and I wonder how many of us, including me, have access to good documentaries!

I know this question is about Aligarh but I would like to give the example of Dangal. I believe that it has had, in recent times, the most social impact. Not just because it was a well-made movie, but also because – despite all its negatives – Dangal is still around and its impact too. I think this needs to be understood in the current political context, where the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' slogan is doing the rounds. We are yet not over Nirbhaya and lot’s being written in the media and academia on adolescent girls, women and their empowerment. Dangal has come at a time when any movie tackling issues of women and girls defying norms is bound to strike a chord. Even Pink benefitted from the current socio-political milieu, but I don’t think Aligarh had the benefit of a conducive, external context to increase its impact.

Inset: 'Aligarh' is a 2016 Indian biographical drama film directed by Hansal Mehta and written by Apurva Asrani. It stars Manoj Bajpai and Rajkummar Rao in the lead roles. Set in the city of Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, it is the true story of late Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was a professor of Marathi and the head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at the famed Aligarh Muslim University. He was suspended on grounds of morality in relation to his sexuality. The film starts with the inciting moment when the professor’s privacy was invaded by a film crew from a local TV station who forcibly entered his house and filmed him sharing intimate moments with his partner who was a rickshaw-puller. Source: 'Wikipedia'

Nitin: One criticism that did come the way of the makers of Aligarh was that they named the man who was filmed along with Siras (his partner). Even assuming this was just oversight, wasn't this a glaring error, one that couldn't have happened in the case of the central character? Does this tell us something about our ‘progressiveness’, or rather lack of it?

Vikram: Yes, I do think it was wrong to do that but I wouldn’t go so far as to fault the filmmakers’ progressiveness. It may have been an oversight, as you say, and I remember reading an interview with the man after the film released in which he spoke gently of Siras. Regardless, including his name was wrong.

Priti: I think this is not so much about progressiveness but to me this is completely about a disregard for ethics, responsibility and sensitivity towards others, in this case towards Siras’ partner
just shows how we’re more concerned with sensationalism and really don't care about rights and confidentiality!
 
* * *

Nitin: Moving on to Pink, which had some parallels with Aligarh yet was very different in its treatment and its higher so called commercial quotient, and which beat Aligarh at the National Film Awards. It was fairly popular with audiences, despite it being a stinging slap on Indian society for its treatment of women and people from the north-eastern states. It also won critical acclaim despite its somewhat unconvincing denouement and Amitabh Bachchan's affected performance.

Does the success of the film prove once again that we are a hypocritical society – we support a film that strongly bats for women’s autonomy and pokes moralistic men and women in the eye but we still cling to those same attitudes that the film tries to crush?

Inset: 'Pink' is a 2016 Indian courtroom drama social thriller film on issues around sexual consent and sexual assault. It was directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and written by Ritesh Shah. It stars Amitabh Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Angad Bedi, Andrea Tariang, Piyush Mishra and Dhritiman Chatterjee.  The film received universal critical acclaim, and garnered the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues. The film was specially screened for the Rajasthan Police so as to train them to be sensitive and sensible about women's rights and dignity. The film was also specially screened at Rashtrapati Bhavan and invited for a screening at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Source: 'Wikipedia'

Vikram: Again, I'm not sure it’s a binary. The film got a lot of people debating the idea of consent, especially when the girls in the film were friends with the assaulters and had been drinking on the night of the assault. For an Indian viewer to see that none of this makes rape acceptable was important. I don’t know if the film changed behaviours, but that, as I said, was not part of the film’s remit.

Priti: I think I already answered this question. I don’t expect one movie to undo harmful gender norms and attitudes towards women and minorities, people from the North-East in this case. I think most human social behaviour is hypocritical. Take any survey – they reflect this same truth. For example, the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 shows that over 90% men nationally report almost accurate knowledge of HIV transmission, yet this doesn't translate into lowering of rates of HIV. At a more micro level, men use condoms with commercial partners, not with intimate partners. This holds true for all men irrespective of their sexual orientation, though on the survey they list out the correct routes of transmission.

Having worked in the field of gender, sexuality and gender-based violence for some years now, any work with men on gender sensitisation results in attitudinal change but doesn’t necessarily result in behavioural changes. Moreover, the 5% of men who actually change their behaviour face ridicule from the others for supporting women. And so we have massive numbers of bystanders, who stand and watch anything from murder and rape without intervening. But ask them and they would all support women’s empowerment, mobility, education, equality, etc.

What I'm trying to say is that social science has learnt this lesson the hardest possible way. Attitudinal change is possible with sensitisation, but in the absence of a continuous, deeper, long-term engagement of men on issues of their own negative masculinity, power, and notions of privilege, attitudinal changes won’t be translated into behavioural changes.

