Bollywood Bodies: Turning the Gaze from Girls to Boys and Back Again in Farah Khan’s Happy New Year

By Amber Shields

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justforfarah

SRK’s body is “Just For Farah”.

 

In the closing credits to Farah Khan’s blockbuster Happy New Year (2014), the film’s main hero, Bollywood legend Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), seductively lowers his shirt to reveal his muscular back tattooed with the words “Just For Farah”. Throughout this film about a group of “losers” who pull off a brilliant heist plan comically disguised as a dance team, SRK’s body has been meticulously dissected and gazed upon, a spectacle in itself, and this licentious, though humorous, stare at the end only serves to confirm his position as a body to be beholden.  However while this pleasurable scrutiny of the superstar’s chiseled features might suggest a reversal of traditional gender roles in which the male has become objectified for the now female director, this scopophilic gaze is not a simple reversal of what Laura Mulvey conceptualises in relation to the objectified female in her quintessential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.[1] Instead, the position of SRK and the male body in this female-directed film provides a conflicting representation in which the male is objectified yet still retains the power to objectify.

 

farah_saxxy

Director Farah Khan steps out from behind the camera to gaze upon SRK’s body.

 

Defying the traditional position of the female as the object of spectacle, this essay will examine how superstar SRK has been transformed in Happy New Year from the endearing hero of his 1990 blockbusters to a consumable body.  This examination will be challenged by a closer look at the complications of this power reversal in which the male lead is both the object being observed as well as that which retains his traditional position of male power to not only, as Mulvey suggests, dominate by holding the power of looking, but in driving the narrative as well. Finally it will be asked how this image of a retained male dominance clashes with the position of the film as one directed by a female who, working in the patriarchal  Hindi film industry, herself challenges the traditional male controlled gaze behind the camera.  Though engaging heavily with concepts elaborated on and now often associated with Mulvey in film theory, this essay will not be engaging with her psychoanalytical readings of these concepts and instead will be asking the very important gender power debates that originally spurred Mulvey’s arguments and are still being negotiated forty years after her publication.

I. Behold: Turning the Gaze on the Male Body

SRK has transformed over the years from the lovable, if sometimes annoyingly childish, hero with a heart of gold into the ultimate body for sale. In his 1990s NRI Indian blockbusters,[2] SRK won over the audiences with his romantic gestures and exemplary upholding of Indian values and traditions in the face of devious modernization/westernization.  In these films from his younger days, the thought of a topless romantic lead would have been out of place, perhaps even unseemly, as he was not an object of spectaclebut instead the gazer who with one look would fall in love with the heroine and then spend the rest of the film either realizing he had fallen in love with her (Pardes (Subhash Ghai, 1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Karan Johar, 1998)), or convincing her that she too had fallen in love with him (Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998), Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (Karan Johar, 2001)). Now that the superstar is almost 50 years old, it contradictorily seems unseemly not to ask him to remove his shirt to reveal the transformed body that has physically been converted into a new superhuman. As a result of this corporeal transformation that sees SRK continually adding new rungs to his abs as well as an extensive advertising career that has made him the “quintessential pan-Indian male”,[3] SRK’s body is not just for Farah, but for everybody to behold in wonder.

 

SRK in his prime, SRK in his New Prime, SRK in his “Optimus Prime”

SRK in his prime (DDLJ), SRK in his New Prime (Happy New Year), SRK in his “Optimus Prime” ( Ra. One).

 

Thus when SRK throws off his shirt in Happy New Year, it is no great surprise.  After the sizzling scenes exposing his six pack in the Khans’ previous collaboration Om Shanti Om (2007), the expectations for equally sexy SRK scenes was high for the new film, and in fact had already created Bollywood buzz during pre-production when it was rumoured that Farah Khan had asked SRK to exceed his six pack with an eight pack. In response to this, Khan elaborated on the development of the star’s body throughout her films, “‘SRK was to take off his shirt in Main Hoon Na (2004), but he got away with excuses. In OSO [Om Shanti Om], he kept his promise and worked hard to get that sexy look. He still has life-size pictures of those six-pack abs at his home gym’”.[4]  This advanced preparation paid off, and in Happy New Year one of the opening scenes depicts SRK’s character Charlie bare-chested in a muddy fight ring, his abs displayed in all their glory. Reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s fights in Snatch (2000)and Sherlock Holmes (2009), this scene is shot and fragmented in slow motion, each drop of sweat, each shining curvature of the body, each ripple that a blow sends through the glorified yet vulnerable flesh, is caught, magnified, and asked to be revealed and revelled at in its most intimate detail. Unlike fights of the past, such as the conceptually similar underground fight of hero Amitabh Bachchan in Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981), in which the hero retained the command of the scene while still exhibiting physical vulnerability, this fight is one in which the character loses his command as the male body is cinematographically cut and served up for ultimate spectatorial pleasure.

