Curse of the comeback? Part three of five: Aishwarya Rai in “Jazbaa” (2015)

This is part three of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

Last year’s “Jazbaa” saw Aishwarya Rai Bachchan return to the silver screen after five years, her preceding release being 2010’s “Guzaarish”.

Rai’s 1994 coronation as Miss World, followed by a high profile career with major hits such as “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”, “Dhoom 2”, “Devdas” and “Jodhaa Akbar”, a large array of endorsements, a handful of English-language films suggesting she might be the first B-Town star to “crossover” (whatever that means), and annual appearances at Cannes all contributed to the creation of Aishwarya Rai the star.

The addition of a filmi surname of the highest regard, becoming Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and extending Mr. Bachchan’s film legacy into another generation created an additional level of glamour and mystique around Aishwarya.

That Rai’s return came after a five-year break was not initially intended, in fact she already signed up for Madhur Bhandarkar’s film “Heroine”, with a first look even released with her in the lead role. After she became pregnant with her daughter, her dates didn’t work and the film was released in 2012 with Kareena Kapoor in the lead instead.

The five-year break from films didn’t see Aishwarya completely away from the public eye however, and combined with the continued popularity of her films, she remained within public consciousness with a lot of hype and anticipation surrounding her return.

Given all of the above, 2015’s “Jazbaa” was an unusual choice for a “comeback” film for Aishwarya, a dark thriller not particularly similar to her biggest hits in any noticeable way, and so arguably was quite a brave and bold choice.

Despite this brave and bold choice, the film only garnered average reviews and average receipts in terms of return on investment or in comparison to the standout hits of 2015 (whether her ex- Salman Khan’s “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” or father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan’s “Piku”).

Therefore it is useful to break down what works and what doesn’t about the film, to figure out what contributed to this underwhelming response from critics and audiences.

The usual SPOILER alert – Jazbaa is a recommended watch (although an imperfect film), it has lots of interesting aspects to it, and so if you haven’t seen it, go watch and come back.

The trailer is below:

So what actually works about “Jazbaa”?:

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is re-established as a glamourous heroine, not despite, nor irrespective of, but including her real life (and reel life) motherhood as a source of glamour:

The opening scene and song of Jazbaa shows a svelte Aishwarya Rai Bachchan jogging and stretching around the city in a lycra suit as a message to all the haters who criticised her weight gain after her pregnancies (a natural and healthy phenomenon).

Rather in her return in Jazbaa, she represents the epitomy of health and fitness. She is then immediately cast in the role of a mother, shown waking her daughter for school.

On the school run, as Aishwarya’s character Anuradha discusses with her daughter the upcoming relay race, she mentions to her daughter she was also on her track team when she was at school, following on from her exercise we saw in the opening scene. Her daughter teases her:

Sanaya: Excuse me mom, this is a race. Not some case which you always win.

The image of Aishwarya Rai as “flawless” is emphasised successfully through the character she plays being portrayed similarly, specifically in her career:

Aishwarya, sorry, Anuradha of course wins the relay race. Whilst she is running her leg, this is when Sanaya disappears and it is this disappearance that drives the main thrust of the plot, when we discover she has been taken and Anuradha is forced into taking on a client under duress. Even during the call she receives from the kidnapper, he reminds us as the audience that Anuradha is such a top lawyer, in case we had forgotten.

Anuradha then heads to work, which, as has already been established, is as a top lawyer. An endearing moment when she takes off her flats to put on a pair of heals is hammered home excessively, with an unnecessary dialogue from her opposing counsel:

Prosecutor: I wish those high heels would help you win the case.

Irrespective of the high heels, Anuradha wins her case. Her client congratulates her and she corrects him by congratulating him instead. Through this we learn she takes pride in her success as a lawyer, but does not morally or ethically condone the actions of the people she is defending. She says she hopes to never meet him again when he offers his support if she ever needs it.

Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi were great choices to cast alongside Rai for this film, and if her own character were meatier and more complex, would have really allowed for their acting abilities to come through:

Irrfan Khan, for example, in contrast to Aishwarya Rai, is given more to do and able to show off more of his acting ability than Rai, even within the same (flawed) film, as his character Yohan is shown to make mistakes and has elements of grey to his character given the accusations of corruption against him.

In his introductory scene Yohan is compared with Rai’s father-in-law Amitabh Bachchan, famous for his ‘angry young man’ roles, and as a police officer, with Ajay Devgan’s Singham. These are iconic roles of historic and contemporary Hindi cinema.

An example of when Irrfan Khan does well as Yohan is when he and Anuradha break into the crime scene – and Yohan explains how the crime was committed.

Anuradha is able to assess the scene like an inspector, and already pieces together evidence that open the possibility that Niyaz didn’t commit the crime or that something is amiss. She builds a narrative of why the evidence against him might be there. All this seems quite sudden and lacks a little in plausibility.

Yohan later tells her to “stop trying to put Sherlock Homes out of a job”. His dark humour and wit is an enjoyable characterisation and well delivered throughout.

Anuradha then goes to a club and we have an awkwardly hemmed in video song and would have been better to leave this out or have a song more in keeping in mood with that of the film. Another awkward fit is the pseudo action scene as she confronts Benny, a confused junkie friend of Sia’s.

However, this improves when Yohan appears he apprehends Benny and threatens to arrest him for possession of narcotics, in turns into a humorous meta-commentary:

Benny: You’re not a cop anymore. I know my rights.

Yohan: Rights? Rights in INDIA?

[slaps him twice]

You watch too many Hollywood films

This is Bollywood.

He then plays good cop and offers to let him go if he spills on what happened. When this doesn’t work – he switches back to Singham-style policing. As a result, they get their intel – Benny mentions Sia changed after meeting a guy who became a bad influence.

The trial itself is probably the most compelling part of the film:

Anuradha’s case taken under duress is that of a convicted criminal who is appealing his conviction and sentencing, and who was sentenced to the death penalty in the initial trial. She is given a deadline of four days to have all charges dropped.

The case is to acquit Niyaz, the convicted murder and rapist of a 23-year-old art student called Sia. He has previous violent convictions and his DNA is all over the crime scene. We learn the inspector in charge of the case was Anuradha’s friend Yohan.

Loyalties to Anuradha are somewhat uncertain, as we as the audience understand her need to win the case, but naturally side with the victim and specifically with the victim’s mother, played by Shabana Azmi. There are a number of interesting conversations between the two of them, where perhaps the viewer may question Anuradha’s approach, if not her motives.

Throughout the trial, the questioning of witnesses and closing statements allow for discussion of issues around violence against women that are ripe topics for all kinds of forms of art and media – and most recently very successfully addressed by Rai Bachchan’s father-in-law in the movie “Pink”.

Anuradha is shown in court to be creating reasonable doubt by questioning the locksmith who couldn’t break into the apartment and the doctor who conducted the autopsy who both indicate that Sia must have known her attacker.

She follows by putting Garima on the stand, where her line of questioning is challenged.

She explains:

Anuradha: My motive was to draw the court’s attention to the fact that when girls in a broken family feel lonely they tread down the wrong path in search of love and support.

Garima: Sia wasn’t like that!

Anuradha: Then how was she Garima-ji?

Garima: My daughter was the most brilliant student of the JJ School of Arts.

Anuradha: But all the artwork in her studio is mostly incomplete.

Was there a void in her life too?

Garima: There’s a void in everyone’s life.

No one gets a complete world, Advocate Verma.

Anuradha: Can you tell us, how your daughter filled the void in her life?

Garima: Like most youngsters do these days, with their friends.

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This case is about Sia’s murder, not her personal life.

Anuradha: Your Honour, given the conditions under which Sia was murdered, her lifestyle had a big role to play in it.

Judge: Please continue.

Anuradha: Thank you, Your Honour.

[to Garima] Did your daughter have friends?

Gaurima: Who doesn’t? She had dozens of friends.

Anuradha: Boyfriends?

Gaurima: Yes.

She had male friends as well.

Anuradha: How was Sia’s relationship with her boyfriend?

Prosecutor: Objection Your Honour.

This is just an attempt to humiliate Sia.

Anuradha: I disagree Your Honour.

To find the real murderer it is important to find out who Sia’s friends were, what they did, who she hung out with, and how she partied, if she did.

This line of questioning where the relevance of a woman’s personal life choices to seeking justice after she has suffered a crime (and in this case, is not even able to either defend her choices, or face her attacker), is picked up again in scene shortly afterwards, and dealt with even more explicitly.

Anuradha: Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

I’ll repeat my question.

Did Sia have relationships with a lot of men?

[pause]

Garima-ji, I hope you understand what I’m trying to get at.

Garima stands up for her daughter and outwardly criticises Anuradha’s approach and challenges the underlying judgement and shame. She reminds both the court and the audience that Sia is the victim, not the accused.

Garima:  I understand clearly what you’re trying to say.

You want to prove that my daughter was a loose woman.

On what basis?

Because she had a few male friends?

Advocate Verma, my daughter was clever, beautiful, emotional.

Men would hover around her.

So what?

Is that a crime?

Are you one of those people that think that it’s always the woman’s fault?

People who blame the girl and not the rapist after she’s been raped.

They blame her dress sense.

They blame her independent thinking.

They blame the very fact that she’s a girl.

Anuradha: Garima-ji, I’m sorry to hurt your feelings.

The following response clarifies their two positions – Garima as a traumatised mother who can’t get over her daughter’s murder, and Anuradha as a mother winning her case at any cost to protect her daughter who’s been kidnapped. There is a clear parallel between the two of them in this moment, but it questions Anuradha’s potential hypocrisy for victimising Sia further to save her own daughter.

Garima: No, Advocate Verma.

You are not sorry.

Right now you’re just a lawyer who wants to win her case at any cost.

If you had any humanity, or sympathy, then you would have understood my pain.

I dream about my daughter every night, where she says, “Mama, save me, I want to live. Help me Mama”.

Back when she was a kid, even a small hiccup would give me sleepless nights.

Imagine my condition when her scream resonates in my ears every night.

Prosecutor: Your Honour, I seriously object to this kind of questioning.

Anuradha: My questions are relevant Your Honour.

Judge: Proceed.

Anuradha: Did you know that your daughter took drugs?

Garima: Yes.

Anuradha continues by framing this information to support her case for reasonable doubt.

Anuradha: Your honour, please note, Sia was a young girl.

She lived alone.

She had a lot of male friends and she took drugs.

And that night, the lock of Sia’s apartment was impossible to pick from the outside. So obviously, Sia opened it from the inside.

And Sia’s killer who came into her apartment that night must have been one of Sia’s male friends who Sia invited over herself.

And not some petty thief who went there to steal money for his mother’s medicine.

That will be all Your Honour.

A recess is called and Garima approaches Anuradha outside of the courtroom. Rather than relate Anuradha to herself, she draws a parallel between Anuradha and Niyaz, an extreme position perhaps but it emphasises the power of shaming, and of the perverting of justice to blame the victim:

Garima: Miss Verma, what Niyaz did to my daughter was behind closed doors.

