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Posts Tagged ‘2 out of 3 on Bechdel test’

Quite a few Bollywood films are “heavily inspired” by Hollywood ones, though the original Hollywood films rarely get any credit for this (Brothers which came out last year was the first time I’ve seen an Indian movie actually marketed as a remake of an American one).
Nonetheless “Aap Ki Khatir” very clearly takes its plot from “The Wedding Date” and I figured it would be interesting to review these in tandem.

The Wedding Date (USA, 2005)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test:
2 out of 3
Director: Clare Kilner
Cast
: Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams
Plot: A girl has to face her ex at her sister’s wedding. She hires a male escort to pretend to be her boyfriend to feel more confident at the event.

Aap Ki Khatir (India, 2006)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
2 out of 3
Director: Dharmesh Darshan
Cast
: Akshaye Khanna, Priyanka Chopra, Ameesha Patel, Dino Morea, Sunil Shetty, Anupam Kher, Lillete Dubey
Plot: A girl who is still infatuated with her ex, has to face him at her sister’s wedding. She pays a man to pretend to be her boyfriend in the hope of making her ex jealous.

Introduction

Neither of these films is particularly groundbreaking or high quality. But Aap Ki Khatir is the one I enjoyed far more and it got me thinking about why I watch romantic comedies and what I want to get out of them.
Aap Ki Khatir lifts pretty much the whole storyline from The Wedding Date, changing only a few details here and there. It lifts a few scenes as well, but where the films are very different are in the character dynamics. And I think that’s the crux of the matter here – who actually watches a romantic comedy for the plot? Surely, it’s the interaction between the characters that truly matters in romance? And why did I enjoy the character dynamics in Aap Ki Khatir so much more?

The major difference between Kat and Anu

Kat and Anu have both been dumped by their exes in very unpleasant fashion and neither of them have got over this. But the big difference is that no matter how stuck she is in her love live, Anu is a successful career woman. As for Kat, we have no idea what her professional life is like, but it doesn’t seem she has much to boast about.
Kat and Anu both have a lot of insecurities and easily get agitated, but Anu nonetheless comes across as a much more confident and independent woman. In one scene in which she has a very bad argument with Aman, she tells him to stop pitying her and says bluntly “I don’t need anyone, Mr Aman Mehra” and I think that’s sort of true. Anu may be confused and stressed about a lot of things, but she definitely doesn’t need a man to take care of her.

Nick and Aman – completely different types of romantic heroes

Nick and Aman have very little in common. Both of them are quite cocky and that’s about it for similarities.
Nick is a professional escort. He is like a model from a catalogue, very suave, a high earner, confident and everything else you might expect. Or to put it a different way – he is sickeningly perfect. He’s also rather arrogant.
Aman is a very different kettle of fish. In his own words, he is an average-looking guy with an average wage. It’s unclear whether he’s ever done an escort job before, but probably not. This one is just side income for him. He works in Mumbai, in the same office building as Anu, but 11 floors below (and is clearly on a much lower wage than Anu). Although Anu and Aman work for the same company (in different departments) they have not interacted much previously.

The dynamics of the romance

As you might expect, these character backgrounds create vastly different dynamics. Nick has the upper hand over Kat almost all the time. Kat is constantly apologetic and never really takes control of the situation even though she’s paying him to take care of her needs.
Anu, on the other hand, is a rather bossy lady and has no problem with telling Aman what to do. Aman dutifully does what she’s actually paying him for (pretending to be her boyfriend and doing whatever he can to make Danny, her ex, jealous), but doesn’t necessarily do everything else she wants. Who has the upper hand changes from scene to scene, but Anu can certainly be rather forceful.
Case in point, lets compare the two sport playing scenes from the two films. Here is the baseball scene from The Wedding Date:

And this is the cricket scene from Aap Ki Khatir:

It’s a rather striking difference in the power dynamics, isn’t it?

To be honest, I really don’t understand why The Wedding Date chose to have these sorts of dynamics. To me the “spicy” and unusual part of the premise is that a woman is paying a man to service her the way she wants. Why did The Wedding Date choose not to play into the most original part of the premise?

Also, the plot actually makes a lot more sense with the Aap Ki Khatir character backgrounds.
Nick is an escort, he’s done this so many times before without falling love, so why Kat all of a sudden? I’d maybe buy into the whole escort falls in love with his client thing if the film gave me a clear reason for why Kat was particularly attractive to Nick, but it didn’t. Not only that, but the love happens so suddenly. Until Kat drunkedly gets Nick to have sex with her there’s no indication that he loves her (I think the fact that he didn’t ask her for money before getting into bed with her was supposed to mean he loved her).
Aman falling for Anu makes a lot of sense on the other hand. Aman is not a professional escort, so he would not have been in this sort of situation before. He also openly flirts with Anu pretty much from when they board the flight to London, which indicates that he probably noticed Anu at work and found her attractive even before taking the escort job.

