When you look at the body of work of all the contemporary auteurs in Indian cinema, is there a commonality in how each of them portray their female characters? If so, what do these archetypes tell us about the men who are crafting them for celluloid?
Remember Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ode to Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Nandini, in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam? The man was so besotted with his muse that he had a whole song inserted in the film to describe her. And it wasn’t one of those typical Bollywood numbers, where the hero sees the heroine in her uninhibited glory and falls in love with her at first sight. This was a glorification of the character — a description of how she moves, dances, laughs, reacts, rules every heart in the city and hence, the national audience.
It is no secret that Bhansali was obsessed with Aishwarya. Just like Ram Gopal Verma was obsessed with Urmila Matondkar since Rangeela. Or the way Vishal Bhardwaj is obsessed with Lady Macbeth. In a cruelly sexist industry, where almost all the directors and producers are men, it is always interesting to see how these men are defining the women in their films. Most of the leading film-makers in the industry right now have been around for at least two decades. Is there a commonality in how they design their heroines?
Mani Ratnam’s women are interestingly layered. While on the face of it they come across as traditional, obedient and dad-fearing, they are vivacious, naughty and enjoy breaking rules. They are not consequence-oriented, but rather relish every moment that they spend — much like India’s expansive middle class, who might not have the means for luxury and hence, have learned to wring out every experience. His women might come across as coy and feeble, but their indomitable spirit and strength always shine through. Be it Roja or Bombay or Dil Se, Ratnam’s women have a complicated character graph. They are always stronger than the men, are driven by ideology and practicality over emotion and are forever questioning their realities.
Alaipayuthey (which was later remade as Saathiya by Shaad Ali), is possibly one of the most mature, modern, nononsense love stories urban India has seen. His women are rooted in ground reality — they talk about the impracticality of poetry, the hunger of empty wallets and the incompatibility of two adult egos. And be it Yuva or Guru, they always become the most important source of strength for the men in their lives. On a different note, Ratnam’s women are stereotypically beautiful. From Manisha Koirala to Kareena to Rani and Aishwarya, they are mostly fair, unblemished and barely touched by the very realities they live in. He puts in a lot of effort to establish their beauty too, with the camera stressing upon this fact during song sequences. If one does compare, almost none of his leading men have been conventionally lead hero material — neither Arvind Swamy nor Abhishek Bachchan. Be it physicality or mettle, his women have always been more impressive than his heroes.
Yes, it is true that RGV has lost the plot completely these days (well, it has been a few years, and we have given up on his sanity), but one cannot deny that he was definitely an exceptional film-maker in his prime. What is interesting is that, contrary to Mani Ratnam, RGV’s women have never been conventionally (read: industry approved) beautiful. Urmila Matondkar did not quite measure up to the movie star standards of the tall-slim-leggy beauty pageant winner, even though she was lusted after by audiences. And after the 5-year golden run with Matondkar (1995-2000, with films like Rangeela, Daud, Kaun, Mast and Jungle), even the roles he started offering her were hardly heroine material. Not many actors would take up a Bhoot or an Ek Hasina Thi — both fantastic films — in the early 2000s. After that, RGV moved on to other muses like Antara Mali (Company, Road, Naach, Gaayab), Priyanka Kothari (James, Shiva, Aag, Go) and the late Jiah Khan (Nishabd).
His women are brazenly sexual, a product of the voyeurism that he has always celebrated. They are aware of the fact that they are sex objects, that the camera is a man and therefore, must be seduced. Their seduction is not coy or romantic — it is shocking and disorienting. RGV’s women are not beautiful women — they are not bound by grace or poise or the societal understanding of what femininity is. They are confident and volatile, barely wear makeup or dress like they are “supposed to”. They are rarely well-to-do and are mostly from the streets and slums of Mumbai, struggling every day to survive in an unforgiving city and trying to make their dreams come true.
