The Indian heroine has slowly started rising in our films. And this year has been truly radical says Sudhish Kamath, pointing to content and characters in movies such as Dedh Ishqiya, Highway, Queen and Gulaab Gang
It’s quite a sorry story when you realise that not just films, even film theory and studies of myths are mostly about the hero’s journey.
Especially, Joseph Campbell’s definitive guide to myths, titled The Hero With A Thousand Faces, considered the Bible for aspiring screenwriters and storytellers, a book that went on to inspire many of the greatest storytellers. One that helped George Lucas write Star Wars and through which the Wachowski Brothers found The Matrix.
The rare criticism this celebrated book faced was that it was too caught up with its notion of the hero as male — one who had to meet his Goddess and make peace with his father — to be his own man and find himself, in the course of the journey. Of course, this doesn’t really apply to women.
And certainly not to Indian women, who fight battles of not just gender discrimination, but of caste, creed, religion and politics, against the system and within. They not only take on society and the world outside but also battle demons closer home. And at home.
Over the last few years, the Indian heroine has slowly started rising in our films. While this new wave may have started off with exploitative films such as The Dirty Picture and Heroine, films that were just an excuse to unleash the male gaze, Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish brought refreshing sensitivity to the screen with its true blue heroine — the Indian housewife who straddles two worlds and prove she can rule both — home turf and the foreign, alien one. There was also a half-baked idea in Aiyaa we could not appreciate, thanks to its packaging.
This year, however, has been truly radical.
First, it was the brilliantly bold Dedh Ishqiya that dared to wink at the face of Section 377 by celebrating the lesbian subtext in the relationship between its twin heroines — who are capable of turning men from fools to tools of their empowerment. Given that this was the big twist towards the end, critics were forced to leave out the significance of what this meant for Indian cinema. It was a huge step forward — a mainstream celebration of lesbian relationships — starring Madhuri Dixit, one of the best known iconic actors of our time. Abhishek Chaubey, Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar had created a film that finally proved that you do not need to be a woman to make a film with beauty and sensitivity.
Next came Highway, Imtiaz Ali’s sequel-in-spirit to Rockstar. The story of a girl raised to believe that the world outside is dangerous and full of thieves and that home is the safest place in the world. Again, the twist in the tale debunked this big Indian myth. We live in a country where homes are more dangerous for women than the roads and the highways. Homes have this way of becoming prisons and Highway was this paradoxical tale about a girl who found freedom in bondage — when she is kidnapped and taken away from home. The girl strangely, quite inexplicably, likes this freedom and we later understand why. Director Imtiaz Ali made an intriguing choice to not sexualise the relationship between the captor and the hostage or even make it conventionally romantic. It was pure and platonic. They were more family to each other than family itself. They found more safety and freedom with each other, away from the ways of the world, far away from the claustrophobia of crowded homes, ritualistic routines and empty existence.
While Highway was dark and headed towards a predictable destination with its Bollywood structure, last week’s release Vikas Bahl’s Queen completely changed the mood with his light-hearted and spirited film about a small-town heroine. Never have we seen the quintessential average middle-class Indian girl this liberated.
It works way better than Highway because it shows us how easy it really is to liberate and empower women onscreen. They don’t need to get kidnapped by a humane angry young man to find themselves. They just need to travel, see the world by themselves, without having to worry about a thing. Any father or mother can do this for their daughters. Any girl can go on such a trip if she sets her mind to it.
It also showed us that such a journey didn’t necessarily mean losing your identity or getting a makeover. On the contrary, we begin to love the girl for who she really is. She finds herself halfway into the film but more importantly, the world finds her... and loves her for who she is. Here was a Hindi film that decided that its heroine did not need a hero in her life and stood its ground.
We are teased with the romantic possibilities — that she could find her soulmate in a girl who coincidentally shares her name with her fiancé, an Italian restaurateur who she finds extremely attractive, and three other male roommates — including one who seems to like her. The first one tells her not to change, she kisses the second one for the fun of it, no strings or consequences attached, and doesn’t really contemplate a relationship with any of the three roommates. She goes to be with them at the rock show and as its time for them to leave, she bids them goodbye and stays back at the show. She is truly independent, detached, free of any baggage. The master of her fate, living the moment, without a care in the world. And we realise she has done this, without having to give up on family or friends. A silent triumph; one that speaks volumes of empowerment.
Finally, when we see a film where the biggest battle a powerful woman fights is against another powerful woman, we even tend to forgive the flaws in its making. The shoddily crafted Gulaab Gang at least drew our attention to the critically acclaimed documentary Gulabi Gang and the story of women who decided that ‘Rod is God’ when it came to fighting their battles.
It is not the Indian heroine but the Indian cinema that has come of age.