The ex-boyfriend dynamic

Aap Ki Khatir again chooses a much better approach IMO. Anu really pines for Danny. This makes it more uncomfortable for Aman as he starts falling for her, more painful for Anu when things don’t go according to plan, adds comedy to the situation and gives Anu very strong motivation to go the whole male escort route.

In The Wedding Date, I never got the impression that Kat was hoping to get back with Jeffrey. The motivation for going the male escort route seems to be insecurity and the whole set up is much less interesting.

Why Nick is a bigger jerk than Aman

Aman has some slightly jerkish moments. Mostly, there are a few moments when he’s a bit mean with his jokes and a bit too pushy in how he flirts with Anu (though in Bollywood romantic hero terms he’s actually unusually unstalkerish and unpossessive). Other than that, he’s quite nice and fairly polite (it helps that he’s played by Akshaye Khanna obviously, but even so I think he’s quite likeable).
Nick is not pushy, but he’s rather rude and insensitive on quite a few occasions and other than being handsome and suave doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities.
There are two instances in which the difference between the two characters shows up particularly well. Firstly, the sex scene (or in the case of Aap Ki Khatir – the almost sex scene). The plot is that the heroine gets really drunk and in her drunkedness, decides that having sex with the hero is a great idea. Nick takes advantage of this – he sleeps with her even though she’s so drunk she doesn’t remember anything in the morning (to be fair, at least he doesn’t charge her for this). Aman teases her about this a lot the next morning (including about how much he would have charged her if he had slept with her), but he doesn’t take advantage (I suppose her being so drunk that she calls him Danny could have had something to do with it, but he didn’t seem that bothered about it when she was trying to take his shirt off).
The second instance in which Nick’s jerkishness shows up very obviously is in how insensitively he goes about Kat’s preoccupation with her ex. Other than at the twist at the end (he hugs her when she finds out something she really didn’t want to know), he gives her very little emotional support in that regard. He also really ruffles her feathers when he lectures her about how she’s single and can’t get over her ex because that’s exactly what she wants to be at this time (this may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not a sensitive thing to say).
Aman, in contrast, is actually relatively sensitive about Anu’s infatuation with Danny. There’s a real sort of warmth about how he listens to Anu’s story of their breakup. He does lecture her on how men get over their heartbreaks much quicker and how she should be stronger, but the way he does it is a bit of a tease and it actually seems to put her in a better mood.

The family

Perhaps one of the most striking differences between The Wedding Date and Aap Ki Khatir are the dynamics in the heroine’s family. Kat’s only decent family member is her stepfather really. Other than him, her family is very insensitive about her heartbreak (to the point of ridiculousness actually – I can’t quite imagine a real family behaving like that). In some ways having a good-looking man as her date brings her more relief with her family than it does with her ex-boyfriend.
Anu’s family, on the other hand, is genuinely worried for her and how she’s coping with her heartbreak. Her stepsister apologizes profusely for inviting Danny (the ex-boyfriend). Unfortunately, he’s her husband-to-be’s best friend, so they can’t easily uninvite him.

Aap Ki Khatir also has a lot more detail in all the family relationships. In particular they really flesh out the relationship between Anu’s mother and her stepfather. It’s very clear the two of them love each other very much and are still very sexually attracted to each other, which is extremely cute. You don’t often get relationships between two middle-aged characters portrayed like that. Very unusually, they even have a sort of kissing scene, which is kind of ironic in that Anu and Aman do not have one.

General comments

Aap Ki Khatir has become one of my go-to feel-good movies. Even though the quality of it is poor on a few levels, there’s something about it that brings me a lot of amusement and happiness.
I wish the dance numbers weren’t edited in such a jumpy style cause the actual choreo and dancing is rather good.
I love the chemistry between Akshaye Khanna and Priyanka Chopra – they really work well together. And I really enjoy Akshaye Khanna in this sort of romantic hero role.

Wedding Date is a film I will probably never see again. Even Amy Adams, who I usually really like, is kind of blah in this IMO.
It has better production quality and the script is much more tightly structured, but the film just doesn’t have any charm.

