Unusual suspects: Women who mattered in Hindi films
While digging up women protagonists from their unmarked graves in Hindi film history, for our book Mother Maiden Mistress we began an exercise that we rinse and repeat every year end. The idea was to create an A-List of characters with different rules of recognition every year.
Last year (2014) the rule of inclusion was that the List would — in the context of male-female dynamics in romantic relationships — look for woman protagonists written independently of the male protagonist. To wit, a character needs to, as the story progresses, get a subtext or two and/or exhibit qualities, vices, virtues not as seen or pointed out or in highlighted by the presence of a hero in her life. Then we decided to add a challenge — she would definitely have a life or an adventure even if the meet-cute with the hero does not happen.
Begum Para and Muniya stride into the list. The men in Dedh Ishqiya seem but an episode in these women’s lives. Midway through the film is a scene which captions the interplay of power between the men and women in this story. In a post-coital daze, while an indifferent Muniya sits relaxed in the background, Babban mutters, pata nahi main lereya hoon ki deraiya hoon. When the dust-up towards the end dies down, the men are disposed of and the story leaves the two women happy and content in their own selves and with each other. Their life continues.
Queen jumps, ragged sweater et al, into the list. The script spins itself off on our challenge — that the character would have an adventure even if the hero is not in the picture. Rani (Kangana Ranaut) represents generations of women groomed for a groom (haathon se meri bhi mehndi lagao jaldi se jao mera dulha leke aawo); the half of Raja Rani stories whose life would make sense once the Raja comes along.
Deserted on the eve of her wedding heartbroken Rani goes on a solo trip to Europe beginning with Paris. Along the way she sheds many of her ingrained ideas about companionship, about self and most importantly expected behavior. She returns feeling like a Queen and not just the better half of a king.
Veera is kidnapped and dumped into the list and she hangs on by the skin of her teeth. In Highway, the candidate for our list is abducted days before her wedding and the road movie takes her out of her self, shows her realities that exist parallel to hers and it makes her a dangerous woman — a woman who is self aware. Granted much of it hinges on her stockholm syndrome love for her captor, but the script has shown us the seeds of resilience in her. Her beloved dies, but her story does not end.
Shaking off the dust of gender stereotypes off her backpack, in steps Meeta Solanki from Hansee Toh Phasee. Nerdy, hyper active, with perhaps the highest IQ ever of Hindi film heroines, Meeta has a romance that seems incidental to her story. More to the fact, she is written as a person and not a wife in waiting or shrew to be tamed — the two ends of the spectrum of romance heroines (separated by shades of gray in between). In this romcom, the hero takes over the emotional burden of relationships and customs while Mita takes pills to suppress her emotions lest the society turns her into what they want her to be.
The father-daughter relationship here is worth a mention. Nary a single dialogue from him as to her behaviour going against the type. To the father she is his child and like all children has right to her share of money and mischief.
There are a couple of more names way down the list. From Daawat E Ishq comes Gulrez, an enterprising young woman who decides to revenge herself on dowry-minded bridegrooms and their families. The idea is to marry one such money-grabbing man, blackmail the family with a Section 498 A reprisal and get enough money so that she can pursue her life dream. Though the trap falls shut on her instead when she falls in love with her intended target, one does have a feeling that, hero or not, she would fulfill her dream of going to America for further studies.
Then there is Mrinalini aka Milli from Khoobsurat who is in the List by the skin of her pearly whites. She is a perky, easily amused and eccentrically attired physiotherapist whose cheery, loudmouthed take on life is pitted against royal etiquette and stiff upper lips. Badly written and nauseatingly chirpy, Milli however refuses to change — there is no my fair lady makeover. She remains a plebian and yet gains her Prince Charming.
These leading ladies are a far cry from the ideal Indian young woman presented to us in 1994 — Simran of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. No subtext here, just a girl who switches off real personality and settles into the demureness that India demands of her daughters, who sings of her Prince Charming, but accepts with resignation a brutish guy who is the choice of her father. She pleads for her one lark, the only adventure in her life before she settles in the depths of rural Punjab and then promptly does the exact thing that vindicates her father’s excessive discipline. She falls in love with an unsuitable boy. Her mother, probably having read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, exhorts her daughter to run away. However, the modern Indian NRI boy-in-training-to-step-into-patriarchy’s shoes, says no, not without the father’s blessing. Simran has to given away by her father and pulled/rescued into a new life.
Twenty years later, it’s still difficult to say that Simrans are a thing of the past, but what we can look forward to is more Meetas, Begums and Queens!