Just like he never got over Aishwarya, all of Bhansali’s leading women are versions of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Parvati from Devdas — stubborn, impractical and egotistical women who are ready to give up everything for the sake of love, only to be devastingly heart broken. This is something they never recover from, and which adds fuel to the final tragic fire of self-destruction. Like Paro, his women don’t give two hoots about tradition, family honour or their own self-esteem, because they love their men with a selfless wholesomeness which only makes sense in novels and movies. Be it Nandini in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or Leela in Ram Leela or Mastani in Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali’s leading women are foolish lovers who always find themselves trying to survive feuding families or kingdoms at war.
Funnily, even though Nandini was nothing but a prologue to Paro, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam might just have been Bhansali’s most mature film yet, where the woman realises the value of her husband (Ajay Devgn) over her lover (Salman Khan) and chooses the husband. After Devdas, his women have been, unfortunately, driving themselves towards nothing but destruction — not to forget that his women are always the most beautiful women the country has to offer.
You wouldn’t think anyone could find a common thread between Raj Kumar Hirani and Anurag Kashyap, but when you look at their filmgraphies, you realise that their films have barely had any scope for female characters. Hirani’s women are primarily second fiddles for the men, nothing but sanskari eye candy so that the preachy narrative can have a light love story running frothily alongside, lip-synced songs et al.
While Anurag Kashyap also broke into the mainstream scene with a version of Devdas, unlike Bhansali, he was more obsessed with Devdas’s wounds, turmoils and drug abuse. Their men rule their films, and it does not look like anything is going to change any time soon.
While this might come as a major surprise, given his sexist and feudal behaviour during the recent spat with Kangana Ranaut, Karan Johar’s depiction of women in his films has actually evolved over the years. What started off as a crazy sati savitri party, with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Johar has come a long way to show mature, independent and sexually liberal women in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. KKHH remains one of the most regressive depictions of women in recent times, and the running trope about “how much clothing should Poo be wearing” in K3G is an eyesore — as is Anjali’s OTT middle-classery, just to prove her simple heart and patriotic spirit. In his greed to pander to the diaspora, Johar’s women were confusing and embarrassing. It was from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna that his women became more real — complicated individuals who are torn between duty, family and emotional longing. Both My Name Is Khan and his segment in Bombay Talkies explore these dynamics.
This is why Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s role in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil stands out, because of the character’s contemporary ideologies clashing with cravings for oldschool romance. It is a very mature character to expect from Johar and hopefully, there will be many more.
If we have to discuss female archetypes in Bollywood, this man should be blamed for creating the most enduring one. Ever since Kareena Kapoor jumped onto that train in Jab We Met, every Imtiaz Ali film has had the same character and narrative arc for its women — chirpy-bubbly girl who fills the depressed hero with positivity and life gyaan, only to have the tables turned post-interval. From Jab We Met to Rockstar to Tamasha, Ali’s women have remained the same — beautiful women whom every boring engineer or corporate slave is hoping to meet, who turns their life around, fills them with energy and hope, loves them like no one ever could and teaches them the value of life and the importance of living it like there’s no tomorrow.
It almost seems like Ali cannot write any other kind of woman. And interestingly, even Anushka Sharma’s character in Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil felt like a Geet out of an Imtiaz Ali film. Just richer and more fashionable, of course. Is it a beautiful character? Yes. Are we bored of it? Yes.
We need to establish two things right at the start of any conversation about Bhardwaj’s films — one, Maqbool is one of the best adaptations of Shakey’s Macbeth and it is understandable why VB would want to keep going back to the characters in the play (most notably Lady Macbeth). And two, as most of his films are adaptations, it is difficult to call any of the female characters “his women”. But having said that, most of his women feel like versions of Lady Macbeth — strong willed, conniving and manipulative at first, but then their strength and will power weakens in the face of emotional turmoil or due to a constant absence of empathy.
Both of Tabu’s performances in Maqbool and Haider, and Priyanka’s performance in Saat Khoon Maaf are examples of this character design. VB’s women can also be defined by their intelligence, inner strength and a complete disregard for masculine dominance. While Rangoon might have colossally tanked, Kangana Ranaut was aptly cast to hold up those exact qualities.