Finally, on a completely random note, Aap Ki Khatir seems to have some sort of weird censorship going on (or was this cut made for other reasons?). There’s a very short shot in one of the songs where Aman’s face is against Anu’s uncovered back. It’s rather sexy and a little bit more racy than standard, but not really that adventurous (especially considering it’s so so short). You can see it here as it was released in the music video, but oddly it is missing from the actual film.
For some reason he’s also wearing leather gloves in that song. I’m not really sure why since he has cotton/woollen ones for the outdoor scenes in the rest of the film. Fetish? 😛

 

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Doli Saja Ke Rakhna (India, 1998)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
2 out of 3 (possibly you could say there’s a conversation between two mothers that is not entirely about men, but since it’s mainly about an upcoming wedding which does involve a man, I’m not going to count it)
Director: Priyadarshan
Music:
A.R. Rahman
Cast
Akshaye KhannaJyothikaAnupam Kher, Amrish Puri, Paresh Rawal, Moushumi Chatterjee, Aruna Irani
Plot: A love story in which the lovers’ families very violently show their dissapproval.

About the film

Bollywood (particularly in the 1990s) has done a lot of melodramatic beating scenes – the hero proving his love by getting beaten up to a pulp and that sort of thing. I get a bizarre sort of enjoyment out of them. There’s probably many strange reasons for this (and judging by how popular this theme is, I can’t be the only one). But I think my love of melodrama and dislike of the whole macho ideal play into this a lot.
This film doesn’t disappoint on that count 😉 The hero and in some scenes also his sidekicks go through a loooot of beatings and other indignities. There’s a beautiful fantasy dance sequence in which the heroine is reading a novel and imagining herself as the princess and the hero as the peasant boy. Even in this fantasy, the hero must go through a certain amount of indignity and violence before he gets the girl –  the sultan-like figure sentences him to death and the hero is trussed up and blindfolded as he awaits his beheading.
I really enjoy watching Akshaye Khanna getting beaten up on screen (weird, but true).  Like with everything else he does – he’s very earnest in those scenes. There’s no attempt to make the scenes more dignified, he just earnestly goes through with them and for me there’s something very beautiful about that.

But the beatings aren’t the only highlight of the film 😉 It features one of the most wonderfully awkward first date scenes ever. They end up talking about the weather and have amazing lines like “Do you watch weather forecasts?”. The date is interrupted just as the hero decides he must show the heroine some grass seeds and is crawling on his hands and knees in front of her, trying to find some.
The second date doesn’t disappoint on wonderfully awkward lines either (Inder tries to find out how she feels about kissing).

I really appreciate the scene in which the hero asks her if she loves him back. A lot of the time in Bollywood the hero assumes that if he tries hard enough he will win the girl over, so he doesn’t necessarily ask or take a no answer seriously. Inder asks and there’s a sense that if Pallavi says no, he will walk away from the relationship, even though he’s completely stricken with her and has by this point already taken some nasty beatings from her brothers.

What really stunned me though is the second half of the film.  It has many of the problems that second halves of 90s Bollywood romances usually do. The first half tends to be there for them to fall in love and set up the drama that will make their love difficult. The second is when all the family drama comes together with lots of soap operaish melodrama and far-fetched scenarios.
Dola Saja Ke Rakhna is the first film I’ve seen that has all of that non-sensical second half drama happening and yet it didn’t bother me. If anything, I got a bigger emotional kick out of the second half than I did from the first.
SPOILER ALERT! (select the whitespace to view the text) In the middle of the second half, the lovers make a rather unusual decision. Having eloped together after some nasty happenings, they then change their minds and decide to give up on their love and return to their families. The scene in which they talk this over is really intense. By this point they’ve been completely shunned by both their families and both are heart-broken at the thought of having to remain away from their families for the rest of their lives. When the heroine asks the question “Should we separate?”  it’s an amazing moment. What’s even more amazing is that in some ways they separate out of love for each other – they don’t want to see the other partner so unhappy. And if the English subtitles are to be believed, they even use the word “possessive” to describe the love of their families when they try to make sense of why all of this is happening to them. For me it was a really beautiful scene and an amazing contrast of two kinds of loves – the possessive kind their families feel for them and the pure, non-possessive kind they feel for each other.
And then there’s the scene towards the end of the film that blew me away. The heroine is serving drinks to both her own and Inder’s families. Finally, just one glass remains on the tray – she has to take it to Inder and face him in front of everybody without being able to express any of the love they’ve given up on. It’s a very awkward moment. A lot of discomfort passes through the room. All the two of them do is look at each other, but it’s so so beautiful and so much emotion passes between them.
Eventually, the families do finally recognise their children’s love for what it is. It turns out that just as the two lovers didn’t want to make each other unhappy by separating from their families, their families don’t want to make the two of them unhappy either. It’s a very convoluted path to get to a happy ending! END SPOILER

Like with most 90s Bollywood films, the film has that air of a low budget and poor production quality. That said, it is actually better quality than the average film of that era. They certainly had some very good ideas for shots and cuts.
One of my personal favourites is the first beating Inder and his two sidekicks receive. It’s quite unusual to do a beating scene in one shot, but that’s how they play it out. The camera shoots the action on one particular bit of wall. One after the other, each of the three people receiving the beating get thrown at that wall and then hit with enough “force” to remove them from the frame. Each of them has their shirt in a different state of disarray when they appear in shot which IMO adds to the whole choreography of it somehow. It’s nicely done.

