Curse of the comeback? Part four of five: Karisma Kapoor in “Dangerous Ishhq” (2012)

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

Karisma Kapoor’s comeback film, 2012’s “Dangerous Ishhq” is unfortunately considered among the most disastrous in terms of being a box office disappointment and being poorly received by the critics.

“Dangerous Ishhq”, an epic romance with an added fantasy / multi-narrative twist around the theme of reincarnation reminds of one of the most recent box office disappointments, last month’s “Mirzya”. Whilst “Mirzya” saw the debut of two young actors – another star kid from the “other Kapoor family”, Harshvardhan Kapoor, and Tanvi Azmi’s niece Saiyami Kher, “Dangerous Ishhq” marked the return to films of the actress renowned for performances in films such “Raja Hindustani”, “Dil To Pagal Hai”, “Zubeidaa” and “Fiza” after almost ten years away.

Coincidentally, one of Karisma’s films released just prior to her sabbatical from films was the heroine-oriented film “Shakti: The Power”, which whilst commercially unsuccessful, received critical acclaim, was produced by Sridevi, and was originally set to be Sridevi’s comeback vehicle and would have marked a return after a five-year hiatus for the actress. Instead, Sridevi returned 10 years later with 2012’s “English Vinglish”, a choice that proved much more fruitful for Sridevi than Karisma Kapoor’s vehicle released in the same year, “Dangerous Ishhq”.

Here is the usual SPOILER warning – so please watch the movie if you intend to first (there are still enjoyable elements) and come back, or you will be spoiled. The trailer is below:

So what actually works about “Dangerous Ishhq”?:

Karisma still looks stunning on camera, she has not lost her star quality despite years away from movies:

In “Dangerous Ishhq”, Karisma’s character Sanjana is introduced to us as the audience as walking the ramp at a Manish Malhotra fashion show – the epitomy of glamour. We quickly understand she is involved with one of the men watching on the front row, Rohan, and that she is set to go off to Paris for a year as a result of her modelling success.

The premise is actually an interesting one, with huge scope for storytelling:

The concept of a love so epic it is throughout generations of reincarnated souls – allows for an exploration of the meaning of a soulmate, a thoroughly romantic concept, but brings in space for period drama, action (given these romances all face a common foe and end tragically) and spirituality, and allows for costume and set design from a range of different periods and locales.

This, perhaps unsurprisingly, leads to the past life storylines exceeding the present day storyline in terms of their ability to capture the interest and attention of the audience. On the other hand, if one particular storyline doesn’t interest as much an individual viewer, there is soon to be another one. The layers of each storyline demonstrating the inseparability of the two romantic leads also has potential to convince (which unfortunately doesn’t fully deliver), if there are character traits that are seen throughout and that link one lifetime to the next.

The dynamic between Jimmy Shergill’s character (ACP Singh) and Karisma’s (Sanjana in the contemporary timeline) is more interesting than hers with Rohan:

We are first introduced to Jimmy Shergill’s character after Rohan’s been kidnapped, as Sanjana returns to the apartment and meets ACP Singh.

The kidnapper calls and his father answers and asks to speak to Rohan, who briefly comes on the line, who is of course only concerned about Sanjana’s wellbeing. The kidnapper lists his demands, which includes a 50 crore ransom, beyond what the family has to pay. Following this – we hear a scream of “Dad!” and a gunshot, to everyone’s panicked reaction. Sanjana questions the risk associated with ACP Singh’s negotiating tactics. Rohan’s father however is not interested in her input, and dismisses her as unimportant and unsubstantive due to her career as a model. Karisma as Sanjana is convincingly hurt by this, but the background music distracts from this well-played low-key pain.

Sanjana later reports to ACP Singh, claiming she has seen the face of the kidnapper. They draw up a sketch of Arif as the main suspect (did Sanjana not have to give some explanation of where she had seen him?).

The kidnapper rings again and arranges the money drop and exchange.

