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
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?
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.
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!
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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?
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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!
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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!
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