You just did that to her character in the open.

What’s the difference between you and Niyaz?

Nothing.

Aishwarya’s character is given an traumatic background within the film, leading to a conversation with Irrfan’s character that touches on issues such as gender selective abortion and boy child preference:

An interesting dialogue follows Anuradha is calmer after the meetup to drop off Sanaya’s medication. This plotline as such does a better job of ringing true (and allows Aishwarya to give a more convincing performance and flesh out her character a little more):

Anuradha: I almost lost Sanaya once before

I got pregnant.

And my husband found out it was a girl.

He said

“we can have a daughter later”

First I want a son.

Even my in-laws wanted a son.

I was so alone.

I had loved him you know.

I even stopped practicing law for his sake.

Settled down in America.

It was our child.

And he said “abort it”

Kill my daughter.

My Sanaya.

A man becomes a father after the child is born.

But a woman becomes a mother from the time the child starts developing in her womb.

A man can say “abort the child”

But not a mother

I fled from those murderers.

Away from the world that had no place for my child.

I almost lost her once, I can’t lose her again.

This interesting background is dropped however, and we learn nothing of how Anuradha went from divorced single mother returning to India after abandoning her career upon her husband’s request, to the hotshot superstar defence lawyer who the poor can’t afford and the press can’t stop profiling.

Anuradha Verma is a more engaging character at the points she is resourceful – either in her line of questioning or when she is attacked herself:

When Anuradha returns home after discovering about the involvement of the local politician Mahesh Maklai, he and his goons are waiting for her. They threaten her and tie her up, as he insists his son has “nothing to do with this case”. He then explains that Sam came home high one morning, with Sia’s body in his car.

They both assumed he had killed her in a fugue state, whereas Anuradha still insists at this point that Sam is the murderer. He explains that it doesn’t matter whether Sam is the murderer or not (where is the victim in all this you wonder) – but rather that his reputation is protected so he goes on to win the upcoming elections.

This plot point is meaty and not fully exploited, a great actor and performance for the role of Mahesh Maklai, and more time to flesh out his character to deliver this would help.

Whilst a morally grey Anuradha suddenly becoming a passionate defender of justice in the face of this new level of acceptance of immorality would be appropriate here, but neither does a flawed nor right on Anuradha seem to object much at all. “Please don’t do this” is her only refrain, but Aishwarya is also inconveniently tied up here, leaving her no option to use body language in her performance.

They plan to burn the place down with her in it – upping the stakes to the highest point so far in the film as Anuradha’s life is in immediate danger. Here she is somewhat entreatingly resourceful as she slides over to the nearest table and kicks as she is able, smashing a glass onto the ground – a piece of which she will be able to use to set herself free. She then helps the maid, checks she’s OK and switches off the gas.

The prosecutor presents his final arguments and is followed by Anuradha whose argument consists of admitting that Niyaz could be the murderer but creating reasonable doubt by presenting Sam as an alternative suspect. We haven’t seen any of this evidence actually presented in court until this point so this seems odd.

She does however, following Annalise Keating’s steps on How to Get Away with Murder (the sexy, soapy high drama ABC show without Priyanka Chopra):

The ending is relatively well executed – with Shabana Azmi standing out and most threads are tied up – and where this isn’t done neatly, it appears to be intentional:

We are shown, a final version of events where Niyaz does indeed rape and murder Sia, whilst Sam has passed out due to his drugged up state, and Niyaz puts the knife he used as the murder weapon in Sam’s hand before he escapes.

Whilst Anuradha is challenged for presenting these assumptions only at this point of the case, with no evidence, her response is to point to the lack of a murder weapon, and insist it is the prosecution’s job to prove the client guilty. Anuradha is well sold here as a competent lawyer. She points at the lack of equal justice provided to the son of a rich man with connections (Sam), and a drug dealer (Niyaz) as a genuine double standard.

At this point when we know Niyaz is the killer – our loyalties to this argument are somewhat divided. Anuradha, upon questioning by the prosecution, presents a motive for Sam – jealousy on finding Niyaz and Sia in a “compromising position” whilst he attempted to rape her. Sam arrives at the court just in time to act as a witness confirming he was there at the time of her murder.

He says he was there at the time of the murder but that she was already dead when he came to. We are shown a flashback of this happening, as well as him and his father disposing of the body.

Niyaz is granted bail (but not acquitted? Is he still charged? Is the case reopen? Is this even acceptable as a result for the kidnapper? – all unclear), and Mahesh and Sam are charged with the crimes Sam has just admitted to.

Sam appears in court as a result of Anuradha’s defending of the criminal Abbas at the beginning of the film, who Mahesh Miklai made the mistake of trusting as a hired goon to take on his dirty work of hiding Sam. Whether this criminal’s honour code is believable or not is probably questionable but adds an ambiguity that would have been better to run throughout the film more generally.

Niyaz is run over and killed on his release from prison.

Later Anuradha visits Garima to apologise for her efforts in setting Niyaz free.

She soon realises her involvement in the kidnapping, followed by an admission by Garima that she has vengefully murdered Niyaz.

Anuradha:

Why did you want Sia’s murderer acquitted?

We see Garima has paid off a goon, and we see that Niyaz is still alive but tied up. Garima walks in with an intense, vengeful look:

Garima:

You’ve no clue

About the things I had to do to get you out.

I did things to an innocent girl

Which a mother can never imagine.

You will die now.

A death you can’t even imagine.

Do you know why Ravan is burnt every year on Dusshera?

To remind everyone of Ravan’s crimes.

There’s just one punishment for physically abusing a girl

He’s burnt to death.

Niyaz: [sniffs his shirt] Petrol!

Garima: Can you imagine a death compared to which even the death penalty looks like mercy?

Niyaz screams.

Garima: This is how my daughter screamed as well.

I can still hear her screams.

She doesn’t let me sleep at night.

Echoes in my ear.

Niyaz pathetically screams “forgive me!” – as though Garima is in the mood for forgiving the rape and murder of her daughter.

Garima: Set my nerves on fire. It pierces my soul. My daughter’s scream can only be subdued by your screams Niyaz.

Garima pulls out a lighter and we see her red eyes as she watches the flames surround Niyaz. She is finding a perverse comfort in personally enacting this punishment. We see a single tear as she feels vindicated for her earlier actions as a kidnapper, as she has got the pay off she wanted so badly.

We are back to the scene with Anuradha and Garima explains how she burnt Niyaz alive.

Garima: This could be his only punishment to serve justice to my daughter

This is an interesting reference to justice in what seems like vengeance

You’re a mother too. I hope you understand.

Anuradha: No

I don’t understand.

What gave you the right to kidnap my daughter?

In order to get justice for your daughter?

Garima: Believe me, I took care of Sanaya like my Sia.

Yet I am guilty for all the trauma she went through

Even if I am sentenced to death

For giving Niyaz what he deserved

Then I will have no regrets.

Garima is then arresting for kidnapping and murder. Anuradha’s response is to enquire if they have an arrest warrant, and when she’s questioned why she’s even asking she declares that its because Garima is her client. This is a dramatic turn of events from seconds earlier when she insists she didn’t and couldn’t understand Garima’s motivations. The two finally connect through pain as mothers.

What would have made the film stronger – and more likely to succeed:

The set up to fail – “flawlessness” as an ideal for both on-screen heroine and off-screen persona is somewhat problematic, and leaves little scope for creating either a relatable character, or adding any real sense of moral ambiguity or bring out dark themes as the film appears otherwise to be trying to do:

The practically-perfect-in-every-way character played by Aishwarya, Anuradha Verma, is better compared with Mary Poppins, which, without the singing and the flying umbrella, makes for a relatively dull and largely unengaging character for her to play.

The fact she defends the worst criminals is explained by “the innocent can’t afford my fees”. That means, this is only because she is such an accomplished lawyer. She tuts and shakes her head at her friend Yohan for his suspension caused by his low level corruption, and doesn’t accept his excuse that the whole system is corrupt. She is therefore also established as a principled individual, and morally and ethically incorruptible.

Aishwarya is the perfect doting mother, perfect lawyer who never loses a case even when all the evidence is against her, is smart, kind, and of course, given this is a former Miss World, stunningly beautiful.

The mother / daughter kidnapping angle, in fact, seems intended to show Aishwarya as being a “serious” dramatic actress able to emote, present her as the super mother willing to do anything for her child (yes, Aishwarya just as much as Anuradha), and to ensure that Anuradha remains a likeable character as the audience understands this is only under the most extreme duress that she is representing such a client.

I would suggest cutting this whole aspect of the script, and recreating Anuradha as a fabulous lawyer, but bitter woman who gleefully takes on the most difficult cases to show off how good she is, and who expresses little remorse for defending the worst criminals in the process. She could have a mysterious past that could relate to a long-term missing daughter that might develop later on, but would create a credibility that she would be able to focus on the case rather than being distracted by concerns around her daughter’s whereabouts and safety.

Anuradha goes to meet Niyaz in prison for the first time – the combination of fear and disdain for him as a convicted murder and rapist is actually quite convincingly shown by Aishwarya through an understated reaction and her famously expressive eyes. We actually see some genuine vulnerability here and it allows for Aishwarya to give a more complex and interesting performance:

Niyaz states: These beautiful faces don’t win cases.

Mean lawyers like you do. Understood, old man?

Anuradha: [stands up] I will make sure you win. Trust me!

He reacts by trying to strangle her.

She then causes a scene in the middle of the road creating a traffic jam as she confronts the police who continue to follow her. She argues with them, not making much sense by saying her daughter is back safe but at the same time that the police can do nothing to apprehend the kidnapper. She then recklessly pulls the car keys out their car and throws them away before driving off.

Niyaz asks for her to return to meet him, and is shown reading clippings which identify Anuradha as one of the “highest paid lawyers”. (Thanks for the reminder, really makes her relatable to the common man or woman).

Anuradha tells Niyaz his narrative of what happened and how he is innocent, trying to craft a feasible story. She has written up the statement already and just needs him to sign it.

When Niyaz hears this – he laughs incredulously and declares: You’re good! You’re good! Very good. The newspapers are right about you.

Anuradha even has time to help her friend Yohan – she has posted his bail before he has even been arrested on the corruption charges.

At one point in the film, Niyaz compliments Anuradha on her legal approach, and jokes about Garima. Anuradha slaps him in response and says “you have no idea what a mother has to go through!”. This would be more interesting if it came without all the backstory of her character defending him only under duress, her daughter’s kidnapping and super mother status that has already been hammered down our throats.

It would potentially serve as a clue to understanding her as a more complex character, her motivations for taking on the case and as a sign of her internal struggles whilst doing so. Her next line, in case we had forgotten, is “[y]our case is being defended by a mother. Not a lawyer. Understand?”.

Overall to rework Aishwarya’s character as a morally dubious lawyer who represents “bad guys” and tries to get them off, but finds this her toughest case yet, would have been a more compelling premise.

