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.

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.

What’s in a name?

By Jigna Kothari

What’s in a name?

Shakespeare never anticipated Hindi films where everything is in the name. And this solely applies to female characters. A source of constant disappointment, this, the last one being the naming of the very outspoken character, one who visits a shrink and confesses of having physical relations with her guy and of having more then one boyfriend and who in the movie makes a naive younger man fall in love with her – she is named Rian Breganza in ‘Ek Main Aur Ek Tu’.

Vidya Balan’s character Vidya in Paa (2009) was somehow comforting, ‘somehow’ because the character was given a few concessions like she conceives when not in India and also the child’s disability shifts the focus to the child and moreover the whole story then revolves around getting Vidya back with her partner who is the father of her child.

So the name question still rankles in my mind. In Cocktail Veronica (Deepika Padukone) in so many ways defines what Meera (Diana) is not. In a medium where image creates an understanding and subtext, I ask why Veronica can’t be Meera and why Meera can’t be Veronica?

Veronica comes from a broken home, is rich, is well known in party circles and gives a damn about what is to be done or not too be done. She meets Meera, who is all-alone in the big new city and gives her a room in her house. Meera, an extreme opposite of Veronica and also an ideal comfort-sounding board for Veronica. In fact before Gautam (Saif Ali Khan) thinks of sharing a home cooked meal with Meera, it is Veronica who confesses to Meera that her house is now a home and she looks forward to come home.

In comes Gautam who is happy to have a no tension physical relationship with Veronica. Meera though accepting of Veronica refuses to accept Gautam’s philandering. But they do forge an enviable friendship.

The true human nature is seen in Veronica when Gautam confides that he and Meera are looking at a life together. She is happy at first for there was no commitment with Gautam and she decides to party for their good life. They go to a club where Veronica still reigns as party queen. It’s here it strikes Veronica how lonely she is. Everywhere around her are people in relationships but she is lonely in spite of being toast of the crowd. There are voices that can’t seem to feel the void inside her. She is an alien in her own life. Now she wants a home, and she wants fun and she wants it her way. Just how different is she from Gautam?

With Meera she had a life and with Gautam she had a fun companion and now both are moving ahead leaving her in a bottomless pit. And she does what any normal person would do. She makes sure Meera leaves her and Gautam.

In the penultimate scene it’s Veronica pouring her heart out to Gautam. There is a second where you see Gautam going for the kiss he thinks she is giving him. But Veronica steps back – she is the stronger of the two.

In Love Aaj Kal, Imtiaz had his lead female character named Meera- a name associated with the longing, the long wait for one’s love. When I met him, I asked him whether his character was named Meera so as to resonate with the audience. For it had with me and I had felt empowered when Meera just before her marriage gives her first love a second chance and when it fails she moves ahead. As a woman that broke all the long standing ‘forever’ love stories in me. Imtiaz said the character name was not based on Meerabai’s character but yes somewhere it does make a connect.

In a society much adamant to lay rules on women’s behavior there is always a Veronica killing the Meera in her just to be a rebel

And a Meera who is killing the Veronica in her to be accepted by society.

So Imtiaz, why is my Meera hiding in Veronica?

 

The hero men love…

By Jigna Kothari

One of the symptoms of living a subject for three years is that you just don’t know when it is over. The book is out, we are on our next project but still the emotional connect is yet not off. Love the aftertaste. The feeling one gets post a heavy workout yes we did that and yes, we will do it again.

Last week I saw the Homi Adjania directed, Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali written love story Cocktail.
The curiosity to see the movie was definitely because it was written by Imtiaz Ali and added curiosity was thanks to Homi Adjania who after directing the dark movie “Being Cyrus” had broken out of his hibernation for this movie. This in itself was an interesting cocktail for the writer in me.

In Cocktail the woman who has just been duped of her savings by her husband who had promised a glorious life in London is Meera (Diana Penty). But this Meera seems true to her friend Veronica (Deepika Padukone). Veronica and Meera share an almost enviable relationship, both are independent, both single and both extreme in nature. In their world men should be incidental.

 

It almost is, till they forge a friendship with a certain flirt I-am-handsome-and-all-women-are-made-for-me Mr Gautam Kapoor (Saif Ali Khan). This tendency of all-women-want-me seems to be a perennial Hindi film hero problem. The day the hero sheds this trait he will become as true protagonist.

The men in the audience were happy being in Gautam’s shoes reacting with a certain pleasure in the penultimate scene where Veronica gets closer physically to Gautam and confesses she wants him physically and emotionally. There was a certain kind of laughter in the men of audience showing just how grown up men are. Yeah, they are just as mature as Gautam who decides that with Veronica it is an open, no tension relationship but he wants to marry Meera as he is now looking forward to come home and have a hot cooked meal. While as a woman I cringed when Gautam said that, I was equally amazed at the easiness of Veronica confession.

The only complaint I have with Imtiaz is with the character names.

If only Veronica was called Meera.
Let’s not hide behind Veronica.

More about Veronica and the question of ‘What’s in a name’ in the next post….