Saturday, March 29, 2014

Rani aur Rachel

Being a small town girl who spent a lot of years living on my own, away from my sheltered upbringing, I am always very interested in stories of women finding themselves away from the context of their family and hometown. I can relate to these stories, as I see in these women bits of myself and of the many wonderful women I have known during my life as a single woman.

And I am equally interested in discussions about these stories and these women. So naturally, what started as a response to Baradwaj Rangan’s article in which he shares some thoughts on English Vinglish and Queen, has gone on to become... this.

B. Rangan has wondered aloud whether the stories of Shashi and Rani could not have been set within India, and whether it was necessary for them to be transported to a foreign country to really find themselves the way they do.

Now of course, a filmmaker has every right to set his story wherever they want, but that besides the point. The question that interests me is: would Rani or Shashi have an equally satisfying character arc if they just moved to another city in India?

Here, the possibilities for Rani and Shashi are very different. There isn’t enough space here to list the reasons why Shashi’s very special burst of empowerment had to come just the way it did in English Vinglish.

Rani is another matter. She is young, educated, single and has much more freedom than she has ever cared to exercise. She isn’t a rebel who has been quashed and submitted to family pressure - she simply never felt the need to come out of the cozy cocoon of her Delhi life and her family-approved boyfriend. Her family is more supportive than you’d give them credit for. As for the boyfriend, she doesn’t even notice what a jerk he was, until she gets a taste of life with better friends. Up until then, she had been taking all the humiliation in her stride as she gleefully marched towards her simple ideal of life.

Now Queen is a travel story, a beautiful one at that, and I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from this movie. But thinking strictly of Rani and her character arc, would it be equally satisfying if, instead of a vacation in Paris, she took a job in South Bombay or Bangalore? I don’t see why not. Only the transformation would be long-winded and perhaps painful and complicated, more like Rachel from Friends. Come to think of it, Rachel’s story starts with her running away from the altar, and over the course of the series she goes from being an unskilled waitress to build a successful career in fashion, becomes a single mother, and is finally free to choose the man in her life without letting him define her place in the world.

Personally, I have known more Rachels than Ranis. These are women who started out with pretty clear and narrow ideas of who they were - whether the upright Momma’s girl or the liberated manic pixie - and each wound up with a life quite unlike what they imagined it would be, living it as better, wiser versions of themselves.

These are stories waiting to be told, but coming back to B Rangan's question - would they make for popular movies? Certainly, if put in the right hands, i.e. hands that are not attached to Madhur B. His approach to storytelling is pretty elegant - put a good little middle class girl in a big bad city, and everything bad that might happen, probably will happen to her or one of her dear friends. While the very worst does happen to an unfortunate few, for most of us life in a big city is not so much a downward spiral of morality and self-worth, as it is an ongoing series of many crests and troughs.

Epiphany doesn’t usually come in neat little packages of one breakup, one vacation, one badass friend, one cute Italian and one transformation. The girl who gives up on career for the guy of her dreams doesn't necessarily get the strongest marriage. The guy who broke your heart doesn’t conveniently come grovelling back to make you realize just how much you have changed. There may be more than one heartbreak, more than one night of drunk-dialling, more than one wrong turn and many little lessons along the way.

We have, of course seen stories more complex, with characters that are truer to life and mostly portrayed by Konkona SenSharma. Sadly, those filmmakers did not feel her arc was worthy enough to take centre stage, and wrapped it inside layers of the male protagonist’s saga. In Wake Up Sid, while the focus is mostly on the man-child Ranbir, it was refreshing that Konkona’s Aisha wasn’t some boring, cut-and-dried Ms. Perfect with crystal clear ideas about her life and priorities. We see her as the slightly vulnerable girl from Kolkata who needs the light frivolity of the Bombay brat as much as he needs her maturity. She finally chooses this brat, who unabashedly enjoys old comedy on TV over the suave, snotty boss who is determined to refine her musical taste.

In Luck By Chance too, while Farhan Akhtar as the lucky rascal who makes it big in Bollywood hogs most of the limelight, the film is bookended with the fresh and innocent Sona (Konkona) as a young struggler in the beginning, and a more confident, mildly successful but hugely content TV actress in the end.

And then there was Tara.

Back in the old, old days of Indian Television, women were allowed to appear on the small screen without three tons of gold and eight layers of makeup. It was acceptable for a young woman to have a real job, not because she had a train of siblings to support, or the survival of the family business depended all the skill and acumen gathered over years in the kitchen, but simply because.

Back in those pre-historic days, we had Tara. It was the story of four young women from smaller towns who started a life in Bombay, with nothing but each other to lean upon. Each of these women has a very defined and very unique trajectory of success, love and personal growth. The thread connecting the many strands of the narrative was the deep and sincere friendship between these women, which provides anchor no matter how far any of them drifts away. 

The show went on and on for a duration that felt treacherous back in the 90’s, and we bitched and we mocked. But as far as the girl-on-growth-path theme goes, few stories have stayed so true to purpose, so honest and affectionate and so without judgment.

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