Halfway through Jab Harry Met Sejal, which released in August this year, the lead pair bumps into the male protagonist’s white ex-girlfriend, Clara. While Harry (Shah Rukh Khan) cowers, unable to handle Clara’s anger at having been spurned, Sejal (Anushka Sharma) rises to the occasion. With the confidence of a Bollywood hero, Sejal sits her down and explains to her that since she consented to a relationship with Harry, of her free will, his emotional mistreatment of her is really her fault. A lawyer by training, Sejal then goes on to accuse Clara of harassment for having the temerity to demand an answer for Harry’s disrespectful and deeply distressing behavior, which involved disappearing on her without a word.
The film is about a lonely Indian tour guide called Harry, and Sejal, his perky young customer, who claims to have lost her engagement ring while on a trip with him and persuades him to help her find it. Along the way, they fall in love. But as the film shows, the lead characters are able to indulge in the abandon and passion of romantic love only because they know that they are going to be with each other for a fixed period.
In the past few years, a spate of romantic comedies has featured similar casual relationships, whether in the form of live-in arrangements of varying lengths (Salaam Namaste, Pyaar Ka Punchnama, Shuddh Desi Romance, Katti Batti, Badrinath Ki Dulhania), or of an agreement between the protagonists to indulge in a (not necessarily sexual) relationship for a finite period (Jab We Met; Anjaana Anjaani; Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu; Cocktail; London, Paris, New York; Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani; Befikre; Jab Harry Met Sejal), or both (OK Jaanu). These films have a supposedly empowered and sexually liberated woman at the centre, and sometimes their characters state that they espouse feminist values. But the version of feminism these films hail—one that valourises certain kinds of freedoms while refusing to acknowledge the conditions in which they are pursued—is fraught. The characterisation of these new-age heroines is often embedded in a vision that still serves a male experience of the world.
In the genre, a certain kind of heroine has emerged: the feisty, free-spirited girl, supposedly sexually experienced, who does not care for commitment or old-fashioned ideas of love. She is a version of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” described by the critic Nathan Rabin in the context of American movies as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature,” with no complex issues of her own, who only seeks the happiness of the male protagonist, and “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors.” She also has traits of the “Cool Girl,” described by Gillian Flynn in her bestseller Gone Girl. A Cool Girl loves “football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping,” and “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth … while somehow maintaining a size 2.” Cool Girls also somehow never get angry—“they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”
In early drafts, this sort of character was not worthy of being rewarded with marriage to the hero—Veronica in 2012’s Cocktail is an example. Nor was the marriageable girl truly promiscuous: in one symbolic scene in Anjaana Anjaani (2010), Kiara decides against sleeping with a man who is not her fiancé after having gone to a bar for the express purpose of doing so, in revenge for him being unfaithful to her. So far, so patriarchal.
More recent incarnations of this stock character complicate matters by presenting “feminist” heroines who cannot be easily classified as “virgins” or “whores.” The films suggest that their heroines are feminist because they claim equality with men through behaviour coded as masculine in orthodox societies: Gayatri’s smoking habit in Shuddh Desi Romance, for example, and the body-baring, fratty shenanigans of Shyra in Befikre. Even their rejection of marriage or monogamy is framed in terms historically used by men: as something that ties them down, stifles their independence or ruins their fun. This appealing deviance is rarely the result of a critical consciousness but always explained as the consequence of having been brought up in a broken home—Gayatri was raised by a distant father, OK Jaanu’s Tara by a cold mother, and Veronica is estranged from her family.
These Manic Pixie Desi Girls posit a powerful fantasy for men coming of age in a post-Tinder India: they behave with the carefree sexual brio typically associated with men but agree to undertake the labour that is the historical lot of womenfolk—looking beautiful and taking care of their men without a hint of effort. Analysing this phenomenon and its portrayals, the British cultural theorist Rosalind Gill, in her 2007 essay “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility,” argued that, with feminism having become part of the mainstream media debate, a “certain kind of liberal feminist perspective is treated as commonsense,” but the “post-feminist” protagonists of popular art continue to make “independent” decisions that are conveniently and suspiciously in line with patriarchy. In South Asia, old, feudal ways of thinking can be found concealed in the language of gender empowerment. A blatant example is how, in London, Paris, New York, Lalitha’s inventory of her fiancé’s qualities to her love interest, Nikhil, sounds like a generic upper-caste, upper-class matrimonial ad in some national daily.
