Saturday, 1 November 2014

What's Really Wrong With Farah Khan's "Happy New Year" (And Almost Every Bollywood Movie)

The critics have panned Farah Khan's movie "Happy New Year" for all the usual (and wrong) reasons. It's too long, the plot is silly, outlandish and unconvincing, the characters are caricatures, the plot twists are predictable, there are too many self-referential in-jokes, actors are underutilised in their roles, etc., etc.

Those criticisms are superficially valid, but movies like this still become blockbusters for a reason. They're entertaining. These movies are not made to please the critics. They're made to please the masses, and the masses are pleased. I've learned to enjoy movies like this because I tell my inner critic to take the evening off when I go to the theatres.

Well, my inner critic may be away, but there's still something tiny that troubles me even as I'm enjoying these movies - my conscience. There's something big and glaring that I picked up on through an accident of fate. I have lived outside India for twenty years now, and I guess I have become sensitised to think about the world and other people in very different ways. I don't think I would have changed to this extent had I remained in India. [Disclaimer: The above only refers to my personal journey, by the way. I'm not implying that Indians in India are less sensitised than Indians who live abroad.]

The problem with "Happy New Year" (and most Bollywood movies) is this - it's racist, it's sexist, it's homophobic (or whatever the word is that means "making fun of gays"), it's snobbish about people who can't speak English, it treats overweight and handicapped people as figures of fun, and in general, holds everyone outside an in-group in contempt. If you're an upper-class North Indian male who can speak English, are heterosexual, able-bodied and not grossly overweight, these movies will have you rolling in the aisles at all the funny things those other people say and do.

Take racism first. Happy New Year features an international dance competition, so obviously we need villains, and who better than the North Koreans, for whom nobody can possibly have a good word? Good choice there, Farah Khan. Introduce them as North Koreans for political reasons, and thereafter refer to them as just Koreans, since the distinction is unimportant thereafter. Obviously, the Koreans are cold, robotic, vicious and cruel people who treat competitors as enemies and show no mercy to their own children when they make mistakes. Contrast that with our warm, affectionate Indian selves who love children and help our enemies even when they want to kill us. Never mind that we can casually let loose with epithets like "haka noodle" whenever we see anyone with vaguely Asian features. It's all good fun. I don't know if art reflects life or life imitates art, but I'm not surprised to read that Indians from the northeastern states are routinely slurred with racist epithets in "mainland" Indian metros. Anyone who looks different from us is fair game.

("Kal Ho Na Ho" was cringe-inducing when it casually injected racist dialogues to characterise the competition between the Indian and Chinese restaurants. Even that otherwise excellent movie "Vicky Donor" ruined everything when the female lead (who should definitely have known better) referred to a child with Asian features as a "ching-chong" - at 1:57:20).

We've of course seen this trait in non-Indians as well - the practice of casting people other than ourselves as dangerous and cruel barbarians and ourselves as brave, wonderful, civilised people. Remember the "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch by brave US soldiers from that terrible fedayeen-infested Iraqi hospital where she was being treated for her injuries by demonic doctors and psychopathic nurses?

Seriously, the practice of demonising the "other" has to stop.

Sexism - where do we even begin? I'l just talk about one scene in Happy New Year. We have Deepika Padukone as the dancer who is engaged by this group of men to teach them dancing. She's their teacher, for goodness's sake, but in the very next scene, she's going around the table, serving tea to all the seated men. Seriously!? (Yes, I know, the point of that scene was to show that she carries a torch for captain Charlie because she gives him his tea in a special mug, but I would have chosen another way to make that point).

Homophobia or something like it - Indian movies probably can't be accused of gay-bashing, but that's because they engage in gay-shaming. Gays have been a major source of merriment in Bollywood. They're effeminate and ridiculous and do the most creepy things, and of course all the main (straight) characters share a good laugh at them with the audience. Oh, gays are so funny!

Classism - England and America may be two countries separated by the same language, as Bernard Shaw said, but India is one country divided in two by that same language. Those who don't know English either aspire to learn it or want to rid India of it (sometimes at the same time), and those who speak it look down on those who don't. Happy New Year takes all these traits and rubs it in our faces. The scene where our supposedly wonderful English-speaking hero insults the female lead in the vilest sexist terms within her hearing, then charms her back by speaking to her in English just made me feel ... bad. But there was a redeeming feature, however unintended. The female lead's consistent quest for respect, which then makes her one of the most respectable characters in the movie, is a subtly powerful message for those who will listen. That respect isn't gained by her being able to speak English. In fact, the most fluent English in this movie is spoken by utter jerks.

Fat-shaming? In one of those humorous, musical, fast-forward interludes that shows our gang of heroes searching in vain for a dance teacher, an obese one is of course a mandatory part of the parade of unsuitable characters. (I don't know if that was Farah Khan's subtle dig at Saroj Khan.) Again, seriously, Bollywood needs to stop the practice.

The disabled got off relatively lightly this time, with just a few gags on epileptics and the partially deaf, but Bollywood in general finds disability irresistibly funny.

In short, that's what's really wrong with Happy New Year, and with virtually every movie that comes out of Bollywood. Indian directors should hire humanism consultants to educate them on messages that are simply unacceptable in other parts of the world. They don't really need to fix the weak plots and the cliches. Those could even be considered endearing traits of the genre, but if Bollywood ever wants to cross over to a mainstream world audience, there's a lot more basic stuff that needs fixing.

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