Jazbaa is ultimately two films in one and that these two parts don’t really fit together:

Specifically those two parts consist of –

  • A drama/thriller showing from the perspective of a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and the trauma she goes through
  • A thriller/mystery about a murder of a young woman from the perspective of the defence lawyer trying to win an appeal

We see this for example in a scene where Anuradha is rung by the kidnapper and warned that Sanaya is seriously unwell. She insists she is taken to the hospital to receive treatment. Instead the kidnapper agrees for a drop off of medications at a to be agreed point. In exchange for the medications, the kidnapper leaves a box with Sanaya’s clothes. We hear Sanaya call out in the distance as her head pops out of the car. Anuradha’s overdramatic (if perhaps believable within the plot) reaction and slow-mo running towards her as the car drives away.

Why Anuradha, if such a smart and successful lawyer, investigator and detective, as well as a supermom, and brave in the face of danger, would in this scenario focus her attention to the point of minimal distraction on getting a convicted murder released rather than figuring out who kidnapper her daughter in the first place and/or her daughter’s whereabouts is never really addressed and as such this plot doesn’t convince.

The screaming, tears and breakdown that follows don’t fit with the same characterisation of her character as a professional to a fault, poised under the most extreme pressure and leaves the taste as a result of a bizarre and unintended double role (which might have been a more interesting twist in fact!)

Only after hearing her screaming has the (detective!) Inspector Yohan realised Sanaya is not with her grandmother and even is made to look surprised when Anuradha says she has been kidnapped after all. In this scene however, Irrfan’s character comes across as believable but Aishwarya’s arc doesn’t add up.

She has just seen her daughter, alive and despite being told she was unwell (seemingly in good health), she is screaming “my Sanaya is gone” repeatedly, as though resigned to the fact her child is dead or going to die. A fighting mother as she is supposed to be portrayed would be fighting until the last second and chance, surely?

Yohan immediately puts his detective skills to work not on if Niyaz is guilty, but on who might be his benefactor and therefore have Sanaya. Anuradha focuses on the case and breaking into Sia’s computer is found by Sia’s mother. It instantly rubs off as strange that she seems to accept this quite quickly.

She remains relatively composed in a scene afterwards at the courthouse, but at least shows some signs of struggling to deal with her daughter’s kidnapping.

Interestingly, this is after we have seen Anuradha do something that can be considered morally or ethically dubious and doesn’t fit with her upstanding portrayal otherwise. This is, specifically, when Yohan introduces Anuradha to Sia’s mother Garima as the sister of a victim, and a writer “who wants to portray the pain of those who’ve suffered”.

Later at the courthouse, Garima is shown as concerned that Niyaz’s new lawyer may impact the outcome. She’s informed by the prosecutor that the defence lawyer is a woman and then spots Anuradha. She has been exposed. The tension here would have been more compelling here however if our sympathies fully lied with Gaurima rather than our heroine.

Anuradha: I had no intention of lying to you.

I was about to tell you the truth.

Garima: Tell me what?

That you met me in order to save my daughter’s murderer?

That you won my trust?

That you used me?!

Anuradha: I didn’t use anyone.

I was only doing my job.

Garima: Then why did you lie?

Maybe that pain in your eyes was fake too.

That deceived me.

Anuradha: My pain doesn’t need your certificate of authenticity, Garima-ji.

Nor does your pain need my sympathy.

Everyone has their own hell and everyone has to face it alone.

Garima: Just imagine, if your daughter had been through what my daughter did?

Would you still defend that rapist?

Fight for him?

Prosecutor: Advocate Verma, your firm defends criminals like Abbas.

I can understand that.

But this scum?

[….]

Garima: Miss. Verma, I’m not fighting for my daughter alone, but for all the daughters whose mothers are still waiting for justice.

The scenes in the hospital and all scenes with Sia’s boyfriend Sam are unfortunately melodramatic and seem yet another genre – a kitschy horror flick:

Yohan and Anuradha figure out that Sia’s ex-boyfriend was a son of rich man who became addicted to drugs, but Sam has an alibi as he was in hospital at the time of the murder. Sam is interviewed but only partially lucid, as he hallunicates and briefly even attacks Anu before self-harming. They leave and on the way back it is revealed that during the attack Sam left a note with Anuradha “I know who killed Sia” and they head straight back to the hospital.

They get back in by setting off the fire alarm (a dangerous and dubious task that would be again, more interesting if not under duress). Sam is shown as completely mentally unstable and of no use to support the case further. This diverts as such into another type of story altogether – a hammed-up, cheap horror flick with 2-D “crazy” baddies intended to shock and scare. Its unoriginal, out-of-place as does a disservice to the experienced and acclaimed actors in the film (Aishwarya, Irrfan and Shabana).

I would cut these scenes entirely – or if really needed for plot purposes, I would rewrite them and recast the actor playing Sam or give him entirely different direction.

Too much effort and time is spent on trying to demonstrate Aishwarya’s acting skills – she has already had a long and successful career, there shouldn’t be a need to so firmly re-establish this:

Was this film somehow trying to prove Aishwarya Rai can act? This seems odd given her career has seen her not just celebrated for her stunning beauty and commercial success but also that she had credibility as an actress with talent (this combination contributing to her being offered English-language and gaining a higher-profile in the West).

Niyaz’s wife Nazia is next to take to the stand. She reveals that Niyaz did in fact know Sia, as he was her drug dealer, unravelling the defence Anuradha has just created. She also testifies that he said he was going to Sia’s on the night of the murder to collect payment.

Anuradha confronts her client on why he hadn’t told her this in advance. He says that when he went to collect the money that night she was already dead. Anuradha has difficulty believing him and then he tells a story of raping and killing Sia.

Anuradha is played as horrified in her reaction – as though she had been genuinely defending an innocent client and that we are to believe that to convince her to defend an innocent client her daughter would have had to have been kidnapped. This is another point where the logic of the plot doesn’t add up and lacks plausibility, detracting from our understanding of the characters and interest in the plot’s development. But it gives Aishwarya the chance to show she can “react” as well as act.

Yohan discovers that Niya’s wife Nazia is in for a big inheritance pay-out if Niyaz receives the death penalty.

Anuradha signs for a package at the court – it is a fake “hand” as a warning of what will happen to Sanaya should she lose the case. This is not the most convincing or necessary plot point – a more subtle revelation or clue about her daughter’s whereabouts would have been more suspenseful and intriguing at this point in the story.

Anuradha and Yohan find photos of Sam at Sia’s funeral – proving he hadn’t already been admitted to hospital at the time of her murder. They also soon find out he’s been discharged, followed by the revelation he is the son of the local politician Mahesh Maklai we have seen has been keeping track of the case.

Conclusion:

Jazbaa actually has a lot going for it. A strong core cast of Aishwarya Rai, Irrfan Khan and Shabana Azmi. A relatively unique style and murky ethical territory with the lead character defending a convicted murder and rapist. Space to discuss victim blaming, violence against women, boy child preference and a number of other social issues from all angles within the context of an entertaining film.

Yet somehow Jazbaa fails to live up to expectations. It struggles as its so evident what this film could have been. To relate to other films in style and execution, it could have been a unique heroine-oriented comeback with the thrill and anti-heroinism of a “Kahaani”, the mystique and investigation of a “Talaash” and the social message courtroom drama of a “Pink”. Whilst far from a bad film, however, “Jazbaa” doesn’t stand up to these films for quality or likely longevity in impact.

An obvious fix lies in making the lead less “flawless” and peppering down the need for overdramatic scenes by removing the duress of her child being kidnapped for the reason Anuradha takes on the case.

This is well encapsulated in the end of the film, as Anuradha has won the case (kind of?).

Sanaya is returned, literally in a suitcase, and in a highly dramatized scene, as the child appears to be dead. We see first Yohan’s increasingly concerned reaction, as he can’t seem to find a pulse, followed by Anuradha’s arrival on the scene.

Anuradha’s extroverted denial of this seemingly morbid reality is poorly matched with her slow-motion running and a searing background score. Again this part of the scene just seems to be there to a) give Aishwarya a scene where she can show utter devastation (at this point in the film we’ve seen this enough times for it to lose impact), and b) all for another sudden plot twist and “feel good” moment as Sanaya turns out to be alive after all.

If any reunion scene between mother and child had come after Anuradha had given up hope of her return (and turned into a cynical lawyer defending rapists and murderers for big fees), this would have had a greater impact and allowed Aishwarya to show more of a character arc through signs of this grieving mother layered underneath a highly-competent, manipulative and successful lawyer.

It would allow for a “redemption” of sorts of her character that would make her more palatable to the audience but also serve as a statement on the inherently flawed nature of all human beings. Instead we have the practically-perfect-in-every-way, i-woke-up-like-this, utterly flawless Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the super lawyer, super heroine and of course, super mother.

The closing scene sees Anuradha visit Yohan to thank him for his help. She tells him she’s appealed his case (the bribery case we hear about in the beginning of the film), but he says he prefers his new life and has little interest in returning to life as a cop. They joke about Sanaya being with her grandmother (as this was also the excuse used when she had to hide the kidnapping). She departs with a promise to see one another again soon. They both seem lighter, with much less stress and concerns, particularly Yohan. This would have worked well as a nice prologue if they had both actually softened from their cynical positions through their experience. But as Anuradha was relatively principled throughout, and fighting for her child as the super mother she was shown to be, this doesn’t quite ring true.

There is actually an important message within this film, and one that needs special attention given just before the film ends in order to clarify this when we are shown a statement on rape in India (which unfortunately could also apply similarly in many other countries).

“There are more than 90 rape cases in India every day.

Every 22 minutes a woman gets raped

Only 1 out of every 10 cases is reported

From the ones reported barely 25% get convicted”

Jazbaa misses its opportunity to convey this message by “showing not telling”.

Verdict:

Despite its flaws, they are relatively interconnected, forseable, and if someone had the foresight, could have been fixable. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan remains a lucrative star, whilst not hugely profitable, the film didn’t do poorly, nor did Sarbjit which followed. A supporting role in Diwali-release “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” has revitalised Aishwarya Rai’s glamour quotient a fewfold and it suggests that with the right premise, script and delivery, she is far from destined to fail in her “comeback”, heroine-oriented or not. There is not enough evidence in the case of “Jazbaa” to prove a curse against heroine-oriented comebacks. “Jazbaa” is not Rai’s best performance, and she could have made a better comeback still, but all was not lost.

Found this interesting?:

Diwali 5-part special: “The Curse of the Comeback”

This Diwali “Women in Bollywood” celebrates with a five-part special, discussing the subject of heroine-oriented comebacks, that is, after actresses have taken some time away from the big screen and attempt a successful return.

As these breaks have typically, although not exclusively, coincided with developments in the personal lives of the heroines in question, the success or failure of these films have a wider implication in terms of a popular culture representation of changing societal expectations and acceptance of a woman’s continued career ambitions after marriage and childbirth, as well as opinions (changing or otherwise) on the compatibility of a maturing woman and the escapist glamour of commercial cinema.

