Editor's note: This story includes frank descriptions of sexual matters depicted in the movie.
Before moving to India, I thought Bollywood was all demure, G-rated eyelash-fluttering. Boy meets girl, their families don't approve, but they get over it in the end — and everyone breaks out into synchronized dance moves.
So when I arrived in Mumbai last month to become NPR's India correspondent, I was surprised by the big box office hit: a "Sex-and-the-City" type Hindi-language comedy about four heroines who hook up, chain-smoke, drink until they vomit and cuss like sailors. Oh, and there's a masturbation scene with a dildo, which I'll get to later.
Sitting in a plush movie theater, I realized I had an outdated stereotype of the world's largest film industry – and maybe of India, too.
The film is called Veere Di Wedding, which translates roughly as "My Bro's Wedding" — "bro" as in "homie" or "pal." In this case, it refers to female friends. It's the story of four upper-class childhood girlfriends who grew up in a posh area of the capital New Delhi and reunite as adults when one of them gets married.
They're clearly the popular girls, and they make fun of everything: ostentatious in-laws, airhead trophy wives, arranged marriage, online dating and the pronunciation of the Hindi phrase for orgasm — charam sukh.
On opening day, Veere Di Wedding broke records for the highest-grossing Hindi film with a female lead — let alone four. It took in $1.5 million.
The film is irreverent from the start: Kalindi, the bride-to-be, played by Kareena Kapoor, is surprised when her boyfriend Rishabh, played by Sumeet Vyas, proposes marriage. He gets down on one knee at a music festival on a beach in Australia and holds up a diamond ring. Kalindi looks aghast, runs into a portable toilet nearby and exclaims, "F***!"
Then there are her three friends. Meera, played by Shikha Talsania, is a plump new mother (the film makes a point of showing her snacking nonstop). She is estranged from her family after eloping with an American — but they haven't had sex in a year. Avni, a prim divorce lawyer played by Sonam Kapoor, is under pressure from her mother to choose a husband online and has a run of bad dates with conservative men who are too close with their own controlling mothers ("You bloody mother-lover!" she yells at one). Finally, there's Sakshi, the chain-smoking bad girl of the bunch, played by Swara Bhasker, who steals the show. Her husband catches her masturbating ("flying solo") and blackmails her afterward for "half-cheating" on him. Divorce proceedings are underway.
India has a powerful government censor board, which can refuse to certify a film for glorifying drinking, glamorizing consumption of tobacco or containing "dual meaning words as obviously cater to baser instincts." The movie hits all three taboos – although there is a warning flashed on screen whenever a character lights up: Smoking kills." And Sakshi's vibrator was blurred out — although still identifiable — at my screening.
Twitter has been abuzz with angry conservatives who appear to have coordinated their social media messages, all claiming to have all taken their grannies to see the film, all of whom were horrified. (In an unscientific study, I spotted at least two elderly women at the theater where I watched, and they looked like they were enjoying the movie.)
Feminists, on the other hand, deride Veere Di Wedding for unfair stereotypes of liberated women.
"It's an ugly stereotype of a particular type of women, in south Delhi – rich brats who party all night and have casual sex. They can afford to be that way," says Poulomi Das, a feminist and writer based in Mumbai. "I laughed at those parts, but I also think what the film says about liberated women is very dishonest."
The movie stars four famous Indian actresses. It's co-produced by two women, Rhea Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor, and another woman, Anvita Dutt Guptan, co-wrote lyrics to the soundtrack.
"I was surprised to learn a lot of women were involved in the filmmaking. Watching, I was sure a man wrote this," says feminist Akhila Vijaykumar, who wrote an article suggesting a drinking game based on Veere Di Wedding. Every time there is cliché about women, do a shot.
"The movie's outward packaging is of bold women, but it's a mismatch. It's actually regressive," Vijaykumar says. "We don't have many 'Sex and the City' films in India. Most movies about women are about someone who's been wronged and gets revenge. There's no woman-centric rom-com."
In the same way I naively thought Bollywood movies were all over-the-top, idealized romances, this film seems to worship not love but wealth, status and snobbery — right down to the product placement of Uber apps and Mac laptops. The women cruise around Delhi in a Bentley. At one point, a character dismisses a possible suitor, behind his back, as "BPL" — an acronym for "below the poverty line."
I found myself wondering how this movie is being received in smaller, poorer towns across India.
(In case Americans are curious, the movie is playing in dozens of U.S. cities as well.)
In the end, Veere Di Wedding doesn't break the mold totally. There is a happy ending, it all works out, and true to form, everyone breaks out into synchronized dance moves – and it's fabulous.