This graphic is a combination of a text box and two photographs below it. The text is a quote from mental health practitioner Dr. Priti Prabhughate: “Social science has learnt it the hardest possible way. Attitudinal change is possible with sensitisation, but in the absence of a continuous, deeper, long-term engagement of men on issues of their own negative masculinity, power, and notions of privilege, attitudinal changes won’t be translated into behavioural changes.” The first photograph shows Dr. Priti Prabhughate’s smiling face against the backdrop of green fields, trees, hills and an open sky. The second is a close up shot of Dr. Priti Prabhughate standing in a sunlit garden with trees in the background. Photos courtesy: Dr. Priti Prabhughate

* * *

Nitin: Priti referred to Dangal a bit earlier. It was based on a true story like Aligarh but full-on ‘commercial’ and a much bigger success than Pink. Dangal was seen as feminist by some critics but it also made no bones that ‘daddy knows best’ and that it's not all about one's glory but that of the country. Competition categories in sports are based on biological sex. Was Dangal an ambitious attempt to cross that divide?

Priti: Somehow, I didn’t see this angle in the movie. The attempt to cross the sex-gender divide for me didn't come through in the movie.

Inset: 'Dangal' is a 2016 Indian Hindi-language biographical sports drama film, produced by and starring Aamir Khan, and directed by Nitesh Tiwari. The film is loosely based on the Phogat family, telling the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler, who trains his daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari to be India's first world-class female wrestlers.  Aamir Khan plays Mahavir Singh Phogat, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra play the adult versions of the two Phogat sisters, Zaira Wasim and Suhani Bhatnagar play their younger versions, Sakshi Tanwar plays their mother, and Aparshakti Khurana their cousin. The film was a record-breaking commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing Indian film ever as well as the fifth highest grossing non-English film. It won several awards at the 62nd Filmfare Awards in January this year. Source: 'Wikipedia'

Nitin: Was it just a nudge to parents to treat daughters and sons the same? Or did the theme of one man's obsession overwhelm any gender equality messages the makers of the film intended to give out?

Priti: I saw the story as that of a father nudging his daughters to fulfil his unfulfilled dreams! I don't think even the makers were talking about ‘gender’ in the first place. Nor does the film preach gender equality in any monologue. I think Aamir Khan did make that clear in an interview.

Vikram: I think when we look upon it as one man's obsession to get what he wants, we overlook the very real tribute the film paid to gender equality on the ground. I feel sometimes we, the urban intellectuals, for want of a better term, tend to over-think cultural products from our decidedly privileged lenses and overlook the other aspects. The perfect can be the enemy of the good. Perhaps Aamir Khan’s character was too obsessive, but the message that most people would get is that it’s okay to expect great things from our girls, not just boys.

* * *

Nitin: It's not every day that Bollywood deals with the subject of mental health, so should we be grateful that along came Dear Zindagi. One of the points it made – besides a minor one that it's okay to be gay or lesbian – was that there's no shame in talking about mental health. Should we simply be grateful for that? Or was the point dulled by Bollywood froth? Should we applaud Dear Zindagi for at least being a conversation-starter at meals, something akin to what the cheerleaders of Dostana said, though Dear Zindagi didn’t make mental health a joke the way Dostana treated being gay?

Vikram: I haven't seen the film unfortunately but from what I’ve heard, the film does touch upon the issue of mental health sensitively. Even if it does so in a commercial paradigm, I’m fine with that. I used to hate Dostana at one time but I now see why some people, including gay people, think it was an important conversation starter.

Inset: 'Dear Zindagi' is a 2016 Indian Hindi-language coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Gauri Shinde. The film features Alia Bhatt in the lead role, with Shah Rukh Khan, Kunal Kapoor and Ali Zafar in supporting roles. The plot centers on a budding cinematographer named Kaira (played by Alia Bhatt), who is discontented with her life and meets Dr. Jehangir (Shah Rukh Khan), a free-spirited psychologist who helps her to gain a new perspective on her life. The film was a commercial success and received generally positive reviews. It received a number of accolades at Bollywood awards, with particular praise for Alia Bhatt's and Shah Rukh Khan's performances, direction, and film score. Source: 'Wikipedia'

Priti: As a mental health practitioner, Dear Zindagi was quite a delight, and we must applaud the script writers for that! Whoever wrote the movie studied counselling techniques well, like confidentiality, active listening, paraphrasing, no involvement with the client beyond the counselling session, etc. Some things that the counsellor did were different, like taking the session beyond the closed room, which is something I wish I could do! And yes, I was most glad to see no song-dance routine between Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan.