ACP finally asks Sanjana where she saw Arif’s face (yay!), and he reports no individual has been found in police records worldwide (a dubious claim to be so sure of so quickly, globally, for what is only a sketch). Sanjana flatly explains she “went for a past life regression” and that she only saw him in her past life. He is quite understandably flummoxed.

Sanjana joins ACP Singh who is following a lead on Rohan’s whereabouts. The lead eventually turns out to be a trap. Even when this is clear – our slow-on-the-uptake Sanjana runs INTO the building, and ignores pleas to leave and that it’s a trap.

The movie gets better as we have the first real twist and also sign of Sanjana’s smarts. She works with ACP Singh and manages to trick Rohan’s brother Rahul into thinking he’s speaking with the kidnapper on the phone about the drop-off, and we see her walk out at the drop-off point playing a recording of the conversation.

Whilst Rahul is denounced for his involvement in the kidnapping, his reaction is to insist ACP Singh can’t prove anything. Sanjana attacks him and demands answers – but this quickly becomes a useless endeavour as she is distraught rather than demanding. She simply wants to know his location (and not why his brother would do this, who the kidnapper is etc.). Her impassioned plea does lead to Rahul revealing he doesn’t know Rohan’s location, but that “Mittal” does.

They visit the company of M.M. Mittal. Mittal explains he was propositioned by another man to conspire in kidnapping Rohan and calls the number the man gave him. We cut to a song, which seems oddly positioned here, supposedly as they are entering a club with a singer performing there, but the track and picturization is relatively enjoyable (the miming back-up dancers add a peculiarity that it would have been good to see more throughout the film):

The rouse attempted by Mittal meeting with the kidnapper to try to ascertain Rohan’s location fails, and a shoot-out begins. Sanjana is just shown sitting and reacting to this. Her character’s passivity almost reaches another level here until she finally decides to drive the car off, and then knock over the kidnapper. They are given a destination after ACP Singh shoots him in the foot, and threatens to shoot him again.

As they go to the site, we see Sanjana with gun in hand but she remains passive and does nothing with it. We first see Rohan again strapped to a bomb, with just over a minute left. Again she just pleads to ACP Singh to diffuse the bomb. Is he a bomb diffusal expert now? Where’s SRK when you need him?

ACP Singh pulls away Sanjana at the last moment on Rohan’s request after he says the bomb can’t be diffused. The bomb goes off and Sanjana grieves.

The second half of the film is better than the first, and the ending more or less delivers:

Sanjana has a final past life regression as she hears someone calling “Paro”:

Love and reunification are not related to life and death

And not to the body

Open the door, Paro.

You’re listening to your mind but not your conscience

Her final past life regression is to Chittorgarh, Rajasthan in 1535. The Rajput military commander Durgam wants to make Karisma’s Paro his wife, but she is underinterested. He remains persistent and put this down to his “stubbornness”. Paro pull out a dagger and threatens him in return:

Paro: If it’s stubbornness, Durgam

Then you better understand one thing

This maid’s loyalty lies with the kingdom of Chittaur

I swear on my motherland

[puts the knife to her vein]

Paro can cut off her hand and give it to you.

But you can never have her.

Where is this spunk in her later incarnation as Sanjana?

Durgam seeks the help of a medium called Mantra, and Paro tries to stop her love Raj Dutt, from seeking to protect her from Durgam, putting himself in danger in the process. Raj Dutt proposes to Paro and she accepts.

Durgam learns of this and has Raj Dutt captured. Paro pleads to Durgam to free Raj Dutt and settle his enmity with her, rather than her love. Durgam says he will free Raj Dutt if she succumbs to him, and soon we see Paro arrive at his chamber as ordered.

Paro: You don’t have the power to bind anyone

I’ve set myself free from this life

From this body

Her nose begins to bleed and Durgam rushes towards her, shouting her name. She continues:

You were adamant on having this body

And I was adamant on saving this soul.

I swallowed poison to save myself from being tainted

Durgam: What have you done?

What have you done?