 

SRK_Fight_1 SRK_Fight_4

In the past this scopophilic framing of the body was reserved for the female characters.  For example, in the classic Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975), Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) and his gang lure at Basanti (Hema Malini) as she is forced to dance for her lover’s life in the sequence “Jab tak hai jaan jaane jahan main nachungi”. Madan Gopal Singh describes how this look is carried even further in the film’s “Mehbooba” song and dance sequence as the camera gropes the dancer’s body, fragmenting it in order to incite the spectator’s pleasure.[5]

Surpassing this scene based analysis, SRK’s body in Happy New Year becomes one to be looked at and fragmented throughout the film. Further the body here is examined within the film’s narrative arch, not in a song and dance sequence that has traditionally been used as a site of spectatorial pleasure. This particular gaze is not part of what Lalitha Gopalan would define as a (narrative) interruption as occurs with the Bollywood song and dance sequences, but rather a persistent gaze that is sustained as SRK, even when clothed, continues to be beheld throughout the film.[6]

Yet though the look itself lingers, the introduction of this new gaze is, expanding upon Gopalan’s idea, an interruption in itself. In reading Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Gopalan highlights an overlooked insight in the work: the idea that though this intense gaze on the female body causes a disruption that breaks the diegesis, it is one that “we have habituated ourselves not to notice”.[7] Where as viewers of classic Hollywood and Bollywood have perhaps become so accustomed to this overt tendency that it is no longer noticed, reversing this excessive gaze and placing it on the male within the narrative of the film has converted it into a disruption.

This shocking turn from the objectification of the female to that of the male at first seems to present a new mindset that can embark on the path towards liberating the female from an objectified status. In Happy New Year, three of the main male characters, including SRK’s Charlie, are all introduced in a manner that calls for them to be looked at. While in the case of Charlie this is a serious gaze, the introduction of Jag (Sonu Sood) and Tammy (Boman Irani) has a more playful, comedic tone.

 

Jag’s muscular body turns the heads of both women and men.

Jag’s muscular body turns the heads of both women and men.

Tammy is the “stud” of his community.

Tammy is the “stud” of his community.

 

Thus while other males are looked at, it is SRK who is the ultimate object of desire and therefore who, to some degree, still maintains power. Not only does Farah Khan love him, prompting him to playfully “give himself” to her in the end credits, but all the film’s characters are in love with SRK’s Charlie. The boys want to be him, the girls want to be with him, leading even to a reversal of pursuit roles as Mohini (Deepika Padukone) lusts and chases after Charlie, passionately pursuing him no matter how much he verbally abuses and rejects her.

Yet even as the object of desire, a Bollywood body that demands to be looked at and admired, SRK still maintains the power of control as he is the ultimate performer. In the film he thus takes on this conflicting status of objectified and objectifier. After being dissected on screen in the beginning, SRK puts his shirt back on and walks through the rest of the film in a position of power. He is the mastermind behind the brilliant heist plan, he is the one planning revenge on those who have hurt him, and he is the one who, when he chooses, may gaze at the female.

Mohini, the only female character of the film, is introduced through a flashy item song, a sequence whose function, especially noted in this particular number, is to encourage spectatorial pleasure. Here Mohini is shown in her place of work: a night club full of drunk men, dubiously dressed in black, alcohol bottles held high in the air, licentiously chanting her name. As she performs the song “Lovely”, which asserts that she becomes lovely “having read your name”, the men gaze at her body, visually consuming it in a wild frenzy. Charlie enters the scene with an air of cool collectedness and contemplation, his white shirt and dignified manner showing his superiority to this wild crowd. Charlie slowly removes his sunglasses to look at Mohini, moving forward to more closely examine this body that he is also there to buy.