The music in this film is a bit of a disappointment. I have a soft spot for A.R. Rahman – he really does help movies come to life, even when he’s not at his best (as is the case in this film). Nonetheless, the soundtrack does have an air of having been quickly put together. The music in this film was, apparently, originally used by A.R. Rahman in a Tamil movie and simply reused here.

Finally, most of the acting is of really high standard in this film. Unfortunately, I think the writing isn’t of high enough standard to really show off the skills of the actors 😛 But if you look beyond the writing and Bollywood clichés then there are some interesting performances.
This was the first time for me to see Jyothika, which is hardly surprising considering this was the only Hindi film she ever made. These days she can be seen mainly in Tamil films, though she’s made appearances in other languages as well.
What I most loved about her on screen is that I totally understood why the hero might be so stricken with her. Although she has none of the glamour that I usually associate with leading ladies in Bollywood, there’s something so shy, soft and adorable about her that I really had no trouble believing the hero could fall in love at first sight.
Besides that, she put in a very subtle and nuanced performance – even the most melodramatic scenes have a lot of restraint.
I loved Akshaye Khanna in this as well. It’s a very early role of his, but you can see he was already a very conscious performer. When he’s at his best, he really adds in a lot of detail. In the beating scenes, for example, his sidekicks are just acting out being hit, whereas he’s also playing out what’s going through Inder’s head – stuff like wondering where the next punch is going to come from.
I’m happy to have seen another romance with Akshaye Khanna where the chemistry between him and the heroine really works. Maybe I’m just being fussy, but in most of the films I’ve seen, I’ve not liked his romantic chemistry much. Not only that, but this is the first time I’ve liked his chemistry with a leading lady that is very shy and delicate rather than strong and forceful. There’s really a lot of beautifully tender and awkward moments between them.
Anupam Kher shows off why he’s so well respected as an actor. There are some really tender father-son scenes between him and Akshaye Khanna. I particularly liked the melodramatic one when he sees Inder after a really bad beating. It’s a shame that Anupam Kher’s role really isn’t written that well – the father’s actions feel very inconsistent and good acting can only go so far to fix those problems.
Amrish Puri is in a completely non-villainous role for once (he is a fisherman, the father of one of Inder’s friends), which is really weird but interesting. One thing that comes across is how powerful his on-screen presence is. In some ways I appreciate that even more seeing him in a role like this.
Paresh Rawal is somebody who I’ve really warmed up to during my Akshaye Khanna retrospective (they star opposite each other a lot). He’s at his best when he gets to do a lot nuance, which he has quite a bit of in this film. As Pallavi’s oldest brother he juggles a deep love for his sister with a deep dislike of Inder and rage at his sister when she falls for Inder anyway. Again, the writing is the not the most graceful at handling some of the contradictory things he does, but IMO you can see Paresh Rawal’s class as an actor all the same.
The two mothers (Moushumi Chatterjee and Aruna Irani) of the hero and heroine also put in good performances, though they are both rather on the sidelines for most of the film.

Overall, this is probably not exactly a great film, but it happens to totally rub me the right way and it does have some interesting things about it. It flopped when it originally came out and many people seem to hate it, but there is a small group of people (that clearly includes me) who absolutely love it.

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Taal (India, 1999)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
I’m going with 2 out of 3, but you could try arguing 3 out of 3
Director: Subhash Ghai
Music: A.R. Rahman
Cast
: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Akshaye Khanna, Anil Kapoor, Amrish Puri, Alok NathSushma Seth
Plot: A love story between a rich London-born Indian and a girl from a small Indian village in the mountains.

About the film

Whenever I consider watching a Bollywood film from the 90s I’m always a bit wary, even more so when it’s a straight out romance like this one is. There’s always the worry that it’ll be too soppy, take itself too seriously or the conservative treatment of gender roles will annoy me too much. On top of that, there are the low budgets of that era, which really effect production quality.
Fortunately, Taal is a much better film than I anticipated. Then again it’s the first Bollywood film ever to break into the top 20 in the US box office, so perhaps I should not have set my expectations so low!