Paro: I could’ve died far away from here

But the satisfaction of seeing defeat in your eyes

I wouldn’t have witnessed that

I’m leaving, Durgam

And your defeat will make you restless all your life

Durgam brings Paro’s body to Mantra, who is scared of the consequences as we see a scene between Paro and Krishna devotee Meera, who advises Paro to go through with the suicide, as she and Raj Dutt will have a chance at happiness in a future incarnation if they are truly soulmates.  Meera promises to pray that Paro and Raj Dutt will be born again in the same lifetimes, and equally, when one dies, so will the other.

Durgam refuses to accept defeat – he promises that if both Paro and Raj Dutt are reborn in the same lifetimes, so must he. He pleads for the strength to separate them from one lifetime to the next. He asks Mantra to ensure he is able to remember his past lives in future incarnations so he can carry out this task to ensure they never have a happy ending, and that his face changes with each life.

I would have perhaps started the film with this past life – and framed the plot as to see Sanjana running against time to defeat Durgam’s present day incarnation.

At this point, Paro has awoke to witness this, although we are to learn this is actually Sanjana as Paro, as we return to the present day. Sanjana has understood all of the reasons behind her loss, and we see her return to the hospital where she declares to Neetu that Rohan must be alive, as she still is.

She tries to explain the same to ACP Singh and they return to the bomb site to find Rohan. Inside, we see Sanjana being shot,

ACP Singh is shown shooting in response as Neetu rushes towards an injured Sanjana. Two individuals are shown in the distance, but the pair decide instead to take Sanjana to hospital. She dies in surgery after conceding defeat once again in this lifetime.

We next see Rohan still alive, but to be “left to his fate”, as a voice says that as Sanjana is dead, he is doomed to die also.

Sanjana’s voice is heard as the modern day incarnation of Durgam is revealed.

Sanjana: You are wrong ACP Singh.

Paro is absolutely fine.

And she won’t let anything happen to Raj Dutt.

We are shown proof that ACP Singh is Durgam and his other interfering incarnations as the mark left by Mantra remains despite a new face each time. The scene in which Rohan’s death was faked is also shown in a flashback scene.

ACP Singh wrestles the gun from the police officer, and points it at Sanjana’s face, insisting he has the upper hand as unlike her, he will remember all this in the next lifetime. He is about to shoot Rohan and he is shot in the back. As he falls, we see it is Sanjana who shot him (!). She shoots him again, and again, and again, and again, as we see flashbacks to their deaths in each past life.

We then see the condition to the curse – if Durgam dies before Paro and Raj Dutt, the curse is over.

Sanjana rushes towards Rohan and releases him – and the camera is on Karisma’s face as she embraces Rohan and tears roll down her face. End film.

What doesn’t work – and should have been done differently:

Sanjana and Rohan’s romance gives an air of immaturity – and as such superficiality. Whilst this might be believable for teens, it seems dubious for accomplished professional adults without any background to justify this interdependency between the two of them:

Right at the beginning of the film, Rohan is aggrieved Sanjana is taking the overseas career opportunity she has been given and accuses her of “forgetting” him as she discusses the practicalities of getting to Paris. Instead they decide to pretend as though it’s a normal day and she isn’t leaving at all. This relationship rubs off as sickly sweet, and hardly seems believable.

Given their relationship, Sanjana decides not to go to Paris after all (given the wealth we are shown they possess, is it inconceivable that he could join her in Paris, if they are so inseparable?). The whole thing seems superbly dramatic very quickly, with the foundations for this epic romance not yet established.

They decide to get married and we learn that Sajana and her mother are estranged (something which is a total red herring and never followed up on).

The drama of the break in and kidnapping comes too early in the film, with no real set up. This fails to shock, and instead seems out of place and ill-fitting with what has proceeded:

Their relationship bliss discussing how they will raise their future children is broken as strange men enter their home and start shooting. They target Rohan and manage to kidnap him, despite a gallant effort trying to fight off multiple men (who are, as already mentioned, armed). Sanjana just stands there in shock, eventually screaming and trying to pull them away from him with little success. A smarter and more resourceful Sajana would be more appealing here, for example looking for a makeshift weapon and trying to attack one of the men with this. Instead she hits her head and falls to the floor, losing consciousness.

