‘Veere Di Wedding’ and the Subversion of Sexuality In India
This morning in Kanpur on my way to work, I crossed a theatre playing Veere Di Wedding. The poster outside the theatre was the one with the animated faces of the leading ladies — only in this one, Swara Bhasker’s face had been pasted over with a big white piece of paper. It was a blank piece of paper — it said nothing, had no insidious red crosses — it just sat there covering the whole box that used to be her face. It almost felt like an attempt to erase the memory of her existence in the film, but those behind it could not be bothered to put in much effort.
To be honest, Swara Bhasker was what got me interested in Veere Di Wedding in the first place. I’m not much of a Bollywood fan so had it been the standard cast without her, I would have dismissed the film long ago. What kept me hooked was the urge to understand what Swara Bhasker was doing in a stereotypical Bollywood masala film.
A stereotypical Bollywood masala film is what makes money in this country. While why an industry that is a collaborative art form is governed by merely the economics of it, warrants a separate discussion, let’s for now work with what we have. Mainstream Bollywood shapes much of the popular culture around us — it has in the past normalised behaviours like stalking, reinforced repeatedly that, ‘ladki ke na mein bhi haan hota hai’ (what consent?!), typecast juvenile chocolate boys as the prince charming, albeit the horse.
In this set up, stories of women, when they are told at all, inevitably come with the burden of carrying an overriding social message. Because clearly, what role do modern Indian women play today, if they’re not using their access and agency to fight! As women, we can’t be seen having fun and want to be taken seriously too. That’s asking for everything!
In a culture set so strongly in patriarchal overtones, when women come together to make a film, the standard expectations is for the film to show the proverbial middle finger to set gender norms and many films in the recent past have beautifully done so. Lipstick Under My Burkha is a pertinent example. Sadly though, films that portray the contradictions and desires of “real” everyday women, are labelled feminist or ‘too lady-oriented’ and have to fight a long and hard battle to even find an audience. And much like Kareena Kapoor, most of India does not see feminism as equality, which is why mainstream storytelling barely ever features that perspective.
An “A” certification and/or indie credits are easily the death knell of Indian films in commercial quarters. Theatres in tier-II and tier-III towns barely screen them, if at all. That inevitably also means that most of the country’s audience that really needs the lesson in feminism do not get to encounter the film at all, or dismiss these films altogether for the lack of “entertainment” .
This also happens to be the audience the producer Ekta Kapoor understands very well, thanks to her endless saas-bahu sagas.
Amongst these socio-economic classes, intellectualism is anti-national and women are “allowed” freedoms. Women who drink or swear are the ‘chalu’ — available types, the ones that are “asking for it”. Women who do not want get married or have children, or take control of any part of the narrative that is their lives are collectively ostracised. Women who own and assert their sexuality are non-existent.
Veere Di Wedding, is a smart act of subversion, wrapped up in all the gilt and glamour that makes it the perfect entertainment package that this audience will pay to watch. And in just being able to reach those audiences, and get them to watch scenes like Swara Bhasker masturbating on screen, while gesturing her husband to wait while she climaxes, Veere Di Wedding scores a huge win for feminism in India. Of course the purple sex toy is blurred out and she justifies the act later in conversation, much like I cannot mention which particular sex toy it was while writing this article. Our freedom of expression, through whatever medium, is limited by the possibility of someone getting offended. And we are a country that gets offended far too often.
Not only in Swara Bhasker’s character Sakshi, this subversion of sexuality (through humour) exists in Veere Di Wedding as a consistent sub plot. Avni, Sonam Kapoor’s character struggles with acceptance. She is continuously torn between wanting to enjoy sex without the associated guilt, while also wanting to give in to her nagging mother and be the adarsh naari. Sikha Talsania’s character Meera struggles with body image issues, but is never body-shamed; nor does she starve herself to look like the divas that are her closest friends. In fact she is the first one to come buy ice cream off the cart, while others follow suit. In another commendable conversation, she alludes to how birthing is an abominable sight and the extent to which it has affected her sex life.
All of this is enveloped in crass Delhi humour, which is possibly why the film saw a proper commercial release at all, without evoking protests from the upholders of sanskaar in our society. Pakistan, with stricter standards for women, banned the film. If nothing, we have to be better than Pakistan, right?
The lead character, Kalindi, played quintessentially by Kareena Kapoor, is a woman with access and agency and a steady boyfriend, but does not want to get married. It is in fact the man in her life, Risabh (Sumit Vyas) who says, “main desi aadmi hoon, mujhe tujhse hi shadi karni hai”. While Kalindi agrees initially, she is also the one to call it off. The new relationships and complications marriage brings is not something she wants in her life.
Film stars in our country inspire young lives everyday, and maybe if the veeres are able to celebrate and stand by each other, women across India soon will too. Remember Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon is a real phenomenon in small town India!
Veere Di Wedding is no feat in filmmaking but then again when was the last time a mainstream Bollywood masala film was one? In a refreshing change that does not pit the women against each other - the veeres are not for once vying for the same man, the same lives or even the same bodies.
And while much of the conflict in their lives arises from the boys that are in them (I read an article that put the film to the Bechdel Test), in each of those conversations not for once does the focus shift from the woman’s perspective on the conflict or her preferences. Sadly, for most women, the conditioning of our lives is such that much of our lives are about men, or the lack of them. Passing the Bechdel test has perhaps been sacrificed at the alter of relatability and reach. An independent director I work with once told me that when you want to give medicine to your pet, you have to mix it with their standard food.
While the filmmakers claim throughout that Veere Di Wedding is not a feminist film, it is in fact an important marker for the feminism movement in India. Not only have the filmmakers brought a conversation about women, who are actually friends, to mainstream media, they have also done so without toeing the line about the expectation from women-led films having to carry a serious message.
Personally speaking I also smirked at the presence of the token man on the core crew, and the reversing of the gaze in the much debated song Taarefan. And while doing all of this, Veere Di Wedding has also made enough money to call itself successful at the box office, accruing close to Rs 70 crore over its 2nd weekend. This is a noteworthy achievement because while Bollywood releases close to a thousand movies every year, very few manage to reach the Rs 100 crore benchmark. A 100 crore though, is the standard expectation from a Salman Khan-starrer. The game is (very) slowly changing though, with films like Raazi and Secret Superstar, that defy the standard Bollywood narrative, but have yet made the Rs 100-crore mark.
And while with this, I go back to the conversation about filmmaking in India being driven completely by economics, it is key that we take into account that only when women led films actually make money will more of them be made. Working within the framework of the industry, producers first need to have the assurance that they will make their money back, in order for more of them to eventually invest in a film led by Swara Bhasker instead of a Salman Khan. As KK Menon famously suggested in the film Shahid - to change the system, you have to be a part of the system, in making that effort, team Veere Di Wedding, kudos!
(Aishwarya Guha is an independent writer based in Goa. She does odd jobs for independent filmmakers and can be reached at @assortedtales)