One of the most popular films of 2019, Kabir Singh had a scene in the first act when a bunch of college boys harass Kiara Advani's character Preeti because they want to seek revenge from the main lead Kabir (Shahid Kapoor). While the actual harassment is never shown on camera, we see a visibly traumatised Preeti breaking down. Kabir Singh storms into the rival college with Preeti by his side and beats the molester to the point that he is almost dead. Justice is served in this epic showdown of testosterone but nobody really ever asks after that how Preeti is doing.
In a world that systemically downplays sexual harrassment of women, this scene is of real importance. Preeti gets molested by a bunch of guys on Holi in her own college, which is supposed to be her safe place. Outsiders enter a different college, behave inappropriately with women and storm out. Because rowdy behaviour is normalised in Holi. Not only in films but in real life too.
Likewise, in Darr, it is in the Holi sequence that Shah Rukh Khan invites himself inside Juhi Chawla's character Kiran's house, puts colour on her without her consent and professes his love to her. Or when in Damini a maid is raped by her employer and his family.
Mind you, three of these instances of harassment happen in what should be women's "safe spaces". While one might argue about the line between fact and fiction, we must also realise how hundreds of women every year face harassment in the name of Holi. From unwanted touches in the name of Gulaal to getting hit by random people a week before Holi by water balloons, women have had to live with dread and watch their backs before celebrating the festival.
Even though the aforementioned movies see harassment dealt with some way or the other, Bollywood must also take accountability for soft harassment downplayed and romanticised as a part of the festival. Many Bollywood scenes have popular song sequences where the lyrics are problematic. From songs like Aaj Na Chodenge from Kati Patang, Do Me A Favour Let’s Play Holi from Waqt: The Race Against Time to as latest as Go Pagal from Jolly LLB too, stalking, harassment, manhandling and molestation have been brushed off with the "Bura na maano holi hai" spirit. Doing so also means that hundreds of real victims being gaslit to think that the terrible things did not really happen to them.
Most of these Holi sequences come with the extremely uncomfortable visuals of men chasing women to put colour on them, like Swara Bhaskar is chased by a swarm of men in Raanjhana. Otherwise, women are reduced to cater the male gaze.
It is unwise to pretend cinema does not shape minds in any way or form. If movies can be inspiring, they can be influential too. It is now high time technicians think and look at their storylines through the gender lens.
A memorable Holi sequence can literally fill a film with cinematic wonders. A catchy Holi song has the potential to be remembered for years and immortalised in Holi parties forever. However, it is now time to be better. To make better films and to write better songs. Sequences that celebrate consent instead. Because women deserve better.
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