Queen (2014)

Kangana Ranaut’s 2014 superhit “Queen” is a film that subverts expectations in a number of ways, changing the attitudes of audiences through the eyes of its protagonist.

On starting this blog, I knew I had to discuss this film as early on as possible. But why? Why is this film important? The context of lead actress Kangana Ranaut’s career path, and film conventions are crucial to understand to grasp why this film is so groundbreaking.

It is worth noting that, indeed, Kangana Ranaut was already more than a jobbing actress in Bollywood before Queen – notably she had won a National Award for her turn in 2008’s “Fashion”, at a time in which women-orientated movies were so infrequent that this film’s success stood out in particular. The film won both critical acclaim and drew in large audiences male and female alike, with India’s now international superstar Priyanka Chopra also seeing herself awarded with a National Award for the very same film.

However, whilst Kangana’s performance was appreciated and the positive reception towards her performance was merited, this film embodies how she was then pigeon-holed as an actress for years going forward. That is, she was seen as a supporting actress rather than a lead, great for grim, female-orientated movies chronicling poor treatment, and perfect at embodying “damaged women”.

Somewhat bizarrely, 2014’s “Queen” changed that narrative. Why is this bizarre? Well the film sees Kangana portray Rani, a young woman jilted by her fiancé just a day before their wedding, and is left to honeymoon in Europe alone whilst still heartbroken and devastated at how she’s been treated. Whilst it’s certainly a lead role, it was by no means a major blockbuster release (a la “Krrish 3”, her release that directly preceded “Queen”) and certainly Rani has been poorly treated, and initially looks like she could spiral into a caricature of such “damaged women” at the start of “Queen”. Being left travelling alone in Europe as a naïve, inexperienced young woman could have seen Rani embody this archetype. For those of you who’ve seen this film, you will know already this is not exactly the direction chosen.

Therefore, it is easy to view the casting of Kangana then in this role as only the first of many ways that “Queen” subverts the expectations of the casual or seasoned Bollywood viewer. I have picked out and explained 5 others below.

The usual SPOILER alert for the below – again, if you haven’t seen “Queen”, it comes highly recommended and not just by me, so go watch and come back!

Trailer is below:

Act of subversion number 1 – re: the wedding party dance number over the end credits of the movie

In Queen, we get the dance number over the credits is the opening credits! Enjoy “London Thumakda” below:

There are different dance scenes throughout the movie that either allude to, or directly reference this scene. This is somewhat unusual nevertheless as the wedding party dance number itself therefore becomes an important theme and drives Rani’s character development, which ultimately is the entire plot and focus of the film.

Act of subversion number 2 – re: Europe as a romantic location – where a girl falls in love with a boy!

The Hindi film lover knows that foreign locales, and particularly European settings are where young couples fall in love. This is embodied best, of course, in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

Not so in “Queen”. Rather, Vijay and Rani’s romance plays out in middle-class India – and it is the exotic locales of London, Paris and Amsterdam which firstly convince Vijay to call of the wedding, and in Rani’s case, allow her to move on from her relationship with Vijay. This inherently posits overseas locations as “anti-romantic” – it is where first Vijay and then Rani fall OUT of love.

The Eiffel Tower, almost certainly the most famous image of any spot in Europe, haunts Rani in a comical scene where she tries to run away from the tower and the memory she associates with it of Vijay, to little avail.

European travel is rather presented as a way of making friends rather than falling in love – and we see this initially in Paris with Rani and Vijaylaxmi.

Later, after a big night out in Paris, Rani and Vijaylaxmi go clothes shopping, with Rani picking out comicly bad outfits, to the disapproval of Vijaylaxmi, who in frustration chooses out an item for Rani and takes away her other clothes so she can’t change back. An uncomfortable Rani takes a photo of herself in the outfit instead of leaving the changing cubicle and attempts to send it to Vijaylaxmi. Given this is a movie – the text goes to Vijay instead (try sending a text from Paris to Delhi in real life and see how easy it is to do that accidently). This revives Vijay’s interest in Rani.

When Vijay travels to Paris to reconcile, Rani is already on the train leaving for Amsterdam, she cannot, and more significantly, will not catch him jumping onto the train (or more appropriately – be caught jumping if she is the typical heroine). Rather as he rings her to announce his arrival in the French capital, an angry and upset Rani declares “Rani is dead” and hangs up.

Almost at the end of the film, during her final day in Amsterdam, when meeting with a Vijay pleading with her for forgiveness, ultimately she realises she prefers instead to be with her friends and leaves to go the rock show. Friendship trumps romance.

