Someday, there will be no need to celebrate women characters; we will not write about movies representing the LGBTQIA community, we will not have hashtags like BlackLivesMatter.
There will just be stories and characters and all humans would matter equally. Someday we will not be writing a year-end listicle on women characters from Hindi films. But today is not that day. It’s the end of 2020, and let’s admit it, women-centric films are still a category while the male-centric ones are ‘mainstream’.
Women in Bollywood have mostly been seen through the male gaze, not only because these movies are written by men, but because women in India have traditionally been viewed in relation to the men– she is a mother, wife, partner, daughter to be deified or devoured, but never just a woman deserving of her own story. Yes, even the legendary Guru Dutt is not exempted from this charge.
The year 2020 may have been strange for a lot of reasons, but the one thing that kept all of us glued to our screens were the OTT platforms. Many of these stories were written keeping women in mind, where they occupied spaces as the pivotal character as the story revolved around them.
While this may have to do with the increasing number of women writers and directors who are determined to tell stories that they missed seeing on-screen while growing up, it also has to do with the conversations and the realisation that Imtiaz Ali’s manic pixie dream girl stereotype is a passé. In the year 2020, Bollywood saw women take charge of their stories and turn every stereotype on its head. We saw some real women characters– Women whose purpose in life was beyond being a rehabilitation centre for the quintessential man-child Bollywood loves to peddle as heroes.
Amrita, Thappad: I Complete Me
Writers: Anubhav Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul
You don’t need to look for a man to complete you; all you need is to simply find, acknowledge and embrace your ‘wholeness.’
There is a lot to unpack in Thappad where writers Anubhav Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul turn one slap across the face of Amrita (played to perfection by Tapsee Pannu), the protagonist of the story, into an exploration of patriarchy, male entitlement, misogyny, the normalisation of domestic violence against women and how women are robbed off their agency by their people in the name of keeping the family together.
When we first meet Amrita, she is a very bit of a submissive, sanskari, cotton dupatta-wearing, bahu– the loving and caring daughter-in-law, a dutiful and doting wife, a graceful and gracious host. But, it is after her husband plants a slap on her face in the middle of a house party that we actually get to see Amrita, the person. She puts her foot down and turns into an independent, self-respecting woman with a mind of her own.
Benaras Media Works, T-Series
Ek thappad hi toh thha… people around her try to dismiss this act of violence, more so, this act of public humiliation as just a slap that Amu is supposed to forget. She is questioned for dragging the matter too far. The writers don’t arm her with preachy dialogues, but it is her steel silence in the quiet moments that stabs and shatters the din. The morning after the incident, the husband comes to her and starts justifying his act while going on a rant about the problems he is facing in his professional life. Instead of being apologetic about his act, he is looking for comfort from the wife, as if nothing really has happened. Here Amrita’s humiliation gives way to shock and disbelief at the nonchalance of the husband, before she slowly just gives up on the man who was till that point the most important part of her life. The character arc evolves, the journey happens without Amrita speaking a single word. Even when she gives her cathartic speech sitting in front of her mother-in-law — she looks back at her life, remembering that she had to swap her ambition of becoming the world’s best dancer to being the world’s best wife almost overnight. The writers make the character tremble on the brink of melodrama, but never lets her trip over.
Bulbbul, Bulbbul: The Edge of Kaali
Writer: Anvita Dutt
Be Durga. Be Kaali. Be your own saviour. Reclaim your story.
One can read it as an alternative/feminist and even sarcastic take on conventional fairy tales. We all know that a strong woman makes for a horrible fairy tale. A woman who refuses to wait for a saviour, for the prince charming, and takes matter into her own hands, is conveniently branded as the ‘witch’. The women superheroes, if not sexualised in tight, bustier costumers to satisfy the male gaze, don’t get to be powerful or brave enough.
Clean Slate Filmz/Netflix
Just like its protagonist, the eponymous Bulbul, the movie itself is fragile and delicate and yet powerful, almost a direct reflection of its writer/director Anvita Dutt. Bulbbul is an embodiment of the very spirit of a woman– it is at times whimsical, at times stoic, at times wild, at times shy, at times boisterous, at times quiet. At times it is volatile, at times it is violent. At times it is overflowing with emotions and at times it simply seethes biting its lip.
