Bollywood Warped the Brown Girl

Almost all Bollywood hits (and flops) from our collective millennial childhood have propagated anti-woman messages.

Imaan Sheikh

November 5, 2019

Bollywood Warped the Brown Girl
Kajol (Anjali) and Shah Rukh Khan (Rahul) in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai)

I remember being nine, and wanting to have short hair because most girls in my class had them, and it seemed I could only wear mine in a thin, limp, boring braid. “Everyone always picks girls with long hair. Have you ever seen a movie heroine with short hair?” my mother and aunts asked me rhetorically. Part of my nine-year-old self was shocked at how much sense that made.

After Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) came out, I was somewhat convinced that they were right. Anjali, played by Kajol, had short hair, was a tomboy, and was considered “unfeminine.” It not only made her undesirable, but also made it hard for her college peers to take her seriously. Even though she was Rahul’s best friend, empathy was rarely extended to her before she transformed into a long-locked, sari-clad, religious, soft-spoken nurturer who had finally figured out the art of makeup. She was finally a “suitable” girl.

Despite being terribly tired of it, I kept my hair long until I was 29. I wasn’t the only brown adolescent this part of the film had silently convinced to change themselves, and to accept that their lack of outward femininity warranted them unworthy romantic interest. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was only a speck in a blizzard of messages from Bollywood that taught girls that unapologetically being themselves was not a viable option, and that male validation in any form was worth striving for.

It’s been going on since the birth of the film industry in South Asia. Almost all Bollywood hits (and flops) from the collective millennial childhood — Shah Rukh Khan as an intense, abusive drunkard in Devdas (2002), the typecast women (sporty, innocent, popular) in Mohabbatein (2000) — have propagated anti-woman messages, glorified silence, and glamorized abuse. Many Bollywood icons have reputations for repeatedly playing the role of rapists (Ranjeet, Prem Chopra, Shakti Kapoor, Amrish Puri).

Storylines may have improved (mostly because feminism is trending), and more recent movies such as Queen (2013) and Kahaani (2012) attempt to break these tropes and showcase independent women who thrive but multiple generations of women are still stuck unlearning these expectations. Bollywood continues to betray the very people it sells stories to. Recently, in Bala (2019), an actress with light skin was cast to play the role of a dark-skinned woman. Imagine fighting colorism by doing brownface in 2019.

In my mid-20s, I began to rewatch nostalgic Bollywood hits and to review them. These pictorial reviews went viral. The hundreds of women who responded in my DMs made it quite clear: we had been absolutely screwed over by the very nostalgia we held so close to our hearts. Our favorite films weren't just sweet melodies and references — they were far darker. 

Unsurprisingly, most brown millennials who grew up in the ’90s have a love-hate relationship with their nostalgic favorites. Nearly every feminist critique I’ve seen of, say, Shah Rukh Khan — whether it’s a thinkpiece, a video, or a Twitter thread — includes feeling betrayed and misled.

Whether it was the dreamy Raj who joked that he had raped Simran in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, or the entitled Rahul who treated his tomboyish best friend like crap in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, fictional men left an imprint on us, but did not prepare us to deal with them in the real world. Not as fathers, brothers, partners, or friends.