Feminist Bollywood: Raaz 3

What’s a woman to do when she hates horror movies but loves Halloween? Turn to Bollywood, of course!

Raaz 3 (Secret 3) is available on Netflix Instant

I really dislike horror movies; I dislike violence unless it’s 100% cartoony and fake. Still, in honor of October, I wanted to cover a horror movie for this space. I’ve only seen one other Bollywood horror movie, a cheesy one from the ’70s whose name I no longer remember. As the highest grossing horror movie in India, Raaz 3 seemed like a good choice.

Raaz 3 movie poster.
Raaz 3 movie poster. From wikipedia

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t read the Wikipedia synopsis before watching, and I’ve certainly never seen the other Raaz movies (the three Raaz movies are only linked thematically; they do not share plots or characters). Beyond that, I haven’t seen many horror movies, American, Indian, or otherwise. What tropes would Raaz 3 use?

Horror is such an intriguing genre because it often mixes feminism and misogyny. The female character is usually the smartest and the Last Girl makes it to the end. But her body is often objectified as she runs through a dark house in her skimpy nightgown. A woman who has sex is punished; the morality of the movie rewards a very conservative type of virtue.

In that light, Raaz 3 might be one of the most feminist Bollywood movies I’ve seen.

The story is narrated by the male corner of a love triangle, Aditya (Emraan Hashmi). But this is a female story: villain and victim are women, and for rather feminine concerns.

Shanaya (Bipasha Basu) is an acclaimed Bollywood actress, but newcomers are stealing her roles and awards. She is despondent when her boyfriend, director Aditya, wins a prestigious award but she does not. She feels that she made Aditya; he was an assistant before they met and now he’s a famous director. He suggests they marry and run off, but she wants to be a star.

Sidenote: As is the case for many villains, Shanaya is the most interesting character in the movie. She has goals, desires, a personality. I found myself rooting for her because at least she had an identity.

But Shanaya doesn’t want to keep working hard, biding her time. She turns to black magic, meeting with an evil spirit in a slum in order to curse her rival, Sanjana (Esha Gupta). At first, Shanaya is jealous of Sanjana’s success; later we learn they are half-sisters. Familial jealousy drives Shanaya as well.

Another sidenote: I’m used to supernatural horror with a Christian bent (exorcisms, demons, crucifixes, etc), so it was cool to see a horror movie rooted in Hindu cosmology. For the curse to work, for example, Shanaya must remove her shrine to Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed god known as the “Remover of Obstacles.”

The curse is just to torture Sanjana, not kill her. It is administered through water. But Shanaya can’t just give the water to Sanjana, it must be administered by someone Shanaya trusts (the rules get convoluted quickly). Aditya is reluctant but Shanaya seduces him, and he agrees to her plan.

This seduction is a pivotal moment. Bollywood movies are generally quite conservative when it comes to portraying sex; many don’t even show the lead couple kissing, though the trend these days does seem to be to include at least one such scene. This movie actually has two sex scenes, a third implied sex scene, and a replay of one of the sex scenes during the final credits. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.

But here’s where the secret feminism comes in. That Shanaya resorts to sex to get Aditya to do her bidding isn’t a surprise. There’s a long tradition of femme fatales in all types of cinema. That a woman enjoys sex is still code for “evil.” But later in the film, Sanjana also has sex. Throughout the movie she is portrayed as good and innocent. She is not punished for having sex. Sexuality, then, is not the problem but how it is used. Shanaya was already evil; sex just happened to be her tool.

Aditya hires Sanjana to star in his new movie, and secretly begins dosing her with the cursed water… while also falling in love with her. Sanjana begins to hear voices and see strange figures at night (while running around her apartment in her skimpy pajamas). She begins to forget her lines on set, and is chased by a clown in a dark, creepy movie set.

She begs Aditya to stay with her and protect her. He agrees, but ultimately cannot help: the evil spirit takes hold of Sanjana’s maid, and the woman gruesomely kills herself. Cut to Aditya and Sanjana at his house: 1. They have sex and then, 2. segue into a standard shmoopy love song. To a Westerner, the tone is quite erratic. I wonder if Bollywood audiences would not be so put off? Violence and then “I love you!” just seems really weird. But again, I suspect that’s my bias, and not anything wrong with the movie.

The couple contact a pandit (scholar/teacher/sage/priest-figure) to help them. The pandit’s protege travels to the spirit world (“It’s like our world, but with spirits”) in order to free Sanjana’s soul. This ritual takes place in a dark cemetery. Alas, the evil spirit wins and the protege dies, also gruesomely.

Shanaya, meanwhile, has realized that Aditya has fallen for Sanjana. But she filmed him saying “Yes, I will poison Sanjana for you,” and uses the DVD as blackmail. As a precaution, she poisons Sanjana herself (which doesn’t break the rules as laid out earlier? Whatever).

More stealth feminism: Sanjana, Aditya, and Shanaya attend a large industry party. Thanks to the poison, Sanjana hallucinates millions of cockroaches are attacking her. (While the roaches are clearly CGI, the scene is long and gets creepier and creepier as it goes on.) Ultimately, Sanjana sheds her clothes and runs, naked, through the party. The movie itself doesn’t show any genitalia, but it’s clear the actress is nude and the camera shows as much as it can. Quite lovingly, really, the camera traces her legs, stomach, and back.