That many of the films that witness an actress’ return to cinema after a multi-year break are heroine-oriented, this adds an extra level of relevance within the scope of this blog.

Notably, the actress Kajol’s two “comebacks” saw her star alongside  Aamir Khan in 2006’s “Fanaa”, and her long-term co-star Shah Rukh Khan in 2015’s “Dilwale”. Her roles were prominent but responsibility for the box office draw was shared with a major hero who had led a recent blockbuster hit.

This 5-part series will look rather at cases where the box office draw was left in the hands of a heroine absent from Hindi films for several years, and will discuss in each case – what worked, what didn’t and what could have been changed in terms of increasing the film’s success and positive reception.

Through these 5 films, released all in the last 10 years and showcasing a major heroine, a verdict will be reached on the premise of whether a heroine-oriented comeback is “cursed” or doomed to fail.

Curious?:

Vidya Balan in ‘The Dirty Picture’ (2011): the ultimate powerhouse performance

What defines a performance as “powerhouse”? I will define this through an exemplary powerhouse performance by Vidya Balan, in 2011’s “The Dirty Picture”.

Many women-centric films, defined simply by having a female protagonist, enable Hindi film actresses whether among the A-list heroines or indie stars to show off their acting prowess in ways not seen before. The possibility to add greater complexity in writing, direction and acting of character that is the lead, and the subject of the action rather than an object of the hero’s storyline, has seen career-best performances from several leading actresses. Three such performances have been discussed so far on Women in Bollywood in Sonam Kapoor in ‘Neerja’, Kangana Ranaut in ‘Queen’ and Deepika Padukone in ‘Piku’, and there a number of other examples.

Specifically, in 2011’s ‘The Dirty Picture’, Vidya Balan encapsulates some of the key elements of a powerhouse performance, where she plays a small-town girl Reshma who becomes South Indian film heroine ‘Silk’ famed for raunchy dance numbers. The key elements of her performance are explained below.

The usual SPOILER ALERT first – if you haven’t seen this film, and are interested in Hindi cinema, or women in cinema at all, please go watch the film and come back. The trailer is below:

  1. Vidya Balan’s complete lack of inhibitions

‘The Dirty Picture’, even thinking solely of its risqué name itself, was a bold and brave choice of a film. The lead role was notably turned down by now superstar heroine, Kangana Ranaut, who is not known for making ‘safe’ film choices premised on commercial appeal alone. Ranaut has since claimed this was due to worrying about the risk of stereotyping herself as an actress (an issue I touch on in my post on “Queen”). It is interesting to note what Ranaut said in a 2013 interview with critic Rajeev Masand:

Ranaut: And honestly, if I would have done the film I’m sure it would have not been such a big success, like when Vidya did it,

Masand: Really?

Ranaut: I think every actor brings their own personality to the film. When Vidya did it, it became a lot about the acting part, you know like, the actress is so talented. But you know, if I would have done it, I would have looked very sleazy doing those things. 

This shows that the role required a total lack of inhibitions around the erotic persona of Silk required to be portrayed for the role, and that whilst Ranaut was too concerned about this in the context of how she was viewed in the industry (rightly or wrongly), if Balan had any such concerns she was able to overcome them and create a narrative where her acting rather became what people want to talk about.

In Vidya’s very first scene in ‘The Dirty Picture’ in fact, we see her imitating the sounds of sexual pleasure. Whilst as the audience we are aware this is just an act, her neighbours who only hear her through the wall, are fully convinced it is the real deal, and are perplexed why she is able to achieve greater levels of passion.

Vidya is both able to convince the audience she is doing a believable impression, and to show the mischievous joy she experiences through this deception in her facial expressions alone. When it is revealed she was doing this in order to get the couple to stop making noise, we feel her frustration as they snore instead.

  1. Balan’s multi-layered performance

Throughout the film, Balan’s facial expressions, body language and dialogue delivery are as thought-through yet seemingly effortless enough to enable the audience to read multiple emotions and feelings as evident in the same scene or even same moment, creating a complex, multi-layered and believable character in Silk.

To imitate the mantra of Silk herself, perhaps a performance needs three things to be truly powerhouse: layers, layers, layers. And Vidya shows these layers.

What are some of these layers we see if we peel back one aspect after another of Vidya’s performance?

2.a. Reshma is shown as already understanding the power of her sexuality, even before she becomes Silk

Reshma: I have what boys desire. So who is better – me or a boy?

She flirts with the local men, and even teases her posters of her favourite heroes whilst bathing. However, at this stage of the movie Vidya acts her in a style that seems younger, more energetic, and places her as a flirt rather than a fully-fledged vamp.

2.b. We see a range of emotions that Reshma/Silk is feeling, often in the same scene or the same time

Later, as she is about to be cast as the lead item girl in film for the first time, she receives her glamorous makeover and with a dainty but excited smile, she is our heroine, Silk!

Her overnight success and hot property status means she is already starring alongside her hero she had a poster of just minutes earlier in the film. We see Silk’s nervousness and trepidation before the scene to come where they must take multiple shots, to the annoyance of the hero.

She is fiddling, biting on her lip, lost in thoughts and distracted.

Rather than her exaggerated steps from the breakthrough dance performance that garnered attention, she is seen to be lightly going through the motions. She doesn’t seem the sultry vixen she will later become.

She plays bashful when Suryakanth the hero calls her over. Her asks her name, to which she is not yet accustomed to the name Silk, and first answers Reshma before correcting herself. He reminds her how unimportant she is to the film and to him. She corrects him and he storms off following which she is fired.

Silk however has found her drive once again this is where the “heat” comes from. She uses this despite her axing from the film to seduce Suryakanth, giving her bargaining power over him – he can and does reinstate her into the film once again. Her seduction technique is to play an innocent and naïve girl in awe of her idol, but despite these dialogues, Vidya’s delivery is such is that we know Vidya is acting as Reshma acting as her new persona, Silk. Silk kicks in and she plays to his ego to place her not as one of 500 girls, but as the one girl he will be seduced by 500 times.

Later, when Silk moves into her new home fitting of a movie star, she briefly discusses with Rathnamma her relationship with Suryakanth. Whilst she is aware his married status is unlikely to change, and has some grounding in the reality of the situation she still appears as a typical young woman in love. Once again Vidya’s performance allows for a further sub-text – we can see she knows there is a level of self-delusion in this also.

2.c. Strength and vulnerability in one character

Vidya portrays Silk as both the strong, independent and resourceful siren who can manipulate men using her sexuality, and as a vulnerable individual restricted by her circumstances, demonised by society and victimised by certain men in particular.

We see both these sides to her character for example in the day at the races, when Surya cannot be seen with her publicly and the local women disparage her as too vulgar to fit in to such society. Her aggressive push back on the lack of a welcome for her shows her strength and ire, but she softens when she encounters a fan (later to be introduced as Suryakanth’s brother, Ramakanth).

We start to see that despite her insistence that she understands their equation, her growing possessiveness of, and jealously about, Suryakanth. Silk is left speechless and clueless of what to do on a rare occasion as Suryakanth’s wife Radhika returns to the house and calls after him whilst the two of them are in bed. She is angry with Suryakanth’s reaction to this situation and scared at the same time. On the bathroom floor, peeking through the keyhole, do we see Silk finally realise that Suryakanth is married and what this means in terms of their relationship.

In the escape scene we are shown Silk meeting with Ramakanth who drives her home. In this discussion we already see a more cynical and jaded Silk. She knows she can’t rely on others, not to be too idealistic and has found her role:

Silk: Hero and villain don’t matter because I’m the vamp in every story

This is a fierce declaration of strength and power.

Nevertheless, in the same scene she equally longs for the feeling of home, of belonging, and returns to her family home and sees her mother. For a second she is hopeful of a reconciliation before this hope is yet another one dashed as the door is shut on her in disgust.

  1. Acting as a character acting (Vidya acting as Reshma acting as Silk)

One of the ways Balan creates this multi-layered performance is by understanding the character of Silk as not only a character within the film but a persona that the real character Reshma attempts to put on, plays, and a persona that eventually engrosses her life enough to see the boundaries between Reshma and Silk not just blur, but Reshma fully become her Silk persona in a pseudo self-fulfilling prophecy.

The path is set already early on in the film, when after being rejected by a casting director, Reshma escapes by watching a film at the local cinema. On the walk out of the theatre the voice-over of the casting director is accompanied by a realisation by Reshma. She is not giving up yet.

She goes back to the set and gets her chance for two reasons – she is in the right place at the right time, and she is prepared to accept conditions the other women will not. In this case, literally being whipped for the purpose of the male gaze.

Her act when she gets this opportunity is to turn up the level of sexuality beyond the usual level of item songs, and gets the instant attention of the cameraman. This is emphasised by the clear contrast between the dancing girls behind her and the highly sexualised moves Vidya does in the name of Reshma before she is renamed as Silk. It is not just Vidya’s great acting we see here – but her acting is so good we also see and understand Reshma’s as well. She is not just a good dancer like other item girls, she can be a great item girl because she is using those acting skills she was so keen to show off.

Another plot point where we see this is following a scene where (already dressed in the height of late 70s fashion, fully engrossed in her Silk persona), the old Reshma seeps through in her glee that a magazine has singled her out as a star to be included in a feature on “how the stars live”. However, given she doesn’t live a glamorous lifestyle (yet) to match her onscreen persona, she adopts the same tactic of using her sexuality.

In this case, in order to distract the magazine journalist/photographer from her normal dwellings and the lack of allure in her daily life, she has him enter whilst she is in the middle of bathing and encourage him to interview and photograph her. He is so uncomfortable and drawn to her that there is no interest in the normality of the rest of her life.

We understand again that this is Reshma asking as Silk, through the layers of Vidya’s performance that include the seductress the journalist sees, the rouse Rathnamma sees and the underlying anxiety that she will be caught out, coexisting with a confidence that she will “get away with it” given the power of the “heat” she can bring.

4. Vidya’s use of humour in what is in theory, a tragedy

In a dramatic film which is at its heart, a tragedy which could almost be of the Greek, Shakespearean or operatic variety if made at a different time and place, it is notable that Balan gifts Silk a real sense of humour and wittiness. The dialogue helps with this but each comical line or moment is acted with such joy and genuine laughter that this becomes a thread throughout her character development as her sense of humour becomes increasingly dark and cynical in nature.

One of the most humorous parts of the film is the song “Ooh La La Tu Hai Meri Fantasy”, a wonderful spoof of item songs in general, where Vidya goes all out in her pastiche performance, with great accompaniment by Naseeruddin Shah. I have shared once again below:

Another funny moment is when it appears that Silk is attempting to seduce Ramakanth for the first time, and the following scene of only their faces initially appears to be an intimate encounter. It is quickly revealed that Ramakanth is in fact teaching Silk to drive, and the two scenes are rather Vidya as Silk flirting with the audience.

