From My Name Is Khan to Bajirao Mastani, ten films from the 2010s that could've benefited from a female perspective
My Name Is Khan, Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani are some films from this decade that should have given more prominence to their interesting female characters.
This past decade has witnessed the emergence of a trend that reflects changing societal norms. Films like Queen, English Vinglish, The Dirty Picture, Mardaani, and Raazi allowed the actress to take forefront and pushed the male hero to the backseat.
This writer has thus picked 10 films from this decade, one from each year, and attempted to narrate them through a key female character's perspective. Could the filmmaker have chosen to tell the same story through a different lens, had they not been bogged down by trade diktats? While those films are in the rear-view mirror, revisiting them in fresh light does prove to be an interesting exercise.
2010 - Kajol in My Name Is Khan
In Karan Johar's romantic drama set in the US, Kajol plays Mandira, a Hindu hairdresser who marries Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), a person battling autism. The events of 9/11 lead to their son getting bullied, and subsequently murdered, in school because of the last name 'Khan' attached to him. A distraught Mandira breaks up with Rizwan and asks him sarcastically to tell the US President, "My name is Khan, and I'm not a terrorist." Both set out on parallel journeys thereafter, with Rizwan sincerely pursuing the president, and Mandira seeking justice of her son's death by protesting against the proceedings and taking keen interest in the local police investigation.
Mandira's voicover is rather interesting in the climax, and gives a sneak peek into her perspective, that should have been explored in more depth throughout the film. This difference in approach could have also made all the difference to the narrative of the film. After all, the film is titled, My Name Is Khan, which could also apply, more poetically, to Mandira Khan.
2011 - Katrina Kaif from Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara
In Zoya Akhtar's buddy road film, Katrina Kaif plays Laila, a scuba diving instructor in Spain, who connects with Hrithik Roshan's Arjun, who is a workaholic. While the film is undoubtedly a hat tip to male bonding, on the lines of Dil Chahta Hai, Laila provides the much-needed feminine energy to a story by a woman filmmaker and woman writer (Reema Kagti).
Though Laila's character was partially reduced to just a tool in order to get Arjun to realign his life priorities ("Seize the day, my friend!"), a scene much later in the film defies that. After Arjun and his friends depart from Laila's hometown to continue their Spain sojourn, she chases them on a bike. Once she manages to make them pull up, she kisses Arjun, telling him, "I don't know how to live with regrets." This insight into her character is so interesting that her origin story could have added another dimension to this male-friendship story. Zoya, a spin-off maybe?
2012 - Rani Mukerji from Talaash
Though the female lead of Kagti's psychological thriller is Kareena Kapoor Khan's character Rosie, another potentially prominent female character makes her presence felt in the shadows. Rani plays a former science teacher, ironically named Roshni, who remains inconsolable throughout the film after her son's accidental demise. In a telling scene, where she is speaking her heart out to a therapist, she confesses how when she lost her son, she also lost her husband Surjan (Aamir Khan), as he blames himself for their son's death.
Rani's power-packed acting allows her to shine the most in a later scene, when she lashes out at Surjan for stopping her from dealing with their son's death by consulting a witcher. She explains why her coping mechanism is as valid as her husband's, who visits a prostitute every night. The film would have also benefited immensely had a meaty part of the screen space be dedicated to the character of Roshni.
2013 - Deepika Padukone from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
Deepika plays Naina, a medical student-turned-doctor, who transforms from being an introverted bookworm to an outgoing bombshell. Filmmaker Ayan Mukerji must be credited for narrating the story through her perspective, yet the character of her love interest Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) remains far more memorable, thanks to a much better etched-out character. Through him, the film explores the millennial concept of raftaar (speed).
On the other hand, Naina is inherently a young woman with a lot of thehrao (poise). Her side of the story gets equal footing in the second half. While Bunny accepts Naina is equally right yet very different in her approach, a keener look into her psyche could have given the film more merit. Her motives, her background, and her thought process should have been explored more.
