By Bhargavi Vadeyar, as part of the Dirty Picture Project
Dil Dhadakne Do is the story of the Mehras, a dysfunctional, Delhi high society Punjabi family, the kind where the women talk in overly sugary tones and the men run businesses and play golf. The line-up includes the narcissistic father, Kamal (Anil Kapoor); the socialite/housewife mother, Neelam (Shefali Shah); the prodigal son and heir, Kabir (Ranveer Singh); and the quietly extraordinary daughter, Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra).
The cast is rounded out by Ayesha’s sexist and controlling husband, Manav (Rahul Bose); Farah (Anushka Sharma), Kabir’s love interest and a dancer on the ship, and Sunny (Farhan Akhtar), Ayesha’s one-time best friend and love interest. Last, but certainly not least, Aamir Khan voices the Mehras’ dog, Pluto, who narrates the film and comments on the hypocrisy of Indian families.
The movie’s premise is the Mediterranean cruise to celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary of Kamal and Neelam Mehra. Shenanigans predictably follow as many of the Mehras’ family and friends are forced together for a two-week period.
The movie just about passes the Bechdel Test with a fleeting conversation between Ayesha and her cousins Divya and Putlu about what Divya wants to do with her life, now that she has graduated from college.
This is one of those cases, however, where the Bechdel Test doesn’t paint a true picture. The movie is filled to bursting with subversive one-liners and feminist characters that are completely out of the ordinary for a mainstream Bollywood film. It would be very difficult to talk about every insight the movie provided into the gender roles of the Indian upper class family, so I’ve chosen to focus only on the key elements.
Ayesha, the Superwoman
Ayesha is far and away the most interesting of the Mehras. For a Bollywood heroine, her clothing is not overly sexualised, and she is a well-developed female character. Ayesha is a successful businesswoman who sold her jewellery to start a travel company that landed her in the Forbes top 10 entrepreneurs list (just roll with it, this is Bollywood). However, she has to endure a controlling husband who “allows” her to run her business, along with barbs from her mother-in-law about talking business at the dinner table and never being at home.
She is a self-made businesswoman, but everyone around her just wants her to have a baby, including her husband and her parents. When told about her appearance in Forbes, her father only replies that next year his son’s name will be featured, and later announces in front of the entire gathering that his only wish is for her to give him a grandson (but not a granddaughter, of course). The gender bias is clear: her father, also a self-made businessman, shouts his achievements from the rooftops but is unwilling to acknowledge his daughter’s.
Ayesha, though, is secretly taking the monthly birth control pill. She is deeply unhappy in her marriage and already contemplating a divorce when the return of Sunny finally galvanises her into action. It becomes clear that Sunny and Ayesha were in love before her parents separated them.
The only flaw in the otherwise excellently written Ayesha is that she is unwilling to ruffle her parents’ feathers, often at the cost of her own happiness. She also seems to need Sunny’s appreciation of her achievements in order to be able to value herself enough to finally ask Manav for a divorce. This is slightly irking, but I’ll let it slide because Ayesha’s overall story ark is the best thing about this movie.
Sunny, the “Journalist-Activist Type”
Sunny is possibly the first openly feminist male character in Bollywood, and the film somewhat puts him on a pedestal for it. One of the best moments of the film is a conversation between Sunny and Manav, where Manav lets it slip that he “allows” Ayesha to run her business. Sunny immediately picks up on this and tells him that by allowing her to run her business, he is assuming a position of authority and control, and that this is not equality. This proves his point, he says, that women have not yet achieved equality. The movie portrays Sunny as admirable and intelligent for his feminist views, and Manav as controlling and unwittingly sexist.
Talaq, Talaq, Talaq
Once Ayesha admits she wants a divorce, both families sit together in order to work out what has gone wrong. The movie really highlights that everyone is against Ayesha here; she sits alone, facing her parents, Manav and her mother-in-law. They all treat Ayesha’s divorce as a something hurtful to them, echoed by Neelam asking Ayesha why she is doing this to them.
Both Neelam and Ayesha’s mother-in-law can’t seem to understand that she wants a divorce because she doesn’t love her husband. They both believe that as long a husband can provide a good standard of living and is not violent, there should be no problem, something that the film is quick to make fun of. This is especially ridiculous because, again, nobody seems to notice or care that Ayesha is financially independent.
Here the film also draws a stark contrast between the generations. Ayesha, who is financially independent, can divorce her husband. Neelam, on the other hand, has been forced to pretend that she is unaware of Kamal’s affairs for years because she has nowhere else to go.
Of Sons and Daughters
The movie also highlights the differences between the treatment meted out to sons and daughters. Once Ayesha is married, her birth family effectively disowns her to the point where her name is not mentioned on the cruise invitation cards, even though she planned the whole trip. Kamal also repeatedly insists that her home is now with her husband’s family.
Kabir, on the other hand, is being pressurised into succeeding his father as CEO of their flailing company, Ayka. This is despite the fact that it is clear he has very little interest or aptitude for business, while Ayesha runs her own business successfully. After Kabir refuses to run the company, Neelam asks what they will do with the company if he doesn’t run it. They don’t even consider the possibility of Ayesha being her father’s heir until Kabir points it out to them.
The Pilot and the Dancer
Kabir is the youngest member of the Mehra family. Overall, his character is also rather feminist, as he is unwavering in his support of his sister and is one of the few who acknowledge her success. Kabir falls in love with Farah Ali, who appears to be a very strong character until you scratch the surface. She is a dancer on the ship who ran away from home because all her parents wanted for her was to become someone’s housewife. Her story and her advice inspire Kabir to follow his heart and refuse to give in to his parents’ pressurising about his career.
Farah’s character is the where the film trips up slightly; it isn’t very well developed, which definitely puts her on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl scale. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character that enters the (always male) hero’s life to change it for the better without ever changing herself, a role that Farah fulfils here. However, every character who is not a Mehra is similarly underdeveloped, so this film doesn’t seem to make a gender-based distinction on that front.
Dil Dhadakne Do’s feminism is probably down to the fact that the two screenplay writers are both female: Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. The film is certainly a step forward for Bollywood, and I can personally assure you that the film’s social commentary even improves on repeat viewings, a rare feat for any Bollywood movie. Dil Dhadkane Do is definitely worth a watch, for its rare nod to feminism and for the catchy songs that I’m sure I will be humming for several days.
For more information on the Dirty Picture Project, contact Aarti at firstname.lastname@example.org