Zainab Alam describes the importance of seeing herself in the Bollywood star
Scrolling through my Twitter timeline this past Saturday, I saw someone had tweeted a picture of the Indian actress Sridevi Kapoor at a wedding she had attended a couple of days earlier. Always glamorous, I admired her haute couture mint green lengha, a traditional Indian skirt, paired with an especially fashionable large dupatta or shawl. It was a matter of seconds before I realized the timeliness of the posting and my eyes teared. Less than an hour before, at age 54, the actress had died of a heart attack in Dubai. Soon, all my social media feeds were rife with mentions of Sridevi coupled with GIFs and photos of her from her most famous scenes. As a Pakistani-American, classic Bollywood is an instant dose of home away from home, no matter where my life takes me.
In this instance, not only was I transported home, but I was filled with childhood nostalgia. I spent many hours as a kid watching the hit Bollywood film Chandni (1989) on VHS. Instead of children’s programming, every day after preschool I requested that my grandmother put it, one of the few videotapes we owned, in the VCR, so I could once-again become mesmerised by Sridevi’s enactment of Chandni, the protagonist. I skipped around our living-room attempting to following her intricate footwork and hummed the songs she sang to my stuffed bear. I fondly wore lots of chooriyan, thin bangles, and listened to the noises they made when clinking together, mimicking the scene where Chandni wore dozens of them as she performed the movie’s most popular song and dance routine. Her dance was for her cousin’s wedding, and it would soon land her the love of her life. I did not fully understand the film’s plot at that age, thinking, for one, that her main love interest was her annoying brother, like a grown version of my newborn baby sibling who irritated me with his incessant crying. Yet, even despite this substitute plot, in Chandni’s wise aunt, I saw my grandmother and, in her cousin, I saw my first best friend.
As I grew a bit older I moved away from my grandparents, but the film’s memories stayed with me, refreshed every summer when I visited my childhood home. With a better understanding of the plot, I now sometimes saw myself as Chandni in my dreams. In the film, Chandni had landed not one but two handsome men who were hopelessly in love with her. The first, love-at-first-sight, adventurous Rohit, who drove her around on his motorcycle, serenaded her, and threw thousands of rose petals down on her from a helicopter while she stood in a courtyard below. Then, after her engagement with Rohit was on the rocks, she met loving-but-sensible Lalit, her boss who respected her work, values and free spirit- but invited her home to meet his mother before he officially professed his love.
One day in fourth grade, I somehow carried this dream-world into reality. I wore a colourful shalwar kameez, to my largely-white NYC public school, because it looked just like an outfit that Chandni had worn when she got a letter from her rose-petal throwing love. Even though the film was nearly a decade old, it had remained current in my head, along with all of the heroine’s fashion statements. I remember being stared at and questioned by my classmates because of my odd attire, an outfit I was gifted from relatives in Pakistan, but I was comfortable with my secret knowledge that what I had worn was iconic. One day, I dreamt, I might wear an outfit like this and get a letter from someone who loved me too.
As a young teenager, I was sure that my sisters would dance to the movie’s songs for my future wedding, and I quietly debated whether it was better to have a Rohit or a Lalit as my future husband. I also, but admittedly less often, thought about how Chandni had a college degree which came in handy when she moved away from home to pursue a career after a broken engagement. When I was required to read a book in junior high school about a Pakistani girl unable to escape her abusive child marriage, I remembered instead that just as Chandni had her carved somewhat of her own future, I would too.
Re-watching the film as an adult, however, I realise that the plot was not as perfect as I imagined when I was younger. I cringe at many of the cheesy lines and fast-forward through some of the drawn-out songs. More importantly, I now clearly see the moment where Chandni’s character accepts harassment as a form of flirting and think of how her character should have been encouraged to follow her dreams, – instead of being trapped in a love triangle with marriage as the only likely resolution. Chandni is no longer a hero, just a pretty woman caught in the complexities of love.
Though I rarely watch the film or think of Chandni as a character anymore, I also realise how much her representation mattered to me. Although I had a great deal of exposure to other shows and movies as a child, Chandni remained my favourite for a reason. Instead of watching someone like me cast as a victim of oppression, I got to see a normal human being who had to make a decision about her heart. My brown eyes had not seen anyone considered beautiful or respectable with my brown hair and brown skin in Hollywood, and so I connected myself to this alternate existence where people who looked like me lived full lives filled with love.
Almost 30 years later, in watching Black Panther (2018), I am happy that there are finally films where young girls, especially young girls of colour, can find a variety of heroes that they might see their future selves in. In the movie, the women of Wakanda are refreshingly strong, independent and brave – but also loving and caring. Rather than having one hero to idolise, kids who were like me can now dream of multiple futures for themselves. But I also think of how long, too long, it has taken us to realise the importance of this representation. And while we should celebrate successes, I hope Hollywood keeps understanding how much it means to leave the door open for carrying similar efforts forward. Bollywood is far from perfect, but as the oldest, richest and most global film industry in the world, Hollywood has a long way to go. Because where I had Chandni to help guide me on love, I wish that I also had Nakia and Okoye to let me know that there are also other important things.
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Zainab Alam is a self-proclaimed cultural critic, freelance artist, and doctoral candidate in Political Science living in the Greater New York Area. She studies women’s political representation in South Asia and in the South Asian diaspora.
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