The 2010s have been rather adventurous when it comes to the Bollywood heroine. It is not just Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut. They are the rule breakers who can power woman-centric films, even though Balan’s recent films have ranged from interesting to iffy. Ranaut, the uncrowned Queen, has challenged Bollywood’s entrenched establishment by dictating her own terms with a chutzpah bordering on arrogant disdain. These two are a class apart. There were other, more muted challengers who really acquiesced in following the rules of the game. Anushka Sharma set the trend under the fail safe Yash Raj banner, of the middleclass RAHUL JHANGIANI urban girl with big dreams, and has subsequently leaped into the top tier.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha  

There is a whole sub-culture here waiting to be explored: in which direction will Konkona Sensharma, Kalki Koechlin, Richa Chadda and Swara Bhaskar take their talent? They are closer to art house than mainstream. There is yet another middle ground where fresh themes are tackled with refreshing honesty, and not too many compromises made, to appease the box-office deity. This trend of exploring the Hindi heartland had started more than a decade ago and found resonance with metropolitan audiences, who were tired of recycled clichés flaunting reinvented coolth. It became trendy – and lucrative – to leave the big city and find authentic locations to tell real stories about real people: the unwritten proviso being that real did not mean a gritty, documentary style of narration. Characters became more important than stories, so that they could engage us emotionally. Here, the woman was as important as the man, for these films centered round marriage, adjustment and contentment. Ecstatic romance of the filmi kind was thrown out of the small, barred windows of cramped houses lining narrow streets.

I am talking of the seemingly not-soambitious films, without the trappings of huge budgets (and consequent cop outs). The stories have shifted base, to small towns where homely, middle-class girls nurture dreams that are not unachievable, but for which they have to battle against tradition and age-old stereotypes of demure submissiveness. Bhumi Pednekar has been an unobtrusive trailblazer. She is really the most unlikely actor to have reeled off three successful films: Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Toilet and Shubh Mangal Savdhan, all within a span of less than three years. That takes some doing – and daring, on the part of directors who cast her in de-glamourised roles, yet endearingly earthy to ground stories rooted in the soil.

Shubh Mangal Savdhan

Pednekar exudes a refreshing mix of healthy sensuousness and sensible levelheadedness, without being in your face. She is the attractive girl next door, vulnerable at times yet with a practical streak that makes her a go-getter who will do it with her self-respect intact. She takes on the man in her life without simpering coyness and with shrewd intelligence, to come off better in the small and big battles of love and arranged-love marriage, whatever this new social practice means in many parts of neo-urban India, while the metros are into speed dating and Tinder, swiping right or left to gamble for mating stakes. Therein lies the novel reality. 

Bhumi Pednekar’s Sandhya in Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) carried off her weight issue without apology. There are no euphemisms, no pleasing plumpness, or the typically Punjabi term “healthy” to hide her pounds. She is a graduate to her husband Prem Pralash Tiwari’s (Ayushman Khurrana) school drop-out. Set in 1995, the cassette shop he runs in Haridwar acts as a musical accompaniment to the narrative. Soaked in the romance of Bollywood songs, Prem dreams of a Juhi Chawla-esque girl for a wife, but his hard-headed father gets him married off to an overweight, educated girl looking for a teacher’s job. Sharad Katariya gets the locale and idiom with perfectly dovetailed details. The extended family and intrusive neighbours add to the aural and visual authenticity, as Prem stubbornly refuses to consummate the marriage even as Sandhya signals her willingness – even eagerness – without false modesty.

Sandhya is willing to wait for Prem to accept her, but can’t stomach the public insult at his friend’s wedding and slaps him. She walks out and demands divorce. Indian families will not let an arranged marriage end in divorce, and their combined efforts, plus the judge’s decree of asking them to live together for six months, sets off the thaw in their formal coldness as friendship burgeons. English has been Prem’s bugbear and Sandhya’s meticulous tutoring helps him overcome his fear, to finally clear the exam.

