I caught Happy Bhaag Jayegi earlier this week (heh). It was full of the requisite hammy performances and stereotypical Punjabi loudness. But something stood out for me – an easter egg called feminism hidden inside what looks like a typical Bollywood film.
Happy is a high-spirited Amritsari girl with equal measures of determination and naivete. She is part Geet from Jab We Met, part Pooja from Dil Hain Ki Manta Nahin. She has a (rather nondescript) unemployed, dimwitted boyfriend who can’t summon up the energy to take their relationship further. So Happy proceeds to get engaged to a local contractor, Bagga. An elopment plan is made (masterminded no doubt by Happy since the boyfriend is so somnolent) which goes wrong and Happy finds herself over the border, alone, in full wedding regalia.
At the surface of it, it’s a loud, raucuous comedy making light of the Indian stereotypes of a bullying father, an overpowerful fiance and a hapless lover with the damsel in distress at the center of it. But Happy isn’t a helpless waif and neither is she a victim of her circumstances. Compared to her, all the men come across as silly, weak and clueless. She doesn’t appear bogged down when she’s being bethrothed to one man, even while her lover mourns at the gates of the party. She’s not defeated when she finds herself in Pakistan, minus passport, money, contacts or even a mobilephone. She isn’t even abashed when she’s arrested by the Pakistani police.
Yes, a lot of these could just come from arrogant naivete. And her situations are saved from becoming tragic by the presence of good (though weak/clueless) men. But that is the reality of life and feminism. A strong woman is not a superwoman who doesn’t need anyone else. And men are not all villains in the fight against patriarchy and repressive gender roles.
I first noticed it in Abhay Deol’s character but I thought it might just be nuance added by this (admittedly intelligent) actor alone. But there’s a recurring pattern in all the male characters. None of them are supervillains and all of them (in varying degrees) treat Happy as a human being, not an object.
Happy’s father cuts a sorry sight as he stumbles through Lahore streets, begging passers-by to tell him about his lost daughter. The overbearing patriarch has come a long way and he’s just a father devasted by the loss of his child. He is the only man to cling to an outdated sense of gender roles and he is suitably chastised by circumstance.
Bagga, the would-be fiance, is a local thug. Possibly due to the comedic nature of the movie, his response to Happy running away doesn’t become violent. He stays focussed on wanting to marry Happy. He even manages to turn potential humiliation into a sympathy vote for himself. No victims there either (I think he’d have made a good spouse for Happy) and he does it without slandering or punishing Happy. His chest-thumping machismo is cuckolded by intelligence and there is a sense of his having grown and moved on because of it.
The puppy-faced boyfriend gets to Pakistan, with a lot of help from everyone else. Yet, the night before the wedding, he is able to rouse himself out of his stupor to think beyond himself. He summons up the courage to ask Happy’s benefactor if he is not in love with her too. What a contrast from the usual depiction of the Indian lover as an entitled, jealous stalker!
Bilal, the benefactor, is mostly a privileged Pakistani counterpart of the boyfriend, ineffectual due to parental pressure (what’s Guddu’s excuse?). But he acknowledges that Happy’s influence makes him bestir himself and take action. I loved the complexity in his relationship with his own fiance. His fiance Zoya is truly his partner in crime through the film, rather than a helpless all-sacrificing woman. Bilal doesn’t turn into superman overnight but he fumbles, he yearns, he broods and he reaches a decision about his own life. And of women, he says,
“Madhubala to Dilip Kumar ko bhi nahin mili thi. Par yeh zaroori nahin ki Madhubala ko kitne chahate they. Yeh zaroori hain ki Madhubala kisko chahati thi.”
I haven’t seen a Bollywood love story in a long time, that acknowledges a woman’s consent. Bilal’s statement makes this a story about what the girl wants and her right to have it, rather than making her a trophy to be won by the best man. This makes me very happy and I’m quite willing to forgive the flaws in the movie for this one dialogue alone. Maybe the world is changing, even if not as quickly as I’d like it to.
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