I am only human. I most definitely jump to conclusions, I absolutely judge a book by its cover. Equivalently, I judge movies — and the umbrella industry that produces them — by their trailers.
I hate how incredibly sappy and ridiculous I sound when I say this, but good movies can make me cry — and I mean really cry. Good movies make me feel revolutionized in some intangible way; they reiterate my passion for film and remind me both of my desire to work behind the magical lens and of the brilliant minds that make them. I perceive a movie as being “good” if it has the ability to bring me to tears, not purely because of its narrative or content, but because of anything from its cinematography to its dialogue, its characters to its climax.
I’ve lived in the same city, Mumbai, for 18 years. My city is the reason for so much of who I am today, and I’d like to think that I know its multifarious identities like the back of my hand.
It isn’t a stereotype for Mumbai to be associated with Bollywood — Mumbai is stardom and cinema; it is home to so many leading Indian actors and filmmakers, and it has played its part as the perfect setting for innumerable Bollywood films. For 18 years, I have adored, and continue to adore, Bollywood, but being in such close proximity to it couldn’t help but make me intensely critical of it as well.
Like cinema from any country, Bollywood is most definitely not without its flaws — its patriarchal plots that the average Indian viewer seems to thoroughly enjoy and the unnecessary objectification in what it calls “item numbers,” featuring seminude female characters that all project the same body type and dance to songs about their own objectification, among others — and I have no qualms about constantly pointing these out, if only because I want nothing more than to see it surpass its counterparts in other parts of the world. With the influence Bollywood has on the Indian population, I believe its movies could be used as a tool for change, if it really wanted to.
Last night, I visited Shattuck Cinemas for the first time to watch “Lady Bird” by Greta Gerwig. “Lady Bird” was everything I love in a movie — it had a simple, uninterrupted narrative, gorgeous cinematography, exquisite writing and actors that effortlessly performed roles only an impeccable script could lay down.
I haven’t had too many experiences with theaters in the United States just yet, but this one already caught me by surprise — not because of the phenomenal movie that I saw there, not because of the theater staff member who yelled, “I’m only doing this because it was made mandatory this year — THIS IS A DOOR. IT WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU AFTER THE MOVIE,” as he dramatically pointed to the exit door soon after we entered, but because of the movie trailers that preceded the screening of “Lady Bird.”
I was given a glimpse of “The Breadwinner,” an animated story of an 11-year old Afghan girl living under Taliban rule who embarks on a journey while dressed as a boy to find her wrongly imprisoned father. I was introduced to “The Divine Order,” about a group of women in 1971 Switzerland that decided to fight for the right to vote. Watching these trailers at Shattuck Cinemas, it seemed like movies with feminist undertones were becoming the norm.
Sitting there in the front row of the theater — because my friend and I couldn’t get seats that were any better — I found myself thinking of the countless experiences I’ve had in movie theaters back home. I found myself drawing comparisons between the movies that were being normalized here, and those in India.
Almost 18 years of watching Bollywood films in Indian theaters have made me unknowingly accustomed to watching movie trailers that narrated the same story — a male protagonist with a hypermasculinity that every Indian man should be expected to imitate, a struggling but deeply sexualized female love interest who longs to be saved by this epitome of masculinity, gangs and guns and carefully composed physical violence, and a climax that inevitably meets exactly the needs of the protagonist. I sigh, I roll my eyes, I wait impatiently for the movie I have come to watch to begin, and the next time I visit the same theater, I know I’m going to have the same experience all over again.
There are exceptions, of course — movies that reiterate my adoration for Bollywood every time I watch them. There exists “Queen,” a story about a sheltered young woman from New Delhi who decides to travel by herself for the very first time to Paris after having her wedding abruptly broken off by her fiance who was upset that she wasn’t “modern” enough. There exists “Lipstick Under My Burkha” — Bollywood’s form of rebellion, a milestone for India and its cinema (and a movie I recommend everybody immediately watch) — about a group of silently sexually liberated women trying to find their way around an extreme patriarchal society that suppresses anything to do with feminine desire.
There are exceptions, but that is all they are — they aren’t the norm, and they aren’t considered to be “natural.” Feminism is still taboo when it comes to mainstream media in India, and the majority of the Indian audience is not likely to be accepting of movies that portray female protagonists with the same frequency as they do male protagonists.
The next time I visit Shattuck Cinemas and sit in the same crummy seats in a nevertheless beautiful theater, I want Bollywood to come with me. I want Bollywood to sit next to me and watch the trailers that prefix the movie I have carefully chosen to watch, and I want it to reinvent what it deems to be the established, the conventional.
Contact Anoushka Agrawal at [email protected].