This week, I read an old story on Deepika Padukone where she defends the character of Veronica played by her in Cocktail. The interview says, "Deepika insists that the film is a reflection of our times. So many of my single girlfriends are independent and bohemian and modern, and they’re forced to change the way they dress or speak when their parents are looking for a boy for them. I also know enough men who like to date free-spirited girls, but who look for exactly the opposite kind of person when it’s time to settle down. Acknowledging that what she’s saying is delicate, yet making it clear this is all she will say on the subject, Deepika adds with finality: It is what it is! Imtiaz and Homi were clear they wanted to present things the way they are, and not the way they perhaps should be."
When I had watched Cocktail, I also felt the film was somewhat regressive in its treatment of the character of Veronica. But the last point that she mentions in the interview — to present the things the way they are and not the way they should be — is a point that requires further thinking. Cocktail received so much flak for it that the director and the producer had to explain that the movie was only being realistic. There is somewhat of a conflict with having movies with how characters should behave and how they actually are. If all characters behaved the way we wanted them to be, would there be any story? Anbumani Ramadoss, the ex-minister of health, ran a campaign against depiction of smoking in our films. The Hindi film industry vehemently opposed his diktat and argued that they are being curtailed the freedom of creative character expression. The film industry argued that the depiction of rapes and murders does not lead to rape and murder in the society, therefore, depicting smoking is not necessarily going to influence people to smoke. The paternalistic attitude of the government needed to be stopped. If we argued for that, why are we then so eager to pass judgments of morality on character's choices? Are not characters being only realistic? Would any Anurag Kashyap film be made if he showed how characters should actually behave? We do not raise a hue and cry when someone in his film murders someone for the flimsiest of reasons? Also, this splendid piece defends Gautam's (Saif Ali Khan) choice in marrying Meera (Diana Penty) in Cocktail by saying, "He falls for Meera for the same reasons why Veronica loves her: she grounds him, she keeps him real, she doesn't take any of his bullshit and she is, unlike Veronica, emotionally available. By the by, the moment when Gautam starts noticing Meera is not in her demure interactions with his mother but rather when she lets herself go and channels her inner Veronica, showing that there's more fun to her than what Gautam initially thought. So technically speaking, it's not the virgin that gets the guy, it's the wild side of the virgin that gets him to notice her. But that's once again going into details. The point here is: any guy would fall for Meera. And any guy looking to settle down would choose her, not because she's a virgin but because she exudes stability. It really is that simple. Or to put it more plainly: why wouldn't he choose her? He is only being realistic."
Baradwaj Rangan, insightful as always, gives us some more direction in understanding it further. Writing in the context of Ishaqzaadey and Raanjhanaa, he argues, "I’m not sure that Ishaqzaadey is regressive in its attitude towards women. The people in the film are, sure. But the film, I thought, was just telling a story. Yes, bad things happen to the women here but does that make the film regressive? Something to mull over. For that matter, I don’t even find films like Vivah regressive. There are people like that still in India, and the film is just showing us a story about them. I would think that a regressive movie is one without nuance, which revels in characters whose behavior we find regressive. Something like the Kalpataru-directed family films of the 1980s, where the director takes a moralistic stance and leaves us with messages like ‘you have to obey your husband.’ By the end of these films, opinionated wives are subjugated, they learn to toe the line, etc. But here the ‘take home’ isn't regressive. It just is. The characters may feel a certain way, but the film doesn't seek to impose their views on us. We know Parma's mother feels a certain way, and we may find her views obnoxious, but she pays for her stance and her son doesn't endorse those views. Rather he ‘atones’ for them, in a manner of speaking. So it didn’t feel regressive to me. And adding to this, in Raanjhanaa too, the hero atones for his sins and dies, so I feel the misogynism is in him, not in the film."
