Do you marry for stability or sex? This is the pivotal question for the free-spirited Punjabi “hockey girl” Rummi (played by Tapsee Paanu), as she navigates modern issues in the entertaining and unpredictable movie Husband Material.
Sitting with my bucket of popcorn, I watched this conundrum hop across cultural traditions embedded in Indian society and jump onto the big screen like a well-choreographed music video. I probably should have been eating saag paneer with rice as Director Anurag Kashyap invited the audience to hear the music of young love and the cultural traditions he’s called into question about a woman’s position in society.
This provocative style of reflection is quite unusual if you’ve never been to a Bollywood movie. Apparently Bollywood films are often a mixed-genre style that is typical of Masala Indian cinema – part musical (like the twin girls breaking into dance at different plot points in Husband Material) and part action film, as random speeding cars raced against melodramatic flying tears and neighborhoods. Picture all of this with a huge dollop of romance and comedy sprinkled in between.
Before continuing, I should state that all Indian movies are not Bollywood movies.
Movies from India or Pakistan are specifically named after their spoken language and rhyme with the word “Hollywood”. So when the Bengali film industry was located in Tollygunge, we used the word Tollywood. When the oldest Pakistani film center was located in Lahore, used the name Lollywood. When Hindi productions moved to Bombay and Karachi overtook Lahore, Bollywood and Lollywood emerged. Currently, Bollywood represents 43% of Indian net box office revenue.
Quite frankly, when I watched Husband Material, I didn’t know what to think. Even though I enjoyed the refreshing examination of Indian taboos, the opening scene with punchy music and flashing sing-along words was completely confusing. The first character the audience meets is Rummi’s boyfriend, Vicky (Vicky Kaushal), who is seen jumping from rooftop to rooftop to get into Rummi’s bed before her aunt and grandfather can catch him.
It doesn’t take long for the story to turn when Rummi agrees to let her family marry her off because Vicky won’t propose marriage. When Rummi marries a handsome but reserved banker named Robbie, she continues to pine for her sex-craved, Elvis-type, DJ so a comic love triangle begins.
I’ve since discovered that foreign and independent films like Husband Material are increasingly popular and people like that they are challenging the status quo in Hollywood. No surprise here: people want to see other cultures and values and incorporate them into our understanding of the world. The evidence is manifest in the growth of the Indie film industry, as numbers climb to new heights.
When you question whether or not Hollywood is providing quality rich content that truly reflects a broad range of issues for women, they clearly don’t.
According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, messages that devalue and diminish female characters are still rampant in family films and there has been little forward movement for girls in media in six decades. Add to this the overwhelming stereotypes that prevail in the top 100 films this past year. Audiences are still twice as likely to see male characters in films, and 74% of any of the major female characters were white, 14% were Black, 6% were Latina, 4% were Asian, and 2% were of another race or ethnicity.
When you measure film industry size (number of movies produced, box office revenues, audience attendance, etc.) to see what film industries are performing well, the Southeast Asia film industry is clearly leading the charge. This is understandable given the sheer demographics of India and China, and the influx and growth of the Indian and Chinese immigrant population across North America.
Although Hollywood still earns the highest revenues ($11.6 B in 2016), the Indian film industry produces twice as many films as Hollywood. When you consider China’s movie market sales, they overtook Hollywood’s in the first quarter of this year. In fact, Hollywood is watching China invest in Hollywood productions and Hollywood is investing heavily in box office growth in Southeast Asian to assuage falling U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.
Until they stop pushing blockbuster-style movies (like those of the post 1960’s) and minimizing risks, they will keep churning out less artfully driven content. With the latest remake of A Star Is Born, Hollywood is banking on brand actors like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper and hoping the same story told in 1976, 1954 and 1937 will cut it.
What is Hollywood doing clinging to bankable remakes that keep women in traditional places? We still see very few stories about older women and I’m still tired of seeing older men married to younger women.
I think one of the characters in Husband Material, said it best, “Old fashioned movies need an update.” Women are not making enough progress in Hollywood and at the end of the reel, people will make decisions about what they want to see and what they’re not seeing.