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?:

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.

Short films of Radhika Apte

With the recent release of “Parched”, the multi-lingual actress Radhika Apte once again has emerged as a unique actress in the Indian film industry today, who is willing to make bold film choices over more commercial concerns. Apte has also starred in a number of short films, some of which I have shared below, and each are of interest for different reasons.

Ahalya

This is a (subtitled) Bengali short film, directed by Sujoy Ghosh, and the only film directed by Ghosh since 2012’s Kahaani. Perhaps it gives us hints of what we can expect from next month’s Kahaani 2?

Radhika plays the eponymous Ahalya, a young wife of an older man,  an artist, and she invites a police inspector asking after a missing man into her and her husband’s home.

Watch the film below:

Kriti

This is a 2016 released Hindi-language short film, a thriller directed by Shirish Kunder. A viral hit, it has already had more than 10 million views.

Radhika plays psychiatrist Dr Kalpana, who seeks proof of the existence of a new girlfriend (named “Kriti”) of her childhood friend and patient, as years ago he had a similar imaginary friend.

That Day After Everyday

Directed by Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur, Dev.D, Bombay Velvet)

One of the most women-centric of the short films, it revolves around the social ill of “eve-teasing” (sexual harassment).

As you can see from the video above, the film opens with Radhika’s character Rekha being berated for taking her time preparing tea in the kitchen. The male voice coming from the living room is also reading aloud about a bizarre (but perhaps also unfortunately unsurprising) news item that is blaming rape on the after effects of eating Chinese food. He warns her to avoid areas where chow mein is being sold to young men as a result.

He says, placing the responsibility on to her rather than on the misbehaving men: “[b]e careful about them. Do not interact with them or try to make them angry. If they tease you just lower your head and walk away”.

“It is best for women to be quiet for their own good” he continues. In fact, Rekha does not speak a single word during this entire sequence, but her silence speaks mountains.

“Why do you need to go to work?” he questions further, positing either abstaining from work, working from home due to concern around her safety as a woman and protection from gender-based violence and abuse being rather responded to by restricting her movements and freedom in general, rather than dealing with the attitudes of eve-teasers and abusers, or punishing their behaviours.

We later see Rekha and her friends preparing to be eve teased, followed by a confrontation and attempted assault by the group of harassing men after she speaks out after being hit by a stone.

Radhika convincingly shows even in this short film both strength and vulnerability in Rekha’s response to such abuse. We see her anger and her pain in equal measure. A short scene where Rekha tears up is followed by a moment of laughter as Rekha bonds with her two friends based on their shared experiences of dealing with eve teasing.

They are also shown to be attending self-defence classes – taking control of what they are able to in the situation. Even returning home from this class safely however is challenging, as it finishes at night and the walk back involves passing through where the group of harassing young men are. Rekha and her friends’ scrappy-ness and gutsy attitudes in the face of this threat are to be put to the test. This whole section reminded me a little of Anushka Sharma’s NH10 – a film I will undoubtedly cover in a separate post soon.

The very last (short) scene is particularly interesting and amusing.

The Calling

A very short and almost entirely English-language piece that is also explicitly about women’s empowerment, it shows Radhika as Shya as an architect and expectant mother, dealing with discrimination at work (notably by a female superior) due to the fact she is pregnant. It has an uplifting if perhaps unrealistic conclusion.

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:

Queen (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer is below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rani: in India girls aren’t allowed to burp

Vijaylaxmi: everything is allowed here

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

Rani: Lets both burp today

           [burps]

Vijaylaxmi: “You’re quite good at it”

Rani: [burps again]

          “you also burp”

           [they both burp]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoyed this post?

 

Introducing “Women in Bollywood”

“Heroine-oriented” or “women-orientated” cinema is increasing its profile in Bollywood with a number of the most high-profile actresses at the top of their earning potential are choosing lead roles in films that would otherwise have been considered as of interest to only a niche audience, and perhaps only viable within the realms of parallel cinema as supposed to among more mainstream fare.

This includes the first “100 crore” plus grossing movie with a female protagonist releasing just last year, Kangana Ranaut’s “Tanu Weds Manu Returns”. This landmark in an industry dominated by the increasing box office returns of films led by a handful of male superstars (the “three Khans” paramount among these), sees a number of interesting debates arising both within and around these so-called “heroine-oriented” films – the term itself even causing significant controversy.

This blog will review and discuss releases in light of both their own artistic merit, themes discussed and explored within the films themselves, and within a wider context of women and girls’ rights within India, South Asia more widely and internationally, including the West.

An important disclaimer – I am not an Indian and a non-Hindi speaker, so this naturally leads to specific biases when watching these films and understanding and responding to them within a specific context. On the other hand, as a lover of Hindi cinema of many years now, but with also significant exposure to other countries’ and languages’ film making repertoire, I hope this provides a different perspective and some interesting insights. I am nevertheless grateful for any clarifications or additions from Indians and from Hindi speakers that I may have missed.