The term 'guilty pleasures' has always been an amusing one for me because it makes me wonder in what ways can something that imparts pleasure (a positive emotion) also impart guilt (a negative emotion)? Especially when the term, 'guilty pleasures' itself is never associated with infliction of harm or with a criminal act. It has a vibe of harmless and mellow wrong-doing to it, which is why in more instances than one, casual misogyny forms a part of it. Laura Mulvey, in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", argues that what the 'unconscious of patriarchal society' has structured as pleasurable, informs our viewing experience of films as well. While all forms of misogyny have been constructed by the unconscious of the patriarchal society as pleasurable, more blatant forms of misogyny repulse pleasure in the increasingly 'woke' educated section of Indian society. What slips through are visual elements that adroitly garb misogyny in shiny wrappers. I shall discuss two films that are immense sources of 'guilty pleasure' for me – Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Aisha (2010) – and that share a common thread of hidden misogyny.
Director Nikkhil Advani's Kal Ho Naa Ho is the unfinished love story of a grumpy MBA student, Naina (Preity Zinta) and a happy-go-lucky and interfering cancer patient, Aman (Shahrukh Khan). Except, instead of keeping it that way, Aman emotionally manipulates Rohit (Saif Ali Khan), friend to Naina, into thinking he loves her, and Naina's mother, Jenny (Jaya Bachchan), convinces Naina that the only way to develop into a woman is to marry someone who loves you – even if you do not love them. This film is a guilty pleasure for me because of Aman's charming (because, well, played by SRK) yet extremely problematic character and because it is at the top of my list of tear-jerkers.
The first time he appears in the neighbourhood where Naina lives, Aman is seen peeping into his neighbour's house from his balcony. And it is not even because he wants to sneak glimpses at his lady-love; he has not even met her yet! He is controlling and bossy but with lots of SRK dimples and mischief on his face. In fact, until we come to know that he is suffering from a chronic life-threatening illness, it is very difficult to sympathise with his behaviour because he is downright offensive. He looks into the family's business ledger and shakes his head at the state of the accounts; he invites himself into their house and casually throws unsolicited insults at Naina and her grandmother; he shames Naina for being grumpy and 'boring', and ridicules her for wearing spectacles and looking like a 'mummy'; and when she finally goes out of her way to show him she can party, get drunk, and start to ramble at him, he yells at her: "Shut up! Baat nahi sunogi to kheech ke thappad maroonga!"
Basically, he thinks people should live their life the way he sees fit because he is somehow better than everybody. In fact, if one were to observe carefully, Rohit treats Naina much better than Aman does and actually respects her for who she is but still, for Naina and the audience, Rohit is the second choice. After all, how can a character who is played by Shahrukh be the second choice for any female character on screen, however problematic he might be? I argue that this is how misogyny becomes pleasurable in films – by being hidden within desirable and glamorous elements. We might be able to discern it from time to time but the glitter distracts us too soon, and we keep watching it again and again with guilt.
So Aman might be an eavesdropper who follows Naina and people related to her everywhere, butting into their conversations and offering unsolicited advice like their lives are his playthings, but he is also everybody's favourite for that very reason. Jenny calls him an 'angel' for resolving matters in her family and business, Rohit thanks him for 'sacrificing his love for him' even though Rohit was never romantically interested in Naina in the first place, and of course, Naina wonders between sobs why Aman loves her so much even though he emotionally manipulates her in more ways than one. However, it is not only the heart-melting screen presence of Shahrukh that makes watching and rooting for a misogynistic and offensive character like Aman pleasurable, it is misogyny itself. The audience will laugh with Aman's patronizing and invasive nature but would laugh at him if he were a woman trying to interfere into everybody's lives. In another similarly glamorous and glitzy film, a female character who is exactly like Aman is the opposite of an 'angel' for her friends, family, and the man she loves; in fact, she is a nightmare! I am talking here about the 2010 film Aisha, directed by Rajshree Ojha.
Aisha Kapoor (Sonam Kapoor) is a young and fashionable upper class woman who loves to make matches. However, she is extremely territorial about Arjun (Abhay Deol), her childhood friend, and would never choose him for any of the women she knows. This, even when they might have feelings for him. To the discredit of the writer and director, her matchmaking qualities and interfering nature have been rooted in frivolity in a way that the audience is bound to judge her. It is enjoyable because who does not like the glittering display of branded clothes, shoes and exotic hangouts, but it definitely does not make the viewer empathize with her (like we do with Aman). In fact, when one of her friends, Shefali, snaps at her dramatically: "Tumne kabhi mujhe apna dost samjha hi nahi. Mai to sirf ek project hoon. 'Bechari ke baal katwa do, bechari ko kapde de do'!", the audience almost feels vindicated and pleased at Aisha facing the consequences of her actions. Even when she is ready to let Arjun go because Shefali says that he likes her, it's not only the viewers who roll their eyes – 'oh, she is at it again' – but Arjun too. Aisha is shown to be shallow and controlling, judging people based on their looks. Aman does this too, but we do not dislike him. Laura Mulvey might call this a 'masculinisation' of the female gaze.
Nudrat Raza in her thesis, "Deconstructing Gender Roles in Bollywood Films", explains the concept of the 'masculinization of the female gaze', "whereby the woman, assuming a masculine position, male points of view, and male identifications, enjoys the freedom and control typically available to men." (p. 31) This might actually lead to a de-sexualisation of the woman, Raza writes. This is exactly what makes Aisha appear so ridiculous and Aman so endearing – she tries to act in a way society considers appropriate only for men, ridiculing how people should live and how they should look; in short, controlling and taking over other's lives. While such an attitude should have been annoying and offensive in both, it is not offensive in case of Aman because of the patriarchal consciousness governing Indian minds: he does not get de-sexualised due to it. If I may say so, it only makes him appear even more sexy! Aisha, on the other hand, not only gets disliked by all, but especially by Arjun, who thinks she is 'shallow' and not 'sabka khayal rakhne wala', as Naina thinks of Aman.
The discrimination in the treatment of these characters on screen is extremely conspicuous to me whenever I watch these films. That is the source of the 'guilt'. But I have to admit that the pleasure, almost bordering on the erotic, that looking at Aman's dimples and Aisha's clothes give me, tends to brush these issues under the carpet. Maybe I need to work on my feminist politics a little more!