In an industry controlled by men,real women characters languish as incomplete drafts. Screenwriter Devika Bhagat reveals her wish-list of unreel women.
Last week,I was catching up with a friend,Ria,who moved to Madagascar with her husband a year ago. We were discussing a mutual friend,Tara,who to put it mildly,used to be what the Bard would call a Shrew. She was loud,aggressive,didnt believe in love or dressing like a girl until a boy came along,swept her off her feet and tamed her. Now she had suddenly discovered dresses and the wonders of a salon. Tara was a different person now all because of finding that right boy. In fact,she could pass off as a super-model.
Ria,on the other hand,hadnt let a boy change her. She had been the one to free her husband,Arjun,from the corporate slave that he had once been before he met her. She showed him that money isnt the path to happiness. They made paper-mache vases from the shredded documents in his office and danced in fountains together. One morning,he had an epiphany while skinny-dipping in the ocean with Ria and traded in his claustrophobia for an adventurous life with her. They got married barefoot on the beach and moved to Madagascar to raise lemurs and make love to the sound of geckos.
Just before I was going to ask her about those pesky geckos,my laptop battery died and I found I had lost half of my first draft. I would have to begin Ria and Arjuns bohemian love story for my screenplay all over again. Yes,Ria and Arjun are fictitious characters,along with Tara and the rest of the unreel girls¸ who I can say with the utmost confidence,do not exist in real life.
I have been guilty in my screenwriting career of creating these archetypes and more. Sitting in a room across from a male director and/or producer,its been tough to hold my own. When an industry is ruled and controlled by men,its an eventuality that the women characters are an extension of what men wish or desire women to be. By creating these characters,they somehow make sense of the mysterious female species or rather how they would prefer it to be.
As for screenplays that are about female protagonists,those are gathering dust in the deep,dark recesses of my laptops hard drive. In Hindi films,women are co-characters essential for pushing the heros story forward. The reason put forth for this is that a large percentage of cinema-goers are men who arent interested in seeing films about women.
If the male producers and directors in the Hindi film industry live vicariously through their characters,so do I well,at least till the first draft. Here are some women,and why they wont make it to the big screen:
No strings attached
She isnt complicated. She just needs her space and values her freedom too much. She likes men and has even fallen in love a few times. But that doesnt mean she wants to hold on to the relationship or even get married. Its good while it lasts and then she moves on. There is so much to experience in this world. Why waste ones life getting bogged down by traditional expectations? (In Bollywood,she would be treated with suspicion. She is too easy,she has American values,there has to be something in her past that made her give up on love.)
The older woman
She spent two decades training with Nasa for a space mission. Or was too busy discovering a cure for cancer. Or maybe she just found men her age too immature. Now she is ready to have a relationship with a man her age. She wants a home with a loving husband,an adopted child and to live happily ever. Do only 25-year-olds have the right to find happiness?
Mom Wants Her Life Back
She spent her life running after the children and her husband. Now the children are all grown up and the husband has retired. Its time for her to get her life back. She wants to take art classes,travel and make friends. She doesnt want to cook her childrens favourite dish when they visit once a month and she doesnt care whether they get married or give her grandchildren. Its her time now. (But how can an Indian mother not be the doting caretaker? Once a mother,always a mother,at least in Bollywood.)
Weight and watch
A few years ago,I pitched a film concept centred on an overweight woman. Having been an overweight teen,it was personal for me. It was rejected because by overweight,I didnt mean 5 kg. I meant a real 20 kg to 30 kg. It finally made it to TV as Mahi Way because for films,you apparently need a picture-perfect frame. I,for one,would like to see my girl binge,hate exercise,constantly lose that battle of weight loss,and yet come up on top at the end of it all. Its about time we broke the stereotype of overweight girls being the funny best friend. (But overweight girl as heroine means no eye-candy for the male audience,na? There goes your opening weekend box-office collection.)
Shes shy,introverted,cuts her own hair and has absolutely no interest in fashion. She can quote Kafka,Camus and Austen at the drop of a hat. When she enters a room,its as though she is invisible. When she does speak,she gets a terrible case of the foot-in-mouth disease. But perhaps across the room,against the other wall is another wallflower waiting to meet her. If only the single-celled organisms would move out of their way. (In Bollywood,if she isn’t bubbly,vivacious and talking at the speed of light,whod find her cute?)
She’s Out for Revenge
Adele puts it best in her song Rolling in the deep Theres a fire in my heart,Reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark…..Youre gonna wish you never met me. He broke her heart and made her feel worthless. She might cry her eyes out in a darkened room for a couple of days. After that shes going to make sure he regrets ever having hurt her. (In Bollywood,her revenge would be to lose weight,get a makeover and make him suffer with her new-found sex appeal.)
The Rude Girl
She is the queen of toilet humour and the life of every party. She is unapologetic,saying it like it is. And no,she isnt going to be tamed. (In Bollywood,the hero would,of course,end up helping her find her femininity.)
Play to win
A biopic is currently being made on Milkha Singh. Im waiting for the day a biopic is made on a sportswoman who beats all odds to reach the top like PT Usha or Mary Kom. Till then,the film industry will be as chauvinistic as the sports recruiters. And if a film does get made,it will have as poor a budget as the womens sports development programme.
The Funny Female Boss,The Female Spy,The Female Top Cop,The Military Girl,The Real Platonic Best Friend and The Woman Behind the Successful Man.
Most of these characters have already succumbed to premature deaths. I plan to hold a séance for them soon. Perhaps they will have some words of wisdom for me. Till then,the geckos chirp on.
(Devika Bhagat is the screenwriter of Manorama Six Feet Under,Aisha and Bachna Ae Haseeno)