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Hindi cinema isn't what it used to be. Movies have become shorter, duets have grown scarcer and background songs are the new voice-overs. And top actors now spend more time peddling goodies or saving society on television. Like it or leave it, it's the new order of things.
One of the most noticeable of these changes in Bollywood is the sparkling variety of women characters that have perked up the big screen. Not that Hindi cinema was bereft of such women of substance. Duniya Na Mane (1937), where a young wife refuses to sleep with a husband old enough to be her father, and Mother India (1957), the ultimate profile in courage of a rural woman, are merely two examples of shining links in a long chain.
In the new millennium, though, Bollywood's writers are penning more nuanced parts for women without being judgemental. Female protagonists in Maqbool, Dev D, Ishqiya, Gulaal, Fashion, Life in a Metro, Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani surprise us with their individuality, greed, determination, ambition and sexuality. Collectively, they have fifty shades of grey and more.
This fecund Bolly summer has seen four wonderfully-written women characters in three films: Vicky Donor, Shanghai and, most recently, Gangs of Wasseypur. Watching Anurag Kashyap's Wasseypur is like attending a blood wedding in dark testosterone country, where pistols talk, knives argue and conversations end with bodies spurting blood. In the past, women in such masculine movies were reduced to cardboard stereotypes. But in tune with Bollywood's latest state of mind, the movie's most textured character is a woman: Naghma Khatoon (a rare Muslim woman character played memorably by Richa Chaddha), the wife of dreaded criminal Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee).
Passionate, violent and assertive by turns, Naghma is instinctively aware of the ideology of her surroundings. When her freshly-married husband reveals his career plans, which revolve around avenging his father's death, she snuggles up to him, as if he has just promised her a gold chain. She doesn't intend to reform him. Rather, she knows the importance of being a criminal's wife and the power it gives her family. Which is why when the police turns up at her house late at night, in search of her jail-breaking husband, she's all fire and brimstone : "Subah aana nahi to yahin kaat ke phek denge (Come in the morning, or I'll cut you to pieces), " she blurts. Her husband admires her spunk. At one point he tells his son, "My rivals couldn't do anything to me. But your mother is too hard to handle. "
Naghma fights patriarchy even as she internalises it - which makes her a person of irresistible opposites. She occasionally offers an inch but mostly protects her space fiercely, with dignity. She invades the whorehouse where her husband is on the job, showers him with abuses - *harwa, *andibaaz - and thrashes him, even as he offers comical excuses. In a more generous mood, when pregnant, she allows her husband to find release elsewhere, even as she delivers an unforgettable one-liner, "Baahar ja kar beizzati nahi karana" (Don't humiliate yourself by failing to perform outside). " There's another scene, where she is vacuum-cleaning the house and her husband asks her to stop;she persists, and tells him, gently but firmly, to step out. It's a tense stand-off that ends in a draw.
Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai gives us another character with attributes seldom-seen in Hindi films: Dr Ahmedi's wife Aruna (played by Tilottama Shome). Together with co-writer Urmi Juvekar, Dibakar gives muscle and meaning to what could have been a faceless stereotype. Aruna's god has died young, both literally and figuratively. She doesn't walk the same road of protest anymore with her husband, where a wide-eyed ingenue, Shalini, is a perk. It takes her just a glance to figure out the relationship between Shalini and her husband. She was in similar shoes once. History says activism and ardour are always exciting bedfellows. And yet she loves her husband for being the man he almost is. Her choice, in the end, is surprising. But Aruna is nothing but if not her own woman. It is a singularly layered part.
There's more. In a remarkable moment in popular Hindi cinema, Vicky Donor has two aging women - a daughter-in-law (Dolly Ahluwalia) and her mother-in-law (Kamlesh Gill) - unwinding at night, sipping whiskey. Once a couple of pegs are guzzled, niggles in the heart start to itch and tongues are loosened. What follows is part banter, part needling between the two. And then they drink some more. No scriptwriter dealing with a middle-aged working widow and her silverhaired mum-in-law would have envisaged such a scene even a few years ago. The two women form an unlikely bond although they seldom agree with each other on anything. The younger woman worries about everything, while the older one is 'life positive' personified and a liberal to the bone. She welcomes the divorcee daughter-in-law, and their differences aren't rancid. They know the song of life is best hummed together.
That these movies have caught the urban public's eye perhaps indicates that our upper middle-class too is becoming more accepting of opinions and views that may not be necessarily their own. Bollywood writers have slowly discovered this. That's why women on celluloid are getting more rounded and textured. Amidst the Rowdy Rathores and the Housefulls, a section of Bollywood is also mapping great change in urban India.
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