At the outset let us describe the “coin” as a gender issue that are sought to be addressed in films in myriad of ways. The trend is on the rise.
If we restrict this piece to mainstream Bollywood, we have to explore the question against the broader filmy background. The Bolly canvas was and continues to be largely an extension of what are social mores were/are; traditions which shape our thinking. In the past films, it was not a very happy place for a young woman to be in. A mother in law, especially the mother of a rich and handsome guy, was unacceptable of a young woman as her son’s spouse if her social status did not match; marriages were usually approved by family. Secondly, lo and behold, the woman made pregnant before marriage was immediately a fallen woman while the real culprit of a man, went scot free. The vamp was the “other woman” who danced at nightclubs, sported short hair, smoked and drank and was a total “chee chee”.
Over time, and new age films like ‘Queen’ and ‘Shudh Desi Romance’ changed that perception. Whether it actually changed mindsets in men and women remains debatable. Films are a powerful medium of communication and if used as a proper tool it can definitely spread awareness.
Therefore spotlighting two recent films we explore the female myth that often swings between two very definitive poles – the good and the bad.
In ‘Anarkali of Arrah’ we are suddenly taken on a different narrative. The story of a marginalized gender in a marginalized art form – the dancing and singing girls of the countryside who are part of larger troupes which entertain with their bawdy songs and bold dances. Often abused by men in power (read with entitlements), these women were mere objects of lust. In the film, a robust performer, commonly known as Anarkali, has the guts and gumption to say a bold no to the advances of a police chief. She has to go into hiding and her subsequent revenge – a bit melodramatic – conveys a very powerful message that not only does an urban working woman has the right to say NO as in the film Pink, so does a woman who may offer her services for money.
Director Avinash Das competently shows us a slice of raw life and yet makes a statement that cuts across gender. Naturally the film did not do as well as it should have but it is a film that should be shown in campuses, work place and even in political and police services.
As we enjoy the colours and vibrancy of a small Bihari town, we must acknowledge the ugly sexual crimes that have been perpetuated over the years now need to be seen in broad daylight or arc lights. We should start mainstreaming issues that were swept under the lush carpets.
Walk the line is the reminder to the males even when choices are loosely dismissed as not being the prerogative of a raand.
On the other hand, Naam Shabana takes up the subject of a much abused girl who was in a correctional facility for accidentally killing her abusive and alcoholic father. When molested she can give back as good as she gets but unlike Anarkali of Arrah who is surrounded by a few good men, as an agent, Shabana still relies on the men to fall back upon.
So the woman empowerment comes with a rider here: this much and no more.
Bollywood has always been divided into two clear cut thinking. One carrying the mantle of its past as also its present day equations with big money, big cast, box office returns blah blah and therefore very careful consideration is given to content. The status quo has to be maintained. Therefore, we saw in a film like Dil Chahta Hai, the older woman played by Dimple Kapadia done away with in the end (she dies) rather than get married to a man much younger than herself.
Things have started changing. Swara Bhasker as the character of Anarkali also has to carry the film on her shoulders which she does. The realistic doses are in the men who are supportive of her. They may see weak and insipid but actually lend her a lot of support that often goes unnoticed. In Naam Shabana the trajectory, however, spins into the escapist fare. Taapsee Pannu brings the right bluster into her role but there are Bollywood biggies like Akshay Kumar and Manjoj Bajpayi in the film, remember? So we are still not quite there. If Amitabh Bacchan was not the lawyer in Pink the film, would the film have done as well one wonders.
However, any change in content towards realism goes a very long way in sensitizing the audiences and in that such films like A of A is just the beginning. In a film like Shudh Desi Romace both the man and woman are shown to have commit phobia and it was not until Queen that a single woman could win the hearts of so many women across the country irrespective of class, age, community.
In Hollywood a great deal of societal problems like mental health or learning disabilities in children are shown contextualizing women who are single mothers. Even in Erin Brokovich based on a true story is about a single poor mother, with three kids, working as a legal clerk takes on powerful authorities. Never mind the happy ending where she is rewarded amply, it is the symbolic victory that matters.
Anarkali is vindicated. That should be the inspiring message. Film like Naam Shabana or earlier Maardani seems like a journey to capture power but not quite empowerment. The choice is with the audiences to shout heads or tails while tossing that coin.