 

Mohini_Lovely2 Charlie_LooksMohini3

 

It is this first interaction that shapes Charlie’s views on Mohini, who he constantly calls cheap and dirty in long winded speeches to his colleagues that he thinks are behind her back but which, “comically”, are ones delivered when she is standing behind his back. Though Mohini explains to other characters that she works as a club dancer out of necessity, and that she too is a person with feelings and dreams, these explanations are never given to Charlie, who throughout the film continues to degrade her for what he views as her loose morals. Unacknowledged by the lead protagonist whose views guide the film, her speeches about her dreams and passions are thus never fully validated as she is still seen under this negative light that the hero casts on her. Further, despite Charlie’s constant humiliation, Mohini nevertheless always returns to him, seeking his gaze, a silly girl in love.

Though he too has been objectified, Charlie is shown as nevertheless holding the power of the gaze. His position as a body to be viewed is still far superior to Mohini’s position, creating a hierarchy of the gaze. Thus this position of objectification does not represent a reversal of roles but rather a maintenance of power structures.

II: The Beholder: The New Female Gaze

In a film that reverts so much power back to the male gaze, what is perhaps the greatest conflicting image is its female director. As one of the few female directors in the Hindi (or any) film industry, Farah Khan already is an anomaly whose very presence conflicts with this globally male-dominated position. She is set even further apart as a director of big budget Bollywood films. Though women such as Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti are also directing popular Bollywood entertainers, Khan is striking in her complete immersion and power commanded as a director of big stars and big films.[8] Even within Bollywood her films stand out as reaching the limits of excess; for her film Om Shanti Om she brought together over 30 top actors from different generations for the song “Deewangi Deewangi” and Happy New Year was excessively and aggressively promoted, including a promotional stage tour, in a hysteria to smash all box office records.

Aside from her larger than life productions, Khan is known in the industry for being outspoken and has created herself into her own celebrity, managing  to take the power of and control the gaze. Gaining fame as an award winning choreographer, Khan has also successfully made her mark in other areas as well: directing and writing films, creating the production company Three’s Company with her husband Shirish Kunder,[9] and recently emerging from behind the camera to star as the leading actress in Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (Bela Segal, 2012). Beyond film she has become a recognisable public figure on TV as well, serving as a guest judge on several shows, hosting her own interview programme “Tere Mere Beech Mein”(2009), and most recently launching her celebrity cooking show “Farah Ki Daawat” (2015).[10]

 

Farah cooking

Farah Khan and Happy New Year star Abhishek Bachchan in Khan’s cooking show “Farah Ki Daawat”.


Farah Khan has thus changed the image of the celebrity director by entering the scene as a larger than life female personality who holds the power over her image and over those she gazes upon in her films. While this stands in contrast to the patriarchal industry in which she is working, it also conflicts with the images of the females portrayed in her films who, while Khan has gained more power, have inversely gained less agency as characters. Mohini is a particularly strong example of this as she becomes both a scopophilic object and, as the sole woman in the film’s ‘man’s world’, loses all power to assert her own position as an equal. Here her character functions in accordance to Katha Pollitt’s “Smurfette Principle” in which, “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined”.[11] As a result of her subordinate, stereotyped status, Mohini is constantly ridiculed, undermined by Charlie, and laughed at as the uneducated comic relief character. Even when she takes a stand and creates a moral statement at the end by choosing to dance for her country in spite of the danger she faces of being caught for participating in the heist, she is transformed into an object to be looked at and consumed, embodying the morals of a country who will view her not as a person but as the ideal woman, the Mother India.

In an interview, Farah Khan jokes that while she used to try to “fit in and be one of the boys”, now she realizes she is “far superior to the guys”.[12] Her ability to not only make it, but to come out on top of a highly patriarchal industry shows that she really is far superior to the guys. However her films, especially her latest Happy New Year, present a different picture that conflicts with Khan’s own, one in which females are still the beholden and not the beholder, one in which they still hold no power in the male dominated hierarchy of power.