5. Balan lays out a clear character arc through not just the writing and direction of the film, but also through her performance

The growth is believable based on experiences, but shown as gradual. The ease with which Reshma is shown to be acting as her Silk persona increases over time, but ever decreasing snippets of her earlier personality are shown consistently underneath outward changes. The audience accompanies Reshma/Silk on her journey which is a believable arc despite significant character development due to Balan’s underlying understanding of who the character is and holding true to this throughout.

5.a. We see how dismissal of Reshma’s importance by men becomes a motivating factor for her transformation into Silk

During the casting when Reshma is turned away as not glamorous enough, this fits the audience perception of Vidya to date, as serious actress rather than a sex symbol, and so this holds as believable.

Despite this, we are shown how her bold personality approaches the casting director anyway, although we understand her initial motivations align with expectations in fact as she says, she doesn’t want to dance, she wants to act:

Casting director: Neither do you have the seductive charm of a lover nor the grace of a wife. You are very dull.

Reshma: I’ve been living on sugar for two days. So how can I look spicy?

She is shown as bold and spunky in this dialogue but Vidya’s facial expressions and body language also reveal her dejection and disappointment. The determination that follows is a continuation of the scene where she escapes her wedding at the very opening of the film, and marks a consistent character trait that Reshma/Silk is independently minded and resourceful, despite her circumstances.

5.b. We see how Reshma retains disgust at her sexual objectification but changes her response to it, trying to harness this external factor which she cannot control, for her own benefit by focusing on what she can

Reshma spends the money he gives her in pity for food on a ticket to watch her favourite hero, Suryakanth (played by Naseruddin Shah) in “Ranga Cowboy”.

A cinema-goer starts to rub Reshma on her leg and then propositions her – we understand her to be both shocked and horrified – just from Vidya’s facial reaction and body language. She enquires as to how much, and then questions the value as it is very little “I’m only worth 20 rupees?” This is revealing to her and her reaction is to responding violently – hitting him and loudly shouting at him. She storms out of the theatre in disgust.

This is a different position towards objectification and the male gaze that she takes later in the film.

The dancing scene is later added back into the film for its commercial potential – and indeed it brings in the crowds (of whistling men and photographers).

She is once again propositioned – this time by an adoring fan. As she doesn’t know the scene has been re-included in the film, she rejects him aggressively, denying she has ever acted in a film at all. We can understand this anger is different than before – as the rage draws on her earlier pain, confusion and she wonders if she can dare to dream of superstardom yet again.

She goes to watch her next film in what appears to be an almost empty cinema – only to see the crowds poor in as her song begins. They are there for her. She loves the adulation and we see both Silk on screen and Reshma watching in the audience – the crowd doesn’t recognise nor pay any attention to her at all. Reshma/Silk sees the power inherent in this persona and it thrills her.

5.c. The relationships with the three men in her life – Suryakanth, Ramakanth and Abraham show an evolution of her position in the relationship that mirrors her character development

With Suryakanth, she is much younger, and naïve in how she falls for him despite her protestations that she is aware of the dynamic of their relationship. When the reality hits of his commitment to his wife and she is merely the “other woman” to him, she is hurt and rejected. We see her mixed feelings of pain and anger, her vulnerability and her sense of injustice.

With Ramakanth rather, she has become by this point the experienced lover, and seductively questions him “how long a celibate ascetic like you can resist the charms of a single woman”, leaving him ecstatic with a simple kiss on the cheek. Ramakanth has the posters and magazines of Silk, much as Reshma had of Suryakanth before becoming Silk.

We see Silk’s joy and genuine laughter at being both in control of the relationship, and being adored and idolised by Ramakanth at the beginning of their relationship. She has clearly taken on the Silk persona by this point beyond when she is on camera, but the youthful energy and happiness is reminiscent of Reshma’s joy and wonder at her early opportunities. The energy is not merely coyness for the sake of seduction, but also a consistent character trait at the times when Silk is content within the film. This includes the youthful playfulness of the scene in which Silk and Ramakanth play with cake icing.

When the gossip piece is written on her relationship with Ramakanth, this initially doesn’t bother Silk as she is focused on the attention in of itself. Ramakanth is insistent however that this is concerning, and this causes Silk to go through magazine clippings and ultimately in an act of rebellion set a number of them on fire. The concern on Vidya’s face rather shows Silk’s nervousness but also indicates foreboding typical of the tragedy genre to the film’s audience. This act of rebellion becomes more public when she creates a scene outside Naila’s house where she is holding party to which all of the industry has seemingly been invited with the exception of Silk. At this point, however, the rebellion seems to be tipping into the path of self-destruction.

This leads to a stage in her career where despite her popularity, a new girl is emerging in the industry as competition, Shakeela, and Silk’s directors are bemoaning her off-screen drama and drinking habit. She is warned about the impact of walking out on the film in protest on her career, but has already become her on-screen persona Silk entirely, that she is unable to see the trees from the forest:

Silk: I am Silk. Silk. Don’t forget I’m a star.

An outraged Silk is shown panickedly drinking excessively, and calls to Ramakanth but is unable to get through as he is doing a pooja (the ultimate contrast in Hindi film of destructive and constructive behaviours). She insists on him being given the phone, as though he can somehow save her from her own destruction. His priorities however are different – he prefers to replace her in the film and place her instead in the role of a subservient, doting wife.

Her anger only increases in a car scene as they escape her having ‘made a scene’ in front of his parents:

Silk: Would your parents think I’m a decent girl? What is their impression now?

Ramakanth: They think you’re a lewd and disgusting girl.

Silk: Well, you’re in love with a girl like that. That’s my character on screen. I’m not like that in real life.

Ramakanth: That means you’ll stay this your entire life? Lewd and disgusting?

Silk: The thing that made me Silk. How can I let it go?

Ramakanth: Surya was right, women like Silk don’t belong at home

Silk: [looks right at Ramakanth]

[angrily] Of course, a bed is where she belongs isn’t it?!

[pulls the emergency break of the car and gets out]

Silk’s noose is ready for both of you.

[picks up a stone and throws it at the car, smashing the back window]

You can call me lewd and disgusting, see how I ruin you!

Silk’s return to films is then marked by her starring in a “triple role” film as a mother and two daughters (three times the Silk!) but this gimmick is also being adopted at the same time by the director Abraham who sought to scupper her career from the beginning. When his triple role film (which looks at least equally terrible, suggesting some double standards at play) receives applause and acclaim, and Silk’s film is panned, we see Vidya as Silk’s increasing nervousness as she watches the audience reaction. Her anxiety is so convincingly portrayed with a dash of surprise given her previous ability to enthral audiences if not critics, that it is clear this is not a temporary career concern, but part of Silk’s wider fall from success.

Abraham celebrates his success on the beach, where Silk is shown almost having reached a level of acceptance about her failure.

He tells her “you’re back to where you started from”

She responds “well, even you’ve come to me. You can’t live without me. My biggest fan”. The scene continues:

Abraham: I’m here to celebrate your defeat

Silk: Why? Don’t you have anyone to celebrate your success with?

Abraham: I had told you. You can’t defeat me.

Silk: But the fight was a pleasure. Silk is born to give pleasure. To her well-wishers and her opponents. And you are extra special.

Abraham: That’s what the papers say

Silk: But there’s still something you haven’t revealed. The fact that you like me. [Laughs]

This jaded Silk finds her last power in the hold she seems to have on Abraham. At a point when the industry, audiences and her past lovers in Suryakanth and Ramakanth have all lost interest in Silk, his passionate and conflicted feelings towards her do mean she holds his interest. Her emotional exhaustion as such seems to be temporarily relieved in his presence as she realises this as we see traits of the witty and flirtatious Silk from earlier in the film.

However, he is an inherently critical character, and critical of nothing and no-one more than he is of Silk. At a point when Silk is drowning in self-hatred and regret, this is the most unhealthy relationship she could choose to get into. Yet given her career and romantic failings, estrangement from her family and lack of friends within the industry or out, she has no real choice but to fall into this relationship.

Silk also talks about posing as her own mother in an interview with Naila, the photo from which Abraham also mistakes for her mother. It proves Silk was a shell that she was able shed with a simple make-under, traditional dress and demure body language.

He asks her if she has ever been in love and we see the inexperienced and almost naïve Reshma of old, when she says “love that takes your breath away? No”.

“Many have touched me, but none have touched my heart” places her almost as item girl version of the Chandramukhi vein, she is no longer the man eating movie star but rather possessing a pureness of heart.

6. Balan, against the odds, is able to create a sympathetic character out of a flawed woman who makes some arguably, poor choices and is left of the worse for it

There undoubtedly remains a double standard in the portrayal of complex and highly flawed male and female characters in popular culture (film, television, literature), not merely limited to Bollywood or Indian entertainment at all, but as a global double standard. This includes how the anti-hero phenomenon has struggled to include a significant number of similar anti-heroines for the reason that audiences hold higher standards of morality and ethical conduct for being able to relate to and emphasise with female characters than they do with male ones.

In the context of heroine-oriented Hindi films, this dilemma can be avoided by portraying inspiring heroines such Neerja Bhanot (done admirably well in this year’s “Neerja” however, where the character is far from a cliché), or entirely wronged by their situation through no fault of their own (perhaps beyond naivety), such as the jilted bride Rani in “Queen”. Other examples in the first category could be police officer Shivani Shivaji Roy in Rani Mukherji’s “Mardaani”, or Priyanka Chopra as the Olympic medallist from Manipur in “Mary Kom”. In the latter category we also have Sridevi as underappreciated wife and mother Shashi in “English Vinglish”, or the more violently-wronged Meera in NH10 essayed by Anushka Sharma.

With Reshma/Silk however, the lead is a challenging character in many ways for audiences to relate to. The Bollywood viewer remains conservative in comparison to Western standards at least, and individually would be very unlikely to either be personally comfortable, or comfortable for a close one, to imitate or look up to a real-life Silk. This separates the character’s reality from the audience. However, it is through relatable rationale for choosing the take the decisions she does; through an understanding of the circumstances around her she is unable to control; and through a convincingly but organically delivered critique of the audience and the industry that supports the item girl, that Balan brings her character to a level on which the average viewer can understand and emphasise with.

This does not mean her choices are fully supported or encouraged, but are provided with context so as to create a more meaningful and engaging story.

6.a. Reshma’s reasons for her decisions, even if unwise, are made clear and convince as genuine, and as such, are relatable to anyone who had a dream, fell in love or wanted to escape poverty or even just the ordinariness of life

We understand Reshma’s reasoning for transforming into Silk such as being able to realise her dreams of becoming a heroine; star alongside her icon, later her love and lastly her ex, film hero Suryakanth; and to escape poverty and the mundane routine of ordinary life:

For example, even after we are already introduced to the Silk persona we see Reshma’s more innocent side in her excitement to watch the film as it releases with Rathnamma (or “Amma”). She is on her way to becoming a star and there is a girlish enthusiasm in her laughter and gait.

