Women’s empowerment in films is a comforting fantasy even though it lasts only a few hours
There is a theory that our movies are so filled with fantasy because the audience, at the end of a long and hard day, wants simply to escape reality. By some kind of coincidence, this theory was put to practice at our multiplexes last week, just as the shameful Tehelka episode began to unfold. Woman as victim: this was the grim reality. But on screen, women were being empowered like rarely before.
To begin with, there was Selvaraghavan’s lavish Tamil-language fantasy Irandaam Ulagam. The film is set in two worlds — Earth, and a distant fantasy land (which could be called Earth 2, echoing the title) — and it is the heroine who holds her own in both. The men are emotional fools. They’re kicked between the legs (by the heroine). They’re enslaved (by the heroine). Even in terms of physical prowess — shinnying up trees, wielding a heavy sword — they’re routinely surpassed (by the heroine). They don’t even get the “hero introduction shot,” which is taken for granted in Tamil cinema, where the gulf between heroes and heroines is so vast that the sexes could well hail from Earth and Earth 2.
It’s the heroine on Earth 2 who gets a rousing “introduction shot,” an action sequence where she conquers a fearsome creature of the wild. And on Earth, it’s the heroine who falls for the hero, and she’s the one who walks up to him to tell him she wants to marry him. He says no, citing family reasons, the way a heroine usually would. And then she gets him to pursue her, the way a hero usually would. Even the “eve teasing” moment — a long-standing tradition that the hero adheres to — in this film belongs to a woman, the heroine’s friend. For a change, it’s the man who ends up objectified, with frank comments being passed on his eyes and lips and thighs.
At least Irandaam Ulagam is what is known as a “director’s film.” The Hindi release, Singh Saab the Great, is a hero-vehicle all the way — a Sunny Deol vehicle, which really says it all. And yet, there’s an action stretch where Deol is nowhere on screen. The hero’s sister — who in this kind of retro action movie exists only to end up a victim and provide the hero cause for revenge — picks up a cudgel (in a manner of speaking) and brings it down on a thug who accosts her. He falls. She runs outside. More men are in wait. She beats them up too and flees the building, only to realise that her young son is still inside. She rushes back in. The men are back, and they’re holding the child hostage. Her little rebellion, we think, is over. And in comes the television journalist played by Amrita Rao, brandishing a gun. These two women outwit (with muscle, not just wits) a number of burly men.
Touch of reality
The week’s other Hindi release, Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, is a romcom, and this genre has little use for action sequences — it relies more on good-looking and youthful leads. And therein lies the week’s biggest surprise. The heroine here, like the heroine in Irandaam Ulagam, is more grounded than the hero, whose only aim in life is to do nothing, and use his rich father’s money to snag pretty girls and fancy cars. He thinks only about himself. The heroine, in contrast, is a social worker — she always thinks about others. She thinks of building a shelter for orphans. She protests when land earmarked for a playground is appropriated by a mall developer. And, finally, she moves to a village that lacks the most basic amenities.
The hero follows her to the village — no surprise here, otherwise there would be no movie — but in the film’s most jaw-dropping moment, he notices a strand of white in her hair. And far from being annoyed at having this pointed out (we’ve already been told that she’s older than him), she says it’s been there for a long time. She makes no apologies for who she is. In real-life terms, this is nothing, but in terms of the romantic fantasy that this genre of cinema strives to present, this acknowledgement of the woman as a being who ages like everyone else deserves a small salute.
Of course, the salute would have been bigger had something more substantial been done with her character. She ends up simpering in the hero’s arms, which is the fate that befalls the heroine of Irandaam Ulagam as well. As for Singh Saab the Great, the female action duo is eventually subdued, and the hero returns to flex his muscles. He always wins in the end. But in these brief flashes, through these minor victories, we see women as doers, occupying a higher position on the food chain than the men, and it’s a more comforting (and more necessary) fantasy than the designer clothes and the NRI locales we’re usually asked to escape to. At least for these few moments in a made-up version of India, women aren’t victims.