Terrible trends at Bollywood award shows
It’s Labor Day weekend here in the US and I just watched IIFA, the very last of Bollywood award shows for the films and stars of 2012. Beginning some time in March, the award show season is peppered with glitzy lights, star-studded performances, terrible starry humor and (mostly objectionable and dissatisfying) awards. We’ve all spent many cocktail parties discussing these often cringe-worthy awards, but this year I noticed something much more disturbing—a normalization of distinctly religious Hindu aesthetics and a strange erasure of female stars as actors and active contributors to the industry.
First, the smaller of the two problems, at least seemingly; that is the strange attempt at establishing a Hindu dominance. Three of the major award shows this year—Screen, Filmfare and IIFA—had long dance sequences that seemed to be jazzed up versions of what some might call a Ganesh vandana. These sequences were performed by Priyanka Chopra (Screen), Hrithik Roshan (Filmfare) and the upcoming Sushant Singh Rajput (IIFA) to the tune of “Deva Shree Ganesha” from Agneepath (Malhotra 2012). It is an undoubtedly catchy song, though hardly the most popular, either of the year or even from the film (“Chikni Chameli” stole that show before the movie even released). Of the three, two bothered me more than others; the one performed by Priyanka Chopra and the one by Sushant Singh Rajput. There was an overwhelming quality to Priyanka’s performance when she finally sits on the trunk of the giant cut-out of Ganesh and is then raised high towards the ceiling and then travels across the room, with everyone looking up, with much devotion in their eyes. Something similar happened with Hrithik’s performance where the star repeatedly shouted “Ganpatti bappa morya” inviting the audience to shout with him. The cameras panned to Ranbir Kapoor obeying, in raptures.
The worst and in fact scariest performance however was by Sushant Singh Rajput of Kai Po Che fame. This was not just a dance to the Agneepath song, but instead a mash-up of a number of songs about Ganesh. Not unlike Hrithik Roshan, there was a display of Rajput’s beefed up body, adding an almost marshal element to the performance. The way that I saw it, the focus on his muscular stature seemed to add a tone of physical aggression if not threat to his performance. The aesthetic of this performance had smatterings of the Hindutva aesthetic complete with giant red flags reminiscent of those that accompany the rath-yatras and of course are a lasting part of the image of the demolished Babri Masjid.
Personally, I can’t stand the ridiculous, selective and narrow-minded idea of how this is “Indian culture” and “our tradition” etc. Two decades ago, it may have worked as an argument in favour of this religious aesthetic. Today however, this comes in a whole other social and political context that has also clouded the film industry and its supposedly secular ideals. The targeting by right-wing Hindu groups of Muslim stars and their films time and again is very much a part of this context where this openly aggressive Hindu aesthetic becomes worrying. There are then socio-political reason in our recent history that even make some us think of Hrithik Roshan and Ranbir Kapoor as Hindu stars being pitched against the bigwig Pathans who have ruled the roost thus far.
Moving on, the wider problem that was noticeable in award shows this year more than ever. All the shows celebrated the centenary of Indian cinema, which translated as more tributes, more lifetime achievements, and superstar of the century awards (this last one almost always goes to Amitabh Bachchan, but I’m not arguing with that). As great as it is to see celebrations dedicated to the growth of Bombay cinema (let’s face it, no one was really celebrating any other language cinema, they barely even acknowledged that Indian cinema could mean something more than just Bollywood), nearly every single show was heavily tilted in favor of tributes to male stars. Filmfare was the only one that made space for at least one performance (by Anushka Sharma) that was dedicated to female stars in the industry.
I would say that the worst offender of an erasure of female stars as anything more than extras in the triumphant march of the male stars was Screen. Early on in the show was a tribute by the newly anointed star Ranveer Singh who presented a bouquet of the reigning stars of Bollywood—his performance included a mention of Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar. There was no female equivalent to this performance where iconic and successful female stars like Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Kajol, Tabu would be celebrated. (I am not even mentioning the likes of Nadia, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rahman, Nargis etc, because no one really celebrated the male stars of that generation either, in this show that is. The male stars of that generation ordinarily get mentioned in any nostalgic narrative of Indian cinema).
The absolute worst however was the wrap-up by Ranbir Kapoor, undoubtedly the biggest star of the generation after SRK, Salman Khan etc. Ranbir did a tribute to the Kapoor family (to those who are unfamiliar, Ranbir belongs to the Kapoor clan himself). There were life-size portraits of all the Kapoor stars—Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor—and Ranbir recreated iconic songs featuring each of them. Helen made a nameless appearance for one segment as did Neetu Singh (wife of Rishi Kapoor and mother of Ranbir) ostensibly to celebrate her husband. The women of the clan were however conspicuous by their absence. No Babita, no Geeta Bali, no Jennifer Kendal, Sanjana Kapoor etc. The strangest however was that there was no mention, at all, of Karishma and Kareena Kapoor who have been reigning stars of their time, since well before Ranbir. This got highlighted at the end when Ranbir included a live portrait of himself in the family tree that he performed on stage—he did a number from his (then) latest film Barfi (Basu 2012) and then stood behind a portrait-frame, asserting his place as the scion of the Kapoor clan.
It’s all very well for stars to stand up in front of screens and give patronizing homilies about respect to women (I was stunned by the constant repetition of how “women make 49% of the vote bank” and the badges of “I support the 49%” that people wore. To me this is an even worse manifestation of the Livestrong band), but there is a deeper disrespect and sexism that goes into forgetting and in fact erasing women as members and contributors to the film industry.