Taal has two things that left me in awe. Firstly, it’s just so beautiful. The mountain scenery is practically one of the characters in the movie and it is stunning. The cinematography is very beautiful. The dance sequences, though very traditional, are head and shoulders over what you see in most 90s movies. The music (both the songs and the background score) is amazing and it really gives the film a very special mood and style.
Secondly, what has stayed with me is how tender it is. There’s something so innocent and tender about the romance between Manav (Akshaye Khanna) and Mansi (Aishwarya Rai) that I found it easy to forgive the things that would have usually got on my nerve.

The plot is extremely basic and done hundreds of times before in Bollywood. Rich boy pursues poor girl, they fall in love, the father of the rich boy dissapproves and drama ensues. But there are a few minor differences to the standard script that made it easier to stomach for me.
Something that can be annoying (if not downright creepy) is the way the guys pursue village girls in many Bollywood films. Interaction between genders is very limitted in villages, so the rules of romance tend to be very weird in these kinds of romantic films. Generally, the guy starts stalking her after she shows very little or no interest in him. Manav starts off as the stalking kind also. He begins by sneaking up on Mansi and taking photos of her. But what’s different about this film is that Mansi’s father complains to Manav’s family and Manav is made to apologize for his behaviour – it’s kind of refreshing to not see it condoned!
Next up in the standard village romance storyline is that the couple suddenly falls very deeply in love even though they have had hardly any interaction and don’t know each other at all. In some films I’ve seen, the lady will have shown almost no interest in the guy until this point. Manav and Mansi’s interactions may be quite limited, but they actually have a few conversations and quite a lot of non-verbal interaction happens before they declare undying love and all that. In fact, for me, the way their romance builds up is the best part of the film.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where so much of the romance happens with relatively little dialogue and almost no touching. Coca cola becomes a reocurring (and adorable) theme at this stage in the story. Who’d have thought there can be so much teasing and erotic tension in drinking coke? The first coca-cola scene is really cute. The second one really builds on that and gives Mansi the upper hand in the teasing by the end. The credits even include a thank you to coca cola which I found amusing.
Like in many of these sorts of stories, Mansi does not initially make things easy on Manav. But, refreshingly, it’s clear that she is interested. In fact both of them treat the whole pursuing/getting pursued thing a bit like a game.
Eventually, all the teasing and pursuing has to culminate in something and of course it does. In most Bollywood films, it culminates in some sensual song. But Taal is again a little different and amazingly enough (considering how traditional it is) opts for a “kissing” scene instead. Naturally, the “kissing” is not quite on the lips, but I’m still surprised a film as innocent as this went as far as it did. The scene is really beautiful. Bollywood almost always makes a huge event out of a kissing scene, but this one is really quite something – so soft and tender.

One of the other things I found really adorable about Taal is that the relationship between Mansi and Manav is by no means the only tender one in the film. Both Mansi and Manav have very close relationships with their fathers (which of course makes the drama all the worse when the fathers are not happy with the idea of them getting married).
In fact, for me, one of the most beautiful scenes of the film is the one in which the relationship between Manav and his father (Amrish Puri) is first introduced. It’s actually amazing (and almost creepy) to see Amrish Puri do a scene that’s so loving and tender. I’ve only ever seen him as characters which are either evil or very strict and scary and he does them extremely well. So to see him do so much hugging and teasing in a father-son scene is just weird.
To anybody Western, like me, the scene will feel a bit foreign I think. There’s the whole young man respectfully touching the feet of his elders Indian thingie, but it’s done extremely sweetly and teasingly. He even reties his father’s shoe while he’s down on his knees and they jokingly call each other “Your Highness” and “Your Honour”. And on that note, Akshaye Khanna and Amrish Puri really have great chemistry together on screen.
Later on in the film, the two of them have another scene that left a huge impression on me. They finally sort some tense issues out between them, they laugh, hug and then cry (I love how the best Bollywood films seem to acknowledge that laughter and crying go together very naturally).