The reporters on hand quickly snap photos, rather than attend to the woman screaming “Help me!” Aditya eventually makes it to her, covers her, and gets her to a hospital. The news suggests she has done this as a publicity stunt; Sanjana feels she is ruined, as public nudity is still a taboo in India.

While the camera objectifies her, one can read disgust at the system into these scenes. One might even see analogues in American stars like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. These young woman were sick, but instead of help, they received ridicule from the press. Sanjana thinks she is ruined, but she is “ruined” by a system, not by anything she did. The press takes her picture and then mocks her. Had they not snapped or distributed the pictures, Sanjana would not be in this situation. She feels guilty over a situation that was not her fault.

Shanaya returns to the evil spirit: now she does want to see Sanjana dead. The spirit explains the devil cannot kill, only God can. (But earlier he’d killed the maid? But maybe it didn’t count because “she” committed suicide? Whatever.) The spirit must fight God, and to do that, he needs Shanaya’s hate. But if anything happens to the spirit, it will happen to Shanaya too, meaning she could die instead of Sanjana. Shanaya agrees to these terms.

The spirit then explains that in order for this to work (to seal the deal? to transfer her hatred to him? whatever, movie), she must sleep with him. In his grotesque-writhing-insect true form. She agrees to this, too.

Aditya, meanwhile, confesses his role in her illness to Sanjana. He realizes only he can free her, and so he agrees to enter the spirit world and rescue Sanjana’s soul. Her doctor agrees to help. So Aditya, the doctor, the pandit, and a comatose Sanjana head to the morgue for battle. Shanaya learns of this plan and rushes to the hospital.

In the spirit world, the evil spirit is invisible, so Aditya gets rather beaten up. He finds a mirror and realizes he can see the spirit in it. Now wounds appear on Shanaya as Aditya gains the upper hand. (Poor Sanjana’s spirit just huddles and cries.) Finally Aditya prevails (with the help of Ganesha, the movie implies) and he takes Sanjana into the light.

They awake in the morgue. Shanaya is still alive, though she has since killed the pandit and the doctor. She grabs a bottle of acid, but instead of flinging it at Sanjana, she pours it on herself, disappearing into a molten red puddle.

The movie concludes with a happy Aditya and Sanjana, while the voiceover intones the importance of love and how people should avoid ego. The movies never show what I really want to see: How on earth did they explain all that to the police?

Bipasha Basu
Bipasha Basu at the Raaz 3 premiere. From her official website.

What’s striking about this film is Shanaya’s motivation. When she learns Aditya loves Sanjana, she doesn’t really care. All she wants is for him to continue doing her bidding. She’s not heartbroken or upset, just worried he’ll stop poisoning her rival. In fact, she actually seems happy when she learns the news, as now she can blackmail him more effectively.

Shanaya is jealous of Sanjana, but because of their familial connection: Sanjana is the daughter of Shanaya’s father’s mistress. Instead of spending his time with her, Shanaya’s father spent it with Sanjana. Sanjana realizes this later, and is truly sorry. But the person to blame is not either woman but Dad for acting so terribly. The movie also suggests Shanaya wouldn’t hate Sanjana’s rise to stardom if it weren’t for this back story; Shanaya says Sanjana has taken everything from her.

But what originally and ultimately motivates Shanaya is that she wants to remain a star. She doesn’t want to be usurped by younger actresses. But Bollywood, like Hollywood, has an obsession with youth.

As Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel (2002) explain in The Visual Culture of Hindi Film,  “Stars usually have a very limited career span in Indian cinema, rarely exceeding ten years” (p. 27).

In an April 2013 interview with the Times of India , veteran actress Sharmila Tagore (age 69) said:

I don’t want to do roles of just a mother or a grandmother, whose part in a film is that of a filler. I somehow feel that after a certain age, Indian films don’t know what to do with mature actors. There’s hardly any scope for people like us. Whereas in Hollywood, senior actresses like Meryl Streep or Judi Dench enjoy equal amount of adulation as their younger counterparts. So there comes the difference, the audience here is yet to develop that taste. Even if there are roles written for male actors like Amitabh Bachchan, senior actresses come nowhere in the list. It’s all very patriarchal. Women, barring a few odd films or except a few Vidya Balan flicks, are hardly given any decision-making roles. They are either put up as exhibitory objects — that again is restricted to the younger lot, or portrayed as an epitome of sacrifice.

There’s definitely a problem if one is looking to Hollywood as an example of being more inclusive.

The movie never states how old any of the characters are, but interestingly Bipasha Basu and Emraam Hashmi are the same age, 34, while Esha Gupta is 27. Basu’s career began in 2001, but Gupta’s only in 2012. I don’t want to add too much subtext to the movie, since Bashu is still a popular actress. But there could be an underlying fear there.

Ultimately, Shanaya should be angry at the system, at a culture that celebrates beauty above all else. She should curse directors or producers. Instead, she internalizes the misogyny and focuses on whom she sees as a rival, Sanjana. That internalized misogyny and misplaced hatred is really the most destructive force of the film.



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