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Fifty shades of grey

It took two women – Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti – to give us three-dimensional female characters with complexity and nuance

brunch Updated: Mar 23, 2019 23:37 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
female characters,Zoya Akhtar,Reema Kagti
Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti have given a 360-degree turn to the projection of women on screen (Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

I grew up on Hindi cinema that only allowed women to exist in broad stereotypes. There was the teary, all-sacrificing mother, usually a widow, who worked herself to the bone to provide for her kids. There was the adarsh Bharatiya nari who lived only in service of her husband, her kids, and most importantly, her in-laws. There was the glamorous vamp who announced her evil intentions of luring the hero away from the heroine by smoking and drinking copiously and wearing very skimpy clothes. There was the spoilt rich girl who would be tamed by the poor but masterful man she fell in love with. There was the poor little girl who would find her life transformed by the love of a rich but good man.

I could go on, but I am sure you too have seen all those movies.

As I grew into adulthood and then teetered into middle age, I hoped that Hindi cinema would begin to reflect the changes that I saw all around me. They may have only existed in a privileged sliver of the urban middle class, but there were strong, empowered women everywhere I looked. Women who didn’t just take their own decisions, but owned them. Women who faced the challenges life threw at them head-on and lived to tell their tales. Women who were, in the immortal words of the late, great Nora Ephron, the heroines of their lives.

The heroines of Hindi cinema have [thus far] remained confined to broad stereotypes

But, much to my disappointment, the heroines of Hindi cinema remained pretty much confined to the broad stereotypes in which they had always existed. There were a few cosmetic changes but the broad brushstrokes remained the same. Ma was now called Mom, and she had a corporate job rather than a sewing machine; but she still expected her son to bring home a good bahu. Both the Good Girl and the Bad Girl were now allowed to wear revealing clothes but only the one with good Indian values would land the man of her dreams.

And so on, and so clichéd.

But just when I was in danger of being bored into a despondent stupor, I was jolted awake by not one, but two, complex female characters over the last fortnight.

The first was Safeena, the female lead of Gully Boy, played by the incandescent Alia Bhatt. In the movie, you first see her through the prism of her hijab. So, even if it is at subliminal level, you expect her to portray a traditional Muslim girl who prays five times a day and ends up marrying the man her parents chose for her. But before that thought can even coalesce in your mind, the character springs a surprise on you. She has been in a relationship with a young man in the neighbourhood for years now – conducting her affair with admirable sneakiness and breathtaking chutzpah, spinning tales even as she looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

Sobhita Dhulipala as Tara Khanna in Made in Heaven and Alia Bhatt as Safeena in Gully Boy broke the mould of convention

There is much to admire about Safeena: her passion for her boyfriend; the canny pragmatism with which she navigates her life; her ferocity when it comes to defending her corner; her ability to get her own way no matter what. This is no little girl who follows the rules set down by her parents. This is a grown woman who makes her own rules – and then breaks them when she feels like it. Because this is her life. And she is determined to live it on her terms.

Tara Khanna, the female lead of the Amazon Prime series, Made In Heaven, is a slightly different creature. Again, you start off by seeing her as a young socialite playing at being a businesswoman, backed by her husband’s money. But as the story develops, it reveals hidden depths in her character. Tara, played by Sobhita Dhulipala in a career-defining performance, may be on top of the heap today, but she has clawed her way there, while making sure that her manicure stays immaculate. The journey hasn’t always been pretty, and she’s done some awful things along the way. But such is the nuanced portrayal of her character that you can’t really condemn her for what she’s done, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

And that is down to the brilliance of the writing. It is not a coincidence that both Safeena and Tara have sprung from the imagination of two female writers, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti – ably assisted in Made in Heaven by a third woman, Alankrita Shrivastava. It is thanks to them that we finally have women characters who are not two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs but fully fleshed-out women who live their lives – like most of us do – in shades of grey.

It is that complexity, that nuance, that makes these characters come alive – and take residence in our hearts and minds.

(Journalist and author Seema Goswami has been a columnist with HT Brunch since 2004. )

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From HT Brunch, March 24, 2019

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First Published: Mar 23, 2019 23:01 IST