As much as there is a lot in Taal that I found adorable and I really loved it on the whole, there were some things that made me cringe.
In the second half of the film the romance is stopped short because of all the family drama and various misunderstandings. It is then that Mansi and her father meet Vikrant (Anil Kapoor) and Mansi is talked into trying to make a career as a pop star in Mumbai. Manav continues to pursue her and tries to convince her this whole path she’s choosing is wrong.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to agree with Manav – Mansi was clearly much happier living a quiet life, singing, dancing and doing yoga in the mountains. On the other, I did have a knee-jerk reaction to that – the moment a woman starts making a career, her would-be-lover tries to convince her that she’s happier not having one? argh…
The bit that really made me cringe though was the whole necklace theme. There’s a scene where Manav tells Mansi he doesn’t go to temples. He tells her different people see God in different things and says he believes a part of God is in him. That in itself I actually liked. But I cringed when he bought a necklace in the temple shop and gave it to Mansi, essentially saying that when she wears it she’ll be worshipping the God in him.
To be fair, it’s a somewhat two-way street. Manav happily wears a scarf on which Mansi has embroidered their names and declares to his family that the scarf means Mansi owns him. But there’s never any mention of the Goddess in Mansi or worshipping her (on the other hand there is also no mention of him “owning” Mansi, so make of that what you will).
Debating how much sexism there is or isn’t in this film is a tricky business I think. Certain gender norms are simply part of the social circles depicted in the film, to represent them differently would feel false, even if one doesn’t agree with them. And to complicate things, it’s also true that different women feel differently about the roles society puts them in – for some they are comfortable, for some not comfortable but acceptable and yet others find them very much against their nature. Is it sexist to show female characters that are comfortable in traditional gender roles? For me, personally, I think it’s important that films portray all kinds of women – both those who are happy in traditional roles and those who are career women, tomboyish or otherwise outside of the “norm”.
And on the whole, I don’t think this film does that badly on its representation of women. Mansi is actually a rather well-rounded character (she is, btw, definitely the lead of the film – Manav has less screen time in the second half of the film). While she’s an innocent village girl at heart, there’s a certain kind of independence and strength about her. She has her passions and interests. She loves singing and dancing (her father is a folk musician and she has a great relationship with him) and teaches yoga to a group of village girls (I really liked all the yoga scenes in the film!). She has two loyal friends too. In the romance, Mansi is definitely the more passive (i.e. pursued) character, but she certainly does tease Manav back. And Aishwarya Rai really gives a terrific performance – I think the best performance of the film (and this film generally has a lot of good performances!).
The film does fail the Bechdel test though. Pretty much all conversations between women are about men unless you count the one line of dialogue where one of Manav’s relations unpleasantly remarks that of course Mansi’s first friend in their house would be the dog.
Finally, something that I find quite interesting on the whole sexist/feminist front is that even the conservative Bollywood films from the 90s acknowledge that not just women, but men can also be eye candy and fun to sexualize. There’s a beautiful song in the second half of the film where for part of it they have Manav solo, in an unbuttoned shirt, dripping wet – all clearly done to titillate. It’s very sexy.
And it’s kind of weird for me that you can have a very gender-conservative film like this be perfectly happy sexualizing a man and yet a modern TV series like Firefly (which I recently reviewed) is not comfortable doing so, even though it has a lot more sexual content and is happy portraying women doing very macho professions. Weird, huh?

The second half of the film is, IMO, the weaker part. The whole pop star plot feels a lot more far-fetched and there are few very cheesy soap operish moments (of course Manav has to run into a burning building). I also didn’t particularly like Vikrant as a character (or Anil Kapoor’s performance for that matter) and he’s got more screen time than Manav in the second half.
Manav is also annoyingly confident that he will get the girl in the end, as long as he perseveres. He keeps telling everyone who tries to stop his involvement with Mansi that his love is so true that they will all personally bring Mansi to him eventually (he says this to his father and even to Vikrant, Mansi’s would-be husband). His confident talk annoyed me so much that I actually found the one scene when his confidence is finally broken extremely satisfying. That said, it is a rather beautiful scene in and of itself. There’s no dialogue that directly suggests he’s lost hope, it’s more the manner in which he behaves, how he clings to his dog – he really looks defeated.

Overall though, it’s a really beautiful (if rather old-fashioned) movie with an amazing sense of the language of film. It’s unusual to see a film (Bollywood or otherwise) that does so much “showing” in place of “telling” and where the scenes have so much going on in the background.
It’s quite a challenging film for the cast as well because of how much happens in between the lines or without any dialogue at all, but they all do extremely well.
For anybody who likes romance this would be a good one to watch. For those not inclined that way, it’s probably a film to approach with caution although if this sounds interesting then you might want to give it a go.

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Firefly /TV series/ (USA, 2002)

My rating: -1 (Disliked it)
Bechdel Test: 
2 out of 3 for some episodes, 3 of 3 (but barely) for others. Detailed Bechdel test breakdown for Firefly
Creator: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Plot: Hundreds of years in the future, a crew of a small spaceship earns their living doing all kinds of (usually illegal) ventures.

About the series

Disclaimer: I’ve watched 5 episodes out of 14 (first 4 + “War Stories”). So my criticisms may or may not apply to the rest of the series.