Act of subversion number 3 – re: the sexually-active woman as a cautionary tale

“Fashion”, Kangana’s heroine-oriented feature that predated “Queen” as referenced above, was a positive step for women due its meaty roles offered to Hindi film actresses, its success at the box office and its critical acclaim, but the film itself has a number of issues worth discussing in another post. Relevant here is the fall of both Kangana and Priyanka’s characters through which they are treated as cautionary tales – i.e. “this is what happens to women when they make the wrong choices”. Whilst Kangana’s character meets a tragic fate and becomes the ultimate cautionary tale, Priyanka’s character also sees her very lowest point represented when she has casual sex with a foreign (and curiously, also black) man. Madhur Bhandarkar’s “Heroine” also follows similar problematic storylines with Kareena’s character whose low point is marked prominently as a lesbian affair.

Rather in “Queen”, the main character seen as sexually active is the character Vijaylaxmi, played by Lisa Haydon, a firengi woman we are first introduced as Rani suffers the displeasure of overhearing Vijaylaxmi’s noisy sex with on-off-boyfriend. The scene, played for humour, is shocking to the virginal Rani, but in literally her honeymoon suite (with no irony lost), also quite clearly piques her sexual curiosity.

We meet Vijaylaxmi face to face for the first time as she smokes on the balcony in a shirt and underwear, cursing aggressively and speaking crudely and explicitly about her lover’s [lack of] manhood. She is painted fully as a glamorous supermodel-type and acting as the ultimate anti-Rani.

We later learn that Vijaylaxmi is also an unmarried mother, and that her sexually liberated attitude cannot be put down fully to her Frenchness or Western moralities – she is, as her name is chosen to emphasise, also half-Indian, the offspring of a passionate affair between her Spanish-French mother and Indian father in India’s city of sin, Goa.

Furthermore, rather than any male saviour, if Rani relies on any other individual during her time in Paris, it is her new found sister Vijaylaxmi – who retrieves her passport from the police and consoles her as Rani wails and bemoans her current status and joins her on the bar top in a first real glimpse of a free and happy Rani since being jilted by Vijay.

This scene has parallels with the scene at the beginning where Rani joins in the dancing to “London Thumakda” along with her grandma and all the aunties. We then cut to a flashback scene of Vijay berating Rani for dancing “inappropriately” raising concerns over the impact on his own image and reputation. In terms of enabling an environment where Rani is free to express herself and be happy – Vijaylaxmi, despite her sexually liberated ideas and lifestyle, is a better ally than Vijay.

In the taxi back to the hotel – the nauseous Rani and Vijaylaxmi discuss burping, and this short but fascinating scene encapsulates much of the whole of “Queen” and the message it contains. The dialogue, whilst seemingly trivial, addresses the concept of social permissiveness by admitting there may also be some positive aspects to liberal attitudes, without denying there may also be downsides or that other choices may be legitimate. Part of the dialogue I include below (in the film this is mostly in Hindi, but below is purely in English):

Rani: in India girls aren’t allowed to burp

Vijaylaxmi: everything is allowed here

Rani: But then in Rajori girls aren’t allowed to do much

Rani: Lets both burp today

           [burps]

Vijaylaxmi: “You’re quite good at it”

Rani: [burps again]

          “you also burp”

           [they both burp]

The Hindi film character Vijaylaxmi has some obvious parallels with is Deepika Padukone’s Veronica from the movie “Cocktail” (conveniently a film Rani, the aunties and even her grandma all reference fondly at the beginning of “Queen”). Both Veronica and Vijaylaxmi are shown as alcohol drinking, party loving and engage in casual sex but remain characters the audience finds likeable and can identify with. There are some key differences between the two worth noting however. Veronica is shown as sad and lonely, and using her hedonism as a form of escape, when she deep down desires a more conventional life. She is also too liberal to be the object of the hero’s affection at the end of the film, and she sacrifices her happiness on his behalf in favour of the innocent and virginal Meera. Vijaylaxmi, rather, is shown to be happy with her life, enjoying her freedom, and does not appear to look for validation from men. The most important man in her life who makes her happy seems to be her young son, and she enjoys the role of a mother. Conventional desires such as motherhood are shown to co-exist with a free spirited nature and progressive lifestyle.

Beyond Vijaylaxmi, whose free spirited nature is now somewhat accepted as she has proved herself a good friend to Rani, the audience is pushed further as Rani and her hostel roommates visit the red light district of Amsterdam to deliver a gift from Vijaylaxmi to her friend Roxette. Roxette is a working girl in the euphemistic meaning – i.e. a prostitute, who initially mistakes Rani for a paying customer.