As she comes to, she’s already in hospital. Exploring the empty hospital, she hears someone calling out for “Gita”. She sees it’s a bearded and badly injured Rohan who repeats “they’re going to kill us”, after which she sees a raging, armed mob. She hides them both from the mob.

She then seems to return the normal reality we had established earlier – the mob and the injured Rohan are gone, and she sounds and seems delusional. She is brought back to her senses when she is told that Rohan has been kidnapped.

The background music in “Dangerous Ishhq” is distracting, and doesn’t allow for layered acting performances:

Many a film can tend to overuse music in order to signal to the audience how it is supposed feel in a certain scene, without needing to rely on the script and performances.

This technique was adopted in many a 90s Hindi film – notably when Karisma made herself a star. Arguably this trend has reduced in more recent films, with some notable exceptions. This makes the film seem dated as a result, and doesn’t help Karisma or any of the cast in fact in terms of allowing them bring the audience with them through their acting, and forces a certain mood or ambience onto a particular scene, with limited scope for layered performances.

The film’s supernatural elements are played very matter of fact in almost all parts of the film, and could have been built on further and seen the film adopt a more parallel cinema style or approach:

As Sanjana experiences her first past life regression, she hears someone calling “Gita” and opens the door to find another time and place on the other side. In this fantasy world, Sanjana as Gita is able to read Urdu.

Back in the modern day, her friend Neetu calls her to and we see her crouched in the hallway outside her apartment, and the newspaper she was holding and reading from is thin air. She tells Neetu she can read Urdu, and Neetu sets out a scenario to prove it by googling for an Urdu website.

Obviously the first thing she lands on in a patriotic Indian film needs to be a terrorist website (some nice Urdu poetry might have been better, or even just a news article?). This initial revelation of her new-found linguistic skills could have been presented in a more hyper-real way, rather than a matter-of-fact “I know Urdu now! Isn’t that weird?”, potentially starting a more artistic portrayal of the past life regression concept.

In fact, the portrayal is so matter of fact that Sanjana’s friend Neetu as she is a doctor seeks a rational reason why Sanjana might suddenly know Urdu, and takes her to see a psychiatrist. Whilst this is indeed plausible for both characters and the plot, it is then contradicted by what follows.

The psychiatrist, Nandita, relates cases where other people spontaneously understood other languages / information (such as an American who suddenly knew Russian, a Frenchwoman who suddenly could map out Istanbul, and a similar case in Indian Punjab). Nandita explains this is signs of a past life (do psychiatrists commonly mix in religion?).

Nandita: Those who’ve practiced spirituality have always believed in it,

And nowadays modern psychiatrists have accepted reincarnation

She explains that whilst the mind stores memories from this life only, the soul stores memories from all past lives.

She offers the chance to figure out what this all means if she is allowed to help Sanjana regress into her past life. The next part of the scene offers a glimpse into the style of filmmaking “Dangerous Ishhq” could have adopted in another guise.

The scene showing her taking her mind back into her past life is cleverly done – with a version of Sanjana in her head going down in a “lift” to a past life. The lift passes through different colours for different levels as she “lands” in her past life. If this had been adopted more throughout the film, it would have added a level of originality and even dark humour that could have been celebrated, rather than the melodrama that was criticised instead.

Sanjana explains what she sees – she knows this is her house, she knows the bodies lying there is her dead mother and father, and that she’s scared. Karisma plays this past life already with a sense of a younger character than Sanjana.

You can watch this scene play out in a clip here:

The past life stories are too brief, and sacrificed at the expense of the contemporary timeline, despite the characters involved and stakes at play being less believe and less interesting in the modern day, especially in the first half of the film. Given how rushed some of these storylines are however, the audience is left indifferent about the couple’s potential separation:

Sanjana, in her past life regression as Gita, meets with her sister – also played by Divya Dutta who plays Neetu in the contemporary timelife. Her sister explains that their Uncle Shamshul and his men have left and that they’re safe for now, and that she witnessed him murder their parents in a revenge killing – not wanting to “spare anyone from Pakistan” as we understand it is the time of Partition (a hugely rich setting for dramatic storytelling, and much more so than the angst of a career driven separation between a supermodel and her super rich boyfriend).

