by Shaker Aparna
[Trigger warning for rape culture, violence, misogyny, classism, fat hatred.]
So there's this Bollywood movie, Delhi Belly, which is fast becoming a cult phenomenon all over India. It's also playing in limited theaters in the US, where it's also very popular: On a recent weekday, we couldn't get tickets to two different shows at a Manhattan theater.
But, eventually, we scheduled a baby sitter and everything, and went to the AMC right in the middle of Times Square to see the movie, which was supposed to be a 'bold' movie, one made for the 'youth of India', supposedly an 'original, edgy, hilarious' movie, a movie that's collecting fabulous reviews and even better revenues.
Maybe, pushing thirty, I'm no longer the 'youth of India' or of anywhere else, because 'original, edgy and hilarious' doesn't really seem to mean what it used to.
So anyway, the movie is about three men, one or two in committed relationships, all three miserable in their lives. They're caught up in a typical undercover-transaction-gone-wrong situation, of which there are twenty movies made every year (so it's very original, yes), and end up getting a shit-load (hahahahaha! Oh wait, I didn't explain the part of the movie's toilet humor. But it's c-o-m-i-n-g!!) of stolen money, and they end up doing the right thing anyway with said stolen money. Along the way, the lead hero finds the woman of his dreams, and they blow through six frames a second of the most generous definition of humor that can exist.
And this is just one of about, oh, seven Hangover-inspired Bollywood movies (or virtual remakes) releasing this year. True Fact. For some reason, that pinnacle of Hollywood comedy seems to have really inspired Indian filmmakers. It must be those awesome characters in The Hangover—man about to be married to a hot but controlling girlfriend gets into a crazy situation that tests his manhood and he realizes and escapes the girl's clutches just in time, moving on to a far better, hotter, more compliant prospect; man in a bad job blows off his boss and asserts control; man objectifying every woman around is just a poor Galifianakis who can hardly be blamed for his normal maleness, because he can't get any, poor guy.
Part of what worries me about the reception of this film is it's not about whether or not some persons found the movie funny; it is about the unanimity of opinion in the editorials and the review columns, the unquestioning acceptance that this is 'edgy' humor, that this is "modern" and what India's Youth wants. Toilet jokes? It says something about our nation, but not exactly what you think it says. And even someone brought up on British sitcoms knows the toilet humor plays out in the first hour, then you need something else to keep it funny.
Not to worry, for with the main course of toilet humor, we also have rape jokes, fat jokes, lesbians-are-just-women-who-haven't-found-the-right-man (oh, yes, they did go there. Yes. The movie's very edgy and modern, you see!), slut-shaming, gender essentialism, any-guy-in-a-committed-and-respectful-relationship-is-a-sucker, and other such wonderful sources of Genuine Humor.
Since this is a 'heist gone wrong' genre movie, the stolen money (diamonds hidden in a Matryoshka doll—how original indeed) ends up with the typical deserving-but-clueless character. And who is this poor lucky sap? None other than a man who cheats on his wife (but of course, only because she is fat and because she 'henpecks' him). I mean, what else is the poor guy going to do—NOT go to a sex-worker? Oh, and even there he ends up with someone who incidentally is equally fat as his wife, hahaha, the poor guy is so incurably 'sweet' even the whores take advantage of him. Of course, if he only could've stood up for himself he could've gotten a better deal—a thin, pretty woman for his cash. But it's all good, because he ends up with all the thirty stolen diamonds, because he's such a good guy and this is a feel-good movie.
The humor (for that is what I take issue with; the triteness of the story and the predictability of the plot is to be expected from a mainstream Hindi Bollywood movie, really—like any other mainstream movie) rides squarely on the backs of women and the poor. It's so fucking edgy to joke about rape, so original and funny when a pervert operating as a photojournalist—one of the three leads, that too—takes advantage of his occupation to surreptitiously take pictures of an interviewee's body as free porn 'for himself'. This totally doesn't actually happen every day.
A woman screaming and panting in mortal fear for her life is played for the cruelest laughs, especially because the camera helps you focus on nothing but her heaving, sweaty bosom. Oh, a whimpering woman! Being toyed with! How hilarious!
But no, seriously. To Aamir Khan & Kiran Rao, both of whom also helped create the lovely, Academy-award nominated Lagaan (nominated ten years ago for Best Foreign Film): You can do SO much better. You've actually worked together to create funny, heart-warming, touching movies that don't insult the audience, that don't demand I leave my brains and logic behind to have fun or to be part of a 'modern' movie.
For instance, not only is it illogical, it is also NOT hilarious when a spurned boyfriend—another one of the leads—fantasizes about beating/humiliating his ex-girlfriend or hopes that the girl is abused and ill-treated by her family, and it's played for audience laughs, especially when it is abundantly clear that said girl is going through an arranged marriage under pressure from the same family. And most hilarious of all (by which I mean embarrassingly out of touch) is that the main lead feels victimized and manipulated by being offered dowry. Oh, the shame of it, poor lad, being offered a free car and a free apartment by his fiancee's parents! The villains here are the parents, of course, not the poor guy who's just being sweet in accepting the gifts! For that situation to be played for laughs in a country and a context where there are still hundreds of women dying dowry deaths EVERY DAY seems not just like ignorance to privilege but like willful, deliberate cruelty.
Even the random sidewalk characters, in this case an old White (presumably American) couple visiting India for their wedding anniversary, bring in their own share of sexist stereotypes—the old man clearly being a henpecked, sex starved, but lovable old creep.
The lead, a young upcoming actor called Imran Khan, plays a man so beaten down by society, so unable to stand up (joke, joke!) for himself that he actually performs oral sex on his girlfriend. Poor sap. And still the ungrateful woman complains and complains about his facial hair, his one concession to manhood; doesn't she know how good she's got it? So he's such a loser, but by the end of the movie he's turned into a Real Man (TM), and kisses his new girl like he owns her, and punches a rival in the face! In the face! Yay! He's so DUDEly now! And this is very, very modern, of course. Very unlike all those boring old Hindi movies where they had a macho hero punching rivals and kissing women. But this is different.
It's sad, because, off-screen, Imran Khan seems like a really nice person, the rare Bollywood actor who seems to respect the women in his life and has a strong personal core, separate from the glamorous world of his occupation, a very normal, not especially privileged childhood. He's seen his parents' marriage break-up, and that points to a grounded family that's dealt with issues in a realistic way, unlike Imran's contemporaries (one of whose parents have felt compelled to stick together despite very public instances of domestic abuse by his father against his mother). It's sad that such a guy like Imran feels he needs to be an assholey dude, a misogynist to make it in the Hindi film industry.
But yes, that's what you get when a whole industry looks to The Hangover for inspiration, and the entire world is willing to pretend that age-old oppressions exploited for laughs is "cutting edge."