In a telling moment from the finale of The Newsroom — Aaron Sorkin’s gasping effort at reconciling old-school idealism with new-age practicality in the age of social media — a character refers to the folksy ‘That’s how I got to Memphis’, pointing out the universality of the song despite the specificity in its lyrics. He says that ‘Memphis’ represents wherever you are when you listen to the song. ‘That’s how I got here,’ is what it’s really trying to evoke in you.
This charming bit of pop-philosophy applies to any work of fiction that draws inspiration from the flipping pages of real life; and the protagonist in Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi is a classic example. If you’re in the business of media or entertainment, you probably either are Kaira, or you know one. Shinde’s Kaira represents someone you’re quite likely to meet, if you’re in this particular Memphis that I am.
For someone who incidentally belongs to both categories mentioned above, (I’m a filmmaker as well as a contributing writer for a digital news portal), the film becomes a slightly more personal experience. It seems like I know Kaira a bit, and Dear Zindagi gives me a chance to know her a wee better. No, Kaira isn’t a ‘type’, but a person. (It seems she always struggles to establish that distinction.)
In the film, Kaira is a talented cinematographer in the professional space, and a young twenty-something who’s struggling with relationships in the personal space. What sets Kaira’s journey apart is that different standards are applied to her than to most others around her.
Any job, any vocation, anything that lets Kaira be independent is made harder for her by her gender, because she has inherited a world that is fundamentally unable to process that it’s a myth that women can’t do certain things.
(Because Alia Bhatt’s Kaira inhabits the movie world, she gets to be a cinematographer. The gender ratio in the film industry is skewed anyway, and even within the ambit of that injustice, you’re far less likely to find a female cinematographer than, say, a director, writer or editor. Alia’s Kaira, thus, has to deal with quite a bit.)
Here’s the thing — I get the feeling Kaira doesn’t like to be referred to as a ‘female’ anything. Why should she, when what she brings to the table before anything else is her (considerable) skill set? But no matter how good Kaira is at her job, I’ve noticed that she has to work extra hard to be taken seriously, irrespective of the gender of the person she is dealing with.
Even well-intentioned people, those who consciously make an effort to look beyond gender at the workplace, often can’t help mentioning her gender and talent in the same breath. In the film, Kunal Kapoor’s character jokingly tells Alia that she’ll definitely get her much-awaited big break, because who wouldn’t want to work with someone as ‘hot’ as her.
Alia’s expression in response is one that I know well, because I’ve seen this sort of stuff annoy Kaira no end. But she deals with it because that’s probably the least of her problems. You see, she also has to deal with people who make her life miserable because she’s a woman.
Then, there’s the judgement. Kaira is always on her guard, shield up and claws out, because she is judged every step of the way. Be it her professional life or her private life, she’s called names even if all she’s doing is just being. When she shreds someone’s work because it’s mediocre, she’s called a bitch. When she has any sort of relationship with more than one person, she’s called a slut. If she’s been single for too long, there’s probably something wrong with her. (‘Is she a lesbian,’ some would wonder.)
That is why, Kaira appears to preempt judgement all the time. In the film, watch Alia explode when Shah Rukh Khan implies that he isn’t surprised Alia has been in multiple relationships. In its treatment, this scene (like a lot of others in the film, admittedly) is a tad over-cooked. But it’s also necessary, because it seems to happen all too often with Kaira in real life.
Despite belonging to an industry that is far more liberal and accepting than others, Kaira can never escape all this baggage that’s enforced upon her, over and above the regular baggage that a free-thinking human being has to deal with anyway. Alia wows you with her spunk and talent, but Dear Zindagi is about the Kaira that I know, and probably about the one you know too. That is why, despite its frequent lack of subtlety and languid pace, Dear Zindagi is an important film of its time; because it reminds you that the best way to deal with Kaira is to be and let her be.