Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ma, I won't marry

Accidental or idiopathic - welcome to Womens Liberation, 21st Century filmi edition

Way back in 1975, the film Aandhi treated us to a rare kind of character for a Hindi film - a father who wishes expects his daughter to carry forward his political legacy, and feels let down by her choice to instead settle for marriage and family like millions of women everywhere. (A framed picture of Jawaharlal Nehru with a young Indira stands in the backdrop of the Big Confrontation scene between father and daughter to drive the point home.) Exactly 40 years later, this kind of a parent, whose expectations from the girl child comprise anything but marriage remains a rarity.

One of the recent revisits to the subject of pushy parents was of course Dil Dhadakne Do, where Priyanka’s achievements as an entrepreneur are merrily ignored by both her parents and her in-laws, everybody more eager to hear the ‘good news’ from her. Is it more of an indictment of our society, or of the failure of our stories to evolve beyond the tired old clich├ęs that when it comes to parents and daughters, the only plots we ever get to see have to revolve around marriage? Could cliched expectations of narrow-minded parents not involve boring and banal career prospects - become a doctor or bank employee instead of an artist or journalist - or are those kinds of pressures only reserved for the boys?

The splendidly crafted Masaan is another rare exception, where a widowed father - a Kashi pandit to boot - has to confront the issue of his daughter’s sexuality. His only mild attempt at steering her to do something right (according to his jaded worldview) involves getting a low-paying but respectable job. Some middle-aged ladies at the multiplex where I watched the film kept murmuring about this being a ‘festival kind of a film’, meaning this kind of a film is allowed to do things a little differently. One of Madhuri Dixit's late-career roles in Wajood had her father trying to push her into his business, and her act of rebellion in the film was to become a journalist. But hardly anybody watched that film.

The theme of young women going their own way against the path prescribed by their parents and society has been a recurrent one in the last 15 years or so. But barring some frustratingly few exceptions, this path is usually to get married and settled, and more often, to marry a guy picked by the parents. This applies to the works of some of our directors unfairly accused of creating some strong female characters, mainly those of Imtiaz Ali and Anand L Rai.

I have often wondered about all the accolades Imtiaz earns for his heroines - who belong to a group I like to call the Accidentally Liberated Women. Most, if not all of his heroines seem to be engaged to somebody or the other parent-nominated bloke, and the girl’s own aspiration of freedom seems to be limited to doing something wild for once in their life before settling into that life. It is on those let-me-try-this-once adventures that they usually meet the hero and their life changes forever. And by ‘changing forever’ I mean they marry this guy instead of that one.

Consider his first film Socha Na Tha - Ayesha Takia’s character in the film is an orphaned girl raised by her loving relatives, who are keen to dispose of their responsibility to get her settled at the earliest. Knowing her fate is sealed, she chooses to go on her one wild ride, getting inappropriately involved in the romantic fate of strangers Abhay Deol and his girlfriend, just so she gets to hang out in Goa for a few days along with those girls and boys (none of whom seem to suffer from parental control that badly). And then Ayesha and Abhay fall in love, things get messy, but love triumphs all. Or Geet in Jab We Met - her idea of going her own way is to elope and marry her college sweetheart instead of the sweet ol’ guy her parents wish for her to marry. Along the way, she bumps into a rich guy, things get messy, they fall in love, it gets messier, but in the end love triumphs all.

Whether it is Heer in Rockstar or Alia Bhatt’s character in Highway, the girls never seem to be dealing with any greater challenges in life than a pre-ordained engagement. Once again, is it a reflection of our society or lack of imagination on part of our writers that our heroines seem to be stuck in an era where saying ‘no’ to prospective grooms in arranged marriages is never an option?

Even the much-celebrated Queen belongs to this group of accidentally liberated women - none of that self-discovery on a solo Europe trip would have happened if the man in Rani's life hadn't dumped her. Women who willfully push the boundaries, like Konkona's character in Wake Up Sid, exist only in the recesses of the stories of male protagonists, much like Konkona's character in Wake Up Sid.

Coming to the more problematic matter of Anand L Rai. Now his Tanu and his Zoya are a different kettle of fish. They are rebellious alright, but what exactly they are rebelling against, or what they plan to achieve is anyone’s guess. And that’s not a stray observation - in Tanu Weds Manu, the film keeps underlining the fact that this girl is a rebel without cause, in exactly those words, with her friend Payal playing Greek chorus throughout pointing out the absurdity of Tanu’s many absurd choices in case the audience hadn’t noticed. I could write an essay on the puzzle that is Tanu (I actually have, but will spare you) in both films. Zoya is even more frustrating. What the hell is the girl thinking, when she does one thing or the other? Does she have any internal logic at all? Or is that the whole point of Anand L Rai films, that the actions of these enigmatic, fluttery young women, the only kind of women his protagonists will find attractive by the way, do not have any underpinning logic or consistency, because… bitches be crazy?

I ask these questions because I belong to the generation of women who have been slowly, patiently and often painfully subverting expectations. Like any middle class girl from small town India, I had my life cut out for me - study hard, graduate, get a cosy job, get married before 25 - only I didn’t. I spent my 20s hopping jobs, changing career paths, living in different cities away from the safety net of family and community, until I found my groove and felt ready to commit to marriage. I can say I am at present in a place where I want to be, but this comes at a cost - the cost of being the last one of my friends to settle, the only one to not have kids yet, and the uncertainty over future that is always looming around the corner.

I know a lot of young women whose stories are even more complex and proportionately more inspiring - women who have followed their heart, got burned multiple times along the way, spent the best years of their lives negotiating boundaries and ambitions with their families and society at large, and who stand tall at the end of it all, battered and bruised but proud and independent. And in most of these cases, families, instead of being hurdles to be overcome, turn out to be pillars of strength, often confronting their own set of challenges and paying their own cost for standing by their children in a brave new world.

Much like the poor old Sanjay Mishra in Masaan.


Even in films that aren't necessarily about the woman, the very existence of a woman in the main cast usually has to be justified by having her hook up with one of the boys. Nowhere does this stick out more sorely than in Happy New Year - isn't Deepika's function in that ragtag group of robbers as their choreographer who helps them sneak into a major dance competition substantial enough, that she has to be given a most unconvincing romantic arc with the repugnant SRK character in the film? Or coming back to Konkona in Wake Up Sid, isn't her role as the catalyst to Ranbir's transformation strong enough, that the pair has to be given their kiss-in-the-rain climax? How wonderful it would have been if the film had let the pair be friends and pursue their own romantic interests while remaining important influences in each other's lives. Again, a nod to the notable exception in this regard goes to Gouhar Khan's part in Rocket Singh. The girl is supposedly married, and the husband plays no part of the proceedings. Her value to the group of entrepreneurs is purely in terms of what she contributes to their business venture.

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