I watched a few episodes of Firefly because my colleagues highly recommended it and it was a mistake! I suspected my film tastes were quite different to those of the majority of people at work and now I am sure 😉

The idea of Firefly in and of itself, as far as I’m concerned, is revolting. It’s basically a western, but set in space. With a premise like that, it is of course horribly macho, in a way I find difficult to stomach. I’m not sure why certain types of machoismo turn me off quite so strongly, but they just do :]
That said, what probably affects my enjoyment of this series the most is how underdeveloped the characters are. I need characters that draw me in to be able to enjoy any sort of fiction and Firefly is an epic fail in this. I just couldn’t get into any of them.
Part of my issues with the characters might just be that there’s a very macho feel to most of them (even some of the ladies), which is not normally my thing. But I also think there’s some bad writing going on here. There’s a basic rule in storytelling and that’s to give all of the characters their own story goals, which Firefly just doesn’t follow.
Here’s a breakdown:

  • Mal: The captain of Serenity (the ship). Being the central character, he’s actually got a bit more depth than most other characters in the series – he has a story goal and even a proper dramatic arch. As a soldier he fought a war against the Alliance which was eventually lost and he wants to get back at them – that’s his story goal. This sometimes motivates him to make very risky decisions.
    There are other things about Mal’s characterization that annoy me. It feels like they try to make him out to be all mysterious and deep, when I find him rather simple-minded actually. He’s the honest crook type of character who is out for personal revenge on the baddies. A pretty common type of character IMO, especially in American action moves.
    And also he makes sexist jabs at the girls sometimes, which annoys me… Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly ok to have sexist characters in a story, but I rarely find them likeable, which I think the creators want him to be.
  • Zoe: Zoe served with Mal in the army and fought with him against the Alliance. She’s his most loyal and reliable crew member.
    Zoe is the character that annoys me the most. She has no real story arch or goal of her own. So far, in the episodes I’ve seen, her motivation seems to be loyalty to Mal and love for her husband.
    Her lack of any story goals of her own is particularly frustrating because she’s portrayed as such a strong woman. She is brave, smart and strong. She also constantly goes around wearing tight clothes that show off the shape of her perfect body and heavy, sexy make up to complement that. And if perfect soldier and super attractive lady wasn’t enough, she’s also the perfect, domestic wife – the “War Stories” episode even shows her serving breakfast to her husband in almost 1950s style.
    All that and yet her whole being in the series is just to support the male characters’ storylines. Even when she’s in situations when she must take matters into her own hands, she seems to do it because that’s what Mal or her husband would have wanted. What’s even more frustrating – she’s the first character every one mentions to “prove” the series is feminist. Well, to me feminism isn’t about showing that women are smart and strong, it’s about showing women who are complete human beings with their own goals and even *gasp* flaws. Whether they are super strong or very vulnerable is beside the point.
  • Hoban: Zoe’s husband. Any series as macho as this has to have a counterbalance. That’s what Hoban is. He’s a guy who would like to be macho, but it’s not within his nature. His insecurities are often the but of the jokes in Firefly.
    His story goal? I’m afraid I can’t identify one.
  • Inara: The premise behind Inara’s character is actually quite interesting. She is a “companion”. In the reality of the series, “companions” are essentially high-class prostitutes. They are highly educated, cultured, officially registered and very well-respected in society. They choose their clients and therefore (at least in theory) never have sex with somebody they don’t want to.
    Does Inara have her own story arch? You guessed it, nope. To be fair, she might do in episodes I haven’t seen. There’s definitely some kind of unrevealed back story between Mal and Inara that has been implied. This might be what’s motivating her. But then this would be another case where a female character’s motivation lies solely with a male character.
    As you might expect, she’s also sexualized a lot. Understandable, considering her profession, but the way it’s done still annoys me (I’ll get back to that later).
  • Jayne: Jayne is as stereotypical as you can get. He’s the macho macho guy, the kind who is unreliable and only thinks of himself, but is still useful on the ship because he’s good at beating people up.
    His own story arch? Nope.
  • Kaylee: Kaylee is actually the only character in Firefly that I found endearing. I’ve since seen Jewel Staite (the actress) in Stargate Atlantis and I adore her as Dr Keller. So perhaps it is down to Jewel? That said Dr Keller is a hell of a lot more developed as a character than Kaylee is (we actually have Dr Keller’s story arch/goals spelt out fairly clearly in the first episode of Stargate Atlantis that she appears in).
    The premise behind Kaylee isn’t that bad. Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. So on the one hand she’s in charge of stuff that’s usually a man’s job and is somewhat tomboyish, but she’s also very girlish in some of how she behaves and what she likes. Naturally, the girlish part of her (her crushes, her admiration of dresses with ruffles and probably other things in later episodes) gets ridicule from Mal and Jayne. And this annoys me too! I don’t like when “girlishness” gets ridiculed. I see it too much in day to day life. And it’s damn annoying that the only of the main female characters that doesn’t get ridiculed for anything is Zoe, who is the perfect sexy woman who serves two men without a word of protest or defiance ever.
    Kaylee naturally does not have a story arch or story goals of her own either.
  • Simon: Simon is a doctor. He has rescued his sister from the Alliance and is in hiding. He’s not a very developed character, but he’s the only character other than Mal who has a strong story goal (to keep his sister safe from the Alliance at all costs), which counts for something.
  • River: River is Simon’s sister. Whatever experiments the Alliance did on her have made her crazy. She does not have a strong story arch/story goal, although I’m inclined to forgive that as it’s harder to give someone who is not of sane mind a good motivation for what they’re doing. What I’m less inclined to forgive is that River is more of a condition than a character. Better films than Firefly have done this – made a character to be about the mental condition they’re suffering rather than about personality (for example – just because somebody is autistic doesn’t mean autism is their whole personality), so perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.
    What was more shocking to me about River is that she gets sexualized! In episode 1 she appears naked for a relatively silly reason. I get that Inara will get skin show, I can even get that Zoe needs to have sex scenes with her husband to show how good they are with each other, but why on Earth does River need to be naked because freezing her is supposedly the best way to transport her and apparently she needs to be naked for it?
  • Shepherd: A preacher. Little is known about his personality and his motivation is very, very general (spreading religion, doing good?). He seems to be the token man of colour, just so there is one on the show. And the snarky part of me wonders if it’s an accident that the one non-white male character happens to be old and completely asexual. In reality I doubt that was done on purpose, but it’s not nice.