She states with an almost convinced glee: Mark my words, now all my problems will go away.

Her increasing worry is also clear in her reduced excitement as each song arrives and finishes in the film, with a stark contrast between her mood and that of Rathnamma, as she has realised she has been cut from the film but also retains a small dash of hope that it is still somehow going to follow shortly and she will be on track to be the heroine she has dreamed of. Her watery eyes and look of utter disbelief are mixed with a pain of crushed innocent hopes. We don’t need Silk to utter a single word to understand her emotional state.

6.b. Vidya slays in her delivery of a monologue denouncing double standards of critiques of Silk not being matched with those of her audiences or the industry

At an awards ceremony, Suryakanth presents Silk with an award and he taunts her – with one particular critique breaking through her thick protective wall and the bluntness of his contempt for her is both shocking to her and still able to cause her pain. There is a vulnerability evident here that is soon pushed away in favour of power after she realises the audience is eagerly waiting for her to make her acceptance speech and this gives her a platform to say whatever she wants and be heard.

She acknowledges her infamy and that she is labelled as “vulgar, disgusting, sexy, dirty”. She blames this on the audience for ultimately objectifying her, noting even a sexualised version of her still had layers of authenticity and hard work that could have been emphasised instead, or even merely acknowledged. She calls them out on their hypocrisy, and that she is not the only “dishonourable” attendee (cut to a shot of a sheepish Suryakanth). She commands the centre of the stage, throws her cigarette on the ground in protest and proclaims that if people make, sell and watch films about sex, and even give awards for them, they are no more honourable than the item girl in these films. This is the truth-telling, hell-to-the-consequences version of Silk and gives Vidya the opportunity to deliver scathing dialogues in an impassioned monologue. That she does so convincingly after scenes where she is rejected by her lover in Suryakanth, and by her mother on what should have been her glorious return home, is all the more impressive. This monologue is given as driven by rage emerging from these rejections. She insists she will never change.

Whilst fully fitting within the plot of the film, this monologue has a dual audience – the audience at the awards ceremony, within the film, and the Indian film audience more widely. When Sunny Leone has turned herself into a major star in Hindi cinema single-handling fronting multiple box office successes despite limited acting or Hindi language skills, this speech remains highly relevant, notwithstanding the ability of an item song to transform the hype around an upcoming release.

Without the audiences these films, heroines and songs are not successes, and this is not an unfamiliar reality to the overwhelming majority of Hindi film aficionados. Therefore, it is at least expected within the boundaries of ‘The Dirty Picture’ that if the audience is to judge Silk for her sexualised roles and performances, it should also logically support judging the audiences spending their money and judging the industry making a profit.

6.c. The audience is helped to understand how Silk tries to turn the odds in her favour, but that in a male-dominated industry these remain against her

Early on in the film, Silk’s happiness at the time of her new found success should be short-lived as Suryakanth introduces Silk to the world of film criticism – and specifically to the gossip queen and film critic, Naila, that he has just spoken to candidly about his equation with Silk, to which she responds:

Naila: To portray men as saints, women have to be depicted as demons.

This follows a scene where Surya’s last heroine is shown to be playing his mother – and where the double standards faced by heroes and heroines in the industry. It is through this context we are to understand Silk and her choices, even if Silk doesn’t understand this yet.

Suryakanth’s attempt to emphasise she is only “dirt” to ensure Silk doesn’t get either too content or too ambitious is unsuccessful as she excited to see her photo in a magazine and that she is being talked about. Her happiness is finally over when Emran Hashmi’s character Abraham arrives and denounces Silk and her act and insists she cannot feature in his next film with Surya.

Selva replaces Abraham as the director upon Surya’s insistence when he refuses to consider Silk’s commercial appeal.

Silk is shown as curious about Abraham and what his “problem” with her is. He is of interest to her as he is the only man she has not yet been able to manipulate with her sexuality. She confidently informs him of her mantra:

Silk: Films need three things to sell: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.

[winks]

And I am entertainment

Her eyes and smile show she enjoys the upper hand she has on him and the game they are playing, but also play to the audience directly in light of the previous point – the argument is that Silk is just providing what the audience deems to be entertainment from a woman in film. This act is based on making the best out of her options as a woman in a male-dominated industry, or taking lemons and making lemonade as the cliché goes.

6.d. Her fall from grace is shown dramatically, with her mistakes and flaws not left unhidden, but acted with an empathy for the character that reaches the viewer

A montage scene shows how Silk has spiralled into self-pity and despair, angry at small things, and dependent on alcohol and cigarettes. The wordless montage shows a frantic and anxious Silk, and her pain is clear. Her tearful, distraught screaming that follows as she looks for someone to blame and focus her anger at, shows her as highly vulnerable, lonely, and wanting to try to avoid feelings of self-hatred and shame. This is the appropriate moment for Silk’s breakdown.

During a scene where Silk goes to a director looking for work, he turns her down and asks if she needs money. She asks for 5 rupees only to his great surprise. This draws Reshma/Silk’s arc full circle as she reminisces about the 5 rupees from the casting director that rejected her that “brought her luck”. Given how jaded and worn out Silk seems at this point, this is hard to believe and Vidya’s breathy delivery is such to allow the viewer to understand that Silk isn’t even sure of this either, but is just longing for simpler times.

Her lowest point is shown when she is out of money, with no film offers, and she remembers a small-time director who offered her a part during more successful times. She gets in touch and arrives to start shooting, when she realises he is an adult film director. Vidya shows Silk as horrified, shocked and confused in one. She is immensely vulnerable in this moment, out of options but unwilling to work in adult films. Her dazed look takes a deep and long stare at the pile of hard cash he places in her hands whilst trying to convince her to go ahead with the film. She tries to drink her way into feeling comfortable, but her previous love of alcohol seems lost in this moment and she winces as she slugs the drink down quickly.

Thrown onto the bed and about the shoot the scene, a dazed and confused Silk is unable to muster the “heat” she turned on so comfortably given the nature of the film, when the studio is raided and she rushes to escape, nearly trampled on the way. She makes her way home but her despair is such that it leads to her tragic demise.

Throughout the film the audience is left with the feeling that Vidya has fully immersed herself in this character and has understood fully the mindset and circumstances that led to her tragic ending. By having a deep and genuine empathy for the character herself, combined with her ability to portray multiple emotions and establish the complexity of her character on screen, this empathy can easily be picked up and embraced by among the least astute of viewers of ‘The Dirty Picture’.

By sharing her understanding of her character with the audience, where she has slot her performance into an extensively envisioned world, Balan gifts cinema a truly powerhouse performance, entirely worthy of the acclaim it received. It is not only the film’s box office success that was game changing, but the lead acting performance within the film itself.

 

Piku (2015)

“Piku” starring Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan, is, as the trailer comically shows, about constipation. Really, however, the character-driven film tackles relationships between fathers and daughters by looking at a unique one in depth. The question is, does it say anything new about this dynamic or does the film merely retread old ground with a gimmicky twist?

In the two films discussed in depth so far on Women in Bollywood, the 2014 release Queen and this year’s Neerja, we see the heroines able to gain confidence and self-esteem in a context where they have positive and supportive relationships with their fathers, who offer emotional support, encourage and believe in them, and allow them to make their own decisions. Despite this relationship taking a back-seat to Neerja’s heroics or Rani’s adventures, I noted this factor when watching both films, especially so as they were both played by the same actor (Yogendra Tiku).

The fathers of Rani and Neerja contrast with some famous fathers of Hindi cinema, some memorable examples from the last 25 years are picked out below –

  • Nandini’s father in ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (1999) – he is opposed to Nandini’s relationship with Sameer as he has already arranged her marriage with Vanraj, with the classical singer quitting singing in protest
  • Zaara’s father in ‘Veer Zaara’ (2004) – Zaara cannot realise her romantic relationship with Veer due to a perceived need to protect her politician father’s reputation and the taboo around Indian-Pakistani relationships
  • Jaggu’s father in ‘PK’ (2014) presumes Sarfaraz will betray Jaggu similarly due to the Indian-Pakistani divide, with the Muslim-Hindu religious angle emphasised in this film which revolves around misuse of religion
  • Simran’s father in ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995) – and Raj’s attempts to win his approval forming the crux of the plot of the second half of the film

Given that father-son relationships (and to a lesser extent, mother-daughter) relationships are more commonly portrayed in culture, I would propose by referencing the examples above as evidence that the father-daughter relationship is given more prominence in Hindi cinema than other film cultures.

So against this backdrop, can we consider the relationship between Piku and Bhakshor Bhanerji as a potential new paradigm of the father-daughter relationship? I propose for discussion a motion that the film “Piku” revolves significantly around establishing a new understanding of or paradigm for father-daughter relationships in modern-day India, and this subject far outweighs the importance of the attention grabbing and more humorous theme of dealing with constipation.

The evidence for and against the motion is discussed below. The usual SPOILER alert applies here – so if you haven’t seen the film, go watch and come back. The trailer for “Piku” is below.

Exhibit A: Piku’s professional success and head of household role

Case for the motion “Piku establishes a new paradigm for father-daughter relationships”:

Piku Bhanerji, our heroine portrayed by leading lady Deepika Padukone, is shown as the breadwinner and head of household. The film demonstrates this reality unapologetically both within the film and towards the audience. The household consists of Piku and her father, Bhaskor Bhanerji, as her mother has passed away and Piku takes care of her father in her mother’s absence. She remains a working woman however, and is shown as undoubtedly and unashamedly accomplished in her career.

Piku’s profession as an architect is interesting in that in Hollywood cinema and television the sensitive, creative but dependable romantic hero is consistently an architect by trade to the point of it becoming an absurdly boring trope. In Hindi films this trope is less common, but can even been seen seeping into the Western-influenced, multiplex-targeted films, such as ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’ where Imran Khan’s character is, you’ve guessed it, an architect.

Deciding Deepika’s character, as a new kind of heroine in Piku, would be an architect, has similar connotations of creativity combining with professional and financial success. That she is shown comfortably navigating the office environment reinforces this, whilst primarily used for the purpose of humour and establishing her dynamics with both her father Bhaskor and with Rana Chaudhary, the taxi company owner and Piku’s potential love interest. When Piku decides she needs to take a few days break from the office, her business partner Syed he questions “how am I supposed to run this firm?”, emphasising her indispensable nature to daily running of the business. Piku is not riding on anyone’s coattails.

It is worth also considering that architecture is a profession which requires years of study and sacrifice to even become qualified, beyond traditionally either marriageable age or at which most individuals have already entered the job market and are earning an income. Piku’s professional success is testament to an environment where this career choice and the time invested in studying would have need to have been supported.

Case against the motion:

A low key movie which had limited success in ‘Bewakoofiyan’ released the year before, showed Sonam Kapoor’s character Mayera as a higher earner and more successful businesswoman, and this set no new paradigm.

