Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Her Eyes...

There’s an interesting scene in that awful piece of yarn-spinning we were subjected to in the name of Anjaana Anjaani. Yes, believe me. There IS one interesting scene.

At the seedy motel where they stay in Las Vegas, the film observes Priyanka Chopra applying kaajal in front of a mirror before going to a party. While this is happening, she- and we- watch Ranbir Kapoor step out of the bathroom, wearing only his jeans, hair still wet. She pauses, and turns around to stare at him. At this point, the camera slowly, lovingly explores his bare chest, as she clearly admires what she sees: a shirtless, smouldering Ranbir, enveloped in steam emanating from the shower, a bit of shaving cream on his lip.


Before you start thinking of witty comments, let me clarify why I find this scene interesting.

I find this scene interesting because Priyanka Chopra doesn’t get a counter-part scene. When was the last time you saw the man in the film exposing his body while the woman ogled, and not the other way around? (I can think of a small scene in Jodha Akbar, but, in all fairness, that film was stuck in period film constraints). Another scene set in a night club early on in the film has Ranbir showing his spiel in trying to seduce her, while she, charmed and willing, just enjoys it. And, contrary to all Hindi film trends, she never tries to seduce him. In fact, we don’t even have a similar opportunity to heave a cold sigh about her. It is almost a role-reversal, with Ranbir doing the skin-show as well as the seduction numbers, and Priyanka- and all the women watching the film- being the appreciative spectators.

In her seminal 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey introduced a term that seems obvious today, yet is as much a part of popular art as heroes and villains: “Male gaze”. Mulvey states that in film women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the as the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. While this was more true in the time it was written, when Hollywood protagonists were overwhelmingly male, the base concept of men as watchers and women as watched still applies today, despite the growing number of movies targeted toward women and that feature female protagonists. In Hindi cinema, where ‘chick flicks’ are still an alien and unprofitable term, films are almost entirely male-driven: be it the film-makers, the crew or the audience. Hence, the term ‘male gaze’ is even more applicable here today.

This is where the above scenes become matters of interest. Ranbir is also famous (notorious, perhaps)for his startlingly candid towel-dance in his debut, Saawariya. What is truly remarkable in that film, as well as in the scenes outlined above, is that the while they represent a break from the norm of ‘male gaze’, they don’t try and level the playing field, in the way a Dostana did, by equally showcasing the bodies of both Priyanka Chopra as well as John Abraham. With Ranbir, we aren’t just ogling him as an object, we are ogling ONLY him as an object. The women (Sonam Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra respectively) are shown in relatively conservative mode vis-à-vis the man. Sure, Priyanka Chopra is dolled up in the film, and looks adequately sexy with the shorts and mini-skirts, but even she is not given the slow-motion ogle-fest that Ranbir provides us.

Could it be that Ranbir Kapoor represents, in Indian cinema, the advent of the ‘female gaze’? We can discount any efforts on the film-makers parts: both Bhansali and Siddharth Anand are heterosexual men who have, in the past, objectified beautiful women beautifully; successful female directors who would ordinarily be expected to lead such feminist waves are busy making Katrina Kaif look sexier than ever.

Certainly, the growing voice of women in every sphere of life today, as well as their increasing independence, plays a part in this. Women today aren’t particularly coy about what they like, and desire their opinion to be counted. Yet, it is strange that only Ranbir kapoor’s films reflect this trend. Sure, women ogled at Hrithik Roshan too, who regularly plays to all the female galleries, yet every Dhoom 2 contains a Crazy Kiya Re, every Kites has a Barbara Mori in a bikini. The first Indian superstar, Rajesh Khanna, too had his share of female admirers, yet not only were his films equally devoted to showcasing female beauty, the female gaze wasn’t as pervasive or vehement.

The female gaze only becomes noteworthy in cases where the women in the films are not reciprocating the gaze. As I mentioned, while films like Dhoom 2, Om Shanti Om and Dostana objectify the male, they do not qualify since the women here too are objects- these are simply films attempting to appeal to both the genders, and in the process reduce all their characters to lust-worthy objects.

The female gaze is not an unheard of trend in Hollywood, with a sharper dissection of audiences and female-centric films being profitable. Films like Sex and the City focus so heavily on a female audience that the heroines of the female can happily be active possessors of the gaze, making- or reducing- men to objects to be had.

It seems, then, that Ranbir Kapoor has brought about films where his body is the object, rather than the woman’s, consequently making women the active gazers. What this says for the future of Hindi films and popular art- if anything- is hard to say. It may just be a transient phase, it may just be odd occurrences my immature mind is forcing trends upon, or it may even be the advent of the appreciation of the woman’s point of view.

Whatever is the case, Ranbir Kapoor has gone beyond being simply a poster-boy to being a harbinger of an alien concept into Indian popular cinema. Coupled with a time of sky-rocketing sexual confidence in women, Ranbir Kapoor may actually manage, in the annals of Indian cinema, to become more than just the next superstar. He may just become the first public embrace of the female gaze.