Let me tell you about a brand new rom-com which I quite enjoyed. Wedding Season, directed by Tom Dey, is about a personable pair of desis in New Jersey, looking for their dream partner just so they can get their pushy parents off their back. When Asha and Ravi meet, it’s cute. Strike one. Going by standard rom com rule number two, they have to be oblivious of each other’s charms to begin with, which these two, well played by Suraj Sharma and Pallavi Sharda, duly comply with.
But the nicest thing of all, apart from the obvious spark between the two, is that they are handed out parity by the writers: she has a real job, formerly in high-flying finance, now in micro-loans, and he is looking for a way to come clean about where his heart really lies. They are equals, whichever metric you apply.
You already know about this other film, which I did not enjoy at all. Aanand L Rai’s Raksha Bandhan is also about finding the right match, but it’s all askew: the heavy lifting is done by an older brother for his four younger sisters, who are portrayed as these helpless creatures, incapable of harbouring a single independent thought. Akshay Kumar is meant to be an adarsh bade bhaiyya, but the concern he is seen lavishing upon said behens is strictly to do with “procuring” proper grooms for these “difficult” girls. How is labelling young women “fat” and “dark” acceptable in this day and age? Under the guise of a socially-relevant film, which supposedly speaks out against dowry, it ends up infantilising its characters, as well as the viewers.
Here we are, in 2022, trying to deal with the ravages of the pandemic, the after-effects of climate change, the rapidly changing rules of engagement. What does India at 75 need, more than anything else? Ways to negotiate a world trying to rebuild itself, with acceptance, openness,and compassion. Gender parity is a crucial cornerstone of a just society, and one of the most effective ways of talking it up is through cinema. If representation is key, who would you rather see: a young woman with intelligence and emotional acuity, or one who is dependent on the patriarch for every single thing?
Bollywood needs to grow up. It’s something we’ve been saying for years, but now it is more urgent than ever. It’s not as if filmmakers haven’t heeded our call. But the moment someone tries to make a grown-up film for grown-ups, it’s not just the over-judicious, under-confident official censors that stand against growth; increasingly, it is militant groups of citizens who have become our moral guardians, keeping us “safe” from the “pollution” of free thought. As aware audiences, we need to grow up, too.
An important aspect of that growing up, both from creators and consumers of cinema, is the accordance of mutual respect. The tendency to box films which are either helmed or headlined by female professionals as “women-oriented” has only damaged the possibility of all-round growth. This kind of tight compartmentalisation allows for easy dismissal of such films. It also limits the audience: only women end up going to watch those movies in theatres, or clicking on them on OTT platforms in their scant disposable time. Given that the majority of those who go to the movies are young men between the ages of 15-25 years, it is imperative that the stigma around stories fronted by women be removed. No, you are not a sissy if you watch a film made by a woman; you are just a viewer making a sensible choice.
Why wouldn’t a lover of good, meaningful cinema, male or female, want to watch feisty mother Shamshu and daughter Badru, get their own back on the latter’s abusive husband, Hamza? Between them, Alia Bhatt, Shefali Shah and Vijay Varma have given us moments to savour, long after we have finished watching their Darlings. Women telling women’s stories? Freely and with flair? High time.
Seven All-Time Favourites
How women’s role on screen has been evolving over the decades since Independence
Urvashi in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977)
Smita Patil fills the role of a complex multi-faceted woman, negotiating the tough early years of the film industry with a million colours and moods
Pooja Inder Malhotra in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982)
Shabana Azmi is aces as the devastated wife begging her cheating husband to return to her, and then determinedly finding her own path
Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994)
Seema Biswas infuses her gun-toting vengeful female dacoit, red bandana stretched tight across her forehead, with searing ferocity
Nimmi in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003)
It’s hard to choose just one among Tabu’s many great roles, but this one, in which her desi Lady Macbeth incites Irrfan’s tentative Macbeth, is unforgettable
Geet in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2007)
There have been as many versions of the ‘peppy chatterbox girl’ as there have been leading ladies in Hindi cinema, but Kareena Kapoor Khan makes this one deliciously her own
Rani in Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2013)
Kangana Ranaut is wonderful as the young woman who puts aside a personal setback to discover the joys of solo travel within and without, in one of Bollywood’s best coming-of-age films
Anaarkali in Avinash Das’s Anaarkali Of Aarah (2017)
Swara Bhasker is terrific as a nachaniya (small-town dancer), whose struggles to keep exploitative men at bay make her strong enough to strike out on her own