Here we are again, with another highly anticipated (I assume) post in my “What Bollywood can teach you about India” series. I know, you’ve been awaiting this eagerly, checking back here daily, just looking for another film recap/life lesson treasure trove. Well, look no further! Here we are.
Mr. India recently politely pleaded with me to stop making fun of movies he likes, because apparently my snarky comments are not as universally appreciated as they clearly should be. I can’t make any permanent promises, i.e., 90’s Bollywood Cinema, I’m coming for you! but in the spirit of marital happiness and nonsense things like that, this entry’s subject matter is sure to delight him, and hopefully you as well.
Ah, gentle reader, it is this moment when I must bring up a hotly debated subject, and that is, women in India. What are they good for? Having tons of children, obviously, overpopulation says what? but what ELSE? Lots of stuff! Like, looking good in clothing (that’s called modeling), or looking good in movies, (that’s called acting). And probably other things too, as we learned in Udta Punjab, women can also be doctors, if they are cool with getting stabbed, and migrant workers, if they are cool becoming sex slaves and heroin addicts. So you’ve got options, is the point.
In all seriousness, India has changed in its landscape of women and their role in the public sphere, from the northern adopting of the Mughal veiling and zenena or harem practices in the 1600s, to the kingdom of Kerala which was traditionally ruled by women, to the re-introduction of women in the public space as part of the Bengali Renaissance and the last queen of Kerala giving up her throne to a man (you can read about that here, I’ve heard the book is excellent), to Indira Gandhi, to the rise of women in the workplace, to the decline of women in the workplace (read this article if you want to be really sad). But India is still a place where child marriage runs rampant, dowry deaths happen every day, girls are treated as second class citizens, traded and commodified, forbidden to work, and made the policemen of their own virtue, blamed for sexual assault, judged for bare skin, viewed as property. Then, of course, there is the more insidious and subtle repression of the upper classes, the well-educated, which has its own pathways and projections, varying family to family and person to person (and marriage to marriage). Here, the concept of Western feminism is familiar, even longed for, but it’s hard to skip steps in terms of cultural paradigms and learned values, so you end up with women who like an idea of feminism that frees them, but find it at odds with the expectations of their families and even their own feelings about relationships and men.
And obviously, we will find that reflected in our Bollywood observations, will we not? So let’s tally up our Bollywood job count, so far we know of four jobs a woman can do in India, doctor, migrant worker turned sex-slave, model, or actress. COOL. Now, here is a fifth one! Calendar Girl! Which brings us to the title of our film, which is, in fact, Calendar Girls. What is a Calendar Girl? A Calendar girl is a girl who poses in a sexy way for a calendar, so like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition but also telling you days and months and holidays and things like that. I have yet to see a sexy swimsuit calendar in India, but obviously I’m not looking hard enough, because the entire premise of this movie is that this is a real job that exists and is important. The director, Madhur Bhandarkar, has already made a movie about models, and one about acting, so the next obvious choice is this one, I guess.
Now, Bollywood Hungama says: “On the whole, Calendar Girls can be watched for its wholesome entertainment value, hard-hitting drama and engaging narrative.” As for me, on the other hand, I saw this movie over someone’s shoulder on a plane and I was intrigued and concerned, so when I got the chance to watch it on a digital platform I was like, yes, let me spend two hours of my life doing that. And boy am I glad I did, because the lessons, they were a coming! So, with no further ado, I present, Calendar Girls:
This movie begins setting up the premise because again no one thinks this is a real thing or a real job, so the way they let the audience know how important it is to be a calendar girl is literally to say the title over and over and over again and talk about how BIG it is and how IMPORTANT it is and how the calendar is the OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME like it’s an admission to college or a cruise or something instead of putting on a bikini and getting your photo taken.
Lesson #1! Being a Calendar Girl might be the biggest thing you can do with your life in India. Men, sucks to be you!
So we get to meet all the Calendar girls and this is important because we are setting up CONTEXT and FAMILY STRUCTURE and DIVERSITY and all that matters a lot and then never matters again, for the most part.
The guy who makes the Calendar looks like a woodland sprite but talks about why the Calendar is his favorite of his many businesses because in this digital age where porn is all over the internet I cannot image this paper calendar of scantily clad women doesn’t sell like gangbusters. Lesson #2! The best businesses are weird obsolete ones.
All the girls feel that the calendar will change their lives, but it’s very clear that it’s Sharon we should be plugging into because she’s doing it for all the right reasons, i.e. changing her life, not the wrong ones, i.e. having boys look at her body. Sharon just wants a bigger life! She symbolizes this by LITERALLY running away from her larger, tanner friend:
Run, Sharon, before her small town mentality and less represented body contaminates you!
So anyway, these girls go to shoot this calendar, and the photographer, Timmy, gives them champagne and makes them talk about their sexual history because that’s a normal workplace conversation.
Lesson #3! Before having your photo taken by a professional photographer in India, you need to tell them about losing your virginity. Sharon is candid, because that’s what Sharon IS, guys, god, Nandita spins a lesbian homework break fantasy, Paroma sets up a boyfriend who left her because of his ambitions, this will come back around again, Nazneen talks about her high sex drive, and Mayuri, my favorite, talks about making out with a boy in a barn because she’s still got her v-card firmly in hand. This never comes back again but I would totally watch a movie that is Mayuri going on a road trip to lose her virginity.
Then there is this photo shoot and you see the important and difficult work of being a calendar girl. I don’t know why there are five of them when there are 12 months, shouldn’t there be 12? Or at least 6 so everyone gets two months? Who decided this!?
