Bollywood coronations, which by their very speculative nature are tentative, usually reserve the honour for hot male stars. An exception has occurred with Kangana Ranaut being crowned the new Queen of a hesitant anti-romcom trend. Vikas Bahl seems to know exactly how to spice up the self-discovery of a diffident, protected girl from Delhi’s proudly Punjabi enclave of Rajouri. Rani remains a quintessential Indian girl with a limited worldview whose two weeks in Paris and Amsterdam have made her accepting and non-judgmental of other people, mores, cultures and ways of thinking. She returns to the welcoming warmth of her loving family with enough steel in her spine to return the ring to the fiancé who had dumped her two days before the wedding.
The word-of-mouth publicity that has made Queen a sleeper hit tells us a lot about just how far we, as a society, have moved in a post-feminist age. Marriage is not the be all and end all of a girl’s life even as a loud family is preparing for a big fat Punjabi wedding, The groom Vijay (Rajkummar Rao) who had pursued the girl finds she is too much of a behenji (a halwai’s daughter who studies home science and dresses conservatively) and not suitable for a London returnee. The trauma makes her shut herself into her room while a pragmatic dadi (an essential cameo post Vicky Donor) bracingly informs Rani that she will meet a better guy and get over this heartbreak. She herself had gotten over a handsome Pathan in pre-Partition Punjab.
We root for a shy, sheltered Rani who overcomes the humiliation of being left at the mandap and laugh with her — rarely at her — as she encounters a series of culture shocks: first, a half-Indian, half-French sassy unwed mother, Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon, impressive the way she carries off her brand of chutzpah with assumed Gallic élan); later, accepting three young men of different nationalities as roommates in an Amsterdam hostel and making friends with them; then winning a cook out competition under the nose of an affronted, snooty Italian chef. Bahl takes note of the practical precautions of travelling abroad. A girl who is escorted in Delhi by a chubby younger brother gets the better of a hulking bag snatcher, hanging on for dear life to her papers chastened by an initial fracas with the French police.
The plot is episodic but with a strong linear thread. It is a story of quiet self-assertion, minus a flag-waving feminist manifesto. The drama is muted and told with persuasive, if calculated, charm. A photo sent mistakenly to Vijay’s phone reveals her hip new avatar and he chases her to Amsterdam, finally getting his comeuppance for being such a total jerk. Rani has come a long way from being a behenji, but she still retains her sweetness. After all, how could she not be sweet, since everyone describes her as being dunked in chashni (sugar syrup)?
Kangana Ranaut proves that sweetness doesn’t have to be cloying because she retains her faith in people and trusts her new experiences, willing to learn from them. Getting worldly wise to the ways of men and fashion tips from the feisty Vijaylakshmi is along predictable lines. What is most appealing is her interaction with her roommates and overcoming both fears and prejudices: the comical Japanese who hides the tragedy of losing his family in the tsunami with his perpetual clowning, the rangy Russian Oleksander who wears a permanent expression of Slavic melancholy and the big built black Frenchman who is so unexpectedly gentle.
Bahl is playing with stereotypes here. He reveals Rani’s inherent racism with the Frenchman while reinforcing other stereotypes we’ve inherited: Vijaylakshmi’s dangerously inviting dusky sexuality versus Rani’s fair-skinned virtuousness. The only difference is that he confronts our perceptions with humour. Rani’s middle-aged father tucks in his paunch while the overweight younger brother gapes at Vijaylakshmi’s boobs as she bends into the frame while Rani Skypes with the family. Both lose interest when she exits the screen. The self-explanatory scene punctures our hypocrisy with sly candour. These touches, plus the strict avoidance of any romantic dalliance, even with the dishy Italian who persists in calling Rani “pretty lady”, make Queen the trendsetter of fun feminism. Rani is not scandalised by the sex worker in Amsterdam’s famous district and finds pole dancing great entertainment. She still remains an innocent, buying sex toys clueless about what they are for and finding other uses for it.
Is Queen the new Arth for our times, minus the angst and bitterness? In the Mahesh Bhatt film, Pooja (Shabana Azmi) refuses to accept the adulterous husband after he has grown weary of an exhausting affair with his schizophrenic girlfriend. Pooja grows from vulnerability to strength, able to reject not only a repentant husband but also the supportive friend who has romantic feelings for her. Arth was India’s brave answer to Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman.
It isn’t easy to find Hollywood parallels for Bahl’s Queen, a chick flick with a fair amount of gravitas. The romcom as a genre is both universal and culture specific shaded with in-between blends. At a time when it has been subjected to variations on the basic formula with indifferent results, this seemingly subversive anti-romcom asks the right questions and gives comforting answers. Rani is a beloved rebel who may have flouted a few conventions, but she doesn’t upset the patriarchal applecart. She is still basically the good daughter who has grown smarter and confident enough to say no to her fiancé without rancour.
