Why women can't have their own 'Buddy Film'
If a Bollywood script is centred around female-bonding, it almost necessarily means the absence of a male figure.
This week sees the release of yet another buddy film — Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara about the adventures of three friends on a road trip in Spain, living for the moment and revelling in time spent together.
Ever wonder why there isn’t much evidence of great friendship between women on the Hindi screen? Like a Jai-Veeru or Akash-Sam-Sid, who bond, hang out, share everything and have a solid relationship to the exclusion of everyone else in their lives, including girlfriends and wives?
Remember Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964), where the love that Gopal (Rajendra Kumar) and Suraj (Raj Kapoor) share is so deep that Radha (Vyjayanthimala) must necessarily remain an outsider. In fact, in the matter of choosing the woman he loves over loyalty towards his friend, Gopal has no hesitation in sacrificing Radha for Suraj’s happiness. Her feelings are irrelevant both to the man she loves and the filmmaker who casts them in these strangely contrived equations of unnatural devotion and sacrifice.
But even in a lighter vein, when Priya (Suchitra Pillai) asks Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) to choose between her and his best friend Akash (Aamir Khan) because she finds him obnoxious (which he actually is!) in Farhan Akhtar’s cult hit Dil Chahta Hai, Sameer is in a quandary and eventually breaks up with Priya (or she with him; but it doesn’t matter either way because the filmmaker invests nothing in her character except as a butt of the boys’ ridicule), while his relationship with Akash grows from strength to strength through all the other ups and downs in their lives and independent of their love interests.
For a woman though, it’s impossible to conceive having an exclusive relationship with a girlfriend, because, by virtue of the male gaze that constructs most film narratives in Hindi cinema (and elsewhere), a woman’s identity is strictly determined in relation to the man in her life — father, husband, son, lover and so on. If at all she has to have a strong bond with another woman, it’s more likely to be a with a family member — sister, bhabhi, mother-in-law or co-sister, than an independent equation with another woman outside the orbit of her cloistered world, because the minute she starts forging such relationships, it threatens the very foundation of her attachment to the man at the centre of her universe.
The buddy film, by its very definition, stands for freedom, adventure, a flight from social conventions and stereotypes. It conforms to logic of its own, independent of established institutions like family and marriage and affords the characters (and in turn, the predominantly male consumer of cinema culture) the option to live vicariously through these escapist fantasies.
The Complete Film Dictionary defines a buddy film as, “a film that features the friendship of two males as the major relationship.” According to film scholar Philippa Gates, the Hollywood buddy film emerged as a major movement in the 1970s in response to the feminist movement, “to punish women for their desire for equality” by “pushing them out of the centre of the narrative”.
But Hollywood already had a tradition of the male buddy film starting with the comedies of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx brothers, moving on to the Westerns, the war films, cop capers and so on. In Hindi cinema too, there has always been a premium on male bonding, often at the cost of the female lead, or then, in spite of her. Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra) can have their homoerotic Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge moment in Sholay (1975) while conducting their relationships with Basanti (Hema Malini) and Radha (Jaya Bhaduri) on a different plane.
Sister of my heart
But if women have to have such relationships, it’s almost necessarily in the absence of a male figure, or, as in the case of Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), in the face of male impotency and incompetence where two co-sisters, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita/Nita (Nandita Das) are drawn towards each other, primarily as an escape from their claustrophobic and unfulfilled marriages. Fire is an interesting film, not just because it’s the first Indian film about a lesbian relationship, but because of the kind of relationship it depicts between two firmly middle class women living in a cramped Karol Bagh house. That their bond then develops into a romantic attachment doesn’t dilute its relevance to the buddy movie genre.
In Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand (1997), two co-sisters, Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit) and Chandravati (Shabana Azmi) present a united front against the forces of patriarchy in the film and defy its authority. But the quarrel with this kind of ‘woman power’ is that the focus is never on enjoying life or trying to fulfill themselves, but rather on dealing with crises together — at least in Fire, the women give each other pleasure and revel in their secret affair. Yet even in Mrityudand it’s refreshing to see the unconditional support Ketaki gives Chandravati when she finds out she’s pregnant from an extra-marital relationship.