Right, so then the calendar comes out and instantly it changes lives! That’s what calendars do! Lesson #4, the calendar is not just a device of time-telling in India, it’s a portal to a new life!
Paroma sees her ex at some Bengali function in Mumbai where she is the guest of honor (take that, parents!) and they are all flirty and whatever. They have all the chemistry of a physics class, so their whole thing is useless.
Sharon meanwhile is working as a model until her agent spreads rumors that she is sleeping with him. I don’t really know why you would do this, as it sounds so terrible for business and also how does that get your client hired? But that’s Lesson #5 for you, most people in the entertainment industry are creepy leeches who care more about spreading a rumor that they’ve had sex with you than about getting you jobs which would pay them a commission.
Mayuri becomes an actress and she is amazing. I don’t know about her talent, but girlfriend PLAYS. THE. GAME. I feel like this is supposed to be negative for the audience, because she’s a little calculated and takes a job just for the money (which….IS WHAT A JOB IS), and I guess she’s supposed to be represented as dishonorable or whatever but I love her. She knows how important social media is so she cultivates her twitter following and leverages that into movie roles, she’s nice to everyone on set and posts selfies with everyone, director to camera crew, and she even teaches her manager a thing or two. I love her.
I would watch a show that’s just her and her manager riding around in a car together, talking shop.
Nazneen, of course, because she is Pakistani, gets an acting job but then faces a weird specific protest against Pakistani actors, which I’m fairly certain isn’t a thing because this guy is Pakistani and he’s doing okay…
But anyway, Nazneen is literally protested like she goes to work and there is a protest just for her. Which, hey, that’s sort of thoughtful, right?
WRONG! It drives her directly into a life as a professional escort! Lesson #6, Pakistani immigrants in India are THIS CLOSE from becoming escorts. It’s a constant danger zone!
And Nandita! What’s up with her? So, she meets some guy at a party and he takes her to his stud farm (surprisingly not a euphemism) and he’s super rich and he’s like, marry me? And she’s like, I literally have no skills so why not!
Sharon is blacklisted as an actress, but she then starts working in entertainment news and then becomes a hard news anchor in Delhi. That’s all fine I guess, whatever, it’s no Mayuri conniving her way onto a set and then WILLING the actress she plans to replace to get sick so she can take the role all while getting her ass a condo in Mumbai! Mayuri FTW!
Nazneen, of course, is having a super horrible escort life and then when Nandita and Harsh, her playboy husband come to town, he hires her for the night.
Nazneen makes the sad faces of having sex with a friend’s husband against your will and it is the most acting this actress does all movie.
Meanwhile, in what SHOULD be the most interesting plot line, Paroma gets involved with a cricket fixing scheme that is simultaneously very small but somehow also quite large? I don’t know, some cricket player wants to bang her, so her boyfriend is like, no, you shouldn’t, really, I don’t want you to, but…if you wouldn’t MIND, and she’s like, anything for you, Baby!
She mostly just stands behind him in a bikini, but that seems to work for him, takes all types I guess, so he agrees to throw the game with some buddies. Man, cricket is really easy to fix!
But unfortunately she’s too high off her victory to notice that cops are literally following her everywhere.
Also, this happens, and it’s amazing:
Oh, in case you were wondering, this is the face you make when your friend mentions her husband might be cheating on her and he was inside of you like, ten minutes ago:
You can SEE this actress trying so hard. But her sad dead shark eyes eat emotion.
Nandita complains to her in-laws who are like, oh, honey bunny, it’s so weird that the guy you spent TWELVE HOURS WITH before agreeing to marry did this to you! But in our family, it’s just a form of stress relief. TRY YOGA, GUYS! Also, this family is rich, and you can tell because of their house:
Lesson #8! Being rich in India means you live in a weird Versailles knock-off surrounded by terrifying statues. I would not want to be rich here if this is the only way to do it…
Nandita cries sad tears, but what can she do, SHE HAS NO OTHER SKILLS. I guess now she can add “being cheated on” as a skill. Look at that, Nandita! Learning new things!
Paroma gets caught by the police who are always following her and probably have become her next door neighbors and maybe also friends. They arrest her while she’s talking to school children which is a dick move. Lesson #9, the police in India have no tact.
Her boyfriend has abandoned her, and her family bails her out but disown her a second time, because the first one didn’t stick I guess. Lesson #10, disowned comes with a do-over!
She then gets offered a reality tv show which she takes because much like Nandita she has no other skills. I mean, it’s no throwing money around, but what can you do?
Oh, and then Nazneen, who wants to quit the escort business, agrees to one last job, but then gets drunk and flees it and totally is hit by a truck and dies.
But if that was too subtle an ending for you, don’t worry, Sharon, as always, has you covered:
So in the end, Nandita is pregnant, Paroma is doing reality tv, Nazneen is 6 feet under, Mayuri continues to rule the world, and Sharon gets engaged to her boss? Which is random and makes no sense but HOW CAN YOU BE COMPLETE WITHOUT A MAN? HOW?
The worst part is? This movie, this insane totally out of control totally demeaning and strange and perverse movie, passes the Bechdel test. These women have relationships, they talk about stuff other than men, they have dreams and needs and goals and desires, but it’s all contextualized in this totally bizarre world in which being a Calendar girl is a real thing. Instead of owning their sexuality, they are all either trapped by it, or they escape it by being above such things. The characters who have sex, Paroma and Nazneen, are used, diminished, and left empty and with nothing. The characters who don’t, i.e. Sharon and Mayuri, triumph. Nandita gets caught in a trap of convention, but in the end she stays in it, content with her baby if not her marriage. For a movie about modern women, this film feels beyond dated.
But, at ten lessons, it’s not a bad bargain!