Thursday, March 08, 2012

Aaj ka rangarang karyakram - filmi mahila kirdaar

A young journalist recently asked me some questions for an article about women characters in Bollywood films. I spent several hours going over lists of movies I've watched over the last decade, and thought it might be interesting to share whatever I came up with.

Interesting women characters who pushed the boundaries:

Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.

She made choices, paid the price for those choices, had a sense of social and emotional integrity, but she didn't give up on herself, or her country, or indeed, on love.

Paro (Mahie Gill) in Dev D.

What a fabulous new Paro! She's a full-blooded north-Indian woman. She tends to take impulsive decisions. But when she sees Dev for who he is, she is self-protective enough not to turn into a sucker for emotional punishment.

Shruti (Anushka Sharma) in Band Baaja Baaraat.

A confident girl who knows her mind. She bends the rules, but she also uses tradition to her advantage. She's practical, self-respecting, and when things go wrong, she pulls herself together rather than moan about the past.

Sona (Konkona) in Luck By Chance.

She's ambitious, painfully honest - about her work, her industry, her future. She gets rejected at work and in love. She picks herself up. And she does not accept her (eventually) much more successful lover, because she values her happiness, and understands where it can/cannot come from.

All the women in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd.

Each one is spunky in her own way. All of them are determined to take a stab at joy. All have clearly defined personalities. None of them takes much bullshit from the husband.

Alvira and Laila (Preity Zinta and Lara Dutta) in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Fun girls, both. One is a feisty upper class girl. And how she loves a yarn! She's willing to take a risk or two. The other is a chilled-out sex worker. She does not have a golden heart, does not complain of victimization. And she gets a happy end!

[I did think of Tabu in Maqbool, but the film was released several years ago. Besides, it is an adaptation of Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth is a central figure. Shakespeare gave her generous doses of conflict, ambition, guilt, and some great lines. So I don't know if I should credit Bollywood with her character.]

More regressive characters (or films) from recent years: 

A few I can recall immediately are:

Priyanka Chopra's character in Drona.

She's supposed to be the hero's bodyguard. But of course, the hero must save her later. Bleargh!

Kareena Kapoor's character in Kambakkht Ishk.

Badly conceived, overall. She comes across as immature, incompetent (as a medic), arrogant and supercilious (as a 'supermodel'), a man-hater, a relationship-destroyer, a friend-controller, and finally, mistrustful of her own sexuality. Fail, fail, fail!

Kareena Kapoor's character in Kurbaan.

Clearly, lady professors don't use their brains very much. And they're no good at self-preservation. Hapless creatures who need vengeful boyfriends of dead girls to rescue them. And their lives are supposed to be less valuable than their wombs, but nobody seems to be challenging that notion. Ugh!

Aishwarya Rai's character in Action Replayy.

She starts off being feisty. Then she must be cut down to size. She must fall for a rather unattractive juvenile guy, just because he learns to dress better. She has no clue what she really wants, it seems. And her feelings can be turned around to suits the male protagonists.

Besides, divorce is portrayed as some great calamity that must be prevented at all costs. People sticking together, despite their inherent incompatibility, is advocated. Triple fail!

All the women characters in No Problem (or any Anees Bazmee film).

One of them (Kangana Ranaut) thinks she is the most beautiful woman on earth and does not have any other thoughts in her beautiful head. The other (Neetu Chandra) is a gangster's moll and doesn't have a personality of her own, except a robotic kind of hot-ness. She is useful only when she can quickly switch loyalties, when one of the heroes begins to flirt with her.

A third (Sushmita Sen) is just outright crazy. Wants to kill her husband because he is not a clever, brave cop like her daddy. Although, on second thoughts, her character's kind of fun. It was amusing, seeing her character chase hubby all over with a knife or a gun, and the whole family running for cover. Progressive? Regressive? You decide.

Most striking change in how women are imagined on-screen today (And should we be celebrating the change, or have new burdens emerged?)

The one change I have noticed in Hindi films over the last decade is that we finally have women characters who seem less anxious about sex. (Or about virginity). But that's only true of a small fraction of Hindi films.

My main concern is that there are fewer films with women in key roles (compared to what I've seen of films from the 1950s and 60s). I have been looking at lists of 'best' (most successful) films of the last decade. Very few have women as strong central protagonists. They often exist as caricatures, or as ghostly shadows. Or objects of desire. This is true of even 'small' films, the critically acclaimed ones.

The result is that female actors end up not exploring their full range. Their principal job is looking slender and wearing not very much, and getting fake boobs as soon as they can afford them. I find it hard to name brilliant actresses, even as 'character actors'. Not because they don't exist but because we don't get to witness their potential brilliance. 

I think a big part of the problem is that there aren't enough women producers, directors or scriptwriters. Or distributors. On that front, we've made no significant progress since the 1950s (yes, there were a few women producers back in those days).

I don't know much about the film business, but I am deeply disappointed that the growth in middle class women's education and income levels has not translated into a louder clamour for better women-driven films.

1 comment:

A. said...

Very nice.
A piece that ought to be read and taken seriously in the industry.
Of recent(ish) films, I was waiting for 'Saat khoon maaf' to feature.

Also, was surprised that you've actually watched Drona. Ha! :)

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