The Liberated Woman of Bollywood Films is Anything But!
‘Women are irrational, that's all there is to that!
Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
They're nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!
Why can't a woman be more like a man?
….By and large we are a marvellous sex!
Why can't a woman take after like a man?”
In 1965, Rex Harrison playing Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady sang this to his BFF – Colonel Pickering after being exasperated yet again by protégé cum potential love interest, Eliza Doolittle’s perceived irrationality. The good professor (who in today’s times would definitely be called out for sexism) verbalised a male fantasy of an ideal world where women were just versions of men. In 2018, Professor Higgins could well be a Bollywood filmmaker.
This weekend, the much acclaimed Manmarziyaan has had critics raving about Taapsee Pannu’s turn as the fiery, feisty Rumi complete with a shock of red hair. The actor is undoubtedly in great form as the outspoken Rumi. She drinks, she smokes, she has premarital sex even as she is the talk of the town in conservative Amritsar. But Rumi the character in itself, for all her high voltage emotional energy has nothing new to offer – because before her, there was Tanu played by the marvellous Kangana Ranaut in not one, but two films.
And then there was Bitti, a vastly watered down version who shares cigarettes with her dad in Bareilly. Rumi is boring because she is now a stereotype – the small town spitfire who is created primarily for a male gaze. Tanu broke the mould, Rumi is now the mould. Tanu broke the stereotype, Rumi is the stereotype.
Rumi is not a breakout character like Tanu was, she is much the same of the same. Their oddities and eccentricities exist to make them more intriguing and appealing to men. It doesn’t make them fully fleshed out female characters – it makes them cinematic contrivances. It is almost like oddly passive men can now only fall in love with women who are badly behaved versions of men. Unfortunately, Bollywood with the exception of Piku and Band Baaja Baarat has not cracked the prototype of the independent, free thinking woman. A woman with ambitions which go beyond romance and matrimony.
None of these women, be it Tanu or Rumi display any actual ambition apart from their disregard for convention. A strong, feisty woman can be one without stealing a smoke or drinking herself into an alcoholic haze. A man’s smoking, drinking and promiscuity do not define his masculinity and strength – feminism in films also can go beyond these dubious badges of ‘honour’.
Which is not to say, we shouldn’t have women drinking or smoking in films or in real life. They should do whatever pleases them – but vice signalling shouldn’t ideally be their defining characteristic. This depiction makes them almost as lacking in dimension as women in a Luv Ranjan film. And let’s not get started on those films.
This year’s sisterhood film, Veere Di Wedding also fell into the trap – where it replaced the stock characters of a bromance with women. Women who were just men in better looking, designer avatars. A situation which would undoubtedly make Professor Higgins a very happy man – but women in cinema and outside cinema deserve a lot more.
(Naomi Datta tweets at nowme_datta and only has strong opinions on films. She is otherwise, fairly peaceful.)