Once she realises who Rani is, we immediately see a different dimension to her as a character. The oldest of seven daughters, as she explains to Rani, she started working in the sex industry despite her degree in commerce due to the difficulties she faced finding other employment and financial responsibility she faced after the passing of her father (literally calling herself the “beta” of the house). Roxette (or Rukshar), mentions the legality of prostitution in the Netherlands, the earnings she can make and that the work comes with government benefits.

Rani asks if she couldn’t do another job as working as a prostitute is a “very difficult job” and the profession is not treated entirely without stigma – Rani’s reason for being there as it is a parcel from Rukshar’s mother who has Vijaylaxmi’s address instead to avoid discovering her daughter’s line of work is a dose of the reality around sex work that despite Rukshar paying for two of her sisters to go to university and for the wedding of another, her life is hidden from her family.

This storytelling goes to explain Rukshar and her life choices to allow for a level of acceptance of her both by Rani and the audience. Whether they agree with them or not becomes irrelevant, the audience through Rani understands the factors that have led to making them. Rukshar adds Rani as a Facebook friend and ultimately they have a fun night dancing echoing back to Rani’s night out in Paris earlier in the film. They part with Rani complimenting Rukshar’s dancing and offering an invite to Delhi.

Act of subversion number 4 – re: female-male friendship as ultimately merely a precursor for romance

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Hum Tum, Kal Ho Na Ho, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Wake Up Sid, Band Baaja Baaraat, Anjaana Anjaani, ABCD 2 or a multitude of other films would teach any Bollywood viewer to expect male-female friendships to evolve into romantic feelings and relationships. In portraying travel as an avenue to develop and cement friendships however, including between men and women, “Queen” subverts this common convention of in particular Hindi films, but also cinema in general. The viewer accompanies Rani on making this discovery.

On arrival in Amsterdam, Rani discovers that her hostel room involves her sharing with three guys (Tim, Taka and Aleksander) – a concept that is completely unfathomable to Rani and her views on appropriate male-female interaction.

She initially insists on another room, but after being informed none are available, sheepishly enters and shortly after makes a fake call to Vijay so that her roommate can understand there may be a man arriving at any point, as a form of protection. This is another example of her resourcefulness at pressure points.

She also reopens the door despite a brief argument immediately prior between Aleksander and Taka. She finally resorts to sleeping in the hall, when she is woken from her Vijay-related nightmares by Tim, to which Rani screams in fear, once again screaming “Mummy, Mummy”. Her screams wake up the other two roommates who join them in the hall and the three ultimately convince her to sleep inside the room and they will sleep out in the hall instead.

The next morning Rani makes breakfast in the hostel kitchen for her three roommates as a pseudo-peace offering.

Later Taka enters the room whilst Rani is skype-ing with her family and she instantly asks him not to making himself known, given her family’s likely disapproval.

The same day, Rani is showering when the guys return from a day out in Amsterdam, and Kangana shows Rani’s panic in her face before she is shown checking the lock.

Soon after however, she starts screaming and the guys look to help her, but obviously the door is locked. Seconds later, Rani runs out of the bathroom and the guys enter to see what happened, only to (humorously) also start screaming, run out and join Rani on the top bunk of the bed furthest from the bathroom.

We then learn it is only a lizard (how many lizards are there in Amsterdam?) and Rani takes comfort in the fact they were all scared through this these three young, foreign men are brought to her level of vulnerability – she no longer sees them as a sexual or physical threat, but rather

Rani approves the three guys sleeping in the same room as her and at this moment their friendship truly can begin. She is invited to hang out with them the following day, and later when she rings her friend back in India, who asks her if she has met any hot guys, her response is she has met some guys, but it is clear she does not seem them romantically.

Her new found friends are seen as encouraging and supportive, unlike her romantic interest in Vijay. We see this when Aleksander, the Russian painter, encourages Rani when she asks him about his artwork and says she also “wants to do something”. His response of “who is stopping you?” cuts to a scene of her and Vijay. Taka later encourages her also when the opportunity arises for her to work by showing off her culinary skills in a competition.

It is later revealed that Taka has lost his family, along with his job and his home in the 2011 Tsunami and Rani’s reaction that “[he] is alone?” is important for its response from Aleksander “[n]o, he has us”. This firmly establishes the friendship group as a makeshift family – and if men and women are like family this creates an alternative paradigm through which to see male-female friendship. Through this lens, it can be as platonic as family members, and does not need to develop into a romantic entanglement.

At the end of Rani’s time in Amsterdam you can imagine her placing a Rakhi not just on Chintu but also Aleksander, Tim and Taka – they have become like her brothers. This includes when they intervene in Vijay attempting to pull Rani away with him and she resists, but also stepping back when she asks.

