Why do films like Nil Battey Sannata, Anarkali of Ara, Parched and Begum Jaan have fewer takers than a Rustom, Sultan or M.S. Dhoni?
A few days ago I sat in the neighbourhood multiplex in Mumbai, watching Begum Jaan with eighteen other people in the first week of the film’s release. No, it wasn’t a private screening, there really were less than twenty people ready to sit through a film that is set in a brothel. As the Begum might have sardonically remarked, randiyon ki baatein sunne ka shauk kise hai? (Who is interested in listening to prostitutes?)
Box Office collection numbers show that the film has earned less than 15 crore in the first four-five days of its release and isn’t likely to see much improvement. However I don’t think this is only because of the fact that this isn’t a “family-friendly film”, going by the fact that another Vidya Balan film, that was decidedly “shocking”, earned 18.75 crores in net earnings in the first two days itself and went on to earn 61 crores in ten days. Anarkali of Ara and Nil Battey Sannata, two powerful stories with Swara Bhaskar in the lead, garnered only 89 lakhs and 6.89 crores respectively in total worldwide collections. Despite much critical acclaim, Parched raised less than 10 crore in revenue as well.
Why saying “Box Office collections aren’t everything” is part of the problem
There tends to be a distinction drawn when it comes to Indian cinema with movies in the 100-crore club being labelled “entertainer” and smaller budget, critically acclaimed, well-told stories relegated to the category of “parallel cinema”. Admittedly, there are exceptions, but Bollywood, in general, tells a familiar and disturbing story of what sells and what does not. The hype around “Female-centric cinema”, much like that around Women’s Day, highlights the systemic flaw of how we need to make special effort to tell the stories that should be getting told as a matter of course. Films like Parched and Nil Battey Sannata are not asking to be hand-held to show that we’re “doing something” to bring about equality- they just need to be given their due.
Why is it that we’d throng to the theatres to hear an Aamir Khan or Amitabh Bachchan tell us how women are no lesser than men, and that “No means No”, but refuse to take it seriously when it is the women saying the same?
Bollywood is lauded on several occasions for having come a long way- which possibly means that instead of scenes where a girl is asked to stop being unreasonable and forgive the men who tried to rape her, we now only have scenes where stalker-like behaviour makes the “hero” endearing and swoon-worthy. While on the one hand we have movies of grit, determination and strong, stand-alone female characters, they are outnumbered by instances of leading actresses brought in specifically to “look pretty on-screen” and draw audiences to the theatres, or to play second-fiddle to “heroes” who reinforce stereotypes and sexist jokes in a seemingly light-hearted manner.
First among Equals
But let’s not talk feminism here- it does seem to almost be a swear word. Let’s talk equalism. Let’s ask why, as a rule, male actors don’t suddenly pole dance in boxers (Desi Boys notwithstanding) in a completely out-of-context fashion in a Haveli full of inebriated women, hooting at them. Let’s ask why if a girl follows a man around and he isn’t interested, she’s being desperate, but if the male character does the same, he is being ‘cute’ and “I wonder why she’s being so stubborn” and “he’ll eventually win her over” are the overriding sentiments. Let’s ask our leading constellation of Bollywood males (and females), why for every occasional equalizing film they do, they feel the need to be a part of two other “throwback to the 90s” plotline entertainers. And don’t tell me it’s for bread-and-butter, not when nearly 30 percent of the population lies below the poverty line and struggles for two chapatis a day.
Finally, let’s ask ourselves, when will we, the audience of today, decide to mainstream the parallel? As much as we can point fingers at the media and entertainment industry, it’s also us. We, as a society, are being reflected on that silver screen, be it inane but peppy song lyrics, or the casting of a fair-skinned, ‘attractive’ actor over someone who could have played the part better. Perhaps it’s time we cleaned our mirrors.