It’s no coincidence that many episodes do not pass the Bechdel test and those that do, do it feebly – you need to have female characters with goals of their own for them to have something to talk about with each other.
What’s particularly frustrating is that this series seems to have an aim of being feminist and racially diverse. For the kind of show it is, four is a lot of major female characters. Usually we don’t get that many on shows with a lot of fighting and action. In a politically correct sort of way it also makes sure that one of the female and one of the male characters are not Caucasian.

Apart from how the characters are constructed, what bothers me about Firefly is the way it sexualizes women. It hits a particular nerve in me. Don’t get me wrong – I like films and TV series’ with a lot of sex and I don’t mind female characters getting a bit sexualized, but there needs to be some counterbalance for me to not get grumpy about it.
For one thing, when I see a sexualized female character, it’s particularly important to me that the character is well written – she needs to have a personality, a back story, an arch, story goals and all of those kinds of things they teach in writing classes. Without all those things she becomes more about being sexy and pretty than about anything else and I don’t like that.
But just as importantly, if a film or series is catering to the sexual tastes of straight men, I want them to cater to the tastes of straight women too! In Firefly, women are sexualized a lot (especially Zoe and Inara), but men are not. Even though the principal cast of men has four young and handsome guys, there is little effort to titillate the audience with them. Particularly disappointing as the premise actually gives a lot of scope for that – the show is clearly styled to be a bit like a western, so there honestly is room to dress the guys up in sexy attire and put some effort into this.
Another of my pet peeves is about how movies and TV tend to portray sex – why does it always have to be from such a strongly male viewpoint? The episode that particularly got on my nerve was “War Stories”. In that one Inara takes on a female client – she explains that she does this because sex with a woman is more satisfying for her. So what kind of scene do we get? The two women are in full and very heavy make up and it looks like a TV-censored version of fake lesbian porn for men. Honestly, does female sexuality really have to be shown like this? I get it, they want to titillate, but would it really be so bad to show something that looks a bit more like what two women might actually do when they want to have fun? That could still be titillating.

Some say that the macho thing in this series is actually made fun of, but I don’t see that. To me it seems the joke is in it being impossible to live up to the macho ideal (hence, Hoban, the least macho of the guys, is the but of the jokes). There is no effort to undermine the macho ideal itself, that is still portrayed as cool and worthy of trying to live up to.
It seems to me that this series ridicules pretty much every feminine trait (whether it’s in a male or female character) with the exception of being sexually desirable (Inara gets unpleasant comments from Mal for sleeping with many men, but her being sexually desirable is respected). On the other hand, it shows pretty much all masculine traits as either positive or neutral regardless of whether these traits appear in a man or a woman. Since Zoe has many masculine (macho) traits and is sexually desirable, she is pretty much never ridiculed for anything.

In short, I hated this series! I realize it has a bit of a cult status and clearly I’m in the minority here, but for me, I’d need a very different treatment of machoismo, vulnerability and female characters to be able to stomach it.

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