Ultimately, spending time with her three friends and makeshift brothers becomes preferable to what she thought she wanted at the beginning of the movie – that is, time with Vijay, even if Vijay does not approve of her being friends with, and certainly not sharing accommodation with, three young men. Rani has by this point realised this opinion is foolish and doesn’t care, and by this point too, neither does the audience.

Act of subversion number 5 – re: the conservative to socially liberal transformation turning a woman into a desirable commodity, and the reconciliation of hero and heroine as a result

Rani’s social conservatism and general innocence is emphasised throughout the early part of the film that documents Vijay and Rani’s courtship. In fact, it is this innocence and conservatism that is Vijay’s reason for cancelling the wedding, as he considers himself more worldly in comparison following a stint in the US. Whilst we don’t see this period in Vijay’s life, as the focus is on Rani’s perspective, we get hints of this chasm between the two of them, as well as an emphasis on her sweetness (literally from a family with a sweet shop).

Vijay introduces himself as an engineering student, whilst Rani is “only” studying “home science” in a small, girls’ college she struggles to describe clearly in a humorous moment. Vijay even calls Rani “home science” which soon switches to “my queen” as he pursues her intensely a la SRK.

Whilst her friend encourages the romance as he “looks like Shah Rukh Khan to [her]”, Rani interjects that it is a known fact she wants an arranged marriage. Their differing attitudes to relationships and Vijay’s characterisation as a Rajori version of the ultimate superstar among the Indian diaspora foreshadows the demise of the relationship that the audience already know to be the case. Rani’s version of romance is as she has seen in cinema halls – she calls Vijay out on the “shelves in a library trick” stating she’s “seen at least 10 films where heroes have tried this”.

Even this young and innocent Rani is not as two-dimensional as she could have been portrayed in a lesser film however. We see evidence of her pragmatism and resourcefulness even when under pressure or out of her comfort zone from early on in “Queen”. This includes Rani’s reaction to Vijay telling her he no longer wants to go ahead with the wedding. Whilst personally distraught, her instant response is around the face-saving practical concerns of having to tell her family the news and her response to Vijay is that as this is his decision, it is his responsibility to do so. She literally begs Vijay to marry her to avoid causing such pain to her loved ones, rather than being more self-centred or personally offended.

Her decision to go on her honeymoon alone (setting the plot in motion) is also further evidence of her independent streak and willingness to make the best out of bad situations.

During her early time in Paris where she is struggling to adapt, she is targeted by a mugger, and the child-like Rani literally screams “Mummy, Mummy!” almost resorting to the innocent and dependent girl she could have been characterised as.

Rather we are also shown that she quickly realises the valuable item inside (her passport) and clings on to her bag for dear life, getting into a perhaps unwise fight with a thief in a quiet corner of a foreign city at night. Here she should be saved by gallant young man to be introduced as her new love interest – but instead Rani’s persistence draws the attention of someone in the neighbourhood and the thief is scared off.

Rani’s response to this attack is to take a taxi (one of a several shots or short scenes where Ranaut’s acting leaves no needs for words) to meet up with Vijaylaxmi in a Paris nightclub. This is the ultimate fish out of water scene, where the hedonistic partying inside is neither demonised nor celebrated, it is there purely to put Rani out of her comfort zone. The following scene is played for laughs with the young Rani getting drunk and preaching to French partygoers and later Vijaylaxmi.

The most obvious embodiment of Rani’s naivety and innocence, played for laughs, with Kangana an uninhibited good sport in filming this with a straight face, is the scene later on in “Queen” in the Amsterdam sex shop, where Rani is racking up gifts for her family without realising their sexual nature or usage. Her roommates cannot contain their laughter and tease her unashamedly. The audience’s view of her as a sweet and innocent young girl is as such represented through them (arguably this happens on a couple of other occasions with Vijaylaxmi also).

Towards the end of the movie, after Rani has visited the red light district and made friends with Roxette, gained perspective on Vijay’s betrayal through admiring Taka’s joie-de-vivre even in the face of tragedy, and is embarking on working by making and selling golgappas (a.k.a. pani puri and a number of other things!), she is also more confident about her own desires. She admits her crush on Marcello (as well as on Salman Khan!) and when she is challenged by Marcello that Indians are not only best at cooking but also best at kissing, she not only cites all Emraan Hashmi films in defence but, despite her initial nervousness plonks on one him!

When she sees Vijay for the first time in Amsterdam, who had revived his interest in her due to her modern attire and travelling in Europe, he is nevertheless not approving of all her changes – that she has been drinking champagne, that she has made friends with Tim, Taka and Aleksander. When he discovers they are her roommates he threatens to tell her family and worries once again about his own reputation, but Rani has ceased to care.