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Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja (2001) follows a similar course as Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala) forges friendship with three different women (Mahima Choudhary, Madhuri Dixit and Rekha), but once again the thrust is on the oppression of women and the regressive attitudes society has towards them, not on personal bonds of uninhibited camaraderie. And then, suddenly, in the middle of this heavy-handed melodrama, you witness a glorious moment of absolute freedom — when Dixit’s Janaki teaching Vaidehi how to whistle in a cinema hall and gets her to shake a leg.
More often than not though, when two women connect on screen it is almost always as a ‘reaction’ either to a domestic situation or an external conflict. When they aren’t fighting the world, they are either fighting over the same man (like in Deepak Sareen's Aaina where two sisters vie for one man's affections), or sacrificing their happiness for the sake of the man or for each other. There is no upside to this interaction as far as the women are concerned.
In Ramesh Talwar's Basera, Rakhee and Rekha play sisters, Sharada and Purnima respectively, who go on compromising themselves for the sake of the family —Sharada loses her mind when Purnima's husband dies soon after her wedding; then Purnima marries Sharada's husband Balraj (Shashi Kapoor) to look after his home and little son. Fourteen years later, Sharada is released from the mental asylum and Purnima withdraws her stake as the wife of the family and starts living as a widow. Eventually Sharada finds out the truth and feigns madness to go back to the asylum and leave the family.
Bimal Roy's Sujata (1958) on the other hand, offers a rare healthy relationship between two sisters, but here too, one of the women is a complexed, inhibited soul who can't really enjoy the relationship for its own sake. Rama (Shashikala) and Sujata (Nutan) grow up in the same house. Rama is the upper caste family's daughter, while Sujata is a 'harijan' who has been taken in by the parents and wholeheartedly accepted by Rama as a sister and playmate. Through the course of the film, both fall in love with the same man (Sunil Dutt) and Sujata, who is deeply indebted to the family, decides to sacrifice herself for Rama's happiness, till destiny intervenes. Interestingly, Rama remains loyal to Sujata throughout, and never harbours ill-feeling towards her even when she loses the man she was meant to marry.
In Amiya Chakravorty’s Seema (1955) Nutan and Shubha Khote play inmates in a women’s correctional facility, who are initially at loggerheads but eventually become good friends and stand by each other. In Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1992), Mita Vashisth is Prabha, confidante and thematic foil to her best friend Sandhya (Dimple Kapadia) who shares intimate details of her secret affair and her disintegrating marriage with her.
But you hardly see two sisters, co-sisters or friends taking off on a holiday by themselves or have girls’ night outs, make merry guiltlessly and express themselves freely — except in stray moments like the Parvarish (1977) song in which Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi dance on the streets of Mumbai while picking people’s pockets, or those ‘bicycle’ songs of the ’60s with Saira Banu and her friends going off on college picnics. More recently, Rani Mukherjee and Preity Zinta pranced in identical costumes to Piya piya o piya piya in Har Dil Jo Pyaar Karega (2000). The most fun a group of women have in a film is in a brothel — in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1982) where Rukmini Bai (Shabana Azmi) and her girls (Smita Patil, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan and Anita Kanwar) manage to smile their way through a life fraught with hardships.
The ‘Sen’ effect
A mediocre caper film called Paisa Vasool (2004) is unique for its casually homoerotic expression of a relationship between two women, the only time you see a mainstream narrative attempting the abandon of Thelma & Louise. Baby (Sushmita Sen) is a flamboyant Bollywood dancer who doesn’t get enough good work because all the leading men are shorter than her. She accidentally hooks up with Maria (Manisha Koirala) who has left her abusive cop husband and moved to Mumbai where she’s struggling to run a bakery and ward off land sharks wanting to take over the decrepit bungalow where she lives. Baby and Maria stumble on a get-rich-quick scheme and decide to pursue it vigorously.