Once again we see another mob, and our past life version of Rohan – Iqbal, comes to save the pair (it’s all very damsel-in-distress). Her sister Chanda – seemingly the more heroic of the two, holds the door a la Hodor, sacrificing herself (though not without a bit of a fight at least) in order to save Bran, err, sorry, Gita/Sanjana (errm Karisma might be easiest).

Iqbal’s friend Arif indirectly reveals his disapproval of the relationship between Gita and Iqbal, preferring to send her away from Pakistan to a “safe place” – of course this safe place for an orphaned Hindu girl at time of partition is India. Gita expresses that she doesn’t want to leave either Iqbal or her country Pakistan. Arif’s argument is this is the only way to save Gita’s life, and therefore is able to persuade Iqbal to let her go.

Gita lies among a truck full of dead bodies as passage over the border – this, given the weight of the historical content, and the personal touch through Gita’s eyes, is for a second quite impactful, a close up of Karisma’s face lay parrellel in the truck as a song plays in the background however is unfortunately cut short, as she climbs off the truck quickly and insists on seeing Iqbal. She is more overtly faced with the ongoing death and destruction, but having her merely lying among the bodies could have shown this with greater subtlely on the one hand and on the other – arguably more meaning. We could have had the truck pass by such destruction in a wide shot or two.

Instead she manages to meet up with Iqbal, and they decide to marry. Arif at this point outwardly expresses his disagreement with them marrying due to their different religions. He tries to reignite the plan to take her over the border, and through a slip of the tongue – mentions the destination is Ludhiana rather than Amristar. Iqbal accuses Arif and they fight. Gita watches. Again. Oh and Iqbal is killed and Sanjana is pulled out of her past life and into the present.

The Gita/Iqbal Jodi therefore – is yet another one we are only reduced to understanding it as it is threatened and when they are already extremely committed to one another. It all feels rushed. To feel the weight of Iqbal’s decision to send Gita away – we need to understand how much this would actually pain him to do so. To understand why she runs back to him despite the danger – we have to understand his pull for her.

The melodramatic hits of the 90s such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, DDLJ, and Karisma Kapoor starrers such as Raja Hindustani and Dil To Pagal Hai all had moments of lightness when were endeared to the characters and understood their dynamic with one another – before their relationship faced peril or heartbreak. In such cases the declarative speeches about the meaning of love and preferring to die than separate and the like all have a context in which we can understand how they may really be inseparable jodis.

We’re then taken to another past life, much further back, in 1658, this time in Daulatabad with no warning or context on how we are here beyond being shown this. She is now Salma, betrothed to a soldier being sent off to battle for the son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahn, in a dispute about succession. He leaves her with 100 love letters.

We then cut to a sweet scene when Karisma as Salma reacts to news the soldiers are coming back from battle. She dresses and grooms as a romantic song plays, and then runs to meet Ali, reminiscing about their courtship shown in a montage as she runs. She spots Ali’s friend Rashid and asks him for Ali’s whereabouts – only to learn he died in battle. Karisma’s reaction is one of disbelief that is convinces and is neither overstated nor wooden.

Her gaze is held for exactly long enough and we can see the pain in her eyes. This is one of the moments in the plot as the film is crafted where Karisma actually gets to show her ability. She eventually collapses to the ground but this is also not overdramatic. The wide shot of her crying and struggling to breathe, and having fallen as she could no longer stand, is also a wise choice as we the soldiers walk past her.

Salma is shown in mourning as Rashid explains how Ali died. Rashid offers to marry her in Ali’s place giving the rationale that this will protect her honour and out of loyalty to his dead friend. A prostitute (Divya Dutta again) visits Salma. She reveals Rashid’s plan to separate Salma and Ali and claim Salma for himself. She tells her Ali is alive. Salma intervenes after overhearing his kidnappers discuss Ali’s soon to be demise. It seems Salma has more spunk than either Sanjana or Gita. Through this intervention we (and Sanjana) learn that Rohan’s younger brother is one such enemy -and has an involvement in his kidnapping. She reveals this to ACP Singh.