The women are also willing to happily embrace patriarchal customs when men fall for them. Veronica, Gayatri, Tara, Shyra or Payal in Katti Batti all repeatedly emphasise their disinterest in serious, traditional relationships with the male protagonist. But this is all a ruse—like all good Bollywood heroines, the women succumb, entering into some kind of monogamous arrangement hinting towards matrimony (except in Shuddh Desi Romance, which explicitly rejects monogamy). As in all patriarchal plots, the act of love still hinges on the man declaring it to make it manifest and viable. It is always the male lead who falls in love first and determines the stable and continued nature of the arrangement, makes it monogamous, and decides that the romance will result in a more traditional union.
The male leads in all these films are lonely and emotionally unhealthy, somehow incapable of love until a special woman enters their life and reforms them with her refreshingly “quirky” ways. Whether it is Raghu’s endearing cluelessness in Shuddh Desi Romance (2012), Madhav’s neediness in Katti Batti (2015), Dharam’s predilection for being mothered in Befikre (2016) or Harry’s eye-roll-worthy brand of male loneliness in Jab Harry Met Sejal, it is the women they choose who must do the work of loving them back while not quite achieving the depth and dimension of being persons, with their own scars, wants and needs for love and care. This is the definition of objectification.
These new depictions of sex and romance in Bollywood are as compromised as the practices they are based on. As a generation of young Indian men and women flirts with new forms of companionship, the problems with these arrangements are hardly ever addressed. While such relationships are celebrated as being “progressive” in popular cinema, they remain mired in regressive and misogynistic webs that often go unquestioned. The films elide the precariousness of these arrangements, and how detrimental they can be to the less powerful participant (in this case, heterosexual women). Women must overcome centuries of indoctrination in order to experience the pleasures men take for granted—the sting of being discarded, too, is rather intense when your self-worth has been tethered to being accepted by a man throughout history. And they must do this in a world where women are still routinely shamed, punished and even killed for so much as expressing desire.
These films, and their characters, also affirm neo-liberalism—a form of liberalism that colludes with free-market capitalism. Since the Indian economy was liberalised in 1991, the country’s upper and upper-middle classes have increasingly adopted neo-liberal values such as individual autonomy and laissez-faireism. The way in which the protagonists in these films operate in the economy of desire is consistent with the logic of capitalism. They perform bodily freedom in urbane and elite milieux, resisting the urge to regulate or monitor their courtships through stabilising ambitions of marriage. The scholar Nancy Fraser has pointed out how the language and practices of feminism have been co-opted by a neo-liberal discourse that has replaced its emphases on solidarity with individualism; and care work and emotional labour with careerism. The postfeminist individual is like an entrepreneur who makes “free” choices with whatever capital is available to her and is also completely responsible for losses incurred, as Sejal tells Clara in Jab Harry Met Sejal. In the film, a scene in which Sejal drafts a contract absolving Harry of any and all responsibility for her should they have sex is chilling. The problem with “freely choosing” in the market of goods or love is that there often are no real choices for the oppressed, marginalised or less powerful—contrast the luxuries of a freelance life for an elite minority with the dilemma of the vast majority of factory workers hired by big corporations for short periods that entitle them to no support. The contractual metaphor that appears in many of these films in a positive light validates a brand of feminism that is in cahoots with capitalism. This is only underscored by the fact that most of these films unfold in foreign locations and celebrate sites of global capitalism.
Set mostly in Europe and the United States, these films also peddle a diasporic religious nationalism, where affluent Indians living abroad are shown yearning for “older,” “traditional” values they left behind. Of course, there is no acknowledgement of the fact that these values are often the source of violence against marginalised people such as women, queer communities and oppressed castes. The trope is, in fact, an inheritance of Hindi films of the early 1990s, from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge onwards, and its nationalistic values invariably include control over the bodies of female leads. Jab Harry Met Sejal’s closing scenes, too, hark back to a puzzlingly anachronistic reckoning with contemporary India by showing Harry returning to the mustard fields of Punjab he had been estranged from, before being redeemed by a good Indian woman.
There is a wonderful scene in Shuddh Desi Romance—the only film among these that comes close to approximating the high-stakes field of desire and sex among middle-class youth in India. Tara, a girl whom Raghu has jilted twice for Gayatri, finally understands that he will never truly love her. She is a likeable, eccentric young woman, living in Jaipur without a plan or family, having followed Raghu out of a need for closure after the first time he dumped her at the mandap. As she tells Gayatri that she will be back in a minute and then vanishes from the film, you wonder whether hers is the story—of a self-aware and brave young woman who risks her heart in a narrative set up to exclude her—that should be told.
The print version of this article mistakenly identified Jab Harry Met Sejal as When Harry Met Sejal in one instance. This has been corrected online. The Caravan regrets the error.
Kamayani Sharma is a teaching fellow with the Philosophy programme at Ashoka University, Sonepat. She writes on contemporary art for artforum, Art India and Take On Art.