Here, they do just about everything by themselves — calling up shady characters, breaking into people’s houses in the dead of the night, using disguise and deception to try and get to the stash and eventually taking on the villains in the climax. It isn’t a great film, but the idea that two girlfriends can have so much fun doing all the silly things male characters routinely enjoy in Hindi cinema is thrilling to watch, particularly because Sen brings tremendous vivacity to the proceedings.
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As she does in Meghna Gulzar’s Filhaal (2002), a film one has serious quarrel with for showing a woman moping senselessly over her inability to conceive and casting a formidable actress such as Tabu in this role, thereby compounding the disappointment. Rewa can’t have babies but her best friend Sia (Sen again) steps in to be a surrogate mother. They’re the kind of friends who live and die for one another and all other relationships are secondary to their feelings for each other, which have blossomed through childhood into their adult lives.
So, even when they decide to have the surrogate baby, they don’t consult either Rewa’s husband Dhruv (Sanjay Suri) or Sia’s long-time boyfriend (Palash Sen) whom she has been refusing to marry precisely because she doesn’t want to get tied down to domestic responsibilities and having babies because it might compromise her career as a photographer. In fact, she’s willing to lose the man in her life to ensure her best friend’s happiness. Sen’s performance is so positive, it never seems like she’s making any sacrifice, but is simply going to whatever lengths it takes to ensure her friend’s well-being.
Women on top
Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor (2006) offers another ray of optimism — it’s an authentic female buddy film and a true aberration in its subversion of male pre-eminence with its own reverse filmi ending with Zeenat (Gul Panag) stretching out her hand from a moving train to help Meera on board to take flight with her into an uncertain but hopeful future — a deliberate invocation of the popular romance, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Dor is also that rare film where the male protagonist (Shreyas Talpade) plays second fiddle to the women, and functions more as comic relief than an actor of consequence in the film’s narrative flow.
Yet, once again, the two women’s spouse are conspicuous by their absence —Meera’s husband is dead, while Zeenat’s is languishing in a Saudi jail, pending sentence for the alleged murder of Meera’s husband who was also his flatmate. The two women have never met, yet, Zeenat, a gritty, self-assured woman from Himachal Pradesh travels all the way to Rajasthan looking for Meera and hopes to convince her to pardon her husband’s death sentence.
Soon the reason for her journey gets pushed to the background and Meera, who is living the life of a disenfranchised widow in her husband’s family home, starts rediscovering the child-woman in her – she eats sweetmeats on the sly with Zeenat, sneaks out for movies with her and takes a trip to the desert, where the two women (along with Talpade) perform a fascinating reprisal of the hit song Kajra re.
In Shimit Amin’s Chak De India (2007), a women’s hockey team overcomes all odds to win the World Cup. They hail from different parts of India and it takes considerable time and effort (for a man, of course) to bring them to work together and fight as a unit. But in the end, each woman comes out stronger and they do have some fun along the way, ultimately bonding with each other as individuals.
We've certainly come a long way since Hema Malini's Dil Aashna Hai (1992) where three friends (Dimple Kapadia, Amrita Singh and Sonu Walia) stick it out together when one of them gets pregnant (it's the film's big suspense) and look after the little baby together, before giving her up. The girl (Divya Bharti) ends up in a brothel and when she finds out that one of these three women is her mother, she seeks them out to identify her.
In Rajashree's Ojha's Aisha (2010), three girl friends (Sonam Kapoor, Ira Dubey and Amrita Puri) have a good time going off on holidays and shopping sprees, but their primary focus in life is to get hitched. By contrast, this year's Luv ka the End is a film about girl power, where a trio of teenagers (Shraddha Kapoor, Pushtiie Shakti and Sreejita De) get back at one of their philandering boyfriends. It's not great cinema but refreshing nonetheless for giving these girls the space and freedom to employ all means fair and foul to get even instead of moping and crying over their fate.
Perhaps a sign of things to come?
With inputs from Vikram Phukan. Read the complete article with the associated photo-essay at Film Impressions.
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