May 09, 2012

The Return of 80s Cinema and Why it Makes Me Squirm

Sometime back I was looking at upcoming Hindi film releases for 2012 and I saw this poster.

Then I saw this…

…and this.

A few years back, Ghajini and Dabangg started a revival of sorts of 80s style cinema, replete with high drama, revenge and action a.k.a. the masala entertainer. If the above posters are any indication of the style of cinema that is coming out this year, then it looks like every filmmaker is jumping on the 80s bandwagon. Here is Karan Johar talking about this trend. Not surprisingly, he also happens to be the producer behind January’s super hit, Agneepath.

It’s not surprising that good old fashioned 80s style melodrama and action are making a comeback. These elements were becoming increasingly rare in contemporary Hindi cinema. So besides being widely entertaining, there is also a nostalgic value attached to films like these. But here’s the thing: the 80s weren’t really a great decade for the representation of women on screen.

The hyper-masculine film “hero” that we see in the above posters is a common trope in mainstream cinema but in the 80s his presence in a movie was almost mandatory. And the counterpart to him is, of course, the character of the supportive wife or mother, a two dimensional creature who only possesses qualities in the nature of loyalty, chastity and sacrifice. For the “sexy factor”, there’s a vamp or an item song thrown in. That’s right; it’s the old virgin/whore dichotomy. But what I find most sexist about these films is that most often, female characters were absolutely of no consequence to the plot! For example, in Agneepath, there’s the sexy item song by Katrina, Chikni Chameli (which I quite enjoy) and there’s the supportive girlfriend, played by Priyanka. But what does her character contribute to the story? Nothing. It appears as if, in the universe of these films, women have no significance, whatsoever.

By no means am I suggesting that female characters who have nothing to do but be good girlfriends are exclusive to 80s style or 80s cinema. One look at the top grossers of the past 3 years clearly demonstrate that films like Ra.One, Raajneeti and Tees Maar Khan continue to keep up this cinematic tradition (except now the girlfriend is also allowed to look sexy). What is now an aspect of brainless entertainers used to be the norm in the 80s. That’s why, I can’t help but look at the comeback of 80s type cinema with slightly mixed feelings. Maybe my hopes have been raised by the fantastic female characters in films like Kahaani, Kaminey, Ishqiya, Band Bajaa Baaraat (what a delightful movie!), No One Killed Jessica and even Jab We Met, all of which have also been box-office successes. But as a film-lover, who happens to be a feminist, is there anything more frustrating than a female character that is nothing but a prop in the story?

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