We also don’t see or hear too much of Bhaskor’s opinion explicitly towards Piku’s career and earnings, and it is not clear if or how he has supported her to become successful at all as this happens outside the timeline of the movie.

Exhibit B: Piku is shown as possessing a strong and unrelenting personality, and a willingness to question and challenge her father. She is presented as strong-minded and opinionated, and considered difficult to deal with by a number of different characters in the film. Notably this includes the taxi drivers reluctant to speed on her behalf, propelling the introduction and involvement of Irrfan Khan’s character, Rana Chaudhary, the owner of the taxi company.

Case in favour:

This presents a new paradigm of how fathers and daughters can love unconditionally but speak candidly. Fathers accept being challenged by their daughters and daughters do so without restraint.

Piku’s outspoken, blunt and even stubborn traits, however, are not shown as deep character flaws but rather humanise both Piku and her father, and establish their bond as somewhat similar personalities with differing but overlapping approaches and perspectives to life. Piku can understand Bhaskor even when she doesn’t agree with him, and Bhaskor can understand Piku.

Nevertheless, Piku is firmly the one in charge despite her father’s cantankerous nature. The film literally opens with her telling her father what to do. At the end of the film it is also Piku who makes the final decision about what to do with the house. Throughout the film she will openly chastise her father when she feels he is in the wrong, and whilst he will stick up for himself, his opinions and beliefs, he doesn’t deny her having her own opinions or berate her for challenging him.

Piku is shown at times as demanding, argumentative, and even aggressive. Or alternatively she is assertive, in charge, someone who knows what she wants with leadership potential. Quite remarkably for a piece of popular entertainment however, Piku is not held to a double standard for these traits as men usually aren’t (see the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign “Ban Bossy” or “I’m Not Bossy. I’m the Boss” for what is meant by this – [link below]):

That Piku isn’t held to this double standard by her father, believing that if he is grumpy and difficult then Piku has the right to be to, lays the foundations for this lack of a double standard in the film as a whole and in the audience perception of the characters. We as an audience are still expected to root for Piku and Bhaskor, and understand Piku’s perspective in particular as our heroine and protagonist.

Case against the motion:

Bhaskor’s cantankerous nature is a different, but ultimately equally inhibiting, obstacle to Piku’s freedom. Her response to his behaviour and how it affects her own is merely that which induced by having to live with him for years and deal with this reality on a daily basis.

Bhaskor creates a number of problems that Piku has to deal with due to his hypochondria and all round grumpiness – from the message left for Piku at the office, to his accusations and paranoia leading to changing maids 5 times in 2 months, to Piku being interrupted by updates on his [normal] condition whilst on a dinner date.

After this latter incident and Piku’s complaining that her date didn’t go well, she is asked by Syed if her father called her which she confirms. This is followed by an argument around the reaction to this response and the subtext is that Piku feels she shouldn’t have to defend caring about her father, but that Syed sees this as the reason for her disappointing date and overall singledom.

Conversations early on between Piku and Bhaskor include some revelatory lines including, in the first instance, following the latest departure of a maid working in the house:

Piku:  Dad, we live in a society where we have to maintain relations with some people.

And when Piku has skipped out on a lunch date to calm her father about his hypochondria-induced health concerns:

Bhaskor: I’ve given you full freedom in this house

Piku: What freedom? I had to meet Ankit today for lunch but I’m here with you. Is this how I am going to lead my life? Discussing your shit?

Witness for the case against the motion: Rana Chaudhary

Rana Chaudhary has a number of discussions with Piku during the film where he raises the issue of how Bhaskor’s behaviour limits Piku’s freedom and questions whether she should accept this situation.

Firstly, he tries to clarify if Piku herself is like her father at all:

Rana: Tell me something, you’re really his daughter. I mean?

Piku: Yes I’m his daughter. And ten times stranger, weirder, more irritating, annoying…

Rana: No no no no. I didn’t mean that way.

Piku: No I know what you mean. I know it’s weird its ok. But I am like that.

Once they have gotten to know one another better, he still questions why she has stayed in Delhi to look after her father, asking her why she doesn’t run away and get married.

Later, during the same tour of Kolkata, with the obvious subtext of his own interest in Piku, but his acknowledgement (and likely unwillingness) to deal with her difficult father or his strong feelings against Piku marrying, he asks about her life prospects for the next 20 years, and whether she is willing to sacrifice any chance at marriage and children for her father’s sake. He doesn’t believe Bhaskor’s opposition to this is primarily due to opinions around women’s empowerment or Piku sacrificing her independence, but rather his own dependence on her and selfish concerns about losing her:

Rana: How old is your father? Must be at least 70?

Piku: Exact

Rana: And the way you’re being his doctor, he’ll be around for another 20 years. Which makes him 90.

Piku: Touchwood

Rana: And in the next 20 years, you’ll become 50 approximately?

Piku: So?

Rana: 50 years? Of just taking care of your father?

Piku: One minute. Why are you saying all this? You know my situation. You know he’s dependent on me. Can’t hear or see properly. Should I leave him?

Rana: No no

Piku: How will he manage on his own?

Rana: I am not asking you to leave him. I also haven’t left my mother. I’m just saying, I hope you realise he is a selfish man

Piku: No he’s not

Rana: Yeah he is

Piku: And even if he is, he’s my father.

Rana: If he’s your father then why do you behave like his mother?

Piku: Because Rana after a certain age parents can’t live on their own, they need to be kept alive and that is the responsibility of the kids only. So if someone wants to marry me…

Rana: He’ll have to adopt your 90-year old kid too?

Piku: Of course!

Exhibit C: Bhaskor does not arrange Piku’s marriage, and not only does not stigmatise her non-marital relationships, but berates others who may do so as well.

Case in favour of the motion:

Bhaskor is keen to break taboos, and this seeps into the film more widely as well, most obviously in the explicit discussion of bowel movements in a mainstream film, but equally could be said for its frankness around marriage and sex. Piku and Bhaskor are shown as able to discuss even taboo subjects with one another, even if it is shit, marriage, or sex.

Piku has herself adopted an unapologetic attitude towards her love life, responding Syed, her business partner who questions her meeting up with a “jerk” over lunch by saying “you can’t be so desperate”. Piku’s deadpan response, “Yes, I am. So?”.

Witness in favour of the statement – Mr Bhaskor Banerji

Bhaskor makes a number of statements defending his strong opinion against Piku marrying, rather than leaving it purely to Piku to decide:

Bhaskor: [To Piku] And this. Your relationship status? If you ask me, I think casual is fine. That works for me.

And later, when discussing why he thinks getting married is a “low IQ decision” for a woman, using as evidence his wife’s own experience and the unhappiness the related loss of freedom caused her as a result:

Bhaskor: All her life she just wanted to please me. That was her only purpose. No aim for herself. I wanted her to be independent. But no, she surrendered herself in my service.

And when questioned “so what’s wrong with that?

Bhaskor: Everything is wrong! Throwing away your identity, respect, brain, in the fire whilst taking the seven vows and then leading your life that way, well that is a low IQ decision. I don’t want Piku to take that decision.

Why he is even commenting on the matter rather than leaving the decision to Piku can be attributed rather to his overall personality and lack of tact or diplomacy – as he states “I am a critical person. Brutal and honest.”

His definition of “nice” is not that Piku isn’t moody or a virgin, rather he is proud of Piku for the following reasons, as he describes to a potential suitor:

Bhaskor: She has her own business. She’s financially independent. She’s sexually independent. Need based. Just looking for emotional partnership. So is this ‘nice’ according to you?

Whilst on the journey to Kolkata, Rana is introduced to Bhaskor’s unusual stance on marriage after Piku responds to Bhaskor’s complaining about her buying bangles during a rest stop:

Piku: You’re not going to let me get married. Let me enjoy my bangles at least.

Rana: Seriously? Most people would marry their daughters off they day they are born and he doesn’t want you to get married?

            That’s strange.

            This doesn’t happen even in Western culture.

Bhaskor: Western culture is not the benchmark of progress. Is that clear?

                    We were ahead of them always.

Bhaskor is not short of female historical figures he admires, and can list a number quickly off the top of his head. These are the figures he has raised Piku to try to emulate, rather than valuing marrying and having children above all else. His stubbornness about this issue is to force Piku not to want things because society tells her that she should just because she is a woman:

Bhaskor: That, err, Rani Lakshmibai, Sarojini Naidu and Kandimbini Ganguly, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Annie Besant, all these fine women spent their whole life serving their country. And all she wants to do is please a boy?

Piku: How many times I have told you that Annie Besant wasn’t Indian?

Bhaskor: Still she fought for our country’s independence!

Rana: But all these women were married

Bhaskor explains he is not opposed to marriage per se, but rather marriages which see women sacrifice their other aims and purposes in life in favour of the needs of their husbands:

Bhaskor: Yes, but with a purpose. Marriage is not wrong but it must have a purpose. All a husband wants is that a wife should serve food during the day and sex at night. But is that what a woman is made for? No! That is why marriage without any purpose is low IQ.

When Rana’s reaction is to say that not all women are selfless individuals who willingly sacrifice their needs for others (in the case of marriage – their husbands), and that some are manipulative or scheming, Bhaskor justifies such behaviour by holding women to the same standard as men (and almost revolutionary [given its infrequent nature] yet simple, idea:

Rana: Fine but not all women are nice and simple. You don’t know. Many of them are very manipulative and scheming.

Bhaskor: Women should be scheming, it’s not wrong. Because men are like that. That’s why it’s alright for [Piku] to be scheming.

Case against the motion:

In fact Bhaskor is opposed to the idea of Piku marrying at all. Ultimately this is limiting her ability to make her own choices, or at best, putting undue pressure on her as his daughter to respect and follow her father’s wishes. How this as such in any real sense differs from Nandini’s father in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, or Simran’s in DDLJ who oppose their potential love marriages in favour of ones arranged by them is questionable. In all three cases it is the father’s opinion that matters and determines whether his daughter marries and who.

This means that despite Piku’s assertive and opinionated character, there are certain boundaries she is unwilling to cross. She is not prepared to genuinely challenge her father on the matter of getting married in particular, and this is addressed in the subtext of conversations with Rana, including the one below during the overnight stay in Varanasi, where there is an obvious comparison made with the freedom to drive. Given Rana’s character has returned from working in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t legally allowed to drive, it addresses the issue of women’s empowerment and whether Piku is determined enough to stand up for her own freedoms and choices. It starts when Piku questions why Rana has categorised some women as ‘scheming’:

Piku: you were calling someone scheming?

Rana: Not you

Piku: Better not

          I would have thrown you out of the car

Rana: How would your Dad have gotten to Kolkata then?

Piku: I would have driven

Rana: Really? Well had I known this earlier, I could have stretched for a bit

           Now you drive tomorrow?

