Mother Maiden Mistress completes a year!

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It’s been a year to the day that our book Mother Maiden Mistress was released and nearly two years since we wrapped up our study on women characters in Hindi cinema by detailing a few films that held for us a promise for better times for women in cinema. Even if our optimism was tempered by the fact – and as we wrote – that one swallow does not a summer make.

The year 2012 gave us a glimpse of the contemporary Indian woman – from the locales of the NRI to the semi-urban small towns – she is shown as a person caught in the conflict of identity – tradition versus ‘modern’. Be it Veronica in Cocktail or Zoya in Ishqzaade or Shashi in English Vinglish, the characters attempt to make a space for themselves, trying not to get entrapped within the stereotypical straitjackets of their predecessors. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.

For Veronica, tradition is the pull of nostalgia, of being a part of a family, of acceptance despite the fact that it comes from a tradition-bound society and has hidebound strings of compromise and compliance. For Zoya, tradition is the patriarchal society that makes her a pawn in the political game, an object to be acquired from the enemy and ‘dishonoured’, a vulnerability to be rid of by her own family. For Shashi, tradition is the dismissal of her identity as a person, being submerged into the family while the other members, including her ‘modern’ generation daughter judge her for the lack of apparent ‘modernity’

Then there are the women who stand apart from the conflict – Riana Briganza in Ek Main Aur EkK Tu – she is squarely in the modern – an independent single woman, whose rules are her own. (The fact that two women characters, who hint, wink, have pre-marital sex, are named Riana and Veronica is dealt with in film reviews). Akira from Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a daredevil, go-getter, who hangs out (literally) as the hero defuses a bomb, is a ‘modern’ girl too. (Her name interestingly too gives us no idea of her religion which could be either refreshing or a cop-out. We give it the benefit of the doubt and dub it refreshing). Meenaskhi in Aiyyaa is today’s woman who wants to get married but to the man she chooses. She wants the fairy tale romance of Bollywood and does not spare a thought about her family when she turns up late for her own engagement after being proposed to by the man she loves.

The fact remains that most of these women feature in love stories – except for Shashi whose English Vinglish is about finally finding the ‘self’, resolving the conflict within. One other film that surprised was Kahaani – whose character merged the Mother and the Maiden ending with that of the warrior.

Of course there were other women characters; the ones talked about here are just the ones in the leading roles. There were good supporting roles in Vicky DonorShanghaiTalaash, Barfi! and Gangs of Wasseypur. The rest were the predictable one-dimensional love interests in the 80’s inspired muscle-bound dramas – Rowdy RathoreDabangg 2Son of SardaarAgneepath and so on.

As for 2013, nearly six months into the hundredth year of cinema and there isn’t a single woman character that we can talk about. Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee) in Karan Johar’s Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh segment of Bombay Talkies – the middle-aged professional woman who finally revels in her sexuality is but a flash in the pan.

When we began the book, we searched for characters from the 1950s, and for every year we sifted through the dirt and sand to find minute nuggets of gold – and every year the search got more and more frustrating. It’s been a hundred years and cinema has changed dramatically in both form and content – what about the women? In 1913, the first women on the screen were men in sarees because society didn’t grant respectability to women actors. Audiences didn’t mind men in sarees cavorting in a pond though. A hundred years later, audiences definitely want women actors –  they look much better in sarees. And despite some aberrations here and there, this seems to be pretty much their purpose even now.

The Films (contd)…

Cocktail

Ishqzaade

English Vinglish

Ek Main Aur EkK Tu

Aiyyaa

Kahaani

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Ishqzaade

 

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Writer director Habib Faisal tells the story of foes turned lovers – Parma (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya (Parneeti Chopra).

They are young, hot blooded; they come from a family of politicians; the gun is the only toy they know and they are both equally aggressive. It is refreshing to see Zoya, a Muslim girl set in an unorthodox context. For her father, she is the star daughter. Instead of ebbing, the father pushes her aggressiveness and even proclaims that she is his true successor – this over her two brothers who are shown to be little better than dimwits.

Zoya plans her father political campaigns – the opposing candidate being Parma’s grandfather. Parma, whose father passed away when he was young, has to prove his mettle in his male-dominated family. He knows Zoya is better than him so he feels that has to tame her. That being difficult he plots the love angle. He cons her into believing in his love and finally she gives in. His idea is to marry her secretly and then bed her. She opposes to marriage initially but he talks her into it.

