Women in Action

Reel Women!

A still from ‘Queen.’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Simran (2017), a woman-centric film made in India’s mainstream Hindi language, stars Kangana Ranaut, one of the country’s leading actresses. Her performance as Praful Patel garnered critical praise, but the film still flopped at the box office.

It seems the free-spirited, amoral central character was to blame — the audience simply couldn’t relate to a woman who keeps getting into trouble and shows no remorse. Yet in spite of its inane and inconsistent script and character development, it was heartening that a character like Praful Patel (aka Simran) could even be conceived and brought to the screen in popular Hindi cinema.

A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine such a heroine in a Bollywood film: Simran is transgressive, ambitious, greedy, tempestuous, manipulative, deeply flawed, refreshingly unapologetic and owns up to her addictions, failings and choices on men and drinks — be they good or bad.

She brings to mind the rebellious architecture student Radha in In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989). Played by author-activist Arundhati Roy, who also wrote the screenplay, Radha lives for herself and is accountable only to herself. She, like Simran, is not a role model as are most heroines in Indian cinema. But Radha was created for alternative, experimental cinema; Simran was intended for conventional Bollywood. The film’s attempt to mainstream a rarely seen female disruptiveness is a welcome departure.

During the past few years, Hindi cinema has seen not only the emergence of women-centric films but also an increasing diversity and nuance in portrayals of women, especially compared with male characters. So should we rejoice that these developments are sending a positive message to society and changing our age-old mind sets about women? Not quite.

Popular cinema can never influence or alter society’s attitude towards issues, including gender. The “no means no” dialogue in the 2016 Indian courtroom drama Pink stresses consent in all matters sexual, yet it hardly found an echo in the recent real-life case involving writer and director Mahmood Farooqui. The accusation involved the rape of a U.S. researcher. The accused was acquitted, with the judge pronouncing that “no” from a woman may not always mean a denial of consent — a “feeble no” could, in fact, mean “yes.”

What Indian cinema can do effectively is to reflect society and changing more. The current lot of women’s films may be a drop in the male-dominated Bollywood ocean, but their profusion dates back to the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case [in which a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern died in a gang rape in the capital city of Delhi] and the discourse it sparked. Violence against women captured the nation’s attention and made its way into filmmakers’ imaginations as well.

But it was Queen (2014) that was the real game changer. In this film of self-discovery, the heroine is jilted by her fiancée but decides to take her European honeymoon anyway. By the time she returns to Delhi, she has blossomed from a timid bride-to-be into a self-confident young woman. The low-budget film hit a chord, quickly climbing to the top of the charts.

Since then, other films have featured male superstars fighting for women’s causes, such as Aamir Khan in Dangal (2016), or showing their feminist side, such as Akshay Kumar making rotis (flatbread) for his on-screen wife in Jolly LLB2 (2017).

That said, money in films still seems to follow men. Whether it is good roles and scripts or getting funding for a woman-oriented project or striking a good exhibition deal, the die traditionally have not been loaded in favour of heroines.

But things are slowly changing thanks to a few independent-minded filmmakers, writers and actresses. Kangana and Vidya Balan, for example, won’t play second fiddle to a male lead nor will they agree to merely “dance around trees,” even if this means making fewer films. There are also women directors such as Konkona Sen Sharma who refuse to be put in a “feminist” box. For her debut feature film, A Death In The Gunj (2017), Sen Sharma didn’t tackle predictable women’s issues, preferring instead to look at how patriarchy imposes expectations on men, affecting, constricting and brutalising them.

As in life, for every one step forward in film, there are often two steps backward. The heroine-vamp binary in Indian films may have disappeared, women may not necessarily be reduced to doormats or objects of the male gaze. But old stereotypes also have a way of coming back: Many “woman of substance” roles still mean a narrative of struggles and sacrifices.

On a more optimistic note, the upcoming Indian comedy film Tumhari Sulu, with Vidya Balan in the lead as a housewife by day and radio jockey by night, could give us an all-new endearing, fun-loving, high-spirited heroine. Such roles are just what is needed for a more prosperous future in film, in which female actresses will only make Hindi cinema flourish.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 9:36:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/specials/women-in-action/reel-women/article21248612.ece

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