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Films are a great binding factor, or so the late film critic Roger Ebert would have us believe.
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Half sati, half sexy
In 1997, Rani Mukherjee made her debut in the film Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat where her character was raped by Shaadab Khan. When the case makes it to the court, it delivers a warped sentence - the rapist has to marry his victim. This they do but he makes several attempts to murder her. As the movie ends, Shaadab Khan discovers the goodness of the woman he had raped and tortured, and marries her again. Fourteen years later, Mukherjee played Meera, a character in No One Killed Jessica, who memorably asks a lover to 'fly solo' when she had to leave mid-coitus.
Raja Ki Aayegi Ki Baraat was a film so regressive that its Neanderthal morality even managed to overshadow how bad the film itself was. On the other hand NOKJ was remarkable for many things. Not least in that it featured a plain Jane character in Vidya Balan (Sabrina) whose dowdiness was not considered a problem to be solved through a makeover and a boyfriend. But both RKAB and NOKJ are films that feature women characters that are central to the movie's raison d'?tre.
The tribe of female characters with an edge is growing in Bollywood. Since NOKJ, Vidya has gone on to carry two more female driven films to box office success, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani. Kareena Kapoor is working on Madhur Bhandarkar's Heroine which also appears to be focused primarily on the trajectory of her character. And if they are (even if sporadically ) popping up on in our films, is it fair to assume that we seeing the beginnings of a more progressive attitude towards women in Hindi cinema?
The answer to either question depends on whether you subscribe to the half-full or half-empty glass theory. Optimistic people will find reason to hope in feisty characters like Silk (The Dirty Picture) and pessimists believe that that these are just token concessions to modernity that are inserted to increasing the 'with it' quotient of a film. One Kahaani, after all, is hardly going to change the script that Hindi movies subscribe to, when it comes to its women.
As the clout of actresses grows and they chase meatier parts, it is becoming clear that a female-centric film and a film that is progressive in its portrayal of women are two entirely different things. For all the attention paid to Priyanka Chopra's character in Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion for example, the film itself was regressive - a woman exercising her sexual freedom, it said, will invariably come to an unhappy end. In TDP, Silk for all her feistiness commits suicide, marriage being her ultimate and only ambition. And, Yami Gautam's recent divorcee character in Vicky Donor never really slept with her first husband.
Instead of getting more real, grounded or independent women into films, Bollywood is simply latching on to the most obvious and superficial symbols of free spiritedness. Usually this is alcohol, which has become a shorthand for conveying modernity. This would explain the growing number of songs set around women getting drunk in films. Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone by now deserve an award for convincingly downing shots and acting drunk in song after song, film after film - Dostaana, Anjaana Anjaani, Love Aaj Kal, Karthik Calling Karthik and the upcoming Teri Meri Kahaani and Cocktail for example. It's our homegrown, amateur take on the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' clichê that was cultivated in Hollywood by Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in films like Yes Man and 500 Days Of Summer. It all rings very hollow and their modernity seems to start and end at clubbing.
It's very convenient to blame directors and the star system for this half-modern, half Sati-Savitri hybrid but it's not only the filmmakers who are to blame for it. The hypocrisy is all pervasive and extends to the personal life of our actresses.
Not one A-list actress will admit to having touched a drink in her life. When an MMS clip featuring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor kissing did the rounds, her reply was, "Women from good families don't do such things". This double standard extends to beauty. Actresses mouth fluff like "Inner beauty is most important". And "I haven't worked out a day in my life". No one admits to getting cosmetic surgery, even though it's obvious to all. And lying about one's age is common practice. And as the audience, we are guilty of our own special brand of hypocrisy. When Vidya Balan's films didn't work at the box office, she was labelled fat and a horrible dresser. When they did, she became "voluptuous". But when an actor goes through a spate of flops, like Hrithik Roshan did after Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, the attacks don't centre around weight or looks. There aren't many debates on how progressive the portrayal of men is in Bollywood. And we seem to be perfectly content seeing our heroes regress into steroidal rage maniacs. Then how on earth are the women going to get real? They are in the same movie aren't they?
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