This summer, we’ve seen the releases of several blockbusters from Bollywood, and Lollywood and we all know that messages delivered by these film industries travel far beyond the walls of movie theatres, and many of them tend to spotlight societal issues. The way they treat these issues, however, is incredibly different. Some of the most recent big-name films produced by Pakistan and India follow plot lines that are wildly different in their portrayal of women.
Babylicious was released on June 27, a Pakistani romantic comedy directed by Essa Khan. This star-studded film was overly hyped due to the stars of them film, Shahroz Sabzwari and Syra Yousuf, and their offscreen relationship, or lack thereof. How and why the divorced couple managed to set aside their differences to act with, appear in interviews together, and create other promotional content for a film like this is beyond understanding.
Hindi cinema delivered Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani (RRKPK) — directed by Karan Johar — on July 28 with two of their most successful stars as the leads, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt. While this film is categorised under the genre of “Drama/Family”, like most Dharma Productions, it is essentially a romantic comedy.
Since most Lollywood movies are meant to be family-friendly and eschew inappropriate or lewd remarks, you would think that Khan’s film, which was released around Eid, would also be suitable to watch for all ages. At the cinema, many children were accompanied by their older relatives to watch this new release, and I’ve got to believe that every viewer, like myself, felt second-hand embarrassment watching from the kids’ eyes.
Before diving into the plot line, it should be known that this was not a matter of wanting a conservative movie, it was a matter of feeling ashamed at the twisted storyline and the obscene mindset with which the script was written. Each laugh heard at the crude jokes sounded like an alarm blaring that this kind of talk and sexist humour is normalised in our country.
The film begins with a “hopeless romantic” named Omar, who desperately wants his ex-girlfriend Sabiha, whom he inexplicably refers to as “Babylicious” back. While her family arranges for her marriage with another man, named Nabeel, Omar believes she will fight for their love. However, after he sends a mutual friend to change her mind, the plan backfires as Sabiha says that marrying Nabeel would be more practical. At one point, their friend says, “Omar calls you Babylicious, he buys you Subway cookies, he does your homework”, and she replies with, “can Omar drive me around in a BMW? Can he take me shopping in Dubai? Can he buy me a house in Canada?”
After this scene, which portrays Sabiha as a materialistic woman who finds more meaning in goods than love, Omar seeks comfort from his sleazy friends, who take him to see a prostitute. I’ll never forget the insurmountable cringe I felt when I overheard a child in the cinema ask “Mama, what’s happening right now?” This was the part when the boys met the prostitute who was shown to be filthy and itchy, and all of them felt scared to touch her. Another scene, towards the end, reveals Nabeel to the viewers, who shows up in his foreign car to a party, and Sabiha can be seen running towards him.
One of the more disturbing parts of this film was the discrimination. In a scene where Omar is crying at a bar, he meets a seemingly white-washed girl who cannot speak Urdu properly. She tells him of her boyfriend who went to jail when she was in college. When Omar curiously asks, “jail?”, she swiftly responds, “it was only because he was black”. Afterward, another guy beside them uses a racial slur in Urdu to refer to the boyfriend.
Johar’s film, on the other hand, follows the lives of Rocky Randhawa, the heir to a successful sweets business, and Rani Chatterjee, a famous news anchor. While Rocky is from a Punjabi family and is lighthearted, funny, and romantic, Rani has a more English-influenced upbringing and is more guarded, feminist, and headstrong. Despite their differences, the two fall in love, but they need to make their families accept each other before they can get married. This leads to the two switching places at each other’s houses so each can connect with the other’s family.
While at the Randhawa household, Rani teaches the women of the family to cease their subservience and chase after their dreams. She helps them regain their respect when she observes how Rocky’s mother, Punam Randhawa, is treated like a staff member rather than a wife and how Rocky’s sister, Gayatri, is constantly fat-shamed and introduced to several rishtas who ridicule her. Rani realises that both mother and daughter have talents they are suppressing and encourages them to pursue those aspirations.
At the Chatterjee’s home, Rocky is initially shamed for not being as intellectual and artistic as Rani’s family. He follows desi myths such as “drinking tea makes one darker” and is rebuked for his racist beliefs, despite not having any exposure in his upbringing to make him aware it was wrong. His macho exterior prevents him from feeling comfortable in what he believes are “feminine” activities, such as dancing, even though he is great at it. After witnessing a Kathak performance by Rani’s father, Chandon Chatterjee, for which he is mocked, Rocky begins to understand the importance of embracing oneself.
He corrects his own way of thinking and delivers an emotionally powerful speech on how people should learn from one another rather than being quick to cancel and shun each other for their mistakes. In another jaw-dropping scene, Rocky and Mr Chatterjee both perform Kathak at the Durga Puja celebration with the Randhawa family in the audience, showcasing his talent instead of avoiding the “feminine” label society slapped on it.
When compared to Babylicious and its prehistoric ideas regarding women and society, RRKPK is a breath of fresh air. Many people may argue that Johar too has released several films in the past that come across as sexist, and the female characters in these Dharma Productions films are portrayed to be subservient to the men around them. This argument is valid, but what matters more is the message the director is trying to deliver today through his films; he is making an effort to teach important lessons to create a more tolerant world.
RRKPK viewers got to see the blending of families without having to witness the compromises and sacrifices of women’s desires yet again. Babylicious on the other hand is a step in the wrong direction — it only feeds into toxic masculinity and inappropriate behaviour, even if it is a “comedy”. While some may believe Hindi films are inappropriate due to their kissing scenes and so on, I would argue that in this case, Babylicious and its unfair portrayal of women, vulgar dialogue, and discriminatory nature is more inappropriate than RRKPK with its message of love, learning, and acceptance.