Piku: [shakes her head]        

I don’t like driving

Rana: Why? What do you mean? Women in Saudi are fighting with the government for the right to drive. Even getting themselves in jail. And you say you don’t like driving. It’s weird.

Piku: Not really. Those countries are like that.

Rana: Your country is like that. Moreover, driving liberates a woman.

Piku: Are you saying all this to impress me or you really do respect women?

The next morning Piku is shown in the driving seat and Bhaskor is napping in the back of the car. When he wakes, he is both shocked and irritated to see she is driving the car rather than Rana. She attempts to convince him she is fine, but Bhaskor interjects that she’s never driven on a highway, insists she stop and switches place with Rana. After Piku pulls the car aside and gets out, he encourages her to come back by saying he was only testing her. Whilst this is Bhaskor’s way of apologising, it also sees Piku return to the car but only after handing the keys back over to Rana. In this argument she has given up.

At the end of the film, Piku is confronting her father (shouting through the bathroom door of course), finally questioning his interference in her love life and unconventional approach:

Piku: Yes I have had physical relationships but is this something he needs to tell every man I meet? Meet my daughter, she is not a virgin. Which father does this?

It is interesting to note this is when Bhaskor finally is able to go to the toilet, and after this release he passes quietly in the night. Bhaskor prided himself on supporting his daughter’s independence, frankness and outspokenness, even with him. So when she confronts him about the flaws in his approach, on the issue where she had accepted his perspective as her only possible reality, he is relieved both physically and intellectually. He has his ‘best motion’ ever and is at peace.

Exhibit D: The naming of the film after Piku, the prominence given to Deepika Padukone’s character as the definite protagonist, and the seemingly supportive cast and production company as regards issues of women’s empowerment, freedom to make their own choices and decisions, and unconditional love of families in this context. By putting the daughter centre stage, and committing to discussing such issues within the context of the film, which revolves around Piku and Bhaskor’s relationship, the cast and crew appear committed to putting across new ideas.

Case for the motion:

All of these factors look like they are clearly determined to set a new paradigm. That this superhit film, starring the internationally successful Irrfan Khan (seen in Life of Pi, Jurassic World, Slumdog Millionaire, and internationally acclaimed Hindi film, 2013’s “The Lunchbox”), and Hindi cinema’s greatest living legend in Amitabh Bachchan, is even considered a “heroine-oriented” film is somewhat remarkable.

Yet it is accurate.

Piku is the protagonist, it is her viewpoint we as an audience see most clearly, and the journey she goes on (non-literally in this meaning) is mirrored by those watching in terms of understanding her relationship with her father. Outside the film itself, Deepika Padukone was the bankable star that allowed this film to be the big success it was, drawing in huge audiences who had enjoyed her performances in previous blockbusters.

Check the collections of recent Amitabh Bachchan or Irrfan Khan movies (with Pink excluded as an outlying exception). Talvar, Madaari, Wazir, Shamitabh or Te3n did not gross anywhere near the same kind of figures as Piku. Padukone’s releases meanwhile, see there is a spike in collections wherever she features, in a way that some of her most bankable contemporaries such as Anushka Sharma (Bombay Velvet) and Kangana Ranaut (Katti Batti) have not even been able to match. Padukone is a bonafide superstar that justifies her fee and status as Bollywood’s highest earning heroine.

Shootjit Sircar and Amitabh Bachchan, meanwhile, by making and acting in “Piku”, and now mostly recently also the film “Pink” – which even more explicitly covers issues around gender equality, have set themselves as “allies” on the subject of women’s empowerment.

This stance puts them in a category with others such as ‘Cocktail’ director Homi Adajania, who also cast Deepika in a short video on women’s empowerment which released around the same time as Piku, titled “My choice” (see below):

Case against the motion:

My choice, Pink, and for the purpose of this discussion, of course “Piku” as well, arguably present themselves as providing a platform for women’s voices by putting them centre stage, but ultimately their direction and often also their words are determined by men. How a reality exists where male directors and actors are unquestionably celebrated for supporting women’s empowerment and female actors are, for example, considered as ungrateful and greedy for even mentioning the drastic pay disparity, makes it difficult for films which are directed by men and which prominently feature male icons of cinema such as Amitabh Bachchan to truly enable a platform for rather than silencing of, women’s voices.

Notably, the already beloved Mr Bachchan received his forth National Film Award for Best Actor, and superstar heroine Padukone was snubbed, a missed opportunity to award a strong performance and continued bold career choices whilst at the peak of her fame, popularity and earning potential. The role of Bhaskor Bhanerji is certainly a showier one than that of Piku, but I am going out on a limb her to give a bold opinion that Deepika Padukone’s performance is more complex, nuanced, creates a more realistic and believable character as a result, and as such was ultimately even more deserving for recognition.

Director Shoojit Sircar was also celebrated for his efforts in the film, catapulting his career to greater heights. Story, screenplay and dialogue writer Juhi Chaturvedi received less high-profile acclaim (although notably Piku won National Award also for Best Screenplay/Dialogues, these were shared with Tanu Weds Manu Returns). Whilst this is somewhat typical of an industry unaccustomed to recognising and rewarding scriptwriters, for this film in particular it is notable given the strong writing necessary for what is a character-based drama with comedic elements on a taboo and unusual subject. It is also meant that Sircar and Bachchan were celebrated for putting a woman’s words on screen in the mouth and viewpoint of a woman in Padukone as Piku.

Piku is also the only particularly prominent female character. Her two aunts, whilst memorable personalities, feature rather seldomly, and their discussions relate to Bhaskor and his attitudes or Piku’s marriage prospects and love life. That is, their discussions are about men.

Closing arguments:

Against the motion (the old paradigms still stand):

Piku is a well written, acted and entertaining movie. However, it does not establish any meaningful new ideas around the father-daughter relationship. The daughter in Piku is still constrained by her father, and his life choices, opinions, and needs come above hers and limit her freedom to do the same. Her father still believes he knows what is best for her in decisions around marriage.

Additionally, despite casting Padukone in the lead role, the film itself sees limited interaction between Piku and other women, and arguably fails the Bechdel test as a result. All of Piku’s conversations with other women in the film (with the maid and with both her aunts) revolve around discussing her father. So is it really that paradigm shifting to cast one of India’s most bankable superstars as the lead in a film just because said star happens to be a woman?

In this light any such conclusions that the director Shootjit Sircar’s and co-star and film icon Amitabh Bachchan’s support for the film and for the issue of women’s empowerment should be viewed. Whether they are genuine allies is irrelevant, as they operate in an environment where even the appearance of attempting to set new paradigms is celebrated as bold and brave for men, yet women speaking for change (such as Pakudone or Chaturvedi) are, at best, ignored, and at worst, delegitimised and demonised.

This film doesn’t represent changing father-daughter relationships any more than DDLJ does – in 1995 every Indian father didn’t suddenly start approving their Simrans to marry Rajs as Amrish Puri does at the end of the movie in a radical shift towards love marriages or in the case of Piku in 2015, a raft of fathers accepting their daughter’s professional success and not wanting them to sacrifice this freedom in favour of a husband, for example.

To return to the film, that the movie concludes with Piku free to establish a relationship with Rana due to her father’s passing is damning evidence that ultimately, her father’s wishes continue to come before hers.

The case against rests.

In favour of the motion:

The character Bhaskor Banerji is not a perfect person, or a perfect father. He is, as in his own words, a “critical person”, who is “brutal and honest”. At times this makes him particularly insensitive. His need to share his judgements and opinions at all times, even when he is seemingly sticking up for Piku or for her freedom to make her own choices and against her being held to a double standard due to her gender, can be seen as at times unnecessary at best, or at worst, patronising “mansplaining”.

Arguably the film recognises this contradiction in Bhaskor’s perspective and for the astute viewer, the irony of its portrayal can cause a sly smirk or laugh in a few key scenes. Despite all this, Bhaskor’s radical approach to raising his daughter should not be downplayed. It is through his opinionated critiques that the audience is introduced to several key arguments around the double standards many women face: when it comes to what they are prepared to sacrifice in favour of a husband, in terms of speaking their mind openly, in terms of whether they can and should be “scheming” and in terms of what is “nice” or desirable for a woman to be. These are all important points that quieter and more diplomatic male characters are curiously silent about.

Bhaskor has raised Piku to be the tough and uncompromising character that we see in the film. That she is reluctant to fully challenge him over issues which are potentially very sensitive to him such as her choosing to marry (and potentially leave the home as a result), is not necessarily something Bhaskor craves to be the case. Rather he is relieved when she finally does.

Whilst Bhaskor does not leave Piku total freedom to make her own choices, and does assert his opinions on her, he does so from a position of not wanting her to internalise society’s expectations of her due to her gender or to want something because she “is supposed to”.

One interesting example of this stubbornness against societal expectations occurs when Piku discovers Rana about a knife she discovers in the back of the car, after pondering the decision for a moment and her father evening warning her “this is very dangerous”. She appears confident in doing so. After discussing the knife’s origins, Bhaskor strongly insists Rana throw away the knife, but is confronted by Rana’s need to protect Piku.

Rana: I can’t throw [the knife]. The whole journey is left and there is a girl with us. How can I throw it?

Bhashkor: Girl? She’s my daughter.

Rana: Fine. But how can I throw it? She’s also my responsibility.

Bhashkor: You will. Otherwise I am not going.

Rana: Keep screaming.

Piku: FINE! [throws the knife herself on the ground]

OK? Now sit inside.

Bhashkor: What? No you tell him to pick this up and throw. Throw it otherwise I am not going.

Rana: I am not throwing it.

[Piku sits in the car and waits]

[After some time]

Piku: Why won’t you throw it?

[Rana looks at Piku, shakes his head and throws the knife into the field to the side of the road]

In this we see that indeed Bhaskor’s personality is dominating, he gives both Rana and Piku little room for manoeuvre. But he does so to insist his daughter is not treated differently do to her gender, even if this is supposedly “well-meaning”, as in the case of Rana seeking to protect Piku, well aware of the prevalence of gender-based violence (given they are on the highway at the time – perhaps he watched NH10!). Bhaskor rather prefers for Piku to be smart and resourceful, independent and able to take care of herself, even if this increases the risks she may be exposed to as a result.

Irrespective of these redeeming features of Bhaskor Banerji in terms of his love and respect for his daughter, it is through his flawed persona that these ideas and viewpoints are able to be heard without becoming a preachy, self-righteous public service announcement. Now that is due to astute writing, smart directing and quality acting. These things don’t happen in a vacuum and don’t happen without effort. There is therefore, a clear intent to redefine father-daughter relationships through a humanised portrayal of one such relationship, with two flawed and therefore relatable and complex characters. That the film is entertaining, well-made and acted, enables “Piku” to successfully accomplish this attempt to redefine the father-daughter relationship beyond its portrayal in any other Hindi film.

The case in favour of the motion rests.

So my jury, have you reached a verdict? (comments welcome below!)

If you made it all the way here – and found the above interesting, you may also be interested in:

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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