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Yuva to Tandav: Where are the Women in Filmi Student Politics?

Tandav is yet another example of how Bollywood pushes young women student leaders to the background.

Updated
Bollywood
7 min read
Be it <i>Tandav</i> or <i>Yuva</i>, women in student politics hardly get a mention on screen.
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A power-hungry Prime Minister, his equally shrewd son, a young and idealistic student leader, corrupt policemen - Amazon Prime Video's latest series Tandav has all the ingredients of a good political thriller. Helmed by Ali Abbas Zafar, the web series stars well-known actors such as Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Mohamed Zeeshan Ayyub among others.

But Tandav fails to break away from stereotypes and dance to fresh tunes. For example, we are still waiting for the day when Bollywood decides to broaden its horizon and include women who are as active in campus politics as their male counterparts. Yuva, Rang De Basanti, Raanjhana, Gulaal - so many examples of movies that have shown the youth question the government, face lathis of the police and get harassed by society. But why is it that women are always relegated to the background? Instead of merely aiding the men in 'discovering' themselves why can't they take the stage?

Let's take a look at how politics, planning, arguing are things that are kept out of bounds for women on screen:

Shiva Shekhar, the Face of Student Politics in Tandav

A still from <i>Tandav</i>.
A still from Tandav.

Campus politics plays a huge role in this political thriller. Tandav revolves around the entitled son of the Prime Minister, Saif Ali Khan aka Samar Pratap Singh, who is prepared to go to any lengths to inherit his father’s position. After murdering his dad and getting trapped in his own game, Samar focuses his attention on becoming the ‘kingmaker’. In this game of violent bloodshed, Samar gets his pawn - a student leader of Vivekananda University (a reference to Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University), Shiva Shekhar (Mohamed Zeeshan Ayyub). The first time we are introduced to Shiva is via a college drama, wherein he holds a trident and speaks to a group of students about freedom being in shackles. His performance is disrupted when a group of policemen forcibly enter the campus, arrest his close friend Imran and charge him under UAPA.

In the police station another student, Sana Mir (Kritika Kamra), tries in vain to talk sense to the cop. When Sana is humiliated and snubbed it’s Shiva’s dialogue that has the desired impact.

Not just this scene, Tandav is replete with moments wherein Sana just gets to stand and gaze admirably at Shiva despite being equally involved in the student elections. Shiva, preparing for UPSC exams, gets drawn into the murky world of politics when he sees the atrocities being meted out to his Muslim classmates by unlawful policemen. He decides to contest for elections with Sana by his side. Shiva takes part in debates, assures the students of VNU that he will make for a good leader, and keeps reminding the youth that the long-running, corrupt JLD party must be overthrown. Soon, Shiva emerges as the youth icon of VNU.

But where is Sana Mir in all of this? She could have been one of the strongest characters in the web series. Sana represents a community that is being constantly cornered, threatened and attempted to be silenced.

She has a terrific backstory too. Sana’s sister Ada gets framed when her boyfriend dies by suicide. A senior cop keeps extorting money from Sana in return for keeping her family ‘safe’. Sana also has to pay a heavy price for unknowingly getting involved in Samar’s manic game. Unfortunately, we never see Sana shine as a young student leader. Neither do we see any other women from the university take the lead. When it comes to campus politics, are women on screen just present to look pretty or be the centre of attraction?

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The ‘Leaders’ in Yuva

Ajay Devgn and Esha Deol in <i>Yuva</i>.
Ajay Devgn and Esha Deol in Yuva.

Mani Ratnam’s Yuva, which depicted the relationship between India’s youth and politics, is relevant even today. The filmmaker divided Yuva into three segments, each charting the male protagonist’s journey till they intersect at the climax.

The protagonist of the first story is Abhishek Bachchan aka Lallan Singh, a young man who is financially challenged. Despite the energy, Lallan’s lack of ambition fails to get him a job. That’s when he gets introduced to Gopal Singh (Sonu Sood), a local leader and right-hand man of politician Prosonjit Bhattacharya (Om Puri). Lallan forgets about his family and gravitates towards Singh, even landing behind the bars twice.