This is the shortest – but actually the most interesting romance so far.

The film in general focuses too much on the pure romance part – the mystery/supernatural thriller/dark part of the plot could be drawn out more and give a wider appeal as a result:

With around forty minutes of the film remaining, as the audience we understand that Rohan has died, and Sanjana is shown mouring and attending his funeral rites with Rohan’s family. This lifts some of the weight off the film as it now shifts more into the mystery aspect.

Sanjana is shown watching the kidnapper being interviewed by the press on TV after he is being taken off by the police. He claims he was only involved for the money and is being used as a scapegoat – the real instigator and brain behind the kidnapping and murder is still at loose.

The narrative driving the plot at this point becomes who is behind Rohan’s kidnapping, and what is their intention. This leads to the most engaging part of the film, and it is disappointing this comes so late on, when most of the audience is already hard to win over, and disappointed by the melodrama, distracted by the background music and failed to care about Rohan and Sanjana as a pair. If the film had been set up as a mystery from the beginning – with the epic nature of the romance emerging throughout, rather than insisted upon from the start, this film could have been much stronger and less held back by its other flaws.

Conclusion:

Made on a larger budget than the likes of Preity Zinta’s return the following year in “Ishkq in Paris”, “Dangerous Ishhq” always had a greater propensity to fail. Karisma’s significant gap from screens added to the pressure to deliver a hit in order to relaunch her career, and given its commercial and critical failure its unsurprising to see that she has yet to follow it up with another film and there is no talk of any in the pipeline.

Given Karisma’s filmy lineage, and that whilst she was not established as top box office draw in 2012 as she might have been 15 years earlier, she did have two close relatives that were, in her sister Kareena (who had starred in hits “Ra.One” and “Bodyguard” only the year before, and in 2012 released “Talaash” and had the lead role in “Heroine” – which opened with over 7 crore, then a record for a women-centric film), and cousin Ranbir (“Rockstar” released in 2011 and “Barfi!” in 2012). A cameo or supporting role from either would have increased interest in the film, and Kareena could have worked well in the Neetu role and Ranbir as Rahul, for example.

Even without gimmicks such as Kapoor clan cameos, “Dangerous Ishhq” might have worked if it had gotten a good word of mouth from a strong critical response. For this to happen however, the film had to follow the aesthetics, directing and acting style of 2012, rather than the 90s films through which Karisma earned her fame. The premise held promise but failed to deliver, restricted by dated and soapy storytelling approaches. This saw Karisma remain a movie star in the film and fail to transform into the actress she can be. Throughout the film her character is too passive, and it leaves Karisma with not enough to do. At the points when this isn’t so (during some interactions with ACP Singh, and in particular, at the end of the film) this not so coincidentally leads to more engaging storytelling and the stronger parts of the movie.

The premise of the film allowed however for a combination of romance, thriller, mystery and action with a touch of the spiritual and the supernatural thrown in. However the romance fails to convince, the thriller is inconsistent, the mystery only emerges later on, and the spiritual and supernatural is only played up during certain parts of the film. The action, even more unforgivably, is left largely to the men, which seems extra strange in a heroine-oriented film, and leaves Karisma’s character appearing as a passive spectator for far too much of “Dangerous Ishhq”.

Verdict:

Given the significant time lapse between Karisma’s previous releases and “Dangerous Ishhq”, a commerically successful release was always going to be an uphill battle. Karisma was also stuck in a bind of the type of films, and filmmaking she had been releasing prior to her return having largely moved on.

Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman, for better or worse, were not making the same kind of films in 2012 as they were in the 90s, and have maintained popularity by moving with the times and styles as they have changed. A female actor in a heroine-oriented film is going to be given even less slack for this, despite a perhaps inevitability about returning to familiar ground.

