From the charming and quaint lanes and bylanes of Lucknow rises another Shoojit Sircar-Juhi Chaturvedi gem - Gulabo Sitabo. The central themes of greed and power are communicated through spaces. Just like the duo have a fetish of narrating stories through objects and places, they have a keen eye for the characters sketched in the films too. Be it Piku, October or Gulabo Sitabo, every film has prominent male actors, but the universe of these movies belong to the women. They are strong yet vulnerable, perfect yet flawed. And they are not weighed down by unrealistic Bollywood tropes of what a ‘liberated’ woman should be like. These women stand out because they are not judged by their unapologetic choices, rather celebrated for who they are.
At the centre of this film are two heavyweight actors, Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan. As much as we delight in seeing the duo at loggerheads with each other, Gulabo Sitabo’s universe revolves around the women across three generations. At the heart of the narrative is Begum (Farrukh Jafar), who is mostly confined to bed but she is acutely aware that her penniless and greedy husband is after her massive mansion.
The over 90-year-old woman is in complete control of what goes on in the mansion. Not only is Begum intelligent but strong too. She elopes with her old lover when she senses that the person she loves is shamelessly waiting for her to pass on. She also employs different tricks to ensure that her husband and the equally greedy tenant Baankey (Ayushmann) is taught a lesson. In the end Begum teaches us never to be chained by shackles that patriarchy has strengthened over the years.
Then there is Guddu (Srishti Srivastava), Ayushmann’s sister. She is fearless and doesn’t stop reminding her brother that she is the smartest of the lot. In a sequence, Baankey tells Guddu, “Don’t bother to apply your brains”, and she immediately retorts, “If you can apply them so can I”. Guddu stares down questioning glances about her affairs and when a man she makes out with appears visibly hurt upon finding out he is the third guy she has been dating, Guddu rolls her eyes, “If your male ego is this bruised you better leave now”. I couldn’t help clapping for her. Guddu is not someone who can be fooled easily. When a pair of vultures descend on the prized mansion, she begins creating a safety net for her family by trying to extract an LIG-MIG out of a man.
Not just Guddu and Begum, there’s a mother who chooses to sacrifice her son’s education so that he daughters can earn their degrees. And then there’s Baankey’s girlfriend who doesn’t shed copious tears when, after a tiff, he tells her, “Don’t invite me to your wedding”. Instead she declares, “I’m not mad that I’ll waste my dad’s money on an extra plate of food!”
The women in Gulabo Sitabo are truly liberated without having to take recourse to liquor or cuss words that Bollywood generously sprinkles on the so-called ‘modern’ woman. They show the men their right place and deflate their oversized egos with phrases like ‘akal ke gareeb’. And they do all of this with humour and a zest for life.
Shoojit Sircar’s October is about the fragility of life, a call to remind us that the so-called urgent dreams that we keep chasing on a daily basis seem inconsequential when the fear of mortality hits us. October also speaks about a strange connection with someone you might have otherwise not cared about only to be hit upon at the oddest of times, and this year has been full of such encounters.
At the core of this hauntingly beautiful film are characters who leave a lasting impression. Varun Dhawan as Dan gives the most profound performance till date, and despite the film revolving around his frantic search to find the answer to a question that seems trivial to everyone else, it’s the women who have managed to stay with me.
Gitanjali Rao is affecting as Professor Vidya Nair, Shiuli’s (Banita Sandhu) mother. Being the only earning member in her family, her life takes an ugly turn when Shiuli battles for her life following a traumatic accident. Doctors bear a sign of resignation and Vidya’s brother-in-law does not bat an eyelid to keep reminding her of the escalating expenses of Shiuli’s treatment, but the lady is resolute. She is determined to free Shiuli from the clutches of death, so Rao carries on delivering lectures to students during the day and spends nights at the hospital waiting for her daughter to twitch a muscle. But Vidya gives in to her immeasurable grief when she almost breaks down while telling Shiuli’s uncle, “You keep saying pull the plug, pull the plug. What’s the rush? We have to give her time”.