It is after bedding her, after making her what he calls a ‘prostitute’,  he threatens to blackmail her. She has to keep quiet and let his grandfather win the elections or else he will make her shame public. Her immediate reaction is to go and kill him. She reaches his house but gets caught by his mother who in an attempt to reform her son forces him to keep the marriage and his bride alive for his family would surely kill her.

What follows thereafter is a love story often told. They elope with their gun-wielding family behind them. Zoya convinces Parma that her father will accept them. But her father is dead against this and would prefer to kill them both. In the end both the families make a deal to kill them and close the matter. To gain their last victory over their families Zoya and Parma kill each other.

The girl is feisty and talks her mind. There is no taming her and the director-writer doesn’t even try to do that. Zoya flows with the certainty and uncertainty that a young woman deals with. Her confidence was in her father’s love who in the end betrays her. While Parma is told what to do Zoya knows what has to be done.

English Vinglish

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If there is one movie where one could bond with her mother, it would be this. Shashi Godbole (Sridevi), mother of two, is an upper middle class working-from-home woman. Her husband works in a high profile company and keeps his wife away from his professional life. He is very clear on why he married her – she looks good, cooks well and of course for procreation. Her teenage daughter is ashamed of her mother as she can’t speak English well enough for a conversation. Her younger son dotes on her, something her daughter must have done even if she rebels now. Shashi looks after her mother-in-law, the daily household chores, runs her small scale catering business from home and is the go-to-woman for anything that happens in the house.

You instantly recognize this woman. She is your mother. Even if your mother can speak in English, you still recognize the poignant silence of Shashi. Director-writer Gauri Shinde reflects on the often silently abused person of the house with sensitivity. For surely, not acknowledging a person’s worth is also an abuse.

A telling scene is when Shashi is in the US, helping with her niece’s wedding preparations, and her daughter calls up angry, to ask about the whereabouts of her scrap book and Shashi tells her where to find and assures her that she has not read anything in it as its personal. Her daughter responds snarkily by saying how can you read anything, it’s in English. It is here where she speaks her mind; it is here where you want to hold your mother’s hand and it here when you recognize the mother and the women.

It’s happenstance that Shashi arrives alone in the US,  to help her sister out for her neice’s wedding. Here, Shashi to regain her confidence and her  self-esteem decides to  take an English-speaking class.  And it is here that she is recognized for who she is and she begins to fall in love with herself.

One of her classmates, a French man falls for her but she is not interested. It’s when her niece says that it is okay to like a man outside her marriage does the Indian woman step in.  She says she wasn’t looking for love she was looking for respect. But isn’t love and respect somewhat the same thing?

The writer-director flutters over the possibility of another relation without disturbing the hornet’s nest.  In the end she drives home the point that it is trust and respect that matters and the family realize their mistakes. In the end scene when given the choice to read Hindi or English newspaper she picks up Hindi paper to read. English after all was just a tool to prove that she is indeed the super woman.

Kahaani

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There are Spoilers in this review

The moment the heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) gets down from her taxi-cab, the audience reacts to her with empathy. They are scared for her, she looks like she is about to give birth any moment. The reaction is almost physical – you want to reach out and help her up the stairs or want to put her feet up and make her rest. The audience misses a heartbeat every time she stops wearily in her search for her missing husband. How can she bear this alone?

The character pulls at every heart string to make the audience believe in who she is… a helpless pregnant woman who is nevertheless so in love with her husband that she will fight for his existence. She has the other characters in the film also believe her story. It’s easy to empathize with a pregnant woman, easier to underestimate her.

Vidya Balan lives her role in the film and convinces us right up to the end taking us and the villain in surprise – he is predictable, he hits her where she is most vulnerable – in her stomach. The audience gasps when the prosthetic stomach is pulled out – when she turns into the cold-blooded warrior stalking her prey and killing him.

I would have like the story to end there, she is a soldier, and she does her duty.  But most of us want our warrior women to be in the image of the mother-goddesses  and here too the killing scenes are accompanied by images of blood red Durga in Calcutta. Vidya too was a mother. At the end moments of the film, it is shown that the villain was responsible not just for her husband’s death but the shock of which had resulted in miscarriage. At that moment, a early scene in the film where Vidya clutches her stomach and cries heartbroken makes poignant sense.

