Feminist Bollywood: Dhoom 3

I’ve been thinking about action movie Dhoom 3 since I saw it in the theater on December 24. Strangely, I didn’t think it was as “good” as Ram-Leela or Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (though those are all very different types of movies), but I’ve been thinking about it much more.

The movie poster for Dhoom 3
Uday Chopra, Abishcek Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif in Dhoom 3. From Wikipedia.

The Dhoom series, available on DVD from Netflix and for rent on YouTube (Dhoom 2 here) is Bollywood’s take on The Fast and The Furious, and I highly recommend them. They are fun and goofy and have good songs and lots of explosions. Dhoom 3 was the highest grossing Bollywood movie of 2013, and also had the highest international gross. It was so highly anticipated that the big Regal Cinema just ten minutes away showed it (I normally have to go to a small indie/second-run theater in a city 30 minutes away to get my Bollywood fix).

Dhoom 3 is not particularly feminist. I mean, it’s not anti-female at least. But it doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel test (1. At least two [named] female characters 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something other than men).

Of the three, Dhoom 2 is my least favorite, but at least the women are there. Officer Jai Dixit (Abhishek Bachchan)’s wife is the butt of jokes, but she’s on screen; she’s not even mentioned in Dhoom 3. Bipasha Basu does double duty as twins Sonali and Monali, one stern, one fun-loving. Sunehri (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), a thief who is double or triple crossing everyone, is vital to the plot. Dhoom 1 just only had Sweety Dixit (Rimi Sen) and Sheena (Esha Deol), but Sheena was also important to the plot.

Dhoom 3 is back to having only two women, but neither is that important to the plot. Many might disagree with me; Aaliya (Katrina Kaif) is the love interest, after all. The trailers suggested she, too, would be a partner in crime like Sunehri and Sheena before her. But really, her role is only as love interest; she provides a motive for a male character, but that’s it. And Victoria (Tabrett Bethell) almost falls into the sexy lamp category; she shows up as a steely investigator, but after that is only seen sitting around tables, listening to the men’s plans.

And even though Aaliyah and Victoria appear in a scene together, they don’t speak. Unfortunately, the audience can assume that when they spoke off-screen, it was about a man.

But Dhoom 3 does have a lot of interesting things to say about class (especially in the context of the US/other countries, as opposed to class within a single society. Maybe there’s a better word for that?), ability, and. . .some really interesting silence on race.

The movie has plot holes galore, and again, not a lot for the ladies to do, but it’s really quite moving, and the action is terrific.

Beware, spoilers below!

1. Class (or the U.S. versus other countries)

Anytime you have someone fighting banks, I’m on the other guy’s side. And I think the movie purposefully sets up the bank as the real bad guy (Jai asks for a list of everyone whose lives the bank has ruined, and I was rolling in my seat).

Some movie critics have pointed out that the bank was just doing its job, but I think we’ve seen in the last few years that that’s not a particularly compelling argument.

The story is a small one, the bank versus circus owner Iqbal Haroon Khan (Jackie Shroff), but I think symbolically it’s meant to show the US screwing over other countries. I can get behind that, too.

You can just focus on the small story if you want, but I like that you can view it more symbolically, too. We need more art that criticizes the US and I like that a big action movie is taking on the role.

I also liked that we saw Aaliyah working a variety of low-paying jobs. I mean, I didn’t like it, but that’s pretty realistic. She’s not a model or a master thief, she’s a caterer and sells cotton candy. Like Hollywood movies, the heroine usually works some kind of cool, quirky job. Here, Aaliyah looks like every other struggling twenty-something.

2. Race

But race was really weird in Dhoom 3.

I like Chicago. I always thought I’d wind up there; I’ve spent about half my life living just a few hours away from Chicago. I had no idea the movie was set there and so was delighted to see the city on screen.

(I want to know where the end was filmed, though. Switzerland? Because there are no snow capped peaks anywhere near Chicago. Not that you could drive to in just a few hours.)

Anyway. The Chicago police are not known for their. . .delicacy. There were a few parts in the movie where it was like, no, if the Chicago police suspected a person of color had a bomb or whatever, they would shoot to kill. They would not back away or call for back up. Sahir and Samar (both played by Aamir Khan) definitely should have been dead several times over. That was the least realistic part to me.

