Feminist Bollywood: Mere Brother Ki Dulhan

What does it mean to choose to become a wife?

Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011) is available on Netflix Instant and YouTube.

Geena Davis, whom I’ve loved since Beetlejuice, has done a lot of work to bring to light the gender disparity in movies. In the documentary Miss Representation, she explains, “All of Hollywood is run on one assumption: That women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women. It is a horrible indictment of our society if we assume that one half of our population is just not interested in the other half.” Further, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a clearinghouse for studies about representation in media. One such study, “Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV,” revealed:

Prevalence. Our complete study examined over 15,000 single speaking characters in four rating categories of films. The results across these four ratings reveal that 73% of the characters are male (n=11,371) and 27% are female (n=4,197). This translates into a ratio of 2.71 males to every 1 female. Significant but trivial deviation4 occurred by rating (G=2.5 to 1; PG=2.6 to 1; PG-13=2.8 to 1, R=2.9 to 1).

An analysis was also undertaken to see if the proportion of males to females changed over time. Films were categorized by release dates in one of three epochs: 1990 to 1995; 1996 to 2000; and 2001 to 2006. Re-released films were removed from the analysis. The results showed no change over time across the entire sample of films or within a rating. Thus, in this study, the prevalence of females in films has neither increased nor decreased over the last 16 years. (p. 13)

Obviously, Davis and her colleagues are focused on Hollywood. But I would be very surprised if these findings did not hold true for most world cinemas.

Most of the Bollywood movies I watch are men’s stories. (Two exceptions you can watch on Netflix right now, which will be covered in other Feminist Bollywood posts: Dil Bole Hadippa! and Heroine. Jab We Met and Ek Main aur Ekk Tu are notable for turning the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope on its head, though they are largely men’s stories.) There is a selection bias in that I am more likely to search by actor than actress, and not surprisingly, a movie featuring a notable actor will focus on his story. That said, just as I do with Hollywood movies, I look for women’s stories in the margins and off-screen of Bollywood movies.

Which made Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (My Brother’s Bride) such a delightful surprise.

After a tumultuous break up, Luv (Ali Zafar), decides he is tired of dating and wants a stable relationship. How to accomplish this? By asking his brother Kush (I think this is supposed to be “Happy,” which is kkush, and this is a case of a typo in transliteration; that said, Kush is also a name from mythology) (Imran Khan) to arrange a marriage for him. Kush works in the movie industry, so knows all about auditioning women. Kush takes the job seriously, searching everywhere for the perfect woman. He finally finds Dimple (Katrina Kaif), a woman he (Kush) knew when they were younger. After chatting via Skype, Dimple and Luv agree to marriage.

Since he is setting up the wedding, Kush spends a lot of time with Dimple . . . and realizes he has fallen for her. She has fallen for him, too. Eventually Dimple comes up with a plan: Contact Luv’s ex-girlfriend, Pia (Tara D’Souza), and tell her Luv still loves her. Upon seeing her again, Luv realizes he does still love Pia and they elope.

The families are furious, and Kush and Dimple realize they won’t be able to marry. Using reverse psychology, they first say they don’t want to marry each other, then say they will marry as long as the families accept Luv and Pia’s marriage. The families agree, none the wiser.

Kush is the main character, and the movie focuses on his arc: from a curmudgeon not much interested in love/romance/marriage to realizing he loves Dimple and is about to lose her, to finding a way to a happy ending for everyone. A minor arc is Luv growing up and maturing enough to be married. Dimple’s story is third, and Pia doesn’t really have much of a story at all.

But Dimple’s story is fascinating. When Kush flashes back to meeting Dimple, she is a wild, fun-loving girl, wearing revealing clothing and playing guitar (and smoking!) She is even arrested for causing a public disturbance. She explains to Kush that her parents were very tolerant of her wild streak and she feels that she owes them. Now that she is getting older, she should settle down and marry; she owes them that. Yet she confides that she worries she will lose herself by becoming a wife.

Rarely does any movie touch upon this fear. I worried, too: by becoming a wife, was I losing something? I’ve kept my “maiden” name and all that, but still. Who was I, who am I, what will I become? Yet so many movies focus on that single-minded pursuit of marriage. Conversely, they might depict someone who is reluctant to marry, yet finds their true love in the end. . .and the original objections to marriage are not addressed again.

Dimple has had a good, comfortable life. She will live, at the least, a middle class life, which means she will continue to have many opportunities available to her. There is no reason to think Luv wouldn’t treat her well, or that if she’d said no to the engagement her parents wouldn’t support her.

Further, when Dimple and Kush find themselves stuck, they are able to use the system to their advantage. Dimple’s fiance has run off, so her father certainly won’t let her marry the fiance’s brother (this plotline is a little more complex, but that’s the crux of it). Think of the shame. But Dimple points out how much personal shame she will suffer, and that she might even have to commit suicide. He loves his daughter, so finally her father agrees to let her marry Kush.

The story is stereotypical enough; that Kush falls in love with the woman who is supposed to marry his brother is hardly a new plotline. Yet this look at Dimple and her feelings elevates this movie. Add in the excellent music and performances, and this one is a winner.

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