On one hand is a mother who is clinging to the straw of hope, while also fighting with the reality that perhaps her child’s life is as short as her favourite flowers. On the other hand is Dan’s mom, who worries that the gulf between her and her son might be widening by the day. In one of the most powerful scenes of October, we see two mothers sitting across each other in the hospital, grieving for a young life hanging by a thread. Had I been in your place I don’t think I would have been this strong, says Dan’s mom, and Mrs Nair holds back tears while slowly saying “Dan has been like a pillar”. To which the boy’s mother points out that children are indeed their parents’ pillars till they decide to go their own ways. The sequence does not have a sliver of judgement and that’s what hits us hard.
Sandhu couldn’t have asked for a better debut. She barely has lines but her expressions more than make up for that. Be it craving for Dan’s company or the frustration of not being able to leave the wheelchair or her bed, Shiuli is acutely aware that the end is near. Be it her close friend who gets to mourn in installments because she has to run the rat race or the nurse who breaks into a smile seeing Dan care so much about a girl he barely got to know, every character gets to play out his/her part with dignity. There isn’t a high-handed judgement, because that’s what life should be right? October is a feeling that touches the very core of the heart, just like the fragrance of the autumn flower.
Deepika owns the character of Piku in the film that dwells upon the loneliness of old age, the dependance that comes with it and the finale, wherein memories are all we have. Throughout the movie, we see a strong-headed, financially independent woman in her 30s, bickering with her dad as he never tires of complaining about his irritable bowel system. When not worrying about her father’s ailing health, Piku reveals a different side to her. As the tunes of Bachchan aka Bhaskor’s favourite song fill the house, Deepika lets go of the stress and sways to the tunes.
She finds an unlikely admirer in Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan Khan), and a long drive from Delhi to Kolkata becomes a journey of searching for the self. Piku is restrained, and Deepika’s frazzled silence and expressive eyes convey what a thousand phrases can’t. Deepika shines bright in the story, and she is supported by two other compelling women - her aunts, Chhobi (Mousumi Chatterjee) and Moni (Swaroopa Ghosh). Chhobi Mashi is confident, outspoken and is not someone to bend to the rules of society. She isn’t embarrassed to ask Piku about her sex life, gives it back to her brother-in-law (Amitabh) and is always there when the family needs her.
Moni, on the other hand, is a little cautious of how Piku has ‘grown up to be’. The moment Bhaskor and family drive down to Calcutta, she immediately smells something fishy. Her sharp retorts to her husband and Bhaskor prove she isn’t one to be messed with but Juhi Chaturvedi ensures that Moni gets her just reasons. The women aren’t without flaws, making them all the more closer to our hearts.
Juhi Chaturvedi is known for showing us different dimensions of Indian parents across varying cultures. Vicky Donor is a fine example. Though Yami Gautam made an excellent debut, the heroines of the story are a Sikh woman Dolly (Dolly Ahluwalia) and her mother-in-law Biji (Kamlesh Gill). Dolly is a single mom who keeps reminding the family that she is the only earning member. She constantly cribs and whines about her son Vicky’s (Ayushmann Khurrana) lack of aim in life. On the other hand Biji, an old widow, showers all her love on her grandson, believing that he is meant for greater things.
Dolly and Biji’s relationship subvert the traditional saas-bahu image. They are more like a couple who can’t do with each other’s companionship. While Dolly rants, Biji turns a deaf ear. Every night the duo down glasses of whiskey in their living room, letting out all the things they would have never told each other while sober.
The message of empowerment is fluid, and there’s no exaggeration.
During one of those drunk nights, Biji tells Dolly how much she respects her. She also laughs about the fact that she didn’t get any dowry from Dolly’s house, immediately following up with a reminder about Vicky’s future wife.
In a film that talks about the stigma of sperm donation, the macho idea of masculinity is nipped in the bud by little actions of two women.