Tuesday, August 28, 2012

All About Eve

The two parts of Gangs of Wasseypur strike a strange note, odd but not discordant. The victims are all men in this testosterone navigated drama despite the significant presence of female characters in the film. Think about it. Coppola’s Godfather trilogy had wives, mothers and sisters claiming screen space but they performed to a script framed by the men in their lives. Kashyap’s magnum opus marches to an entirely different tune. Not that the women remain untouched by violence perpetuated by the men in their lives. But the interesting thing is, be it Nagma, Sardar Khan’s first wife or his second spouse Durga, both of them are more than willing to be the catalysts for the blood and gore that lashes the dusty by lanes of Wasseypur. While one happily sends her husband to his death, the other extorts her son ‘tum logon ko khana kaise hazm hota hai, after her husband gets shot in cold blood. She knows that one barb is enough to turn him into an avenging angel. She is also aware that he will end up paying with his life to humour her vengeance, but it is amply evident from the subtext that the consequence matters little to her. The male characters in the film may be busy terrorising the town they live in, but in a neat quirky turn, all of them seem to be a little afraid of the women in their lives. Right down to Definite, Durga’s remorseless progeny.

Starting with his first success, Kashyap has steadfastly refused to treat his female characters as whining victims in any of his films. His version of Devdas had only one wimp, the protagonist. It was the two women in his life, Paro and Chanda who made all the decisions for him. Whether it was the former cycling with a mattress tied at the back of her bicycle to make love to him in the mustard fields or the latter awakening his conscience in the climax. Kashyap obviously likes his women to assert themselves, however male and macho the fictional context of his cinema may be. And thankfully most of the new age film makers seem to be following on his footsteps without a trace of self consciousness permeating the feminist undertones of their films.

Be it the comic Vicky Donor or the compromised Cocktail, the female protagonist is increasingly being projected as more nuanced and ultimately more substantive than her male counterpart. After the failure of her first marriage, Ashima Roy in Vicky Donor is slow to respond to the maverick hero’s advances but once she thaws, she treats the relationship with utmost integrity, coming clean with him about her past while he conceals his ‘donor’ status from her. But it is in the treatment of the secondary female characters the director Shoojit Sircar scores. Vicky’s beautician mother and his feisty grandmother are a treat to behold in their drinking sessions late in the night. Ashima’s middle aged aunt who has remained single is another marvellous characterisation. There is no back story to her but the writing by Juhi Chaturvedi is so clever that the viewer understands why she has remained unmarried without any explanations being provided.

Critics have been disappointed with the tame ending of the Imtiaz Ali produced and Homi Adjania directed Cocktail. Gautam Kapoor opts for the more Indian Meera but there is something about the abandon with which Deepika Padukone surrenders to her portrayal of Veronica that you leave the theatre feeling she is better off without the confused Gautam and his domineering mother. We would like to believe that she is going to eventually realize all her attempts to fit into the stereotype was a big mistake. It is the spunky Veronica who ends up being the hero of the film. Cocktail is her show and knowing the strange subversive ways of Adjania from his first film Being Cyrus, this may very well have been his intention.

Of course when it comes to Vidya Balan, only a fool would try to fit her into the conventional Bhartiya Nari mould. From Ishqiya to No One Killed Jessica, from The Dirty Picture to Kahaani, Balan has managed to change all the rules pertaining to the female protagonist in Hindi cinema. When you find her doing a silly Lavani item in an entirely undeserving film, it’s not only your aesthetic sensibilities that are affronted you also get angry with the film maker for wasting her like this. Hopefully Kashyap will cast her in one of his films soon and viewers can rejoice at the coming together of the most revolutionary director and the most astounding actor of our times.

It must be a sign of our times that even Yash Raj films seems to have outgrown wallflowers who liked being courted in the snow clad only in the sheerest of chiffons. Zoya in Ishaqzaade can out curse her ruffian suitor and climb walls to aim at him with a country pistol. The only way he can get the better of her is by resorting to lies and deception. It is also amusing to note that it is the villainous Parma who is treated as an object of lust by the local courtesan Chand. We don’t know whether this was intentional on the part of director Habib Faisal, but it is a nice touch nonetheless, turning the paradigm of the ‘female item’ in commercial cinema on its head.

The portrayal of women characters is all the more interesting when the work is helmed by a female director. In Kiran Rao’s directorial debut, Dhobi Ghat, Shai one of the film’s four protagonists is not afraid to stalk the man who has a one night stand with her because she believes they have a connection. Nor does she think twice before using a young boy from the slums who is besotted by her to achieve her dubious ends. Thankfully Rao’s directorial skills ensure that the viewer continues to vouch for Shai’s vulnerability and does not condemn her.

Empowered women are increasingly making their presence felt even in the popular works of regional cinemas. Manimegalai in Engeyum Eppothum directed by newcomer M Sarvanan puts her silent admirer through many tests including getting him tested for HIV before she allows him in her life. Vazhakku Enn 18/9, another recent success in Tamil Cinema has the victim of an acid attack extracting revenge on the policeman who has exploited her tragedy to make a quick buck for himself. She refuses to remain a mute victim.

Neighbouring Kerala has not been lagging behind when it comes to a more rounded depiction of female characters rather than cubby holing them as victims or paragons of virtue. The young nurse Tessa is no saint in 22 Female Kottayam helmed by Aashiq Abu. She has no problems about going to a pub with her boyfriend to have a drink or living in with him without getting married. When he betrays her to get her brutally raped not once but twice by his boss, she waits for her bruised body and soul to recover before she goes about extracting her revenge. What is interesting are the long counselling sessions she has with him after chaining him to a bed in the climax. Veteran director Kamal, whose Perumazhakkalam was remade as Dor by Nagesh Kukunoor has made a film on the plight of women from Kerala who are sent to Saudi Arabia as domestic helps. His Khaddama could very well have been a melodramatic tear jerker but the director’s vision as well as the intelligent interpretation by the actor Kavya Madhavan vests the character with a luminous dignity.

Bengali Cinema too is no longer dependent solely on Aparna Sen and Rituparna Ghosh for sensitive depiction of women on screen. In the last one decade, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury has depicted some really complex women characters with shades of grey in films like Antaheen and Aparajita Tumi. His films usually revolve around the politics of marriage and his female protagonists are often the perpetuators of the conflict they find themselves in. But even when they are not, they come across as strong and capable individuals with clear perspectives on life and living and turn out to be much more interesting than the men in their lives.

Quite obviously, the new breed of Indian film makers are not just portraying women more realistically, but also imbuing them with their own enlightened sensibilities without bothering about the existing frameworks of the sacrificing heroine and the evil vamp. As long as Indian cinema is driven by the male superstars of the 100 Crore clubs, Chikni Chameli will continue with her shenanigans with a 100 men panting behind her. But the new age film makers are clearly not impressed. They seem to be a little bored of her just like the more discerning audience. And hopefully their enlightened take on the gender divide will sooner or later permeate down to chauvinistic males across the country. From Guwati to Mangalore.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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