Back in Delhi she visits Vijay and speaks with his mother beforehand. This scene gives the audience a glimpse of what life would be like for Rani to be married to Vijay, and whilst his mother is keen for a companion, it is described as a very limiting lifestyle and what Rani wants, having come back from her adventures in Paris and Amsterdam, has evidently either changed, or she has realised was always different.

On seeing Rani – dressed in a lower cut outfit and with her hair straightened and make up on fleek, Vijay smiles from ear to ear and hugs her as he assumes she is there to reconcile. Instead, she places her engagement ring in his hand and hugs him goodbye, accompanied by an admirably mature “[t]hank you!”. Rani’s growth is complete, and as her path forward does not include Vijay, there is no reconciliation between the “hero” and heroine. It’s a heroine-oriented film in the deepest sense of the word, Rani is our heroine, but Vijay is not our hero.

Enjoyed this post?

 

Five upcoming heroine-oriented movies to look out for!

So what are some of the yet-to-be-released flicks that this blog will update on and then discuss after release? Here are 5 upcoming heroine-oriented movies to make sure you look out for.

  1. Simran  – a 2017 release starring 100-crore heroine Kangana Ranaut

Due to the casting of Kangana, this film is bound to gain a lot of attention. There is less confirmed information available so far however about this movie than Kangana’s other release “Rangoon”.

It is understood that Kangana plays an NRI, and that her character is not actually named Simran (leading to the question – who is Simran?) but rather Praful Patel. Kangana is said to be playing a “negative character”. Is this an unusual portrayal of an anti-heroine lead?

Speculation abounds that Praful is based on real life bank robber Sandeep Kaur, dubbed the “Bombshell Bandit” after successfully robbing three banks across the US. Her full story can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-32481834

It sounds a fascinating source to inspire a movie that’s for sure.

What we do have in terms of concrete information however is that the film is directed by Hansal Mehta, a National Film Award winner whose most recent release was “Aligarh”. A first look of Kangana in “Simran” has been released.

kangana-in-simran

2. “Noor” starring Sonakshi Sinha –

Noor sees Sonakshi Sinha team up with debut director Sunhil Sippy, her second heroine-oriented film after last month’s “Akira”. Unlike “Akira” – which saw Sonakshi as the action heroine spending most of the movie “kicking ass”, “Noor” appears to belong to the genre I’m dubbing “Lipstick Cinema” – as an entertainment-oriented portrayal of a lipstick feminist ideology. Such films have women as protagonists, and are generally designed for a female audience but embrace traditional markers of über-femininity. There are relatively few such films that have released in Bollywood, with the Sonam Kapoor-starrers “Aisha” and “Khoobsurat” springing to mind as recent examples.

The film is an adaptation of the book “Karachi, You’re Killing Me!” written by Pakistani journalist Saba Imtiaz and is due to release in April of next year.

With the book set in Karachi but relocated to Mumbai for the movie – there was some speculation that the character will remain Pakistani, which would have been an interesting retention given the paucity of Pakistani female characters in Hindi films (Preity Zinta in Veer Zaara and the young Munna [or “Shahida”] in Bajrangi Bhaijaan spring to mind), but Sinha has recently denied this, insisting this remains an Indian adaptation of a Pakistani book.

Poster for Noor.jpg

A poster already released (above) as has a teaser (below)

3. Phillauri – a film with Anushka Sharma as the lead –

Anushka Sharma’s latest home production following her intial producing credit for NH10 (another film due its own post), Phillauri is also a step away from the thriller genre of NH10, reportedly a much lighter affair comfortably described as a romantic comedy.

It has been speculated that Anushka is either playing a ghost or a witch – either option an unusual choice for your lead character!

First look is below

anushka-sharma-in-phillauri

Phillauri releases in March of next year and sees Punjabi music star and actor Diljit Donsanjh (who recently debuted in Bollywood with “Udta Punjab”) alongside Anushka, and was shot in the village of Phillaur and the city of Patiala, both in Punjab state, and is directed by newcomer Anshai Lal.

  1. Kahaani 2 – with of course, Vidya Balan

Due to release just next month, Vidya Balan’s “Kahaani 2” is a sequel to 2012’s superhit “Kahaani” (a film that warrants its own separate post soon).

Scheduled to release on the 25th November, Kahaani 2 goes up against SRK and Alia Bhatt’s “Dear Zindagi” at the box office in what is set to be the latest in a number of release date clashes between highly-hyped films.

However, if Kahaani 2 gets good word of mouth, combined with the regard the first film is still held in and Vidya’s acting chops, it should be able to overcome the impact of the release date clash.

Kahaani 2 appears to be set once again in Kolkata, which fans of Kahaani will remember, played a significant role in the movie, as a pseudo-character in of itself. Balan returns as assassin Vidya Bagchi, and Arjun Rampal joins the cast in a major role. Kahaani 2 sees Sujoy Ghosh return to directing for the first time since Kahaani.