The nod to religious icons aside, it was a rare pleasure to watch a good actress essay a role and a carry an entire film.

Aiyyaa

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Meenakshi (Rani Mukherjee) in Aiyyaa has a penchant for melodrama and Hindi films. She dreams in Technicolor. She hams in front of her mirror, mocks her own performances during the ‘girl-seeing’ ceremonies of arranged marriages. She is nearly thirty years old but has no negative body images; she does not want to get married because of her biological clock or the fear of being an old maid. She quite simply wants romance – a full-fledged, multi-coloured, all stops out Hindi film romance.

And she falls into at work, a romance filled with mystique and mystery, when an over enhanced sense of smell leads her to an art student whose body seems to give out a fragrance that entrances her. She does not mind that he is dark-skinned, or of a different language. She sets out to find out more about him. She learns Tamil, disguises herself as a Tamilian and visits his home, she wants to know what kind of bahu, his mother would want.

At home, however, the parents have finally got a positive answer from the numerous boys who had come to ‘see’ her. Her engagement is announced and she is bewildered by the practical, middle of the road cinema hero who loves Farooque Shiekh films when she really yearns for a Masala man.

She does not turn up for her own engagment – she is busy in pursuit for her man –  she solves the mystery of his fragrance; he works nights at an agarbatti factory! He catches her spying on him – all is revealed, he too is in love with her, she is just the girl his mother wants as his bride, he says shyly.

Meenakshi is an intriguing character, she has declared herself the heroine of her life and despite her so-called flights into Bollywood fancy, is quite sure of what she wants and she goes about and makes it happen. One is hard-pressed to find such a character in Hindi cinema. Strike that, it is hard-pressed to find such a protagonist in a Hindi rom-com.

Ek Main Aur EKk Tu

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The film begins with the hero Rahul (Imran Khan), losing his job. He doesn’t want to tell his parents who at that time are visiting him so as to avoid upsetting them. He bumps into Riana Braganza (Kareena Kapoor), a hairstylist (note: a new profession for women characters in Dharma production after it made its debut in My Name Is Khan). Riana is in between jobs, has little or no money (little money to buy things, no money to pay rent), is just out of a relationship and is a free spirited soul who has few hair strands coloured red to signify the aforesaid free, bold spirit.

They meet again at a psychologist’s clinic where Riana gets into an altercation with Rahul and ends up walking out with his patient info card. She invites him out for a drink and they end up drunk enough to get married. What follows then is the wait to annul the marriage in which Riana moves in with Rahul as she is awaiting for a money transfer from home.

During this time Riana shows him the fun side of life – how not to be uptight. Rahul falls in love with Riana while she is just in love with life. The end is done unconventionally where they don’t live happily ever after – they just remain very good friends.

I wanted to like Rahul but something kept me away from him maybe because I didn’t want to mother one more person. Maybe that’s what kept Riana away from him too. And just when I was easily sailing to the end comes the scene after Riana apologises to him, she is sorry if she ever made him feel that she too was in love with him. Rahul says it’s okay and now he is ready for a new life as he has settled scores with his parents and he is ready to move on. In that moment of affection Riana puts his hand over his shoulder and then Rahul turns a typical male and says, “Ek toh itna kareeb baithathi ho aur phir bolti ho mein lead kab di”.

Reminded me of the age old and mother of all quotes from the father of all family plus social plus romance movie from the Barjatiya’s “Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhie dost nahi ho sakte” (Maine Pyaar Kiya) and I can confidently say that it only applies to men.

The movie has no significant moments but in its way it has moved a little ahead in characterisation without making a noise about it. The scene where they visit a psychologist just too offload their over worked mind is new for the Indian audience. It changes the conventional thought that psychologists only treat ‘mad’ people, hence the deliberate use of world psychologist instead of shrink in the movie.  Also when Riana in a slip of tongue says yes when asked by official who is taking care of the annulment of the marriage whether she has had sex. This does away with the conventional idea of a virginal lover.

Even the otherwise eye popping scenes are treated in a casual manner to remove the unwanted attention and bringing a fine subtlety like when Rahul and Riana are sharing the bed like friends, Rahul respecting Riana and giving her the space she wants. There are no moments where the camera lingers on her body or the male character’s gaze does.