Feminist Bollywood: Tees Maar Khan

Tees Maar Khan, a flop from 2010, was meant to be a blockbuster, not only in India by abroad. Instead, it was a goofy, affable, exploitive mess. It’s bright, colorful, funny, and intertextual. I’m not mad at Tees Maar Khan, just disappointed.

Tees Maar Khan movie poster
Movie poster for Tees Maar Khan. Akshay Kumar (Tees Maar Khan) and Katrina Kaif (Anya).

I have a huge list of movies to watch, critically acclaimed movies, movies that are about women, movies that are culturally important. But the other night, I just wanted something silly. I love TMK’s item (“sexy”) song, “Sheila ki Jawani,” but had only heard “meh” reviews of the film. I really like the director, a woman named Farah Khan, most famous for directing the huge hit Om Shanti Om. Aditionally, it’s based on/a remake of After The Fox, a British-Italian movie co-written by Neil Simon.

While I did enjoy quite a bit about the movie, this was one of the least feminist Bollywood movies I’ve seen in awhile. I’m tempted, of course, to say I’m extra disappointed, since the director was also a woman. But Farah Khan works in a sexist industry, making commercial films. And I don’t know much about her personally, or just how feminist she is.

The film only features two prominent female characters: Tees Maar Khan’s mother and Tees Maar Khan’s girlfriend. The girlfriend, Anya (Katrina Kaif), barely appears, and generally only to add sex appeal. One scene features a near panty-shot as a truck blows her skirt up. The mother is even less present.

Anya doesn’t have much of a personality beyond “pretty” and “nagging.” She wants to act, but Tees Maar Khan belittes her dreams, and is upset about other men ogling her. Kaif overacts at every turn; I like her in other movies, so her acting appears to be a stylistic choice. Regardless, it’s annoying.

Tees Maar Khan’s mother (Apara Mehta) doesn’t even get a name. We meet her in the opening scenes of the movie; pregnant, she watches crime movies. Her husband chastises her, suggesting their child will be a criminal. She scoffs, but the child does become a criminal. She is clueless about these activities until the end of the movie. Her personality is… nice?

Tees Maar Khan (Akshay Kumar) agrees to commit a train heist for the crime bosses, the Johri brothers. I was intrigued at first to learn that the brothers are conjoined twins. Wow, that’s new. But oh. It’s played as a huge joke. The brothers are played by two able-bodied men who share pants and speak in unison.

To rob the train, Tees Maar Khan stakes out a small village. The villagers catch him and he claims to be a movie director and wants to cast every villager. To continue the ruse, he pretends to be director Manoj Day Ramalan and contacts famous actor Aatish Kapoor (Akshaye Khanna) to play the lead. Aatish is bitter about Slumdog Millionaire’s (2008)  popularity; he’d been contacted for a role, but his agent turned it down. He wants an Oscar!

The fake “movie” is about Indian revolutionaries robbing a British train (actually the train Tees Maar Khan wants to rob). While not directly referenced, this seems to allude to the incredibly popular 2006 movie Rang de Basanti. Rang de Basanti, which you should only watch if you want to cry for a few hours, is about the process of filming a movie about Indian revolutionaries. It’s an intense drama about how transformative art can be. But as with the worst kind of parodies, Tees Maar Khan doesn’t seem to have any commentary beyond “Hey, we’re referencing this thing in a silly way.”

This storyline is the most interesting of the movie. Farah Khan, the director, clearly knows her movies and is interested in being in a conversation with Bolly- and Hollywood cinema. Om Shanti Om is very much in conversation with 1970s and 2000s Bollywood. Tees Maar Khan adds 2000s Hollywood to the conversation. I wish that this had been the focus of the movie: Indians commenting on the popularity in America of a British-directed movie set in India? Indians commenting on an Indian-born American director? Indians commenting on the success of movies about revolution against the British while still using the British? Yes, please!

I wonder how this movie will feel in another five years, when Slumdog Millionaire is even further from the zeitgeist.

But in the middle of this parody movie, an achingly sincere scene: Caught robbing the village bank, Tees Maar Khan and his goons flee into the forest. They stumble upon a small encampment of children. These children had all been kidnapped from the village to labor in an illegal marijuana operation. The village is grateful to Tees Maar Khan and all is forgiven.

Bollywood movies are actually rather famous for this ability of switching back and forth. But the key is balancing the elements. One dramatic scene in a sea of mediocre comedy really stands out in a bad way.

As the train finally arrives, Tees Maar Khan robs it with the help of the villagers. Unfortunately, the police, who’d been trying to capture him for the entire movie, are able to catch him.

This led to another scene I really liked. On their way to the village, (male) officers Mukherjee (Murli Sharma) and Chatterjee (Aman Verma) run into Tees Maar Khan’s mother, and give her a ride to the village. She asks if they are married. They smile and say “Oh, well, we’re friends, we’re still gettting to know each other.” There’d been no indication earlier that they were gay and at the end of the movie, we learn they do marry each other. This is viewed as a happy outcome. This is probably the most positive portrayal of homosexuality I’ve seen in Bollywood. I would have liked a movie about them.

Tees Maar Khan does end up going to prison, only to escape during the premiere of his fake movie (which his goons and the villagers decide to finish as a real movie). The movie is laughable but a huge hit. During the final song, we learn that everyone has a happy ending: Tees Maar Khan and his mother are rich, Anya acts in commercials, Aatish wins an Oscar. It’s a rather moving montage; if only the rest of the movie had deserved a happy ending.

Overall, it was a pleasant enough movie. Excising the conjoined twins “jokes” and some of the shots objectifying Katrina Kaif’s body would go a long way to improving the film. The music and choreography are enjoyable and the movie is bright, colorful, and joyous. Farah Khan has a strong vision and her movies are affable and appealing. As something to have on in the background, it’s nearly perfect.

Tees Maar Khan is available on Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant.

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