Bulbul, the character, revealed to the Indian audience that the idea of a ‘good woman’ is completely false. A woman feels every other emotion that every other man feels– the anger, rage, need to seek revenge– are not masculine traits. That’s the myth that Bulbul broke, finally.
Gunjan Saxena, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl: Kambakht Bilkul Aurat
Writers: Nikhil Mehrotra and Sharan Sharma
It doesn’t take balls to be bold, all it takes is courage and courage is gender agnostic!
To begin with, it is a movie about a woman that remains a movie about that woman. There is no love interest, no knight in shining armour. The only man who finds an important place in the character’s life is her father, albeit as strong support.
But most importantly, in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, there is no attempt to fit Gunjan in a Procrustean bed to make her mardaani (like a man). Strong here is not essentially ‘manly’ and mouthing cuss words isn’t part of the act. Gunjan showed that courage, grit, stamina, strength, doesn’t come bundled with the concept of masculinity. That itself was such a breath of fresh air!
Gunjan isn’t a short-haired, loud, tomboy draped in androgynous boxy clothes. She is every bit a cute, cassata eating girly girl whose dream isn’t gendered. She is shy, timid, introverted, and vulnerable. The writers, Nikhil Mehrotra and Sharan Sharma, keep the character simple, the focus straight.
Gunjan has a dream. She interested in doing her job and she is great at it– if this requires her to take on the world of men, that is incidental. What stays with us at the end of the film is that the messaging isn’t overt and is incidental to Gunjan’s story.
Jaya Nigam, Panga: Mother Courage
Writers: Nikhil Mehrotra and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Motherhood is not a handicap. Don’t turn it into one!
Panga, the Ashwini Iyer Tiwari film is marketed as a sports movie but is essentially a coming-of-age movie of a mother. Jaya Nigam is that mother. The character has been played by Kangana Ranaut. Jaya is an ex-kabaddi player who has captained the Indian team but then gave it all up because her duties as a mother became her priority.
But this is not one of those cliche stories where parents and in-laws force the girl to give up her dream. Jaya’s mother’s only question before consenting to Jaya’s marriage is if the potential groom will let her play Kabaddi. The potential groom becomes the life partner and Jaya finds immense support from her husband. The only antagonist in Jaya’s story is probably Jaya herself. She decides to give up her first love for the new love in her life, her son, a premature baby in need of extra care. What makes her story different is, unlike Bollywood’s favourite trope of selfless and sacrificing mothers, she is conflicted about her decision, and even partly regrets it.
Throughout the tale, Jaya reveals her regrets and broods over dreams of past life– the many things she could have been. But when she gets a second chance to fulfill her dream, she is overcome with a mother’s guilt. To her, running after her dream is equivalent to neglecting her child. Even the thought of wanting to fulfill her long lost dreams makes her brand herself as a ‘selfish mother’.
Panga is the story of a woman pulling herself out of the clutches of her ‘guilt’ and taking a stab at her own happiness. The writing is often a tad melodramatic, but Kangana makes sure Jaya remains relatable throughout as she gives one of her career-best performance.
Ratna Sir: Maid… of honour
Writer: Rohena Gera
Know your boundaries well… so that you can break those.
Written and directed by Rohena Gera, this little movie that has been winning big at the international festivals finally had its theatrical release in India this November. The demure romance between a house help and her employer that brews inside a posh apartment of a Bombay high-rise is a slow burn.
It is essentially the story of Ratna, who widowed at the age of 19, has left her village home to eke out a living in the big city as a domestic worker. Although she cleans and cooks for others, she is a thorough professional, who has adapted herself to the norms and decorum of the upper-class society her employers belong to.
She neatly pleats her life around that of her employer just as the saree around her waist. Her job in the city has given her economic stability and freedom to be live on her own and pay for her sister’s education. She also finds enough to finance her own dream to become a fashion designer. The city also frees her from the stigma of being a widow; here she can wear colourful clothes and flaunt her bangles which she carefully yet reluctantly takes off whenever she travels to her hometown. Here, she commands respect in whatever she does, right from bluntly shutting up gossips about her ‘sir’ to trying to get her ‘sir’ out of his dark phase by recounting her own backstory as an inspiration to move on.
