What does the quintessential Bollywood heroine do? Other than wear skimpy clothes, dance to crazy songs with cheap lyrics and play the damsel in distress perpetually waiting for her knight in shining armor you mean? Pretty much nothing. This fact has not changed for the last 100 years of Hindi cinema’s existence.
Barring the stray “Mother India” or a Kahaani, women have very little to do in our films. They play the docile wife, the obedient daughter, the chirpy lover or the evil scheming vamp- all characters cut out in 2D with very little resemblance to anyone living or dead.
An interesting outcome of this is how heroines get “out of work” the moment they cross 30 or get married. How older actors prefer to act alongside nubile young nymphs and shun actresses with experience and talent on their side. How the moment a heroine becomes the hero, the “woman centric” film fails to make money.
Where does the responsibility for this lie? Are actresses wont to taking risks? Are film makers wary of making such films? Do writers not know what to do with actresses and their talents beyond song and dance? A mix of all of these it would appear. Yet, something changed in 2014.
The status quo vis-à-vis a heroines primacy in a Hindi mainstream film and her standing at the box office was challenged by our leading ladies, backed by writers who wrote for them, forcing the industry and audiences alike to take notice.
While not all of these made money, what stood out this year was that writers, film makers took brave risks with heroines- giving us “women Centric” films that were not just about a victimized wife seeking revenge from her in-laws. Here is a list of Characters and actresses that stood out this year, in no particular order.
Rani-Queen-Kangana Ranaut – A simple conservative girl who never strayed from traditions and lived a virgin dutiful life is left at the alter by a fiancé looking for someone more “hep and happening”. What does she do? Instead of crying and mopping over her misfortune like a typical Hindi film heroine, she embarks on her honeymoon- alone. What made Rani special was the fact that her journey or empowerment and self-discovery did not entail a drastic change of wardrobe (the out-with-desi-in-with-mini-skirts) or shiny makeup but a change in her world view. Kangana Ranaut was a force to reckon with as Rani, with not just the women folk but even men relating to her character arc. Rani’s journey could have been anyone’s, whether you are a guy or a girl. In an encore, Kangana went on to play Revolver Rani, an interesting role reversal where she had a boy toy for her disposal.
Veera- Highway– Alia Bhatt – there was something about Veera- rich upbringing, upper middle class sensibilities and the incumbent ignorance about the ways of the world. Coming from a milieu that encouraged silence in the face of abuse, she found liberation in captivity. Alia Bhatt as Veera gave rebellion a new face, a new cause, in the process proving that a young girl too could carry a film on her young shoulders.
Begum Para- Dedh Ishqiya– Madhuri Dixit – Ethereal, aching beauty caught in a time warp, Begum Parahid behind her façade a scheming soul crying for freedom. She did not wait for a man to come rescue her though; she knew how to find her own way out of her miserable marriage. As Begum Para, Madhuri Dixit Nene gave us the first mainstream lesbian leading lady sans the mandatory skin show such roles are expected to have, giving “bold” a new meaning. Begum Para, like Rani in Queen, did not need a man to feel complete, she did not need a man to feel loved, he self worth was not defined by the presence or absence of a male figure beside her. Madhuri proved that age has nothing to do with an actress’s talent and that “aged” heroines too can . Following this was the tepid yet important Gulaab Gang where she kicked ass like any masala hero would; asking why boys should have all the fun.
Ghazala-Haider-Tabu – With Ghazala, Tabu played a mother to Shahid Kapoor- a possible suicide for an actress her age in the industry conventions. Yet Gertrude or Ghazala is no ordinary mother to Haider- their sexual tension, her scheming nature, her vulnerable innocence, Tabu brought out the essence of Gertrude with chilling precision giving us goose bumps all along.
Shivani Shivaji Roy- Mardaani-Rani Mukherjee – A cop not afraid to kick ass when needed, Shivani Shivaji Roy did a lot more than just pontificate about gender equality and respect for women. Shivani was a cop on duty first; that she was also a lady cop was secondary. For the first time we saw a woman, in a “man’s job” doing what is needed without asserting her womanhood neither ignoring it at the same time. Rani Mukherjee as the straight talking Shivani was her usual best, in a role she deserves to play at this stage of her career.