A feminist lens at the movies.

Being married to an entrepreneur, I have learned that for some people there is no such thing as downtime. While I need to be idle to imagine, Sameer whiteboards, brainstorms, makes notes, writes code, to think clearly. On my breaks, I sometimes just dip bourbon biscuits in a cup of tea and daydream. On Sameer’s breaks, we go to the movies. Luckily, I’ve seen my parents strike a good balance in a marriage between a ‘becoming’ person (Papa, who is inseparable from his little notebook, now his iPhone, where he carefully records interesting things as they strike him, forever learning) and a ‘being’ person (Mama, who notices birds perched on trees outside his study window, what flowers are blooming in her garden, when one of our dogs needs to be cooed to, and even runs after snakes to identify them). I’ve tried to learn from my mother to not kill enthusiasm and so even when I feel lazy, even when Sameer makes me run up the street to meet him at the traffic light so we don’t miss the trailers, even when it’s raining and I’d much rather curl up in bed with a book, I let Sameer take me to the movies (on the condition that he promises to buy me a bucket of caramel popcorn).

One of the perks of being married to a movie buff is that I get to study pop culture. Over the last couple of years, Sameer and I have started to rub off on each other. I’ve learned to laugh through slapstick humor and he’s begun to watch movies with a feminist lens. Unfortunately, so many Bollywood movies perpetuate sexist stereotypes. Women are depicted as demure and delicate creatures who resist, at least at first, romance. A depiction that strips women of agency, of sexuality, of the power to consent. One that complicates the question of consent, of ‘no means no,’ for both women (because good girls don’t say ‘yes’) and men (so boys must woo them), compounding problems around issues of stalking, assault, and rape. Because patriarchy, as my father says, doesn’t just destroy the lives of women, it also dehumanizes men. But freedom too, in movies and in life, is a fearful wish for women because it means risking relationships. Women who defy conventional gender roles and societal expectations risk losing the most important thing of all, love. Women who are willful (read: have agency), loose (read: sexual), and hold on to their right to choose (read: consent) risk not only losing the love of their partners but also of their families.

We are all, therefore, delighted when occasionally a movie bursts out of nowhere and challenges the status quo, pushes the envelope forward, but also (in that wonderful way that perhaps only Bollywood movies can) brings everyone along with it. Queen, which in the interest of full disclosure Sameer had to drag me to on Saturday because I didn’t like the name and hadn’t heard much about it, did that superbly. Something magical happens when in the midst of all that song and dance, in that very same lexicon (without shifting from ‘low brow’ to ‘high brow’), in that signature idiom (which makes people’s hearts beat faster in small towns and big cities alike), you see a spark, a brave and brilliant woman shedding the shackles of existing stereotypes and, best of all, getting away with it. Finding freedom without losing love. Without losing the kind of love that’s worth having, rather. Queen is a shining bubble of hope. It is a vibrant and colorful portrait of a young woman at a turning point in her life (a moment of heartbreak) and a wonderful portrayal of her family whose love (glimpsed in her mother’s empathy, her brother’s protectiveness), faith (her grandmother’s firm belief that this is not the end of the world, “mera bhi ek boyfriend tha…”), and trust (the last scene in the car when her father wordlessly asks her mother to trust her judgment, no questions asked) are completely unshakeable, just as they should be. Giving her the freedom to refuse love that is anything less than that. Because she knows love is nothing without respect.

We all loved watching Queen. It made the audience tear up, roar with laughter, and clap spontaneously (as any great Bollywood movie should). Everyone came pouring out of the theater with wide smiles still plastered on their faces. A different kind of love story, more about loving yourself than about loving someone else, about being loved by your family for who you are rather than changing yourself to be loved by someone else). It is a rare and wonderful thing to see in Bollywood these days. A very important break from the monotony of cliché love stories and hammed up stereotypes. Maybe that’s why I especially love watching some of these movies with my mother-in-law, a feminist in her own right, who wonderfully disrupts another unfortunate stereotype, the one of ‘the mother-in-law,’ with all the love that she lavishes upon me (following in the footsteps of her own mother-in-law, who she says believed the best way to keep your son happy was to love your daughter-in-law). My mother-in-law came out of English Vinglish moved but also a little bit disappointed, like I was, that Sridevi didn’t leave her patronizing husband to open a restaurant in New York with the handsome French chef who’d fallen in love with her. Queen took a real leap ahead, leaving us all thrilled with a real sense of possibility.

Every now and then you watch a movie that makes you want to tell everyone you know that they have to watch it too. Sameer persuaded everyone he could to come with us on Saturday afternoon. Papa loved it and took Mama (who was in Bombay for a wedding this weekend) to see it as soon as she came home. My mother-in-law sent messages to all her friends saying it’s a must watch. Before I could do the same, my little Whatsapp group was already abuzz with all my friends saying they loved it. Which really makes me wonder why these movies are so few and far between! Hopefully the rest of Bollywood will take a cue from Queen (especially given the movie’s success at the box office and its positive reception among film critics) and make more movies about independent and empowered young women going on exciting adventures, making unconventional choices (without risking losing the love and respect of their families), and choosing who to love and marry for themselves, and on their own terms. A refreshing break from the norm—Queen is a must watch—and, as a side note to my ‘being’ friends, it’s well worth watching in the theater because there’s something quite magical about experiencing it in the midst of an exuberant audience. Here’s wishing for many more movies like it!

Indus Chadha believes we cannot exist or be understood without stories and spends much of her time reading, writing or listening to her five-year-old daughter, Amara, tell them. She earned a BA from Smith College with a major in the Study of Women and Gender and a minor in English Language and Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

© 2022, all rights reserved.