Madhur Bhandarkar has already made his trademark salacious forays into the worlds of bar dancers (Chandni Bar, 2001), pavement dwellers (Traffic Signal, 2007), journalists and socialites (Page 3 2005) big business (Corporate, 2006), fashion (Fashion, 2008) and criminal lowlifes (Jail, 2010). With Heroine, he turns his attention to the film industry, a world in which he himself has operated since at least 1995, when he landed an Assistant Director’s job and a small role in Rangeela.
You might think, if you are an optimist, that this, finally, is a milieu Bhandarkar actually knows. You might hope that his insiderness will somehow translate into a more nuanced film than the cliché-ridden creatures he has been trotting out for years, to be whipped by our collective righteous indignation. Reader, you would be wrong.
Heroine contains every single one of the Bhandarkarian tics we have come to watch out for over the years. Beautiful, successful women who are incurably insecure. Tick. Gay fashion designers whose real purpose is to provide gossip to said insecure women. Tick. Unprincipled bitchy journalists who care only about their next scoop. Tick. An endless parade of high-society parties in which every effusive airkissing photo-op comes with its own catty onlooker: oh, where would we be without those? Caricature is the name of Bhandarkar’s only game, and he can’t give it up so easily.
So we get our tragic heroine, Mahi Arora played by Kareena Kapoor. She’s gorgeous and young and rich and at the top of the Bollywood stakes, so really she ought to be pretty happy with her life. But she’s in love with a married superstar who still hasn’t got his divorce, insists on keeping their affair a secret and doesn’t do anything to “control” his catty wife when she’s being nasty. This apparently is enough to drive poor lovely Mahi up the wall, out of the relationship and then, quicker than you can get the tears into your eyes, to the fringes of the industry of which she was the reigning queen.
And why is this supremely successful woman so ridiculously vulnerable? Ah, it’s because she comes from a broken home, which in Bhandarkar’s book apparently also explains how and why she rose so quickly up the film industry ladder. But perhaps that’s nothing to be surprised about, because Bhandarkar’s vision of the film industry is not about actually providing believable portraits of flawed, real-life human beings. It’s about stringing together a bunch of stereotypes and sensational incidents that will let us, the middle class audience, sit back and bask in the warm glow of being so much better off—and just plain better—than the scum of the earth that sit about in the award functions we watch enviously on television.
So we’re informed that actors only perform in award functions if they’re guaranteed an award themselves, that top heroes (and their wives) can push heroines in and out of big banner projects based on how obliging (or harmless) they are on the sexual front, that character artists are treated as second class citizens—even when they’re lifetime awardees.
But somehow, the more he attempts to shock us, the flatter Bhandarkar falls. Perhaps it’s the ridiculous overstatedness of his vision, which singles out the film industry as den of evil, as if gender hierarchies and power games and hypocrisy and corruption are somehow the sole preserve of Big Bad Bollywood. Perhaps it’s the bizarre excess of some of what he wants to feed us: a rival actress gets her boyfriend to offer himself up to a bisexual businessman so she can take a jewellery endorsement away from Mahi; Mahi later gets her own back by getting her embroiled in legal trouble for misreporting her age on her passport.
Or perhaps it’s just because Bhandarkar is not content to show us all this, he has to also announce it at intervals of about five minutes. “Is glamour industry mein kaun fraud nahin hai!” says one party commentator. “Confidence ke saath bolo to film industry jhooth ko bhi sach maan leti hai,” says Mahi’s PR agent. “Film stars ki friendship tumse nahi, tumhari position se hai,” says Mahi to bitchy journalist, etc, etc. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that there is a law of diminishing returns operating here. Like Randeep Hooda’s cricketer character who unnerves Mahi at a party by knowing her favourite colour, drink and holiday destination without ever having spoken to her, we already know far too much about film stars.
How can an industry whose most minor peccadilloes are fed to us in bite-sized pieces every day, by newspapers and magazine gossip columns and 24-hour-news television, still continue to shock us?
Heroine shows occasional glimpses of another sort of film, the film it could have been if it abandoned its showy histrionics and sensationalising generalisations for something quieter and more specific. Kareena’s Mahi is most believable, for example, when she’s shown dealing with her mother (Lillete Dubey)—freezing Dubey’s politician love interest when he tries to win her over with offers of a Padma Shri, or being annoyed and defensive when her mother lectures her about her love life. Her rocky relationship with superstar Aryan Khanna (Arjun Rampal in an almost subtle performance) is not bad in its quieter, sadder moments. Kareena has always been decent at total emotional collapse—think the once-bubbly Geet’s pale, stony-faced, in-shock avatar from Jab We Met, and you have a sense of how this film will end.
The depressingly bad character actors who destroy the first hour or so of the film are replaced—not wholly but very substantially—by others who lift their one-note roles into watchability by dint of sheer presence. Govind Namdeo as Kareena’s quietly devoted oldstyle manager Rashidbhai plays off the contrasting image of Divya Dutta as the hard-as-nails, new-age PR manager who turns Mahi’s career around. As for Ranvir Shorey, I can’t think of anyone who could have made a stereotype like the Bengali ‘art film director’ as endearing as he does. And then there’s Shahana Goswami, who lights up the frame from the moment she enters it, filling out a thankless role as the ‘art film actress’ Promita with a natural ease that makes Mahi’s actorly inferiority to her seem all too real.
Watching them all, one wishes Bhandarkar would actually act on the homilies he’s just delivered about character actors and unfair hierarchies in Bollywood. But that, of course, will never be.