The recent death of a 17-year-old Jadavpur University student has sparked renewed focus on ragging in the country. Thriving for decades across college campuses, this ‘initiation ceremony’—or, let’s just call it for what it is, cruelty and abuse—has been normalised by Bollywood for an equally long time. It shouldn’t be too surprising, as it remains an industry that reveres hierarchy and status quo, doing everything in its power to uphold them. But at least two more factors make Bollywood filmmakers depict ragging in shallow comedic ways: a) their limited understanding of Indian college life (where ragging becomes an easy plot point to inject ‘realism’ and ‘humour’) and b) their fascination with—and subservience to—bullies (most evident in their crawl-when-asked-to-bend attitude over the last several years).
The examples of ragging in mainstream Hindi cinema are numerous but let’s begin with the most ‘progressive’ film among the lot: Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009). An early scene introduces its hero, Rancho (Aamir Khan), who sees a senior making his juniors strip. Everything till then is played for laughs. The senior also barks at Rancho, but (being a hero) he slips into his room, creates a device that has a spoon attached to an electric wire, and slides it outside the door. Wanting to teach Rancho a lesson, the senior pees outside the room and gets a jolt to his genitals and learns a lesson. (This too is, of course, played for laughs.) The implication is simple: Be a bully to defeat a bully.
A similar scene recurs in Hirani’s first film, Munnabhai MBBS (2003), which shows how little he and other Bollywood directors understand the vocabulary of power. Here, much like 3 Idiots, the seniors force their juniors to strip and make them dance to a Bollywood song. But when Munna (Sanjay Dutt) enters the scene and takes his shirt off and flexes his muscles, the seniors become terrified and quiet. Munna, then, makes them strip and dance, causing his fellow classmate to laugh, who was just ragged. Both these scenes don’t interrogate bullying but instead celebrate the bigger bully. This is cinema of one-upmanship, obsessed with showcasing the winner.
Hirani graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) which, like Jadavpur, is a purported haven for progressive values. Around three weeks ago, an FTII alum, Shakti Kapoor, recalled how his senior, Mithun Chakraborty, ragged him on campus by cutting his hair and making him swim for 20 minutes on a cold night. Kapoor recounted his five-decade-old ragging in vivid detail, as if it happened yesterday, exemplifying the long-lasting scars such incidents leave. Another actor who shared his ragging experience after five decades—an experience so painful that he refused to elaborate further? Amitabh Bachchan, at a press conference in 2010, when asked a question about college ragging in the context of 3 Idiots.
Recent Bollywood films glorifying ragging follow the same playbook as Munnabhai MBBS and 3 Idiots. So in Chhichhore (2019)—a coming-of-age drama that bats for the underdogs—ragging is presented as comic relief, where a father urges his son’s seniors to rag him so that he can become more macho. Kabir Singh (2019) makes it worse by giving an inventive spin to it, where senior women order their juniors to strip. The scene ends when another student tells her classmates to spare Preeti (Kiara Advani) as she is “Kabir sir’s interest”. (Women bullied by a man, a woman saved by a man—only Kabir Singh could have packed more than one insult in one scene.)
Bollywood filmmakers have also used ragging to legitimise public sexual harassment. A very small sample just from the early ’90s: Khambe Jaisi Khadi Hai from Dil (1990), Khud Ko Kya Samajhti Hai from Khiladi (1992), Meri Pant Bhi Sexy from Dulaara (1994), and on and on. But Bollywood bullying, if not ragging, doesn’t end here. It is in fact so entrenched in the ethos of mainstream Hindi cinema that it comes up, again and again, through the hero’s sidekick: a servile character whose only raison d’être is to provide humour through humiliation—and to make the hero look more masculine.
Not all Bollywood films have been callous though. Some have even pushed back, such as 404: Error Not Found (2011), Hostel (2011), and Table No. 21 (2013), underscoring the horrific aftermaths of ragging. But such movies’ lack of star wattage and meagre box-office earnings have snuffed out the promise of similar stories. Yet ragging is such a pervasive reality that its on-screen depictions keep popping up. Some of it has done well, serving as a model for other filmmakers to follow.
A small scene in Gulaal (2009) by Anurag Kashyap, who has spoken about being sexually abused in Scindia School, is a convincing example. It features the usual elements of ragging—the seniors interrogating a junior, twisting his replies for more laughs—but, unlike many Bollywood films, Gulaal deploys a haunting background score, amplifying not the humour but the humiliation. This scene can perhaps make college bullies understand their own cowardice. But its better target audiences are Bollywood luminaries themselves, who have often bullied those in the lower rungs of hierarchy: independent directors, desperate writers, outside actors—the list is long. For an industry fixated on images, the Jadavpur incident has shown Bollywood what it really needs: a mirror.