Platoon One Films
But Ratna is acutely conscious about her status in the society as the house-help and it is only when she castigates her younger sister when she mouths her desire to take up a similar job in order to move to Mumbai and have a better life, that we realise how much she abhors her own job. Ratna is a woman of quiet resilience who seldom shows her emotions. She breaks out of her timid self just twice, once for an exuberant dance during the Ganapati Visarjan and the second when she gives a glimpse of her frustration as she leaves her ‘sir’s house because her self-respecting self would not let her break the class divide between the two in the fear of societal ridicule.
If Gera imbues Ratna with measured emotions and minimal dialogues, it takes a brilliant actor like Tilottama Shome to bring to life with perfection. Ratna is a woman we seldom meet in Hindi cinema.
Malti, Chhapaak: True Grit
Writers: Atika Chohan and Meghna Gulzar
You only lose when you give up.
The film is based on the life of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor. In the movie, Laxmi becomes Malti and Deepika Padukone plays the role.
Meghna Gulzar’s brand of feminism comes with minimal drama. The women she writes, as was also the case with Raazi’s Sehmat, have quiet courage devoid of any show of bravado. She imbues Malti with a certain Joie de vivre that is rare in such stories. An acid attack not only inflicts physical injuries but serves as a huge blow to one’s confidence. For Malti, apart from her face, the attack also takes away her dream to become a singer. Because, in pretty much everywhere across the world, women are still measured on a scale of beauty than talent. Later, Malti is asked to leave her job as a parlour attendant because “beauty parlour mein kaam karne ke liye beauty ka hona jaruri hai (To work in a beauty parlour, one needs beauty)” as explained to her by her employer.
It is heart-wrenching to watch Malti see her deformed face in the mirror for the first time after the attack. One is left with a moment of lump-in-the-throat when she unsuccessfully tries to put an earring on and says, “naak nehi hai, kaan nahi hai, jhumke kaha latkaungi (No nose, no ears, where should I even wear my earrings?)”.
FoxStarHindi / YouTube
Meghna captures the actual attack with an unflinchingly objective gaze doubling the impact and instead of letting her protagonist wallow in self-pity she makes her accept the realities and make the best out of her changed circumstances armed with a determined smile.
You might find the heavy messaging weighing down the movie, especially the second half, you might wonder why instead of a prosthetic-laden Deepika Padukone, Laxmi or a real-life acid attack survivor was not cast as Malti, or why it becomes so difficult to remain emotionally invested in Malti’s story till the end, but one must hail the movie for simply existing. Laxmi’s story, apart from being a survivor’s tale also has a greater social impact– it was her petition that led the Supreme Court in 2013 to direct state governments to make provision for the regulation and over-the-counter sale of acid. It is a story that needed to be told and a Bollywood glamour girl ensured it reaches the maximum audience.
Fatima Begum, Gulabo Sitabo: Woman on Top
Writer: Juhi Chaturvedi
Classy, bougie, ratchet
Sassy, moody, nasty
I’m a savage!
Meet Fatto Bi aka Begum. She is all of the above and more. Shoojit Sircar’s 2020 outing Gulabo Sitabo might be front-lined by two magnificent actors, Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurana, but it is the feisty 95-year-old owner of Fatima Mahal played by the 87-year-old Farrukh Jaffer who stole hearts.
Written by Juhi Chaturvedi, Fatima Begum is not only way ahead of her time but can put her 17 years younger husband, the two-face Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) in place with just her straight-faced one-liners and witty comebacks. The character hardly has the screen time the two men enjoy in the film and in the hands of any other writer Fatto could have become a cardboard character, nothing more than a plot twist device. But Chaturvedi not only invests time in creating a lovable and well-rounded character but also gives her the best lines.
Rising Sun Films, Kino Works / Amazon Prime Video
When she calmly asks Mirza, “Agar aapke saath hamara nikaah hua tha toh hum bhaagey kiske saath thhe? (If I am married to you, then who had I eloped with?),” it is her nonchalance that makes you laugh out loud. Her fragile appearance seldom betrays her true grit. You can dismiss her off as a cute and funny old woman but this adorable grandmother showed that she float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
In a world of teeming with scheming men, Fatto proves that what men can do, women can do better, and with a quiet sunglassed sass! She is the woman who has the last laugh, quite literally.
In the year 2020, we found brave, smart, angry, sassy and most of all regular, relatable women in our Bollywood films. The coming year, 2021, could be hopeful for many reasons in a world of altered realities. But the one thing we definitely deserve are more and more real women on our screens.