But I wouldn’t expect an Indian film writer/maker to necessarily know that or want to include that in his movie. This isn’t a drama that seeks to explore race and racism in America. The rich white bankers aren’t too keen to listen to Jai Dixit even when they bring him in (because the bank robber is leaving messages in Hindi and Jai is India’s top police officer), but it’s not entirely clear if that is because Jai is Indian, a cop, not rich, not a banker, etc. We can guess, though. It’s because he’s not a rich white man. And certainly Sahir, Samar, and their father take pride in being Indian; they are part of the Great Indian Circus, not the Great Chicago Circus. Except for one other part, the issues of citizenship and race don’t really come up.

At Aaliyah’s audition, she says the ad is looking for “an Asian goddess who sings and dances like liquid electricity.” That the Great Indian Circus is looking for an Indian woman to co-star isn’t a surprise, though. The subtitle said “Asian,” which I found curious, since that word in American usage often means China, Japan, or Korea, not India. I didn’t catch the actual Hindi, though, so it’s possible the actual line used a different adjective. Since I’m not Asian myself, I don’t want to get in over my head. I just thought the connotations and denotations of the word were rather interesting.

I found the lack of racial discussion oddly hopeful, honestly. Like maybe we Americans can get to a point where race doesn’t matter, where wealthy white Chicagoans would call in the Indian police for help.

3. Ability

Samar has a “movie mental disability.” It’s basically autism, but not exactly. It’s whatever the movie needs. It made me think of the Bollywood movie Heroine; Mahi has bipolar disorder, but it was “movie bipolar” that just meant “crazy mess,” not real bipolar.

(I am bipolar. My brother has Asperger’s. I’m not an expert, but I have some experience.)

But anyway, lots of movies and TV shows play mental illness as some plot device. That’s nothing new.

So when we were first introduced to Samar, I was majorly rolling my eyes. However, I found his story really moving, in large part thanks to Aamir Khan’s performance.

I like that the movie followed his story, too, and showed him trying to find his own identity, and that there was more to him than just “Autistic.” The story becomes larger since it’s not just about a man trying to avenge his father; it’s also about a brother trying to step out of the family shadow and how the traumas of childhood follow us into adulthood.

I was really hoping Samar would ride off with Aaliyah in the end.

In the case of Heroine, I was honestly glad just to see a mention of bipolar, even if the details were wrong. I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I do appreciate that Samar was a real character with clear desires and an arc, even if the details were (probably) wrong.

I haven’t seen Barfi, and I accidentally was spoiled for the ending, so I probably never will. I think Bollywood is doing better than Hollywood for characters with mental disabilities.

4. Sex/Gender/Feminism

Victoria was so cool and then she disappeared. Aaliyah was so cool and then she disappeared. Why? Why movie?

At the end, Aaliyah inherits the circus and takes center stage. But the rest of the time, she was just Female Love Interest. She’s pretty and quirky and…………?

I think Katrina Kaif is gorgeous and I enjoyed her performance and all that, but I wish we’d gotten to know her. Ah well. Maybe in the deleted scenes?

This post originally appeared in slightly altered form on Feminist Bollywood

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Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

9 thoughts on “Feminist Bollywood: Dhoom 3”

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  3. The end of Dhoom 3 is shot on the Hoover Dam — just a bit of improbability that the villain could get from Chicago to the damn over the course of one evening.

    I honestly don’t understand why KK got staring billing for the movie. She’s in a 3+ hour movie for.. 30 minutes? Tops? The romantic subplot has importance, but its not about them interacting as a romantic couple, but about the potential Aaliyah presents to the brothers. I found her striptease dance number a little.. surprising, I guess, and my husband said he felt incredibly uncomfortable seated next to other South Asian women in the theater during it. (We live in South Asia.)

    I thought the movie was enjoyable and the first half actually very compelling, but the rip off of The Prestige was blatant even for my taste. And the fantasy sequences with the female cop were just distracting.

    1. My husband suggested the Hoover Dam — thanks.

      Katrina Kaif is really popular, so it behooves them to put her on the poster. Sex appeal, blah blah. I want to think there’s an alternate cut somewhere about a woman who aspires to be in the circus, finally gets her big break, falls in love, watches her love die, and then rises from the ashes. Maybe in my fanfic.

      Dhoom 1 and 2 have similar fantasy sequences; I can see those being distracting, but I thought they were a fun callback. :) Poor Ali, looking for love in all the wrong places.

      I haven’t seen the Prestige. I was curious how this stacked up to “Now You See Me,” which is about magicians robbing banks. . . .

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