When a Punjabi village girl rebels…

Gender discrimination. Domestic abuse. Vigilante justice. These are terms that echo in my mind as I watch Kulraj Randhawa's character slit the throat of a goon with a sickle toward the end of upcoming Punjabi film Needhi Singh’s trailer. It suggests that the movie, set to release on July 22, will be a rare Punjabi feature where a woman, that too a village woman, would play the central character. Being set in a region where a village girl suffers discrimination right from her birth — Punjab has a sex ratio of 895 women per 1,000 men, as compared to the national average of 940 women — the movie announces that it will mark a clear departure from the recent trend of male-centric drama in Punjabi films.

The opening lines in the trailer remind you of the early-day Sohrab Modi and Nasir Hussain films, which used to begin with the production house’s theme phrase, as we hear:

Vaq pai to goongiyan cheekhan bhi aawaaz ban diyaan ne,

Zulm di had jad hondin, to chidhiyan baaz ban diyaan ne

“When the need arises, even a meek whimper can be turned into a voice of protest,

When oppression crosses its limits, even a sparrow can take the form of a falcon.”

These lines also give an indication of a gritty woman who, let down by the law, is forced to take to violence. Jaivi Dhanda, Needhi Singh’s director for whom this is the first movie, agrees. “While conceptualising our lead, we took cues from the lives of many courageous women in Punjab and nearby States — ordinary women who refused to bow down to forms of exploitation like dowry-related violence, perceived stigma due to not having a male child and ostracism over marrying someone from a different caste,” he says. Dhanda adds that though the film, set in Bhago Majra village in Mohali, is based on real events that happened circa 2011 — like gender violence witnessed by his friend’s sister — the dramatised treatment is entirely his own.

Memories of NH10 and earlier women-centric masala films like Phool Bane Angaarey flood my mind. Dhanda also refers to these films but adds an important point, a point he keeps stressing throughout our 25-minute conversation. “Needhi Singh [played by Kulraj Randhawa] is the lead character and she is the real hero of our film.” His stress is on the individuality of the character, one that would make the film score high on the gender test. “Needhi doesn’t have any love interest, boyfriend or husband. Neither is she shown romancing any male lead. Her screen presence is independent of any male. Her unique identity comes across right from the beginning — whether she is shown playing with school-boys or dancing with her father in the garb of a sardar or impressing the village elders with her witticisms.

He asserts: “There is a reason why she is called ‘Nidhi Singh’ and not ‘Nidhi Kaur’ [Among Sikhs, it is common to use the surname of Singh for a man and Kaur for a woman]. She is mentally stronger than most men. Just like Meera in NH10 or the lead in Neerja, she shows the courage to rise above the circumstances and seek justice in her own way.”

One important sphere, it is clear from the trailer, where Needhi Singh clearly departs from NH10 is the background of the protagonist. Unlike Anushka Sharma’s character in the 2015 film, Needhi has been part of the village and product of the same patriarchy that she later takes up weapon against. Hence, she clearly has greater stakes in trying to shake up the system. Here, she seems to have greater similarities with a Sonbai (Smita Patil) from Mirch Masala or a Ketki (Madhuri Dixit) in Mrityudand. “Yes she is a village girl. But the grit she shows while fighting the village establishment is more appreciable than that of even a city hero,” says Dhanda.

When asked about the importance given to women characters in Punjabi films, Dhanda expresses disappointment that even talented actresses are used merely as glam dolls, only meant for dance numbers and playing the hero’s love interest. “The limitations in the script ensure that the real actor in the person never emerges. The actress is forced to remain content playing a second fiddle,” he laments. In this regard, even Hindi films are making only slow progress, with films like Queen.

Further, Dhanda proclaims with confidence: “My vision [for Kulraj’s character] was for a free-spirited woman who never feels the absence of a male in her life and I have been successful in bringing that out. When confronted by exploitation, she does not look to a hero for help. She fights the battle on her own.”

Both the trailer and Dhanda’s statements sound noble in intent. Whether or not he has succeeded in execution, we need to determine after watching the film.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 2:42:59 PM |

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