IN A society where prejudice against women runs in its very skin, there is something deeply worrying about the success of Homi Adajania’s film Cocktail. In the midst of Presidential swearing-ins, muscleflexing allies, a humanitarian crisis in Assam, impending fasts against corruption and violent labour unrest in Maruti, it might seem a bit disproportionate to focus one’s anxieties on a little Bollywood film, but we forget, Bollywood in India is no ordinary thing. It is cultural glue; barometer; mirror and master. It is the horse whisperer. The potters’ club subconsciously shaping and shifting the Indian mind. The influencer.

Mostly, Bollywood hates this idea of itself. It would rather not buy the exalted talk of cultural leadership. Far easier to bill itself as mere toffee. But in a film-crazy country like India, even toffees leave tastes. (Watching two Bollywood heroes in a light-hearted caper about gays in a comedy like Dostana, for instance, probably did more to make middle India less homophobic than all the gay parades of the world.)

Cocktail does the exact opposite. A film about love, it does not open up new spaces; it smashes them down. Coming from a writer-director duo like Adajania and Imtiaz Ali, it’s not just a sellout: it’s a regressive, offensive mistake that reinforces every stereotype and impulse for misogyny in the Indian psyche. It sets up three characters: Gautam, a charming serial flirt played by Saif Ali Khan. Veronica, a flamboyant, sexy woman, at ease with herself, played by Deepika Padukone. And Meera, a gentle, docile paragon played by Diana Penty. At first, the film leads you to imagine it will be a cheesy but emancipated take on a new, modern sexuality, where consenting adults come together in relationships constructed on their own terms. But it not only fails to do that, midway, the film’s messaging goes violently off the rails.

Gautam starts out with a casual, live-in relationship with Veronica. Predictably, despite the buzzy, warm vibe between them, when it’s time for true love, he jettisons her for Meera. Left at that, things would’ve been bad enough. (As if a woman who doesn’t hold her chastity like a precious treasure for her husband to plunder is not capable of love or fidelity.) But there’s no accounting for love’s choices and writers are welcome to their plots.

What makes Cocktail so offensive is what comes after. It does not just deny Veronica’s character a chance at love, it savages her. The filmmakers fill her with selfloathing. She pleads with Gautam to allow her to prove that she too can be gentle, cut vegetables, make biryani and wear long clothes (sic). From being a joyous, sexually uninhibited woman, in command of her life, the film suddenly portrays her as a slut, drugging and drinking her way uncontrollably through psychedelic nights, resigned to strangers’ hands creeping up her legs. (As if spunky women who dare to party alone would — and must — put up with that as par for the course.) Then, as if they haven’t reviled her enough, the filmmakers quite literally ram Veronica’s character over with a car. When she is resurrected from the hospital bed, the old Veronica is dead: in place is a new, presumably more socially acceptable, woman.

Gautam — as much the playboy — is put through no such moral laundering. It’s the old axiom: sexually prolific men are virile; sexually prolific women are whores. A man like him can find true love, a woman like her cannot. What makes Cocktail so disturbing is that it endorses the sort of endemic cultural mindset, the gauze from which horrific incidents like the Guwahati molestation case are cut. The fact that a film like Cocktail could play into those tropes and excuse itself as merely pandering to “audience taste” is a terrible betrayal.

Filmmakers often argue that they’re not meant to be social reformers. This is a narrow defence. It is not one’s contention that art must be a politically correct lecture, or necessarily, even radical. But surely it should not cement a society’s retrograde gene? Neither is it one’s argument that a woman like Veronica must be shown as superior to Meera: only that she be framed as just one kind of woman in a spectrum of women, individualised, not stereotyped. Like life, a film’s plot might serve her hard knocks, but surely the filmmakers’ gaze should not? The function of art may not be to reform, but surely it must, at the very least, unobtrusively prise open tiny new understandings, and nudge society towards greater humanity and empathy.