Ranaut has moved from her edgy roles in Who Lamhe and Fashion. Indians don’t really like women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It goes against the revered ma-behan-beti-biwi image we cherish with more blind idealism than the reality around us. The Tanu of Tanu Weds Manu is on the way to shaping an acceptably non-conformist image of the new heroine. Post feminist critiques of media representations of women have become conformist as well as inaccessibly arcane. The debate has moved on from flag-bearing 1960s feminism. This generation has taken for granted many rights demanded by the founding mothers. The emphasis now is on individual nuance in a comfortable middle-class setting.
There is the other reality of India that occasionally surfaces in documentaries screened for the converted and aware. It takes a filmmaker with courage to present the brutal reality of sex trade to viewers who demand entertainment. Nagesh Kukunoor shows the brutal face of reality that we really don’t want to see. Lakshmi is based on facts of trafficking prepubescent girls and the courage of a 14-year-old survivor who is determined to bring her ruthless exploiters to justice. Kukunoor tells his story with unsparing honesty and a fine discernment of the line where depiction of reality can slide (even unintentionally) into the murky mirror of voyeurism.
Lakshmi is difficult to watch at times because the director does not spare us, even if the actual repeated rapes are hinted at behind closed doors. The scenes of the violated young girl squatting by a bucket through the night to wash and perhaps soothe the wounds have an unbearably visceral impact. Lakshmi (Monali Thakur, heartbreakingly innocent) has been sold by an alcoholic father to Chinna (Kukunoor, spouting filthy abuses and dire threats in a monotonous Hyderabadi dialect is chillingly evil). He brings her to the house of his older brother Reddy (Satish Kaushik, whose benign paternal affection is a mask for unspeakable cruelty) who rapes the trusting young girl.
The Reddy brothers, the older one in starched white dhotis and the younger one in a straggly beard, run a brothel under the guise of a women’s hostel. Jyothi (Shefali Shah) is the madam who is putting her daughter through engineering college (the girl discovers her mother’s real job later on). Her pity is stirred by Lakshmi’s tender age and all she can do is give her cream to ease the pain. Her roommate in this seedy hostel in the Charminar area is Swapna who tutors Lakshmi into the tricks of luring customers. Lakshmi’s repeated attempts to run away escalate the cruelty of her punishment. Chinna carries a broad stick with spikes embedded on one side and Lakshmi’s calf is pierced in a scene that you can’t bear to watch. Chinna’s calculated sadism ends in an act of poetic justice. Jyothi castrates him and cuts her own wrist after Chinna exposes her to the daughter.
Kukunoor had revealed his finely sensitive understanding of how women bond in the exquisite Dor. The cast of characters in Lakshmi is larger and there is really no scope for depicting their inter-relationships with the same depth and nuance. It is serviceable, at best. Adequate for the purpose of the narrative, which chooses a near-docu style, avoiding the danger of titillation that could creep in unawares. Ram Kapoor plays the cynical lawyer who has lost faith in the system. Lakshmi’s quiet courage in submitting herself to relentless cross examination by the defence lawyer spurs him into pursuing the case doggedly. Finally, Reddy is convicted and this is the first ever conviction for trafficking in Andhra Pradesh.
Kukunoor doesn’t believe in making reality palatable or sanitise it for the squeamish. He goes beyond telling it like it is. He hits our conscience where it hurts. Certain truths that ought to traumatise have to be told that way, especially when films try to seduce us into entertainment, putting a modern, overtly sexy spin.
What happens when a true story of women’s collective strength is sought to be wrapped up in the hype of two 1990s divas pitted against each other? Juhi Chawla was invited to speak at the opening session of a seminar examining the portrayal of women in media. With her disarming smile, she invited inveterate seminar attendees — most of who were caught in the familiar feminist politics of bashing Bollywood, TV and advertising — to see Gulaab Gang with the unapologetic declaration that it was a masala movie. Nothing more needs to be said about a film that recycles an ostensible story about women’s empowerment in a creaking formulaic narrative where rhetoric passes for thought and dialogue baazi for emotion. Two award-winning documentaries, Pink Saris and Gulabi Gang have already been made by two women — one from the UK and the other, India. The camera got so intimately close to Sampat Pal and her brave gang of women that they seem to have forgotten its existence. They spoke, behaved and confided as if the all-seeing camera was not there. In such a scenario, what chance did Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla have, even with the PR machinery working overtime? This was pre-historic feminism well past its sell-by date.
Even television seems to have woken up. Yes, there are the saas-bahu sagas and extended families, kitchen politics and scheming women all over the small screen. Along side, there is a tentative effort to showcase small-town girls from Bhopal and Jhansi struggling to carve out independent identities for themselves while coping with the usual machinations of wicked sisters- and mothers-in-law. In Doli Armon Ki, a new bride, fed up with the abuse from an arrogant husband, comes back to her parents and announces (tearfully, of course) that she doesn’t want the baby when she finds out she is pregnant. In another soap, a Muslim orphan comes from New York to Bhopal to find her father, and has her say about Muslim women’s rights. I stopped watching Qubool Hai after it got hopelessly stuck in total implausibility, but, at least, the initial episodes were informed by the lively intelligence of its accident-prone heroine.
Point is, even daily soaps don’t seem to be immune to the changes around us: of what women expect from families, their dreams of love, careers and a life of dignity. How they do it is, of course, a wholly different question.
By Maithili Rao