Perhaps this means the barriers to both commercial and critical success were too high for “Dangerous Ishhq” to overcome, and suggests that this film also supports the hypothesis that heroine-oriented comebacks are “cursed” and doomed to fail. The score stands at 2-2.

Found this interesting?:

Part five is to follow shortly – and will look at whether the film that broke the “curse” is evidence its only a myth, or whether it is the exception that proves the rule. What film could this possibly be?

10 anti-item songs

One of the most-talked about issues when it comes to women in Hindi films is the item song. But women in film songs don’t just have to be the typical item girl there to titillate the audience and serve the male gaze.

I have already talked about the importance of songs in a couple of films discussed already, the song “London Thumakda” in “Queen” as one of the subversions of expectations and film conventions and the song “Ooh La La Tu Meri Fantasy” in “The Dirty Picture” as an example of Vidya Balan’s use of comedy in a film that is at its essence, a tragedy.

Songs in several other heroine-oriented films have equally presented different sides to women through music. I’ve picked 10 of the most interesting below. Watch out for a few “angry young women” in particular!

  1. Mardaani Anthem – Mardaani

A song with an explicit women’s empowerment message – this “anthem” addresses the subject matter of the film (child trafficking) but from a position of genuine strength and standing up to injustice.

Below is the link of the lyrical verison of the song – where we see Rani as Shivani Shivaji Roy in action in the instrumental parts of the song, and the listener is encouraged to sing along to the powerful lyrics during the sung parts. Join in:

“Aaj se aab se

Aan meri main tumko na chhoone doongi

Jaan ko chaahe chhalni kardo

Maan ko na chhoone doongi”

  1. High Heels Te Nachhe – Ki & Ka

A fun, catchy song that could somehow fit in almost any other film, but stands out due the plot of the film it’s in (Ki & Ka), that is a simple romantic comedy that’s also subversively progressive in terms of gender to a point not just beyond Bollywood, but unlike most mainstream cinema globally (for discussing in another post).

However the video song achieves the same in a few short minutes through the choreography and costumes switching up expectations in terms of gender roles gently and humorously.

Watch below:

  1. Ghani Bawri – Tanu Weds Manu Returns

A popular song that accompanied an ever more popular film – Tanu Weds Manu Returns, plays up perceptions of independent and passionate women as “crazy” by reclaiming the title.

Interestingly, in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, as in the first film, Ranaut’s character Tanu is not demonised for being this supposedly “crazy” woman, in fact she becomes our heroine. It is not whether she should change her behaviour or not that is the question, but rather if Tanu and Manu are a well-matched couple or not, and if they can make their relationship work with such different personalities.

Ranaut’s dance performance here is also unusual – she is being shown as watched by a male, indeed her ex-husband Manu as he is about to remarry, but she is trying to communicate a message to him of strength, independence and defiance rather than serving his sexual desires. The whole dance is far from a pop song in the middle of the film, as Ranaut uses it as an opportunity to convey her character’s feelings in the moment and as such, it manages to move the plot forward and help the audience better understand and relate to Tanu. We understand her anger and pain in one.

  1. Ziddi Dil – Mary Kom

A montage training scene turned video song with a message of determination, Ziddi Dil is a stand out song from the movie Mary Kom. The picturization of the song meanwhile shows what makes Mary Kom such a compelling real life sports star and biopic lead – that is, her contrasting feminity and roles as daughter, mother and wife; and a driven, determined five-time boxing world champion.

At this point in the film, MC Mary Kom is yet to become a wife and mother of three. Rather she is still a young girl and despite Priyanka Chopra already having been in the industry for more than 10 years at the time of shooting Mary Kom, manages to excude the youthful energy of a teenager

We see facets to Kom’s all round personality – she is a simple farm girl helping out at home, a devout Christian, lives in the picturesque Manipur, is committed to her training, and even so in the face of her parents’ concerns. All these facets comfortably co-exist, and the song pays tribute to Mary Kom’s drive and determination. At the end of the song, we see both the pay-off in terms of her victories in the ring, and the cuts and blisters she suffers through as a result:

  1. Rajj Rajj Ke – Akira

With lead actress Sonakshi Sinha also doubling up as a playback singer in this track, the song sees Sinha as a rock star.

