Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rewriting the Beastly: Suleikha Snyder's BOLLYWOOD AND THE BEAST

The story of a beautiful woman trapped in an isolated location with a man who has been transformed into a hideous beast is one of the most prevalent tale types in all of western folklore. Myriad authors, including award-winning fantasists from Robin McKinley to Mercedes Lackey, and multiple filmmakers, from Jean Cocteau to Walt Disney, have turned to Aarne-Thompson tale type 425C for plotlines, characters, and ideological constructs in need of re-imagining. Analyzing different versions of the tale, and the ideological use writers make of it, often tell us as much about the reteller and the times in which s/he lives as about the original tale itself.

Madame de Villeneuve
In the first printed version of the tale, La Belle et la Bête by Frenchwoman Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, the Beast asks his beauty each night not "Will you marry me," as many later versions of the tale present it, but rather "May I sleep with you tonight?" In 1740, when Villeneuve's tale was first published, women were considered the property of their fathers, and then, after marriage, their husbands; granting Beauty the right to choose whether or not to sleep with the Beast is a sign of proto-feminism on Villeneuve's part. My favorite B & B retellings, then, perhaps not surprisingly, are the ones that pay homage to the roots of feminism in Villeneuve's original tale.

In Bollywood and the Beast, romance author Suleikha Snyder gives us a Beauty and the Beast in a setting far from the Europe of the tale's origins: the cities and suburbs of modern India. Yet the feminism she brings to her retelling has clear links to the story's original interest in women's right to make decisions on their own behalf.

Half Indian, half gori (white), American Rakhee (Rocky) Varma has been working to establish her acting credentials in Bollywood. Most of the Indian-born actresses on the Bollywood scene look down on her because she doesn't understand Hindi, and because she's "fair without having to endorse a whitening cream." After Rocky somewhat intemperately calls the industry on its racial biases during a television talk show interview, the director of her new film refuses to have her bunk with the rest of the cast and crew, fearing the drama likely to ensue. When Rocky's protective father worries about the dangers of staying alone in a hotel, Rocky's co-star, Ashraf Khan, offers to have Rocky stay at his family's home, where her safety and privacy will be ensured. His Nani (grandmother) is friendly, and his reclusive brother, disabled ten years earlier in an accident, will surely stay far out of her way.

When Rocky arrives, however, Ashraf's older brother, Taj, is far from invisible. In fact, despite his scarred face and inability to walk, Taj seems to go out of his way to annoy Rocky with his sharp insults and sultry sexual innuendoes. Though she's attracted to the handsome, scarred older man (35 to her 21), Rocky makes it clear that she finds his beastly behavior less than charming:

Taj was a chauvinistic pig. Like any other chauvinistic pig out there in the street. No better than someone who catcalled her or undressed her with his eyes. "You know what? It's not your face that makes you a monster. It's everything else. You're disgusting."

Unlike earlier Beauties, whose kind behavior tames their Beasts, Rocky doesn't teach Taj to be less beastly. She hews more closely to romance novel conventions, the ones that have the hero drawn to the heroine because she speaks the truth to him ("you're disgusting"), rather than flattering him. And it's as much the urging of his brother as his own attraction to Rocky that brings Taj to gentle his behavior towards his houseguest. And then, in true Beauty and the Beast fashion, Taj and Rocky are soon in the midst of a passionate affair.

As Marina Warner has argued, many of the feminist retellings of B & B from the 1970s and 80s (see, for example, Angela Carter's "The Tiger's Bride," or the 1987 CBS television series) invert the traditional tale's domesticating dynamic. Rather than portraying the Beast being in need of Beauty's taming influence, these feminist retellings insist that it is Beauty who is in need of the Beast: "the Beast no longer needs to be disenchanted.... Beauty has to learn to love the beast in him, in order to know the beast in herself," in particular, to accept and embrace her own erotic desires (From the Beast to the Blonde, 312).

Snyder seems more interested in contesting the traditional storyline, the one which constructs Beauty as tamer of the Beast. Taj ironically imagines her in such a role several times in the novel, but Rocky is well aware that taking on such a role is not her job: "I'm not näive.... I don't think I can kiss your boo-boos and make them better. Only you can do that." To bring that point home, Snyder inverts the ending of the traditional story. In most versions, Beauty leaves the Beast, at least temporarily, a move that endangers his life. In order to save him, she must give up the outside world, and return to the confinement of his. In contrast, Rocky realizes that to remain in isolation with Taj (who has only left his house four times in the past ten years) would mean giving up far too much: "She didn't want to be here forever, trapped in a fairy tale. She wanted to go back to Mumbai and home to Chicago and visit Bali and Berlin and Botswana. She still had so many things to do and to see." And so this Beauty leaves her Beast behind, unwilling to remain in the cage he's crafted for himself. It is Taj, not Rocky, who must "return" to the world he's left behind if he is to win her love: the world beyond his garden's walls.

Snyder's book is not without its flaws. Its secondary plotline, conveyed primarily through a third point of view (Taj's brother's), takes up so much space, and demands so much of the reader's emotional energy, that the primary love story often feels as if it is given short shrift. The nasty portrayal of Rocky's female colleagues in the opening chapters contains hints of misogyny (although I can understand it, if not like it, by reading these female colleagues as stand-ins for the original Beauty's selfish sisters). The secondary plot's villainess seems to have walked straight in from an evil-stepmother fairy tale rather than a Beauty and the Beast story. And the construction of Taj's caretaker, Kamal, veers dangerously towards Orientalizing (in the Edward Said sense): "There was something almost unearthly about him. And not just the ninja-like way he moved. It was his calm and his confidence, and how he seemed to know so many things intuitively," Rocky thinks of him at one point. Snyder, to her credit, seems to realize that she's walking a dangerous line here, by having Rocky also think, "Kamal was somehow... more. But he was human. She knew that."

Yet despite its flaws, Bollywood and the Beast is well worth a read, particularly for those intrigued by the ways that European fairy tales continue to be re-envisioned for each author's, and each age's, ideological needs.

Photo credits:
Villeneuve: MetroNews

Bollywood and the Beast
Samhain, 2014


  1. I don't think it's Orientalizing if most of the other Indian characters are human and complex, but I do wonder about the hint of misogyny you mentioned...

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