Is Radhika Apte Now Bollywood’s Token Angry Feminist?


Is Radhika Apte Now Bollywood’s Token Angry Feminist?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It’s been nearly two decades since Rani Mukherjee married her rapist in her debut film, Raja Ki Ayegi Baraat. Third-wave feminism is almost upon us, parts of the world have legalised gay marriage, and it is generally accepted that women are humans. Hurrah.

Mainstream Bollywood, which accepts progress in teaspoons, is slowly catching on. However, the faster we progress, the more patriarchy evolves ways to assert itself. While Queen, Tumhari Sullu, and Angry Indian Goddesses proved to be decent middle-cinema releases, commercially successful films have discovered a new type of misogyny.

During the last decade we saw the stereotype of the effeminate gay man frequently on screen – a figure of ridicule and humiliation. The “feminist-type” is the new effeminate gay man of Hindi cinema.

“Tum me se na, male chauvinism ki buu aa rahi hai,” Anushka Sharma, the very picture of female open-mindedness, says in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to a boy she almost hooked up with at a party. She says this because he policed his girlfriend’s clothes, and she has no patience for men like him. Three seconds later, she asks him to go bar-hopping with her because, “toh kya main akele jaungi?”.

It just gets worse: By the end of the night, she says, and I quote, “Tum ameer ho? Jaanti thi, chote kapde pehen ke bada haath marna chahati hain.” To translate – because he’s rich, his girlfriend wears short clothes to attract him.

Anushka Sharma’s character throws around terms like “my choice” and “male chauvinism”, drinks alcohol freely, and is open about her sexuality. So despite the glaring misogyny in her behaviour, what does Bollywood imagine her to be? A feminist. And patriarchy, sitting with his tub of cheese popcorn, watches as this world buckles under the weight of misunderstood feminism.

Finally, where Bollywood takes these angry, powerful women is the most important aspect of how patriarchy understands feminism. That ultimately, they end up under the thumb of patriarchal approval, reveals Bollywood’s lip-service.

Film critic Laura Mulvey, who put forth the concept of the “male gaze”, explains how mainstream cinema proceeds from a masculine viewpoint. We identify with and through the male and masculine, objectifying the female and feminine (which is also why item numbers exist).

Much the same way, if feminism is reduced to a certain type of femininity — powerful, headstrong, argumentative – we automatically fetishise the “powerful woman”. Then by making this character ultimately succumb to the patriarchy outside her, the male gaze now seeks to derive pleasure out of “feminists” as well.

Radhika Apte is an amazing actor; cue in Parched. However, after the two recent Indian Netflix productions, Lust Stories and Sacred Games, I am afraid that she is on her way to being typecast as the poster-child for token feminism. Her newest release, Ghoul, a horror-thriller is set to come out this week, and I am hopeful that her character has more dimensions than the over-aggressive woman who sees every problem in her way as a gender-related hurdle.

In both Lust Stories and Sacred Games, it has been repeatedly insinuated that Apte is a feminist. It is not that Sacred Games got female representation wrong otherwise – Kukoo, who identifies as female, and Subhadra are exemplars of women who exercise their agency. However, that is not recognised as feminism by Bollywood.

Apte’s Anjali Malhotra, an upper-class, educated RAW officer, answers every question about her abilities with, “Kyun, meri jaga sirf desk pe hain?” to the point that it gets absurd. This is not to say that Indian men at the workplace don’t undermine women, but Anjali mistakes concern for doubt about her abilities as a woman, and gets herself killed in the process. In Lust Stories, her idea of emancipation is essentially turning into the very absent husband she talks about in between her botched attempts at being assertive. She barges into her student/lover’s home, shames his girlfriend for hanging out with him, and behaves like any typical over-possessive man would.

What we understand as strong or powerful female characters in Bollywood, especially in commercial mainstream films, therefore, are just fetishised versions of female anger.

Then there is the fetishising of rejection with the adjective “hard to get”. A great example of this is set in that great “feminist” parable, Veere Di Wedding. Sonam Kapoor’s Avni is essentially harassed by Bhandari, who finds her reticence and blatant rejections, attractive. She finds him sleazy, and is visibly discomforted by his presence. Then, in the end when she agrees to go on a date with him, she basically confirms what more forward men think when women say “no” – that it is basically an invitation to convert them to a “yes”. In the 21st century, where women across the world are reiterating the importance of their verbal “nos”, make what you will of this stereotyping.

We must talk about Veere Di Wedding, a film made about the country’s one per cent, because it is one of the highest grossing Hindi films featuring a female-led cast. The characters, for the longest time, will remain an example of “feminists” in commercial Hindi cinema, even though it is essentially Bollywood misinterpreting class privilege as the fight for gender equality.

Finally, where Bollywood takes these angry, powerful women is the most important aspect of how patriarchy understands feminism. That ultimately, they end up under the thumb of patriarchal approval, reveals Bollywood’s lip-service.

It is possible that I might be called an “angry feminist” for finding fault with mainstream cinema. All the women-centric films that “got it right” will be thrown in my face, and I will be told to leave commercial films alone because they wont get any better. But maybe some part of me is exhausted at having to find niche films that aren’t misogynistic to satiate my love for cinema, and rare good men in a culture that thrives and grows from watching these commercial films.

Women make up (almost) half of our population, yet they need reserved seats on trains, carry pepper spray to work, and celebrate every time a film doesn’t portray her as an unrealistic object. At some point, all of us get angry. But be honest, in our shoes wouldn’t you be too?