The trailer is expected to come out alongside Ajay Devgan’s “Shivaay” which releases on the 28th October.

A still from the movie is below:

kahaani-2-still

5. Veere di Wedding – an ensemble piece with Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor

This is a movie I am particularly looking forward to for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a heroine-oriented film with two major stars – with Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor both acting in Veere di Wedding. To say this is not a common occurrence is beyond an understatement. If the film is a success and both actresses are credited for it, perhaps it could even start a trend that would see the lead actresses of Bollywood on screen together with greater frequency.

Equally, by featuring Kareena Kapoor in a lead role, it also shows her determination to remain in the industry despite family tradition, naysayers and the rules of Bollywood demanding she step out of the limelight now she’s married, over 35 and soon to be a mother. Whilst evidently benefitting from the privilege of the ultimate movie star last name, this refusal to “bow out gracefully” can break barriers for other women after her.

So what do we actually know about the movie itself? Well we know it is about a group of four friends at one of their weddings – the bride played by Kareena. The other three women are played by Sonam, Swara Bhaskar (previously in the Tanu Weds Manu movies, Raanjhanaa and Prem Ratan Dan Payo) and Shikha Tilsania (Wake Up Sid). It sees Sonam team up again with Khoobsurat direct Shakshanka Ghosh. VDW has been described as a “feel-good film” about an “emotional bond between friends”. Producer Rhea Kapoor (Sonam’s sister) has revealed it will shoot primarily in Delhi, with some overseas locations also being explored.

Beyond this – more is yet to be revealed, including the release date. From the information we have so far though, it appears to also fit into the “lipstick cinema” category, and if it plays up on the comedy aspect, I would not be surprised if it is being pitched as Bollywood’s answer to “Bridesmaids”.

kareena-and-sonam

Look – heroines can get along!

PLUS – a bonus three other heroine-oriented films which have been announced but for which there is still very limited information:-

  • Begum Jaan – another Vidya Balan movie releasing early next year. Allegedly Vidya plays a brothel’s madam during partition (already sounds amazing). Hopefully this will follow on from success with Kahaani 2.
  • Rani Mukherjee is set to make her return to the silver screen by playing the lead in a YRF biopic, directed by Siddarth Malhotra (not the actor, but rather the director of the Kajol/Kareena Kapoor/Arjun Rampal film “We Are Family”). Rumour mill is rife that this is a film turned down by Priyanka Chopra, and as PC was recently linked to a biopic of Kalpana Chawla, its possible this is the same film. Chawla, an Indian American astronaut, and the first Indian woman in space, lost her life aged only 40 (only two years older than Rani) in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
  • As yet unnamed heroine-oriented film starring Kajol – very little detail on this upcoming movie, reportedly Kajol’s next, with her as the protagonist in a movie starring a mother and son, it is produced by her husband Ajay Devgan’s production house but he does not star in the movie.

Enjoyed this post?

  • Check out “Queen” – which discuss Simran star Kangana Ranaut’s 2014 release, and why the film is groundbreaking and how it subverts expectations
  • Read about another powerhouse performance, Sonam Kapoor’s best to date, in “Neerja” and how the film presents the protagonist as a number of different archetypes
  • Learn what this blog is all about in “Introducing ‘Women in Bollywood‘”

Neerja (2016)

I chose to start this blog with a piece on the movie “Neerja”. Why?

Well, Neerja is box office gold in 2016, one of the biggest movies released and the highest grossing with a female protagonist. It sees India’s “number 1 fashionista”, the star kid Sonam Kapoor, in a totally new avatar, producing almost certainly her finest performance to date. It received rave reviews and most likely will be a critical darling at awards shows rewarding the best films of 2016.

BUT actually I started with this film for none of these reasons.

Ultimately, I chose “Neerja” to begin a discussion of “heroine-oriented” cinema as it is a rendering of a true story of a real life heroine – an inspiration for women and men, boys and girls and for Indians, Pakistanis, Americans and Brits alike. Neerja is the story of the 22-year old flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, who saved the lives of 359 people following an attempted hijacking on Pan Am Flight 73 on the 5th September 1986 at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on a stopover between Mumbai, Frankfurt and New York.

Portrayals of such heroines are important in all kinds of media, and if a reason was needed to justify why films with women protagonists are important, then it’s for reasons such as the need to tell stories such as Neerja’s. Critiques of “women-orientated” films (the same applies for literature and television) can often be that they are not serious and inherently superficial. This is a whole other discussion for another time. Nevertheless, it provides a context where it is particularly interesting to witness Sonam Kapoor, arguably one of the actresses in Bollywood today most commonly maligned in such a way, to lead this super-hit movie and for it to not only address a serious matter, but to demonstrate that stories of and about women are important to be heard.

