The connection between sexism and Bollywood movies is very real and very old. Problematic dialogues, stereotyping of women, sexist slangs, toxic masculinity—most Bollywood films have it all. There are films which have been declared as superhit blockbusters, and even classics, but if you, as a feminist, watch them, chances are that it’ll make your stomach churn. No matter if you adored those Karan Johar rom-coms like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai as a child or fawned over Salman Khan’s body as a teenager in Maine Pyar Kiya, if you grew up to be someone who minutely cares about women and their agency, watching many of these films now would make your ‘woke’ braincells cry. Let’s go through five such superhit Bollywood films that make us cringe, now that we re-watch them as feminists.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
Well, you definitely expected this one, didn’t you? Popularly known by its moniker DDLJ, this Karan Johar film is hailed as the one of the best romantic Indian movies ever made. DDLJ was a trendsetting film in terms of a ‘modern love story’: a young woman travelling alone in Europe meets a boy on the train and both fall in love. But when you look into the depths of the narrative, you realise that the film oozes sexism in every way. The film reiterates and glorifies the societal boundaries that an Indian woman is not supposed to cross.
Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) harasses Simran (Kajol) to an annoying point, but she magically falls in love with him. When Simran wants to run away and get married, Raj convinces her that unless her father practically hands her over to him (as if she is a trophy), he won’t accept her as his wife. For God’s sake, there’s even a scene where Simran’s mother consoles her by telling her that an Indian woman does not have the right to choose anything in her life, least of all her own husband!
Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994)
If you thought Sooraj Barjatiya’s Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) was quite misogynistic, one re-watch of his next project, the superhit Hum Aapke Hain Koun, will probably be enough to make you cringe to death. This romantic musical reeks of sexism. The film is a true example of what society really thought of women even as recently as in the 1990s. The way in which the film violates a woman’s consent is abysmal.
On top of that, the film clearly makes its stance clear as to what kind of a woman is eligible to marry into a good family. No, she cannot have “naye khayalaat”, and should be someone who takes care of their house with “sneh” and “mamta”. For the sake of this maternal instinct, women are sold and bought like cattles. Oh, one cow died? Let’s get another! Anybody who’s aware of the storyline will know that this is not an exaggeration. I wonder if anyone ever told the makers that women are meant for much more than that. To be honest, I still love how picturesque each scene is and how stylish Madhuri Dixit is in this film. It makes me want to watch the film. Now only if the plot wasn’t so cringe-worthy.
Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999)
This Sooraj Barjatiya film is truly another word for cringe-fest. The film was considered the biggest family drama of the decade. Remember Sadhna, Preeti and Sapna? Despite being well educated and modern women, their end goal in life was only projected to be marriage. It was almost like they had no ambitions in life other than becoming typical Indian sanskari bahus.
This is, in fact, a film where being a homemaker is glorified to such an extent that it is shown as the sole responsibility of the women in the house. Flawed cultural norms are further perpetuated where women eat after the men, where the husband is a woman’s ultimate gift from God, and where girls are expected to be coy around men they fancy because that is a sign of virtue. There are so many instances in the film where blatant traditional sexism is flaunted that one could indeed write an entire book on it. This one is undoubtedly one of the worst in the lot.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
We know what you’re thinking by now: Karan Johar again? Well, one can’t really talk about sexism in Bollywood cult classics without mentioning Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The movie became an instant hit when it was first released. But the sad truth is that if you revisit the story today as a feminist, you’ll realise how regressive it is. So let’s list out a few of the problems the film has. Firstly, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai reinstates the sexist notion that women either dress up for men or to make up for their lack of intellect. Secondly, it normalises catcalling. Remember how Rahul whistled at Ms Briganza and behaves sleazily in front of her just before the Pyar Dosti Hai scene?
Thirdly, it pits one kind of woman against the other: Tina (Rani Mukherjee) is the epitome of sexiness and sanskariness, as she wears short skirts and can still sing ‘Om Jai Jagdish’ in a perfect voice, while Anjali (Kajol), a woman who likes wearing loose clothes and hates doing make-up, is merely a jhalli who will never get a guy. Listen up ladies, if a man doesn’t reciprocate your feelings because of the way you dress, but comes running to you once you change into a stereotypical girl, please run away from him. You can do better.
Another cult film, Sholay is so much more than a tale of friendship between two friends. But while the film has its upsides, one cannot help but notice the misogyny it celebrates. In this film too are two heroines with very opposing characteristics. One is the very talkative but yet projected as homely and the hero’s love interest, while the other is the introverted widow, who is portrayed as submissive and timid through the film. Both the roles clearly conform to and reiterate the social norms of how a woman and a widow should behave.
Then there is the entire storyline of ‘how to get the girl’, one that horrifyingly includes harassment and force. There’s a scene where the main character attempts to win over a girl by grabbing her from behind, claiming that “when a beautiful girl is angry, she becomes more beautiful.” The concept of consent is thrown out of the window. In fact, harassment is shown to be a successful method to get a woman, and we see the girl and the boy ride off holding hands at the end of the scene. If that is not promoting stalking and rape culture, we really don’t know what is!
These films are cult-classics of Bollywood and nobody can deny them their place in the history of Indian cinema. But that does not mean one should not call them out for the sexism they glorify. If you have not yet watched these films and plan to do so in the future, remember one thing — there are no life lessons to be taken. And if you’ve already watched them as a child or a teenager, we’re sorry that some of your favourite films were so regressive and sexist. Even we’re still trying to get over it, both the shock and the cringe.
The views expressed are the author’s own.