We Do Need Big B & SRK To Explain Female Consent and Mental Health
Back in 1985, as a 10-year-old I watched Amitabh Bachchan slay it with the famous line ‘Mard ko kabhi dard nahin hota’ on the big screen. It was just another Manmohan Desai film in which Bachchan once again played the quintessential one-man-army who could vanquish anything and everything. The dialogue became a rage among schoolboys and was bandied about after every fist-fight, scuffle and even when one got caned by the teacher for some mischief. We believed in Bachchan and hung on to every word he said – be it as a tangewala, taxi driver, coolie or underworld don.
As far as desi pop culture goes, Bollywood has been and continues to be a huge influencer. Which is why, when 3 decades later, the same Bachchan speaks authoritatively about the importance of female consent in Pink, one feels thankful for what can now be a part of the mainstream Bollywood narrative.
And it’s the same reason why one sits back and applauds a film like Dear Zindagi, which though slightly fizzy in content, still uses a star like Shah Rukh Khan to talk about the importance of mental health.
This is not to position cinema as only an agent of change and lobby for films to act as Public Service Announcements (PSA). Both Bachchan and Shah Rukh have been a part of regressive, sexist and even misogynistic cinema – the merits and demerits of which have been debated upon extensively. Those films will continue to survive in their body of work, but a Pink and a Dear Zindagi will always stand head and shoulders above the rest.
A few have asked why Amitabh Bachchan needed to come to the rescue of the three girls in Pink if the film was championing women’s empowerment and their freedom of choice. Well it didn’t necessarily have to, but would placing a Shabana Azmi in the role of advocate Deepak Sehgal have had the same impact? Would the film have got the same reach? In fact would the film have got made at all?
So between choosing the making and widespread release of a film like Pink with Amitabh Bachchan versus not having a Pink made at all – what would you choose?
As Dear Zindagi crosses Rs 30 crore at the box-office in India in just 3 days, it almost seems audacious that a filmmaker thought of making a film that highlights the need to normalise counselling and therapy featuring A-list stars and have Shah Rukh and Alia just talking to each other in a room for half of the film.
Gauri Shinde smartly communicates the thrust of her film in Shah Rukh Khan’s introductory scene itself. The star, who plays a therapist in the film, addresses his audience and questions the stigma that surrounds mental health at a gathering. “If you are ok about consulting a doctor when you injure yourself or fall ill, why are you ashamed about visiting a therapist when you have unresolved issues in your head?” is what SRK as Dr Jehangir Khan throws to the viewers.
It’s a question that counsellors and psychiatrists have been asking for decades now. No matter how many seminars on mental health awareness are held, or medical journals and PSAs are written or made – none of them will have the kind of penetration that a dialogue from SRK would have.
Through Dear Zindagi, that question is now reaching millions of film lovers across the length and breadth of the country within just a few days.
Again, would a Dear Zindagi have been the same success that it is if the film had a Manoj Bajpayee and Konkona Sensharma in the lead? Would it have found any makers or takers at all?
Both Pink and Dear Zindagi are far from perfect, but they help in bringing under the spotlight, issues that are not conventionally considered worthy of being the subject of a commercial film.
They may not bring about an overnight change in mindset but they do provoke a discussion and create some awareness where none existed.
I remember an anecdote from the making of Shekhar Kapur’s blockbuster Mr India, which rings true here. Writer Javed Akhtar once said that, initially the role of Ashok Kumar (the old scientist, who gives Anil Kapoor the device which can make anyone invisible and explains the formula for it) was to be played by an unknown character actor. But Javed disagreed with the casting, he believed that the whole crux of making the audience believe that such an incredible device could exist depended on this character. If an unknown character played this all-knowing scientist, the audience would not buy it, so the veteran Ashok Kumar was called for the role, because when the legendary Dada Moni told the audience that such a formula existed, it would not be questioned.
In a star driven film industry and a star struck society which consumes anything endorsed by a film star, Bachchan and SRK need to be used like Dada Moni to do their bit.