We are also treated to clips of Sinha in full action star mode as Akira and the mood and lyrics of the song help to strengthen our understanding of her character and her destructive and vengeful mindset in the movie.

The vocal performance shows a very different side to Sinha as a singer than her pop hit “Aaj Mood Ishqholic Hai” and positions Sinha as the quadruple threat – acting prowess, popular dancer, and now fully fledged singer and action heroine.

  1. Jashn – Bobby Jasoos

A joyful, feel good song from the underrated film Bobby Jasoos, this sees “The Dirty Picture” star in a totally different avatar.

This is an Eid celebration dance song very different from one you would find in Salman Khan’s latest holiday release.

  1. Chhil Gaye Naina – NH10

In NH10’s “Chhil Gaye Naina” we see Anushka Sharma in a similar mode to Sinha’s Akira in Rajj Rajj Ke, in this case accompanied by the powerful vocal performance of playback singer Kanika Kapoor.

The track also does well at setting the mood of the film, building tension and suspense, and helps understand the fear, pain and vulnerability felt by Sharma’s character Meera, the feelings that will drive her violent fightback against her attackers.

Sharma puts in another acting performance whilst lipsynching to the track and we get a microcosm of Meera’s character arc in NH10 itself through the less than 3 minute song.

  1. Revolver Rani – Revolver Rani

Another track where the avatar of the lead actress (this time Kangana Ranaut) is wholey different to as we either know her best (a la “Queen”) or have seen her before.

This Western style film with Kangana as a larger than life cowgirl-style politican Alka Singh puts a woman in a position of power, and portrays a grey anti-heroine role and we can sense the black comedy of the film even within the song itself and its picturisation.

  1. Sava Dollar – Aiyyaa

In this song at the beginning of Rani Mukherji’s film “Aiyyaa”, Mukerji as her character Meenakshi in full fantasy mode due to her dreams of making it as a film heroine.

The song pastiches Hindi film song and dance, but with a tenderness only possible by a true lover of the genre. From within the film itself, we understand this is purely Meenakshi’s perspective,  living out her dreams, rather than for the pleasure of any male onlooker.

Life as a Hindi film heroine is portrayed through Meenakshi’s eyes as the epitomy of success, glamour and power, but seems possible to her as she is shown as a dreamer who will not accept narrow expectations of her.

“Haan mamuli nahi main ladki

Khole sapno ki khidki

Apni thandi duniya ko

Maine sapne pe sekha”

  1. Hamari Atariya – Dedh Ishqiya

A list of Hindi video songs could not leave out the iconic dancer in Madhuri Dixit. Whilst there were a few options to pick of hers (“Aaja Nachchle”, “Dheemi Dheemi Si”, “O Re Piya” and “Gulaabi” in a non-dancing avatar – just from the movies “Aaja Nachchle” and “Gulaab Gang”), her performance in Dedh Ishqiya stands out.

Whilst the song and dance of “Jagaave Saari Raina” is notable for its elegance, I have left this out of the list as within the moment in the film, it is literally viewed through the male gaze of Naseeruddin Shah’s character. This plot point becomes more complex later in the film, and overall this film is unusual and provocative in several ways that warrant greater analysis generally. However the song sits uneasily within this list for this reason.

Hamari Atariya meanwhile, comes right at the end of the film, when the plot has played out fully and we know the status of Madhuri Dixit’s character Begum Para and Huma Qureshi as Munira. We see two women dancing together but who are not competitors for a man’s affections (a la Madhuri herself as Chandramukhi with Aishwarya Rai as Paro in “Devdas”, or most recently Deepika Padukone as Mastani and Priyanka Chopra as Kashibai in the song “Pinga” from “Bajirao Mastani”).

In this song then, we see Madhuri and Huma dance elegantly and defiantly, accompanied by a group of young girls all dancing in sync. It is a genuinely wonderful song and dance that can be enjoyed for its own merit.

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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