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Bollywood men and their plots

When will Bolly hail its talented women denizens, asks Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Jan 17, 2006 18:53 IST

Much has undergone a transformation in Hindi cinema in the course of the last decade. Some of the changes have certainly been for the better. One of these is of course the fact that a slew of women directors have, in the past few years, made their presence felt in a domain that is overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Why, then, are so few genuinely meaningful, substantial roles written for Bollywood’s better actresses? It’s a very old grouse. When you watch a film like Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue, you know exactly why it refuses to go away.

The sensitive English-language film presents seasoned actresses like Waheeda Rehman and Shabana Azmi in the roles of a twice-widowed woman and her assertive divorced elder daughter respectively grappling with the challenges of life and relationships and a schizophrenic younger daughter/sister (Konkona Sensharma in what is undoubtedly the best performance of her short but already eventful career).

The focus of Sen’s unusual narrative remains squarely on this female trio although there are quite a few men in the plot who orbit around them. Actors of the calibre of Soumitra Chatterjee, Dhritiman Chatterjee and Rahul Bose play these male characters, yet not for once does the writer-director let the spotlight move away from the central premise.

She has the luxury of doing that primarily because 15 Park Avenue is an off-mainstream film made out of Kolkata and it does not, therefore, need to adhere to conventional Bollywood logic. In an average Mumbai film, female characters are at best supportive figures when they are not mere decorative props.

The only other recent commercially released film that could be equated with Aparna Sen’s remarkable film is the rather underrated Amu, directed by another woman, debutante Shonali Bose. Like 15 Park Avenue, it isn’t a Mumbai film. Bose is a Delhi and Los Angeles-based filmmaker and Amu was shot entirely in the national Capital.

Unlike a typical Mumbai film, it could afford to place three generations of women – a 21-year-old NRI girl, her activist mother and her simple-minded grandmother -- in the centre of its narrative universe.

Amu deals with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that erupted after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It sees the impact of the carnage through the eyes of a returning Indian-American (Konkona again, this time with a pronounced twang) who lives in the US with her adoptive mother. As the young woman attempts to rediscover her roots, she stumbles upon the reality of her tragic past – she learns that she was a victim of the riots as a three-year-old girl.

Films like 15 Park Avenue and Amu do work, both critically and commercially, but they never rake in the sort of moolah that, say, a Dus or a Zinda would with their emphasis on heightened machismo. No wonder Bollywood is completely devoid of writers and directors inclined to let women call the shots in their plots.

Even Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the better directors that the Mumbai industry has, is compelled to turn the well-known story of Helen Keller and her tenacious teacher, a woman, into a high-pitched emotional drama in which the teacher’s role is taken by the biggest male star Bollywood has ever known, Amitabh Bachchan.

The cold logic of that casting decision is simple enough: Black would not have clicked the way it did had the character been a woman played by an actress, no matter how competent she was.

So, sadly, it’s left only to a handful of women directors operating outside the confines of Bollywood to buck the trend once in a while in the hope of making a long-term difference. Not everybody succeeds.

A few years ago, debutante Meghna Gulzar had made Filhaal, a defiantly offbeat film about surrogate motherhood. It had great performances by Tabu and Sushmita Sen. But the film failed to make waves at the box office. It probably came just a little before its time – the multiplex boom was still in its infancy.

But now that the advent of multiplexes has begun to tell on the quality and range of popular Hindi cinema, shouldn’t we justifiably expect more films that break away from Bollywood’s obsession with male-driven plots?

First Published: Jan 17, 2006 20:00 IST