Heroine-oriented emancipation sagas are becoming big hits, even if emancipation is achieved only in glamorous foreign lands

Kangana Ranaut’s film Queen deserves to be celebrated for many reasons. For one, it is “a Kangana Ranaut film.” She is in every frame; a heroine with no need for a hero opposite her. Two, the film has turned into one of the unlikeliest of hits, grossing more in its second week than its first. (In these multiplex times, collections typically fall steeply in the second week.) Three, the film’s success is validation that audiences are open to a range of women-centric films, from the heavy-duty Vidya Balan dramas like Kahaani to these small, breezy dramedies. These were the lessons we took away from the success of English Vinglish two years ago, though that film came with a stronger USP and the return to the big screen of one of Hindi cinema’s biggest heroines.

A troubling trope

Queen and English Vinglish are both well-crafted films and really hard to dislike, but they rely on a rather troubling trope to illuminate their heroines’ emancipation. In English Vinglish, Shashi, a housewife who doesn’t speak fluent English (and who is, therefore, frequently mocked), goes to the U.S. and enrols in an English class to learn the language. In Queen, Rani, a woman who is dumped by her fiancé on the eve of the wedding, takes off to Paris and Amsterdam and discovers that she doesn’t need a man to lead a life. Both Shashi and Rani are unsophisticated in the sense that they wouldn’t fit into a Farhan Akhtar movie — and this makes their transformations all the more remarkable. In a culture where cinema is essentially an offering at the altar of the hero, who can deny these heroines their moments in the sun?

But did Shashi have to go to the U.S.? Did Rani have to go to Paris and Amsterdam? Doesn’t India offer its women enough experiences and opportunities for emancipation? And wouldn’t audiences flock to those movies?

Two things here. It is the filmmaker’s prerogative to tell the kind of story he or she wants to tell, and in telling this story — in the case of these films, the small-town-girl-goes-abroad-and-finds-herself story — the more extreme the culture shock, the more the flailing one has to do, the more well-earned the epiphany. (In films as in life, the greater the adversity, the more feel-good the triumph.) So it isn’t surprising that Queen and English Vinglish packed their heroines off to distant corners of the earth. When Shashi cannot manage a conversation in English with her daughter’s teacher in Mumbai, how will she manage in New York? When Rani has led such a sheltered life in her overprotective and middle-class Delhi environs, however will she fend for herself in Europe? These are rock-solid dramatic constructions. The fear of drowning is far greater in the deep end of the pool.

My question is simply this: Don’t these deep ends exist in India? Do new experiences happen only in new countries? Take Highway, where a New Delhi princess finds herself when she’s kidnapped by a thug and given the two-cent tour of the non-air-conditioned India. Or take One By Two, the Abhay Deol flop released earlier this year. The heroine, the Mumbai-based Samara, leads a life every bit as Bohemian as Rani’s Parisian friend. Samara isn’t shy when it comes to sex. (Her friend-with-benefits wants her to move to… Amsterdam! Is the country’s tourism department actively wooing Bollywood?) She deals with an alcoholic mother and a distant father. In other words, had Rani made it to Samara’s tony Mumbai suburb and moved around with people like Samara, she’s as likely to have had those life-changing epiphanies. She’d still have seen people she’d never seen earlier. She’d still have done things she’d never done earlier.

The secret of success

The point isn’t to fault Queen, which achieves its modest aims with a good deal of grace. The point, rather, is to understand why films like Queen and English Vinglish succeed the way they do, when other emancipative you-go-girl sagas like Highway fall behind. Forget the qualitative factors — acting, filmmaking, and so forth. The list of films that scored on these aspects and yet failed at the box office extends to the moon. It’s the feel-good fantasy, essentially, that people are buying into. You walk away from Queen and English Vinglish on a high. You walk away from Highway wanting to slit your wrists. Besides, Homely Indian Woman Conquers the World has a better ring (and ka-ching) to it than Rich Little Delhi Princess Slums It Out in Small-town India.

That’s why the character of Shashi resonated so much with moviegoers. Shashi is a great cook, and she runs a small catering business that keeps its clients coming back for more. Yet, it’s her mastering of English in glamorous New York (as opposed to one of the numerous learn-English institutions inside India) that’s shown to be the real achievement. Her big speech in the end is delivered in English. This is ludicrous in a film that says your family should accept you as you are. But had that speech been delivered in chaste and fluent Hindi, which your maid servant can manage, the fairy-tale spell would have been broken.

Isn’t it nicer when the First World falls at your feet?

baradwaj.r@thehindu.co.in

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