AIB has recently uploaded a new video and I’m not entirely happy with it.
On the one hand, AIB has punched Bollywood right in its face and criticised its persistent insistence of showing sexual harassment under the guise of love. On the other hand, they show this by usurping what is essentially a woman’s narrative.
The video, Harassment through the Ages, critically looks at how Bollywood has confused the minds of hormone-filled young men across the country and nicely contributed to the pop culture of sexual harassment. The makers have roped in actors Vicky Kaushal and Richa Chadha to play typical male and female protagonists – the hero and the heroine – in Hindi cinema, through the ages.
From the 60s through the 90s up until the 2010s, Bollywood has depicted what can only be molestation and sexual harassment masquerading variously as love, swag, and comedy. I cannot laud the video enough for bringing to public debate and in popular culture (for AIB, due to their immense popularity, have become part of urban Indian pop culture), concepts such as consent and the systems and processes of normalising sexual assault through techniques such as comedy in films.
The video reaches its crescendo when during the song from Josh ‘yeh uska style hoinga, hoton pe na dil mein…“. Everyone holds their breath, hoping Kaushal’s character gets the concept of no means no right.
I also appreciate the narrative arch the video takes overall, where Chadha, as the parody-heroine and the heroine of the musical video itself, has been clearly rejecting the man pursuing her with a thousand resounding nos. At one point, the heroine is shown to finally relent – she gives in to the advances of the hero and professes love. This sharply mocks the trope of the harassed woman finally giving in to the (sexual) advances of the hero, and it is done in a manner that reveals how ridiculous this is. In the portrayal of the heroine’s giving in lies the triumph of sexism and sexual assault, both of which is deftly emphasised.
Mallika Dua plays a major role in the video’s narrative. Dua, plays a character similar to the trope of the loyal, sassy, and less attractive friend of the female protagonist. But it is the only female voice in the video. While Kaushal and Chadha scamper about, parodying Bollywood heroes and heroines, it is Dua’s character who interjects with rational, logical statements. She in turns points out how a given Bollywood trope and what it implies is ridiculous, and resists Kaushal’s advances for Chadha.
Curiously, Chadha gets no line in the video all throughout.
Most of the time, it is women who are subject to sexual harassment. By denying Chadha’s character a line of protest, the makers have denied her agency. She is the one twice victimised, once by Bollywood itself, and then this video, where she finishes as victim. Sure, you may argue that Dua speaks for Chadha. But that’s just the thing. Chadha does not speak for herself, someone else speaks in her place. She is there, something of a prop, only to show how screwed up Bollywood is in terms of gender sensitivity, consent, and assault. Not to claim agency and empowerment.
It is rare for a musical comedy to succeed at critiquing the cringe-worthy, criminal antics of male protagonists in Hindi cinema masquerading as charm and love. But this video does this at the cost of continuing the narrative of women’s victimisation and denying her agency. And it is a high cost.
The video may not be nuanced, nor could it be strictly called feminist. But it does deliver a strong message. Is the video, then, unproblematic entirely? Not at all. Will it succeed in making people aware of what they have been fed in the name of entertainment, for most of their lives now? Absolutely.