III: And Back Again

Farah Khan’s Happy New Year is a film of spectacle that covers the more serious narratives. Just as the spectacle of dance hides the true plot of the crime in the story, the spectacle of the male body hides the maintenance of power structures in which it is the man, even if objectified, who still holds the power of the gaze. However it is the powerful female director who, behind the spectacle of the film and her celebrity status, holds the true power. In its reversals and submissions to the power structure of the beholden and the beholder, Happy New Year comes to produce a series of conflicting images, leading to questions of the objectification of men and women in front of and behind the camera, and overall how this translates in a world where women are actively fighting to challenge these positions while still being “caught within the language of the patriarchy”.[13]

This film and the questions and challenges it raises come at a time when the portrayal of women in popular films is a critical point of discussion in India. This can be seen, for example, through Padukone’s own participation in dialogues on female representation and empowerment. She participated in a 2014 episode of actor Aamir Khan’s popular issue related talk show “Satyamev Jayate” discussing gender discrimination, inequality, and female characterisations in Bollywood films. Recently she starred in the Vogue Empower video “My Choice” (Homi Adajania, 2015) touting the message that a woman should be able to make her own decisions about her body.[14] Finally, some of Padukone’s recent film roles have also begun to look more critically at the modern, empowered woman, as in Cocktail (Homi Adajania, 2012), Finding Fanny (Homi Adajania, 2014), and Piku (Shoojit Sircar, 2015).

These discussions have been spurred on by popular discourse on the subject in the public sector as well, where recent highly publicised cases of brutality against women and rape have led to countrywide discussions on the issue. The controversy over the BBC documentary India’s Daughter about the 2012 brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old female student in the nation’s capital, an incident which sparked wide spread protest and active campaigns in its wake, shows that while how these issues are portrayed and discussed is still controversial, there is nevertheless a continued dialogue about them.

Farah Khan balks at the idea that just because she is a woman director she should have to make films about women’s issues.[15] And she has the right to maintain her freedom to shoot the movies she wants to, whether they be about women’s issues, men’s issues, or, more likely in her case, no issues at all but pure entertainers. The fact that she maintains that right in a patriarchal  industry should garner her praise for what she has achieved for women. However what can be asked is that the female portrayals she does have in her films challenge this dangerous position in which pure objectification subsumes agency. If she as a director can command the power in the hierarchy of the gaze, then why can’t her characters and audience do the same? SRK presenting his body “Just For Farah” asserts that Farah Khan has assumed this power, but the film Happy New Year shows that for other women a traditional power hierarchy is still in place.

 


[1] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures, Laura Mulvey (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989).

[2] The NRI, Non-Resident Indian, films represented a widely successful turn in filmmaking that focused on this ever growing overseas population. These films catered to the consumerist dream of a country going through a phase of economic liberalisation and growth while also opening up the film industry to a large overseas population and their issues. SRK was the star of many of these films, including the hugely popular Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995).

[3] Julien Cayla, “Following the Endorser’s Shadow: Shah Rukh Khan and the Creation of the Cosmopolitan Indian Male,” Advertising and Society Review 9:2 (2008).

[4] Ankita Mehta, “Shah Rukh Khan Instructed to Get Eight-Pack Abs for Farah’s ‘Happy New Year,” International Business Times, July 1, 2012, accessed March 15, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.in/shah-rukh-khan-instructed-to-get-eight-pack-abs-for-farahs-happy-new-year-358280

[5] Cited in Lalitha Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 10.

[6] Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions.

[7] Gopalan, Cinema of Interruption, 25.

[8] While there is a growing number of talented women making films, these works tend to be smaller productions or more art house fare. See Arijita Bhowmik, “International Women’s Day: From Mira Nair to Farah Khan, Women Directors in the Industry,” International Business Times, March 8, 2014, accessed March 15, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.in/international-womens-day-from-mira-nair-to-farah-khan-women-directors-in-the-industry-542360

[9] Production roles have been increasingly taken up by women, especially as they join with superstar husbands to create their own production companies. Gauri Khan has produced several Bollywood blockbusters through her and husband SRK’s production company Red Chillies Entertainment and Kiran Rao has produced hit films as well as her husband’s popular TV show “Satyamev Jayate” through Aamir Khan Productions. Zoya Akhtar has worked as a producer in her brother Farhan Akhtar’s production company Excel Entertainment. Anushka Sharma, only 25 years old, has also just taken on the role of producer for her film NH10 (Navdeep Singh, 2015).