SPOILERS ahead – if you don’t like them, I highly recommend you go watch the movie, and then come back. Trailer is below.

“Neerja” tells a compelling story, made gripping through strong performances and quality direction, despite most audience members likely being already aware of the outcome. Throughout the movie, Neerja is presented as a positive archetype for a number of different roles – and does a good job of inspiring without setting unobtainable expectations that depictions of “flawless” or “superhuman” women in media can sometimes create. I have described examples of some of these below.

Neerja as a Bollywood fan – like the audience herself

Neerja opens with scenes showing her personality, family life and portraying her as a “normal” young woman that the audience can relate to, in spite of her courageous and ultimately, tragically sacrificial actions that will follow. Her interest in Bollywood automatically connects her with the audience whilst her Rajesh Khanna fandom and declaration of his superiority as B-Town’s top hero over Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan mirrors the debates today between fans of the three Khans. That her mother is played by a frequent co-star of Khanna at the time, Shabana Azmi, perhaps only adds to this connection between Neerja herself and the Bollywood viewer.

Neerja as a “normal” young girl

The film passes the Bechdel test within the first 15 minutes, in a charming scene between the convincingly sleepy Neerja (played with the familiar youthful energy Sonam Kapoor brought to other heroine-oriented films such as Aisha and Khoobsurat, but also a seriousness and steeliness that has been less at the forefront of her work to date), and Neerja’s mother Rama (played by the iconic Shabana Azmi). The two discuss Neerja’s job and her mother’s worries related to her safety, which is laughed off by the pair with an intense foreshadowing of the tragic events to come.

Neerja as a girlfriend and a wife

Neerja is shown to have a relationship with Jaideep, who drives her to the airport, and reflects on her brief, and failed, arranged marriage. A flashback scene shows her husband berating her for ordering take-out and her mother for not having taught her to cook, accusing her of not understanding the meaning of “hard work”. It paints a rather unflattering picture of him and their marriage, especially in light of the heroics of the last few hours of Neerja’s life which will form the bulk of the film.

A brief scene presenting her “pious” vegetarianism in contrast to her husband’s aggressive meat eating is perhaps one of the most contrived moments in the movie, but it soon has greater significance as she is prevented from socialising or being presented publicly among his friends, being told to literally stay in the kitchen (!) and clean up after him.

Her isolation in Qatar and due to the break she is forced to take from working outside the home (in this case – her modelling career) is ruptured through a the supportive words of a progressive father who prioritises her well-being and happiness and teaches her to value strength and bravery over submissiveness and obedience.

This contrast of Neerja as a girlfriend, in a relationship she has chosen and supported in her work (presented positively) and as a wife in an arranged marriage where she is relegated to the kitchen (presented negatively) is a progressive view of the role of women, and given the truth in the story, legitimate, if somewhat simplified if taken as a broader message. However, if the message can be taken simply that women should be free to make their own choices, including in matters of marriage and career, and are not simply cooks and cleaners for their male spouses, this message is to be welcomed in the context of this movie celebrating life of, and commemorating the tragic heroism of, a truly brave woman.

Neerja emerges as a heroine

Rama is shown to have a mother’s instinct that something has happened, and when she is called about the hijacking by Harish, Neerja’s father, a journalist who hears about the situation through his work, they are both clearly extremely concerned but also try to maintain composure. The viewers can see this steeliness in Neerja’s reactions such as when the plane is first hijacked – her initial shock at the sound of shooting, her curious walk towards danger, her command to the rest of the cabin crew to close the door to prevent them entering (which is almost successful), and critically her alerting of the pilots of the fact that the plane has been hijacked, which critically gives them enough time to escape and prevents them from being forced to fly. Whilst a crucial act towards saving not only the pilots’ lives but also, ultimately that of the majority of the passengers, this act forces the young Neerja to take on the responsibility of becoming the most senior cabin crew member on a plane attacked by a terrorist group.

The alerting of the pilots and their escape also draws attention to Neerja and causes her to become somewhat of a target. She does not shy away from this however, volunteering to make an announcement on behalf of the hijackers in place of a traumatised colleague. They attempt to identify the radio controller on the plane, but Neerja discourages him from identifying himself in an effort to protect him.

Other key efforts to protect passengers that put her at greater risk include the hiding of American passports after an American passenger is murdered. This traumatic event sees Neerja barely avoid being shot, but after composing herself in the toilet, interspersed with a flashback to an even-more dejected looking Neerja during her brief marriage, when she sought a moment of solace in the bathroom. In the present timeline, she uses this moment of regaining composure to devise the plan to collect and hide the passports.

