It is only in the last decade that mainstream Hindi cinema has consciously started writing more and more author backed roles for its female characters. With films like ‘The Dirty Picture’ (2011), ‘Queen’ (2014) and ‘Piku’ (2015), this conscious effort came to the spotlight and before we knew it, writers in Hindi cinema were going the extra mile to create characters for female actors that had more purpose than just being the hero’s arm-candy.
Zoya Akhtar, one of the most prolific directors of our times, has time and again showed that characters don’t deserve special treatment on the basis of their genders. Zoya also writes her own films and it is through her ensemble of characters that we dive into her world that could be considered urban and rich by some but the stories are real for everybody.
Zoya made her directorial debut with ‘Luck by Chance’ in 2009. And even though the primary character of this film was Vikram, the story did not neglect its pivotal female characters. Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma) is shown as an independent woman who is struggling to make it big in the movie business. The demise of Sona’s relationship with Vikram feels quite hurtful in the film but Sona does what most women would or rather should do, she moves on. She doesn’t beg her ‘hero’ to work it out with her and even when he comes back to her, she realises that he’s doing so just because he feels guilty. The film ends with Sona becoming a successful TV star. Her dream of becoming a movie star is never fulfilled but she makes the maximum out of the opportunities she’s given.
Another prominent character in the film, Neena (played by Dimple Kapadia), is treated in a delicate yet matter-of-fact way. The yesteryear actress has seen the harsh side of the movie business and that is exactly what she wants her daughter to learn. Neena has seen the tough life but her daughter who is now getting the perfect launch knows nothing about struggle. Much credit here has to be given to Dimple Kapadia’s nuanced performance but that performance rises out of Zoya’s detailed writing.
Zoya’s next ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ (2011) was essentially about three men vacationing in Spain but through the course of the film, we saw various characters, none of whom are treated like card-boards. This minute attention to every character speaks volumes about Zoya’s craft and ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ was a fine example of the same. Katrina Kaif’s character in the film, Laila, comes as a saviour to Arjun (Hrithik Roshan). It is because of her influence that Arjun transforms from a mundane bitter executive to a man who appreciates the little things in life. Laila becomes the motivation that pushes Arjun in his journey that had become monotonous.
Another significant character in the film is Rahila Qureshi (played by Deepti Naval), Imran’s mother. Rahila got pregnant when she was young and though her partner did not want to marry her, she went ahead and had the baby anyway. She speaks of the social restrictions that surrounded her and her conscious choice of never telling Imran about his father. Rahila’s decisions shine light on the fact that even though she was a damsel, she was never in distress.
‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ (2015), Zoya’s third film was about a dysfunctional family and it was with this film that Zoya gave her audience many women characters that were simply memorable. With Shefali Shah’s Neelam, she gave a ‘non-filmy Maa‘ who puts a strong front on the outside but is actually quite vulnerable when she’s left alone. The scene where she hogs down a cake showed her insecurities and fears so bluntly that one had to take a moment to process it. After all, our filmy mothers were never this raw with emotion.
Priyanka Chopra’s Ayesha was shown as the daughter who never got her due. Despite her high intellect, she’s treated as paraya dhan by the family’s patriarch. Her business acumen isn’t seen as worthy but nevertheless, she marches on to make a life for herself with her company. Anushka Sharma’s Farah is the free-spirited one in the film and she cajoles Ranveer’s character the way Laila cajoled Arjun in ‘ZNMD’.
In the three feature films that Zoya Akhtar has directed, we’ve seen glimpses of a filmmaker who can see cinema beyond the shackles of gender. Her films explore characters that deal with their given problems without breaking into item songs and even when they sing and dance, the women remain in character instead of just performing to the said number. Zoya’s films are certainly a notch up the regular masala Hindi films and we hope that her future endeavours can keep with the legacy that she’s starting to build.