Mallika Sherawat recently gave an interview at Cannes. It’s kind of news I guess because, after all, who interviews Mallika nowadays? Well in case you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so [video], particularly if you need a good laugh. (And come on, who doesn’t?). Since it is very difficult to remember what she said, after the few minutes you spend laughing or cringing, let me summarize her main thesis—- “India is regressive, I am very progressive” with the subtext being that she is victimized because of her progressiveness. Why does she claim to be progressive? Because she was the first person to kiss and first person to wear a bikini.
Once you can go beyond her accent, which is as authentic as a Chandila over, and her creative liberties with truth (Devika Rani has kissed on screen in the 30s and Nalini Jayawant wore two pieces in the 50s [pics]), you can get to the core of what she is saying. That somehow kissing and exposing skin is “progressiveness”.
Here is the short retort.
It is NOT.
Let’s forget India for a while and just look at the Hindi film industry, since it fairly accurately captures the way a large part of rolls.
Yes. Hindi films are regressive. They are regressive for many reasons, none of which is as glaring as its treatment of women. This regressiveness is ingrained in the very way most movies are made—directors sit at the feet of big-name male stars, listen to what kind of movies they want to do (“Mujhe ek comedy chahiye ab, aajkal action waise chal nahee raha hai, plus my orthopedic surgeon told me to take it easy for a year”), come up with scripts (originality optional and frankly, looked down upon), the star okays it, the financiers then line up and then, the heroine is chosen, often “recommended” by the male-movie-star. Even though she is technically also headlining the film, her pay will be a fraction of what the male superhero gets. Why? Because she is a not central to the commercial viability of the movie in any way, (except perhaps her dance steps in the obligatory item-number), her role being to just establish the hero’s machismo. That’s why she has little bargaining power, exchangeable as she is, with minimum fuss, by another warm body.
Given that this is the status quo, choosing to kiss or choosing to show that part of your body which no woman has shown before (assuming for argument’s sake that Mallika was the first person to do this) is hardly progressive. As a matter of fact, it strengthens the established stereotypes regarding the role of women in commercial cinema, namely titillating male audiences.
The reason I deem fit to even blog about the Mallika video is this. Its bad that women have to show skin in order to be in the game. Its even worse when the word “bold” is tagged on to it, as if boldness and progressiveness is measured by square-inch of female skin exposure, no matter how neanderthal the narrative may be.
In Mallika’s defense, this association is not her making. This “mera film bahoot bold hain” is a line as old as the hills, used by countless film-makers to justify the use of “jawaani” in their movies even though their themes even Aurangzeb may consider medieval. And it’s a line whose hypocrisy needs to be called out.
It’s worth mentioning that there have been women in the Hindi film industry, who have tried, with various degrees of success, to not play the stereotype—the Nandita Das-s, the Konkonas and the Vidya Balans. If they say that their careers have suffered because they were “different” and independent, I can buy that. Just that when the star of “Bach ke rahena re baba“, who feeds into and feeds from the same regressive culture of films without ever making any attempt to do something different, pulls out the martyr card, I find it rather laughable, if not slightly offensive, if only for the way it trivializes those who truly try to be progressive in the extant commercial set-up.