Why the Bollywood movie Phobia is a feminist masterpieceJune 3, 2016
I went in for Phobia expecting something better than the sad excuses for psychological horror that Bollywood generally churns out, was almost disappointed, until I absolutely wasn’t. Spoilers ahead.
While a twist ending is to be expected in any thriller, the twist ending in Phobia came in like a storm transforming what seemed like any old thriller into an amalgamation of feminist symbolism and plot devices that criticizes the modern Indian patriarchy most beautifully. The film makes you regret not being interested at first and makes you want to watch it again and again to look for all the little things you didn’t quite take note of. Such as…
The Barage of Crazy Women
It’s not just the protagonist, Mehak, who is struggling with mental illness in this film. As soon as the protag is displaced to the scene of action, we are introduced to the neighborhood crazy-lady trope. While her role as the initial red-herring was short lived, her activities and storyline served as an additional metaphor to the feminist themes in the story. Her constant search for her husband, her cat and its own antics, and her solitary rants out in the garden, all represent the state of women especially those tagged ‘crazy’ for one reason or another.
The protagonist herself is abandoned by her only family after falling victim to a traumatic event and whilst suffering subsequent mental issues. Not only is the twist ending where it turns out that she wasn’t mentally ill at all representative of how independent women and their gifts are stifled with intentional mislabeling such as that of ‘hysteria’ and ‘baggage’ but also her lifestyle before the events of the film which are indicative of the same.
The enthusiastic neighbor girl, Nikki, was another crazy female of note. Eccentric and quirky, even for a college kid, she proclaims right from the beginning how weird her friends think she is and how she’s glad to have another crazy person around when she meets the protagonist. Her misguided trust in the protag, turns out to not be so misguided in the end whether she knew it or not. It provides a very basic theme of female solidarity in a scenario where the protag is trusted by no one and has been abandoned by the one woman in her life whom she should be able to count on, her sister.
Though absent for most of the film, the sister acts as a device for a lot of the misfortune that befalls our protagonist, a lot which is patriarchal even in its most basic form. While being moved to a strange apartment against her will was bad enough, she was kicked out of a house that belongs to both her and her sister on the basis of the fact that her sister has a child. As if that isn’t enough of an allusion to the superior social status society gives women for reproducing, the jab the protag takes at her sister for being a single mother also illustrates the irony of such social hierarchies set up by the patriarchy.
The abandonment she faces from her sister adds another dimension to the patriarchal injustices represented in the movie. The fact that she has a child keeps the sister from supporting her only other family, shows how social roles set up by the patriarchy is what keeps ‘sane’ women from supporting each other.
Her lack of understanding for her sister’s situation and proclamation that “It’s not like she got raped!” is a classic example of victim blaming and rape apologism and the fact that it comes from a woman and someone close to the victim is… common, to say the least.
Manu, Jiah and Their Dysfunctional Relationship
As the all-round neighborhood creepy guy takes the role of the red-herring, we learn more and more about the dysfunctional relationship he shared with Jiah, the previous occupant of Mehak’s residence. Other than there being a visible age difference between Manu and Jiah, there were many worrying elements in their relationship, which is what leads Mehak and Nikki to suspect Manu of having murdered the missing Jiah.
As the conflicts in the story begin to be resolved, we not only find that Jiah is alive, but also see her get back together with Manu. Their reunion is almost endearing as Jiah addresses but then puts aside all of her complaints towards her quirky but harmless lover and gets carried away in his arms. What was not addressed directly in this scene was that how worrisome the Jiah’s comaplaints (both the ones put forth in the scene and the ones in her diary) were and that they were borderline abusive if not entirely.
Manu makes his apologies in his own quirky manner and the couple is portrayed as happily having gone off into the sunset and are not mentioned again. Much like how many a timeless love story has ended and many a modern pop culture storyline has been portrayed; a clearly dysfunctional relationship with a power imbalance and an abusive element gets their “happy” and their “ending” all tied up neatly in a little bow.
The ‘Nice’ Guy
There for her when all others had left her side, the ‘nice’ guy expected nothing in return for all the patience and love he had shown for our protagonist. Yes, of course, he expected a little physical affection from her now and again. But never in exchange for all he had done for her as a friend! It’s just that he is a man, after all.
Nikki even draws direct attention to the ’friendzoned’ status of our poor misunderstood male protag.
One has yet to see a more perfectly written portrayal of the ‘nice’ guy anywhere in pop culture. Usually, ‘nice’ guys are exposed as the conniving sex-fiends that they secretly are, as the true hero comes in and takes his place. And here’s where we don’t give the ‘nice’ guys of the world real world enough credit. Shaan was more complicated than that. Shaan’s dispositions were more nuanced, much like any ‘nice’ guy in real life. It’s not as if he intended for the love of his life to get hurt, really. He did plan to call an ambulance after she did. And he would have called one too, if that pesky neighbor-girl hadn’t gotten in the way. Probably. Of course once both those women got injured he had to think about his next move a little harder. After all he had to save his own life, and what would it look like if he injured two people and both of them testified against him? He did come through in the end, though. When it became obvious that our protag was going to either get help for herself or die trying in a spot where she’ll be discovered, he called for an ambulance immediately. One can’t simply ignore the subtleties of the actions of such a well-developed friendzoned-bro character!