[10] Khan’s first guest on the show was one of her Happy New Year stars Abhishek Bachchan. During the episode they joked about co-star SRK’s abs.

[11] Pollitt’s principle was developed in response to a trend she saw in US children cartoons, but it can be easily found in the Hollywood industry as well in Khan’s film. Katha Pollitt, “Hers; The Smurfette Principle,” The New York Times, April 7, 1991, accessed May 20, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/07/magazine/hers-the-smurfette-principle.html

[12] Rituparna Chatterjee, “Farah Khan: I Used to Cuss to Fit in with the Boys, Now I Don’t because I Know I’m Far Superior,” HuffPost India, December 7, 2014, accessed March 14, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2014/12/07/farah-khan-interview_n_6282600.html

[13] Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure”, 15. Forty years after the original publication of this essay, Mulvey’s reading of the patriarchal dimensions of the film industry can still be applied.

[14] Despite the positive goals of the film, there has nevertheless been severe criticism asking, among other things, what exactly the power demanded in the video is and how women are empowered through a video sponsored by a fashion magazine that looks like a fashion shoot.

[15] Chatterjee, “Farah Khan”.  Zoya Akhtar’s film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) provides an example of another Bollywood blockbuster that despite being directed and written by women is, like Happy New Year, a ‘boy’s film’. Following three men on a bachelor party/road trip through Spain, it nevertheless gives agency to the female characters.  This film, and to a certain extent Khan’s earlier films, show that it does not have to be a film about women’s issues to at least present more positive female portrayals.

Notes on Contributor

Amber Shields is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film Studies, University of St Andrews. Her research project is entitled “Blurring Boundaries, Breaking Borders: The Fantastic Approach to Trauma” and explores fantasy as a mode of cultural trauma representation. Her main areas of interest are trauma, fantasy, cultural memories, collective identities, and storytelling. 

 

Bibliography

Bhowmik, Arijita. “International Women’s Day: From Mira Nair to Farah Khan, Women Directors in the Industry.” International Business Times, March 8, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.co.in/international-womens-day-from-mira-nair-to-farah-khan-women-directors-in-the-industry-542360

Cayla, Julien “Following the Endorser’s Shadow: Shah Rukh Khan and the Creation of the Cosmopolitan Indian Male.” Advertising and Society Review 9:2 (2008).

Chatterjee, Rituparna. “Farah Khan: I Used to Cuss to Fit in with the Boys, Now I Don’t because I Know I’m Far Superior.” HuffPost India, December 7, 2014. Accessed March 14, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2014/12/07/farah-khan-interview_n_6282600.html

Gopalan, Lalitha, Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Mehta, Ankita. “Shah Rukh Khan Instructed to Get Eight-Pack Abs for Farah’s ‘Happy New Year.” International Business Times, July 1, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2015. http://www.ibtimes.co.in/shah-rukh-khan-instructed-to-get-eight-pack-abs-for-farahs-happy-new-year-358280

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Visual and other pleasures, Laura Mulvey, 14-26. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

Pollitt, Katha. “Hers; The Smurfette Principle.” The New York Times, April 7, 1991. Accessed May 20, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/07/magazine/hers-the-smurfette-principle.html

 

Filmography

Cocktail (Homi Adajania, 2012).

Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998).

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995).

“Farah Ki Daawat” (2015). TV Series.

Finding Fanny (Homi Adajania, 2014).

Happy New Year (Farah Khan, 2014).

India’s Daughter (Leslee Udwin, 2014).

Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (Karan Johar, 2001).

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Karan Johar, 1998).

Main Hoon Na (Farah Khan, 2004).

“My Choice.” Short Film. (Homi Adajania, 2015).

Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981).

NH10 (Navdeep Singh, 2015).

Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, 2007).

Pardes (Subhash Ghai, 1997).

Piku (Shoojit Sircar, 2015).

Ra. One (Anubhav Sinha, 2011).

“Satyamev Jayate” (2012-2014). TV Series.

Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie,  2009).

Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (Bela Segal, 2012).

Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975).

Snatch (Guy Ritchie, 2000).

“Tere Mere Beech Mein” (2009). TV Series.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Zoya Akhtar, 2011).