Neerja as de facto negotiator

Neerja’s compassion is seen extending even to the hijackers themselves, although she never condones their actions. These include from as early as her first announcement to the passengers on their behalf; to her plan to collect and hide the American passports under a rouse of giving out water, when she appeals to them by comparing their “duty” and “job” with her own towards the services of the passengers on the plane. She even attempts this after the auxiliary power expires and the hijackers panic, assuming they are about to be attacked. When this proves futile and they start shooting, Neerja rushes to open the emergency exit as quickly as possible and begin to evacuate the passengers and crew as quickly as possible.

Neerja as a survivor of abuse

Neerja’s bravery is framed as one that has either developed due to being a survivor of abuse, or an inherent part of her character that enabled her to escape her marriage.

The turning point where she is seen to realise her fighting instinct is shown in another flashback scene where Neerja is back in India with her family. One of her brother’s is notably supportive and her father Harish is particularly quiet and keen to avoid discussing why she is at home in India.

Her mother Rama is shown as less supportive and rather encourages Neerja to stick with the marriage, and persist in her attempts to adapt, somewhat insensitively dismissing her unhappiness as a burden that all married women need to take on. Rama’s stance turns however once Neerja reveals letters written by her husband to Harish, her father, detailing his dowry-related complaints, and recalling his psychological and even physical abuse towards her, and she appears to recognise this is not an acceptable situation. Sonam gives a convincing delivery whilst reading the letters, with the summary conclusion that “she is of no use to me” encapsulating how Neerja has been disparaged through a form of abuse and that intends to imply that therefore “she is of no use [whatsoever]”. Ultimately however, this narrative is not just challenged for its offensiveness, but in light of Neerja’s heroism, also absurd to even suggest.

This scene is also important as it shows that it is often other women who justify or seek to normalise abuse – and commonly in the name of love and support of a close family member. This means that the fact that Neerja’s insistence on escaping her life in Qatar and returning to India, and indirectly asserting her own worth and value in spite of being “of no use”, is ultimately heard and acknowledged by her family, especially her mother, all the more important. This serves as an assertion that the happiness of ALL women is important and ALL women have use and value.

Neerja as the romantic heroine

Curiously, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Neerja is also painted as a romantic heroine within the movie. A common trope of Hindi cinema, particularly of the last 20 years, is the romanticisation of “love marriage” for an audience that still overwhelmingly (although in decreasing frequency in some urban areas) continues to practice arranged marriage as the primary establishment of a relationship between romantic partners. However, romance developing after marriage is rare enough to be be an outlier among the majority of Hindi films released in recent years (some examples of such outliers that spring to mind would be Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Namastey London, Rab Na Bana Di Jodi, and most recently, Dum Laga Ke Haisha).

Given the facts around Neerja’s failed arranged marriage, the idealisation of a romantic relationship established prior to marriage, as she has with Jaideep, is perhaps unspectacular. What is more interesting in this regard is the prominence and significance this is given within the movie, especially giving the thriller aspect of the hijack and the inspiration of her heroics. This trope is used predominantly to emphasise loss and tragedy, with Neerja’s acceptance of her role as the romantic heroine coming at a point where she appears to have accepted her likely demise – she opens the birthday letter from Jaideep prematurely as she recognises she may not be able to wait until her birthday. Her tears of joy are accompanied by a genuine pain that she is unable to fulfil the proposal written within. Neerja’s last smile however is shown whilst in reflecting on this letter and the love it represents.

Jaideep, the supportive and loving husband that can never be, meanwhile, is seen awaiting news whilst sitting in front of a billboard with Neerja as a model. That Neerja is literally modelling bridal gear is a far from subtle nod to the fact that Neerja is being cast as the ultimate bride.

Neerja as Mother India

Neerja’s final actions, also demonstrated in a range of moments throughout the film portray her as a protector of children. She is ultimately shot after returning the line of fire in order to protect and evacuate a group of unaccompanied young children, acting as a human shield. Her last words are to a young boy she acts as a pseudo-mother figure to.

Neerja’s role as an archetypal mother figure plays into a subversion of one of the most famous of all “heroine-oriented” Hindi films, namely, “Mother India”. In this subverted ending however, our “mother to society” self-sacrifices literally, and can only protect “her” children, by being shot herself instead of acting as the shooter.

Neerja’s mother herself has a speech at the end of the movie, reflecting on her loss and on Neerja’s life. This is obviously partially to make best use of a powerhouse acting legend such as Shabana Azmi. But in the context of the film it also works to emphasise Neerja not just as a heroine, but also a more human figure – a daughter, a sister, a fiancé and a friend.

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