Haseen Dillruba is a reminder that Bollywood’s love affair with violence and misogyny is as strong as ever. Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey’s newest release gets worse as the run time progresses. The film normalises violence, toxic masculinity, and misogyny; it glorifies it, it even suggests that it’s aspirational.
This isn’t the first time Bollywood has normalised violence and misogyny by packaging it as love. Shahid Kapoor’s Kabir Singh is perhaps the best example of this. Kabir Singh – a remake of the Telugu film Arjun Reddy – was deeply steeped in misogynistic and violent tropes. Despite the rampant misogyny and toxic masculinity that is glorified in the movie, it was popularly hailed as an aspirational story of love and romance. Kanika Dhillon, the screenwriter of Haseen Dillruba, in fact, had defended Kabir Singh claiming that the female protagonist in the movie had agency.
In Haseen Dillruba, on more than one occasion, Vikrant Massey’s character attempts to take his wife’s life. The wife – played by Taapsee Pannu – indulges this and continues to cohabit with the man intent on killing her because allegedly they love each other and this is her repentance for engaging in an extramarital affair.
Pannu, in defending Haseen Dillruba, insists that her character Rani had agency and these were the choices she made of her own free will, except that’s not true. Strong-willed, fierce Rani, may at first glance seem to have agency, but that’s not necessarily true when you consider Rani’s social context. Rani, though educated and having considerable privilege, is bound by her social context. Choices aren’t made in a vacuum, Rani’s choice to stay in her abusive marriage cannot be justified just because it was a choice. Women are taught to stay in marriages, especially bad ones; to endure violence, dismiss abuse and Vismaya’s death is an example of why women exercising their ‘choice to stay in abusive marriages’ is not exactly empowering.
Our own homes and communities normalise the violence women endure within marriages, and we live in a society that actively discourages divorce and ostracises women who seek it. Given the burden of this reality, Rani’s choices in Haseen Dillruba aren’t truly free, feminist, or progressive, they are a product of her conditioning and social reality. Add to that the fact that through our consumption of popular culture and media, we often internalise toxic ideas about love, relationships, and monogamy that are often rooted deeply in misogyny and violence.
Choice feminism has always lacked nuance and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that we are all the products of our social realities, of years on years of patriarchal conditioning, and complex power dynamics. Feminism shouldn’t be limited to making choices. There are often restrictions and limits to the choices we are allowed to make, some of which are visible and others invisible, this is especially true for women. Choices, only by the virtue of being choices, aren’t beyond reproach. Women can make choices and those choices can be patriarchal and misogynistic. Choice feminism does nothing for women or the feminist movement and using that in defence of a violently misogynistic movie such as Haseen Dillruba benefits no one.
Films and art are a powerful medium, they educate and impact social norms, which is why it is important that writers, directors, producers and production teams involved in the making of such problematic films think it through. While big-name stars can afford to abstain from making problematic movies, actors who are comparatively still finding their footing in the industry might not be able to, because they need the money and the visibility to sustain themselves.
For example, an Ayushmann Khuranna can get tailormade roles for him today, but a Taapsee Pannu still has to make do with doing a Haseen Dillruba after Thappad, because of the lack of options and the need to sustain themselves. While the actors must be held accountable too for their complicity, it needs to be understood that just because they are the faces of the film, it is not only their burden to carry. In this case, the director Vinil Mathew, writer Kanika Dhillon, producers Aanand L. Rai, Himanshu Sharma, Bhushan Kumar and Krishan Kumar also need to be held accountable. The question that needs to be asked is, “Why does Bollywood continue to make movies that glorify violence, misogyny and objectification?” Why does a Haseen Dillruba or Kabir Singh rake in money at the cinemas when they are so obviously problematic?
Haseen Dillruba isn’t art imitating life, it isn’t a reflection of society. Domestic violence is a reality for many women across the country, a lot of whom continue to stay in violent marriages due to insurmountable socio-economic barriers that don’t allow them to seek a divorce or leave abusive households. A movie that depicts the reality of domestic violence would be welcome, Pannu’s own 2020 release Thappad did that. But Haseen Dillruba doesn’t just depict violence: it glorifies it, normalises this violence, and makes it look acceptable because it is done in the name of love. Instead of acknowledging that Rani is a victim of domestic abuse who is guilted into dismissing the violence against her, the movie lauds her for staying the course and staying in a violent marriage.
Bloody Swine is a short film based on the same Roald Dahl book as Haseen Dillruba, but what the latter gets wrong, Bloody Swine gets right. The short film depicts domestic abuse, but it doesn’t glorify it and it doesn’t justify violence and toxic masculinity in the name of love. In fact, of all the adaptations of Lamb to the Slaughter, only Haseen Dillruba justifies and normalises the violence and domestic abuse the protagonist faces. Bloody Swine depicts a grim social reality, but it doesn’t indulge and relish in it as Haseen Dillruba does.
Haseen Dillruba, in a nutshell, says: all is fair in love; even violence and domestic abuse. Bollywood, undoubtedly, needs to up the ante. Bollywood films continue to be plagued by dated and disturbing tropes that should no longer exist as we try to build better, more accountable communities. These films, when it comes to women, relish in the male gaze and indulge in misogyny. Depictions of women on screen that are nuanced and well-written are scarce and it will continue to be if we do not hold filmmakers accountable and call out the normalisation of misogyny on-screen whenever we see it, no matter how it is packaged; as love, as art imitating life, or as choice feminism.
Featured image source: A still from the film