Toilet – Ek Prem Katha

If only the film had followed the simple logic of friendship turning into conjugal affection, though. The director had to be literal. He manipulates the script to have a race where husbands carry wives on their back, and no guesses who wins. What saves DLKH is the comfortable – not crackling, mind you – chemistry that Khurrana and Pednekar share, to make the end grudgingly acceptable. It is remarkable how Pednekar makes us root for her dominant character, without lessening our understanding of Prem’s dilemma. She is strong but not intimidating, and that is part of her appeal. DLKH gratifyingly was chosen Best Hindi Film by the National Film Awards jury, and Pednekar deservedly won a couple of movie magazine awards for best female debut. 

The same comfort is palpably visible in Shubh Mangal Savdhan. Without that comfort level, this pair could not have pulled off the tricky subject of the hero’s erectile dysfunction, without dressing it up in euphemisms or recourse to vulgar double entendres. As Sugandha, Pednekar brings the working girl of non-posh Delhi to nuanced life, who does not want to chicken out of marriage to a non-performing groom, since it is the first decision she made on her own in life. The director Prasanna is able to
transplant his Tamil film Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013) in the environs of lower middle-class Delhi of DDA flats, with thin walls. Much of the credit goes to Hitesh Kewalya for dialogue and a screenplay that catches the particulars of Dilli Hindi, in idiom and intonation. For a Maharashtrian, Pednekar displays, with natural flourish, tone- perfect mastery of nuanced Hindi in all three films.

Sugandha’s parents are suffocatingly protective – and intrusive. She has an overbearing uncle from Haridwar, always quick to take umbrage if his seniority in the family hierarchy is not respected. For perhaps the first time, a heroine is given the introductory voice over to describe her situation, her family and her first brush with the hero Mudit (Ayushman Khurrana). This voice over sets the tone. She is amused, flattered and attracted. The object of these mixed emotions – and signals to the clumsy suitor – is Mudit, a diploma holder doing a marketing job and happily mispronouncing resume and onion like a native Dilliwala. She plays hard to get, sending the importunate Mudit into a nervous tizzy. No wonder he can’t perform when the newly engaged couple find themselves conveniently alone in her thin-walled flat, and she has to understand his “gents problem.” It is funny and affectionate. Prasanna doesn’t descend to indecency, but uses a limp, sodden biscuit to describe Mudit’s plight. You have to give it to Sugandha to be both understanding and forbearing most of the time, till the interfering
family jumps wholesale into the bridegroom’s non-performance with glee, dispensing free advice and all sorts of remedies, including Mudit’s marriage to a tree. 

As happens all too often, the second half runs out of ideas and comic steam. What keeps SMS (the non-sexual acronym could become the code for ED) going is the unflagging spirit of the lead couple, and the superb ensemble cast (Seema Pahwa is absolutely brilliant as the mother, explaining what happens on the wedding night, alluding to a cave that must open only to Ali Baba and not the 40 thieves). Pednekar, once again, takes charge, whether she runs away, distraught at Mudit’s persistent ex-girlfriend, to find an answer to this impasse or her matter of fact attitude to non-happening sex in her marriage.

It is not sex – which is pretty satisfactory – but the need for the privacy of a toilet that is the basic problem in Toilet. Pednekar holds her own against what is primarily an Akshay Kumar vehicle. She is dismissive, flirtatious, sarcastic, mulish and adjusting to a head-covering bahu to placate a cussedly conservative father-in-law, even though she comes from a more modern family. She is tech savvy, determined and resourceful – all with taken-for-granted casualness. She is resolutely not show-offy. Sadly, her Jaya is reduced to a token presence, to make a statement. That, alas, is the fate of so many promising films. Toilet carries enough heft with its theme to be featured in the New York Times. Pednekar was the catalyst for change in that message-oriented love story. Come to think of it, Pednekar has been the catalyst in all three films. It is an acknowledgement of her persuasive
presence, and acting nous.