No matter how much directors and actors insist that movies are just for entertainment, audiences can’t help but learn from what they see on screens, big and small. For generations of Indians, Hindi cinema has played teacher, packaging its lessons in masala, music and larger-than-life drama. Some films wear their preachy hearts on their sleeves while some aim for subtlety. A few don’t realise they’re imparting life lessons even while they’re doing just that. On the occasion of the International Day of Education — this year’s theme is “learning for lasting peace” — we look back at some of our favourite Bollywood life lessons of last year.
You don’t need us to tell you the fable of the scorpion and the frog. We’ve got the moral of this story three times over — scorpion-flavoured people (a.k.a. villains) don’t change.
According to Wikipedia, its roots are in 20th century Russia, but for our practical purposes, the story that speaks to each person having one essential, unchanging quality, surfaced with Darlings (2022), where Shamshu (Shefali Shah) tells it to her daughter (Alia Bhatt). It made a re-appearance in Kuttey (2023), where Tabu’s character, a devious police officer, tells the story as a joke to her accomplices. The scorpion and the frog made yet another appearance later in the year in Netflix’s Kaala Paani, as a cautionary tale from a mother to her son. The details differ in each retelling. In Shamshu’s version, the scorpion wishes to reach land during a flood. In Kuttey, the scorpion is desperate to reunite with his lover on the opposite bank of a river. Tabu’s character prefaces her narration by claiming it is a “fresh and hot” story. Evidently her companions don’t have a Netflix subscription.
Through the simplistic writing of Satyaprem Ki Katha (2023), the film put forward a message that both welcome and important: Consent is key, and there is no shame in being a survivor of sexual assault. In the film, Satyaprem (Kartik Aaryan) is initially taken aback by his new wife Katha’s (Kiara Advani) unwillingness to be intimate with him, but he takes it in his stride. Sensibly, he tries for friendship and stands by Katha the whole way. In a climactic scene, Sattu confronts his father about the importance of consent — “She said no once, didn’t she? Then that’s it.” — and how the violation of this consent warrants appropriate punishment. The film’s final frame shows India’s rape statistics and also highlights the prevalence of marital rape. Given Hindi cinema’s long history of romanticising the harassment of women and turning a blind eye to women’s rights, Satyaprem Ki Katha’s stand is applause-worthy.
Another unusual and insightful perspective on the importance of consent may be found in Konkona Sen Sharma’s short film The Mirror, from the Lust Stories 2 anthology. In a beautifully understated moment, Seema’s husband (Shrikant Yadav) talks about how his consent was ignored in the voyeuristic tug-of-war between Seema (Amruta Subhash) and Isheeta (Tillotama Shome).
Just like its main character Rocky Randhawa (Ranveer Singh), Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023) wears its heart on its sleeve. In the film, Rocky and Rani (Alia Bhatt) fall in love and swap homes in an effort to win over each another’s families. When protein-drinker and lover-of-loud-fashion Rocky moves to Rani’s posh Bengali household, he finds himself faced with (among other things) bras. In a well-meaning if slightly contrived scene, Rani’s mother schools Rocky on his embarrassment around bras: “When you stop thinking of women as a strange species markedly different from you, and begin to treat them as equals, that’s when you will actually respect them.” Later, Rocky returns the favour by pointing out the Chatterjees’ elitism and the danger of being close-minded when they subject Rocky to their disdain. “If we are so quick to cancel each other, we’ll never learn anything in life,” he says.
After hijacking a metro and scoring ransom to clear the loans crushing impoverished farmers, kidnapping the Health Minister to demand better infrastructure in government hospitals, the climax of Jawan (2023) gives us the ultimate heist. Righteous vigilante Azad (Shah Rukh Khan) steals a mountain of voting machines and then uses them as backdrop to deliver a wake-up call to the nation. Azad says they will return the voting machines on the condition that people think and ask questions of their political leaders before deciding who will get their vote. He urges citizens to not be swayed by fear or bribery, to not vote on the basis of caste, religion or community. “The finger you use to vote, point it at them to ask questions … You have great power at your fingertips,” he says. The monologue is powerful, a rousing reminder for us to do our duty to safeguard the nation’s democracy.
We’re not going to make any comment about how good a film 12th Fail is because it’s a direct conflict of interest, but there’s no denying how inspiring the story of IPS officer Manoj Sharma is. Vikrant Massey is incandescent as Manoj, who refuses to be broken despite being faced with failures. He is unflinchingly honest about his past and emphasises the importance of doing one’s job with integrity and good faith. “I won’t accept defeat, I’m not that easy to beat; I will not rest till the goal is reached,” he says with a smile. Whether or not he becomes an IPS officer, Manoj’s ultimate goal is to do good in the world, and guide those in his community to live honest, happy lives. “If I cannot be the sun that lights up the Earth, I can still be a lamp that lights up my street.” Manoj’s wholesome sincerity and hard-won success is an encouragement to not give up on our dreams, and do everything in our power to do the right thing.
Three of Us (2023) is a tender reminder to live in the present and cherish the moments that make us feel the most like ourselves. After being diagnosed with the onset of dementia, Shailaja (Shefali Shah) feels compelled to visit an unassuming Konkan town that holds important memories for her. The week-long trip, undertaken with her husband Dipankar (Swanand Kirkire), lets her relive her childhood and reconcile with her past. Her close friend and childhood love Pradeep (Jaideep Ahlawat) gently aids this process. After what feels like forever, Shailaja does not feel the need to hurry; she is exactly where she needs to be. The film tells us that amidst all the noise and strife in our lives, all we can do is stay grounded and take each day as it comes. As Pradeep writes in his poem, inspired by Shailaja and her unexpected return to his life: “Tomorrow will only come when today is played out.”
“It’s the digital age,” muses Kalki Koechlin’s character in Kho Gaye Hum Kahan (2023). “It feels like we’re more connected, but we’ve never been lonelier.” Debutant director Arjun Varain Singh explores people’s dependence on and struggle against social media. Neil (Adarsh Gourav) is a fitness instructor who constantly compares himself to other, more successful people on the internet. Ahana (Ananya Panday) obsessively uses social media to stalk her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend. In a misguided attempt to get his attention, she puts on a façade of success and happiness, showing off the “best” version of herself online. The trio is rounded off by Imaad (Siddhant Chaturvedi), who keeps his childhood trauma at arm’s length by burying himself in fleeting, meaningless hook-ups. The three friends are older and wiser by the end of the film, realising that they were using the digital world to escape from the real one. “We got so lost in our screens that we forgot to look within ourselves,” says Ahana.