Even if I defend the argument for being realistic, I cannot completely stop myself from dissing some films. I am among the minority of people who believes that Hindi films carry a deep underlying message, if we are able to look beneath the razzmatazz of the song and dance. Cinema is a powerful force and has a high influence on all of us. I could not stand the excessive stalking of Zoya by Kundan in Raanjhanaa. I was put off by the caricaturing of homosexuality in Dostana. It is because watching films is a very personal experience. It is about forming a connection in the darkness of the cinema theater. A connection is formed when a film tries to depict something that we are able to identify with. Watching films brings us closer to the sum total of all our experiences in life. In a way, it helps us understand more, about who we are, perhaps that is why I love films. Anybody who does not agree with our thinking, we start condemning him and criticizing him. I just read a post, by someone on my Facebook timeline, dissing Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya calling it the worst film ever. On the other hand, I read some glowing reviews of the film, too. Instead of saying 'I hated the film,' we say 'the film is pathetic.' Even I am guilty of this. We confuse our opinion with fact. What is the criteria to call a film good or bad? Box office? Whose figures? Critical acclaim? Which critics'? That is where this whole confusion of realistic and regressive lies. A film is a director's viewpoint, one can agree with it or disagree with it. Humshakals got terrible reviews and went on to make 40 crores. The film is misogynistic and homophobic, yet it makes money. Because that is the way majority of the people are. Cinema offers them anonymity. A film like Lamhe flops because no one liked the romance of an old man with a girl of her daughter's age, who also looks like his lover. Because the society was not ready to accept it. As Mayank Shekhar puts it perfectly here,"In crowded cities, the cinema doubles up as that rare, vast empty space where you can be in public and still feel like you’re completely by yourself. The killer air-conditioner and cushy seats provide comfort. Dark halls encourage privacy. You could cry or laugh yourself silly in such public places and nobody will know where everybody is seated so far apart."
Consider the film 2 States. At one terrific sequence in the film, Ananya (Alia Bhatt) shames a groom who wants dowry. So progressive. Consider another scene in the film. Krish's (Arjun Kapoor) mother openly says that in their culture, the bride's family gives gifts to the groom's mother whenever they meet. Krish, an IIT-educated man, even convinces Ananya to bring expensive sarees for his mother. How is that not dowry? Why don't we judge Krish as harshly when he also asks for gifts? Is that not regressive? Because we think it is alright as we see it in the weddings that happen in our own families. This is perhaps the paradox. Films will continue to be made; people will continue to like them or hate them. This debate of being regressive or realistic will go on, unless the whole society's moral and ethical fabric is in perfect unison. Perhaps, that explains the almost universal praise for Rani in Queen when she dumped Vijay because everyone felt he was a loser. Imagine the furor if Rani had gone back to Vijay :)
P.S. — At the risk of being called a turncoat, I am not afraid to change my opinion on something. I have re-watched many movies and sometimes, I like a movie which I previously did not like. Why that happens? I don't know but I like to connect movies with my own life. Dolce and Namak's terrific piece has convinced me that Cocktail was not regressive. We criticized the film because an independent girl did not get the guy — how is that not sexist? As the piece says, "Veronica is fucked up. There's no way around this, she just is. She was abandoned by her parents who don't give two shits about her, she's been leeched off of probably her whole life because she has money, in fact it's been happening for so long that this has become her way of keeping people around, and she's incapable of building real, committed relationships. She loses herself in alcohol and drugs every night because she just wants to feel something. In a brilliant little scene after Veronica takes Meera home, she is shown talking to the videocamera and asking herself "How do I feel?", then unconvincingly concluding she feels "happy". That little scene sums up Veronica's needs in a nutshell. But to me Veronica gets the happiest ending of all three characters: she learns how to create and maintain a relationship that can give her the emotional stability she craves. That's what she thinks she wants from Gautam, and because society told her so, she thinks she can only obtain it by getting married and being a good wife. But the awesomeness of Cocktail is that she realizes she can have all this without giving up her personality. How is that not modern enough? How can people be so narrow-minded as to root for her to "get the guy" and get married when that's EXACTLY what would obliterate her personality completely? Her personality, by the way, is not that she drinks and parties, but that she's free-spirited and independent. And not yet ready to settle down and play wife. Nothing wrong with that from where I'm sitting."
Yes, completely. I eat my words. Now, thinking on it, I do not find the movie to be regressive at all. I will watch it again soon.
Dialogue of the day:
"Zare zare me usi ka noor hai, jhaank khudme woh na tujhse door hai, ishq hai usse to sabse ishq kar, is ibadat ka yahi dastoor hai."
— Delhi 6