I think this movie did pave the way to tell people that mental health counselling is needed even for problems that otherwise seem ‘normal’, like a break-up. And that counselling can help you deal with life situations better. Like the way they brought out childhood issues in the movie. Though Shah Rukh Khan did some heavy dialogue-baazi, he did not compromise the demeanour of the counsellor, and I think a lot of counsellors, including me, are good dialogue-writers in our daily practice.

Trust me, as someone who has been treated for depression herself, the scenes where Alia Bhatt tries to get herself to sleep everyday and, in the end, either dreams or thoughts wake her up, is something so real and true, and only a person who went through it could write it so well! So, hats-off to Dear Zindagi for being quiet realistic, and de-stigmatising mental health.

Nitin: Priti, wasn’t it frustrating to see Shah Rukh Khan's character as the exceptional anti-thesis to the stereotype of boring and conventional mental health professionals?

Priti: There are all types of counsellors. Shah Rukh Khan depicted a better one but not an exceptional one. There are several who are not boring and have a fresh approach to each person they meet!

* * *

Nitin: On to a film that had built up some expectations but disappointed many: Kahaani 2. How do you view the depiction of Vidya Balan's character asking the young girl if she had been sexually abused? Some would say it was a brave depiction, but Vidya Balan's character seemed more anxious than the girl herself during the questions, though this may have been because of the character she played in the film.

Priti: I think this particular movie needed to do a lot more research on the issue of surviving child sexual abuse. The script writer would have benefitted from reading a book like Pinki Virani’s Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India and several accounts of survivors to understand patterns of reaction. To me, Vidya Balan, as a survivor of child sexual abuse herself, was unconvincing.

Yes, the director did show her difficulties in establishing an intimate relationship, but it confused me whether these difficulties in relationships were because of her sexual abuse as a child or a failed marriage to a man called Inderjeet (played by Arjun Rampal), who later is revealed as Inspector Inderjeet Singh, with whom she doesn't show any discomfort at all.

Tonnes of research with survivors have shown that if a woman has been sexually abused as a child, there are manifold chances that she may have difficulties in her intimate relationships, as shown in the movie, but also she has a much greater likelihood of experiencing violence as an adult. This could have been shown in the movie as a cause of Vidya Balan’s broken marriage, perhaps.

So, Vidya Balan’s sudden interest in this one girl was a bit of a surprise for me. About her asking the girl so directly, I was a bit surprised and felt that the director was in a rush to go ahead with the plot! It takes a lifetime for people to speak about their sexual abuse as a child. Vidya Balan is never shown to speak of her experience, except on one occasion to extract a confession from the little girl, which to me seemed very mean and selfish!

Inset: 'Kahaani 2' is a 2016 Indian thriller film directed by Sujoy Ghosh. A sequel of sorts to the 2012 film 'Kahaani', the film features Vidya Balan and Arjun Rampal in lead roles and Jugal Hansraj and Kharaj Mukherjee in supporting roles. 'Kahaani 2' is the story of Durga Rani Singh (played by Vidya Balan) who is charged with kidnapping of a girl child and murder. The backdrop of the film is about child sexual abuse, which is experienced by the girl child as well as Durga Rani Singh in her childhood. It is also the reason that brings the two together and sets of the sequence of incidents that make up the film. Source: Adapted from 'Wikipedia'

Nitin: And the depiction of the child abuser himself? Do they have to look like monsters? Was this filmy approach necessary? Couldn't Jugal Hansraj's character have been more subtle? Wouldn't that have been more chilling (and real)? Surely Bollywood has the dexterity for such depiction.

Priti: I agree! Jugal Hansraj's character was so obvious. I think the film lost it totally as it was too filmy. It stopped being real to me. You remember Monsoon Wedding? Rajit Kapoor plays the perpetrator there – again a very good looking man – but I think his character was subtle, and merely the way he looked at Shefali Shah’s character sent the message out loud.

Nitin: Thank you, Priti and Vikram, for a thought provoking discussion. Hope to have another adda with you again!

Main graphic credit: Shubhrajit Roy (pencil sketch on paper). All photographs courtesy Dr. Priti Prabhughate and Vikram Johri

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Nitin Karani

Nitin Karani believes in both social and economic liberty of the individual as well as a small State. He writes on LGBT issues in both print and digital media in his leisure time. He used to blog at queerindia.blogspot.com.

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Shubhrajit Roy

Shubhrajit Roy researches Wilson’s disease and spends his free time drawing and sketching.

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