The second character is a college union leader Michael Mukherjee (Ajay Devgn). Steeped in idealism, Michael has bigger political aspirations. He plays the role of an ‘ideal’ leader in a Kolkata university, who doesn't shy away from taking on Prosonjit’s goons. Students look up to Michael for inspiration, they try to follow in his footsteps as he attempts to cleanse the society of corruption

On the other hand Arjun Balachandran (Vivek Oberoi) is an upper middle-class graduate aspiring to leave India to study abroad and land a cushy job, much to the chagrin of his father. Arjun dates Meera (Kareena Kapoor), who is about to get married to another man. A chance encounter with Michael turns Arjun’s world upside down and he decides to stay back and gets actively engaged in politics.

In all of this, what Mani Ratnam completely ignored was giving the women meatier, more dignified roles. Esha Deol plays Ajay Devgn’s love interest Radhika and throughout the movie all we see her do is fight with relatives or teach French. We are not denying that Radhika has a strong personality but does that mean it has to solely revolve around the man? Couldn't she have channelised the same gusto in college too?

Khan’s Meera too suffers the same fate. She is present just so Vivek Oberoi’s character benefits from it. Meera claims in the end that she was casually dating Arjun because of his decision to leave India but only became serious when he wanted to ‘serve’ his country. Well, isn’t that hilarious?

The men of Yuva were engrossed in the affairs of the country, while the women were busy determining whether to accept or turn down men depending on their scores in the patriotic meter. It’s only Rani’s Shashi who shines in the film.
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Rang De Basanti and the Token Woman

A still from <i>Rang De Basanti</i>.
A still from Rang De Basanti.

With the media dubbing it a movie “that became a movement”, Rang De Basanti redefined patriotism for the youth. It encouraged them to demand answers from the government and to question the powers that be. However, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film failed in utilising its women. RDB follows film student Sue McKinley as she flies down to Delhi University to make a film on six Indian freedom fighters - Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, Ashfaqulla Khan, Durgavati Devi and Ram Prasad Bismil - based on a book written by her grandfather. Chosen for the roles are six students from the university - played by Aamir Khan, Siddharth, Atul Kulkarni, Sharman Joshi, Kunal Kapoor and Soha Ali Khan. But interestingly, when we see them preparing for their respective characters it’s the men who take centerstage. Soha as Durgavati Devi barely makes an appearance. Does a revolutionary like Durgavati Devi, who is believed to have attempted to assassinate Lord Hailey at a time when women were passive participants in the freedom struggle, have no place among ‘bravehearts’?

Cut to the present wherein a tragedy prompts these very students to challenge the corrupt government. Here, too, the men fight, argue and plan.

The woman, whose fiance’s death sparks a revolution, is pushed to a background and she ends up becoming the token partner that Bollywood has too often relished in.

Be it killing the defence minister or addressing the nation in the final scene, it's ALWAYS the men who take charge while the woman weeps and weeps.

There are other movies such as Raanjhanaa and Gulaal wherein student politics play an important role, but we can't recall any women from these movies who have left a mark in our minds.

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CAA Protests to JNU: The Real Picture

Shehla Rashid and Aishe Ghosh.
Shehla Rashid and Aishe Ghosh.

Let us look at the most recent picture from 5 January 2020 - several masked individuals barged into Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and thrashed students and teachers inside the campus with wooden and metal rods. The bloodied face of JNU students' union president Aishe Ghosh was flashed across all news channels. Despite receiving grievous injuries, Aishe was back on campus within 48 hours, protesting the violence with fellow students. She was named by the Delhi Police as one of the people behind the violence in JNU before the attack on her, but this young woman refused to bend.

JNU has been a consistent target since 2016, when a group of students were accused of raising anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans in a protest that marked the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru. Among them one was Shehla Rashid. From receiving rape threats to being booked under the sedition law for allegedly tweeting against the Indian Army, Rashid has seen it all.

Apart from Rashid and Ghosh, there have been countless women who were part of the protests across India against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). They stood up to armed policemen, held press conferences after being beaten up and refused to back down despite being heckled by neighbours, relatives and the society.

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For decades women have put up the good fight. In a country where women are taught to bow and remain quiet, there have been those who have embraced their rage and paved the way for future generations. So isn't it high time that they get a fair and accurate representation on screen too?

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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