2014 - Alia Bhatt from 2 States
Abhishek Varman's clash-of-cultures romance is undeniably titled towards Arjun Kapoor's character of Krish (since it is based on Chetan Bhagat's autobiographical book of the same name). But the film could have delivered a fresh take on the story of a Punjabi man marrying a Tamil woman had it chosen the perspective of Alia's Ananya. Since Krish is the narrator of his love story, the film misses out on taking into account Ananya's side of the story, which she reveals in the scene where she tells Krish to convince his disapproving mother (Amrita Singh), and not manipulate her.
Ananya was definitely farther from her home in their college, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, since Krish came from North India. This is exactly why she had to go an extra mile in retaining her roots while traversing a far more unfamiliar land in Gujarat. She was much more in command of her value system than Krish, who also underwent a troubling childhood because of a bitter father. While that angle got its due in the film, Varman could have been more inventive by exploring the possible struggles in Ananya's life, and how she managed to overcome them.
2015 - Priyanka Chopra Jonas from Bajirao Mastani
Priyanka is known to milk the most out of less meaty parts, whether it is Kaali in Agneepath or Kashibai in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's historical drama Bajirao Mastani. Though the character of Kashi is introduced as a loyal wife who has unwavering faith in her husband Bajirao (Ranveer Singh), as his affair with Mastani (Deepika Padukone) gradually comes to the fore, Kashi's various layers start peeling off.
From a self-respecting queen of the kingdom who banishes her husband from entering their bedroom to an extremely vulnerable woman who feels betrayed in marriage, Priyanka plays every shade of Kashibai with perfection. But the focal point of the film is unquestionably titled towards the Romeo-Julietesque love story of Bajirao and Mastani. It is unfair in more ways than one to Kashibai since it robs her character of her rightful place in the narrative, of a conscientious woman who refuses to play the victim card despite her fragile fate.
2016 - Anushka Sharma from Sultan
In Ali Abbas Zafar's Haryana-based wrestling drama, Anushka's character Arfa seems godsend to save the audience from the testosterone-charged world of kushti in the state. In the film, she is seen telling the titular role of Salman Khan's Sultan she became a wrestler so that it encourages more women from a backward state like Haryana to chase their dreams.
However, a few scenes later, she is seen giving up her dream by relinquishing a spot in the Olympics because she is pregnant with her and Sultan's child. While Sultan serves as the bread-earner and also vicariously lives Arfa's wrestling dream on a global stage, he gets carried away by his male ego when he does not turn up on her delivery day, when both their son and his wife need him the most.
Though Anushka was criticised for playing a character who gives up on her dream, this writer feels her move was justified because of the lack of an alternative. The devil's advocate may suggest she could have resorted to abortion but that is a call a woman must take individually. In Amit Sharma's 2018 film Badhaai Ho, Neena Gupta's character was lauded for raising a child at the age of 52. Arfa should have been respected for her choice as well. But a major chunk of the blame goes to a narrative that was heavily inclined towards Salman's journey. Had Arfa enjoyed a similar graph (she rejoins wrestling years later), Anushka's character may not have received as many brickbats.
2017 - Bhumi Pednekar from Shubh Mangal Saavdhan
Shubh Mangal Saavdhan was one of the many social taboo-oriented films Ayushmann Khurrana has done in the past few years. But here, the taboo concerns him as much as it does his wife Sugandha (Bhumi). Though it is Ayushmann's character Mudit who is battling erectile dysfunction, the inherent patriarchy of society tends to blame Sugandha for having some part to play in her husband's sexual inadequacy.
In an immensely significant scene, Sugandha tries to seduce Mudit in vain, by copying moves she learnt from a porn video and biting into peaches seductively, albeit with zero conviction, in order to arouse her tepid husband. Tears start rolling down her cheek when she realises she has lost herself in a bid to prove her sexual adequacy. It is then that both Mudit and the audience realise the struggle a woman like Sugandha has to endure though the 'fault' lies in her husband. It was an insightful scene that should have been built more on to flesh Sugandha into a more layered character.
2018 - Nushrat Bharucha from Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety
Imagine if Luv Ranjan's film was from Sweety's (Nushrat) perspective? It would have explained her motives more transparently, and showed whether she was truly as manipulative as Sonu (Kartik Aaryan) was painting her to be. In the film, Sonu alleges Sweety has malafide intentions as she attempts to woo his best friend Titu (Sunny Singh). The narrative turns into a Battle of Sexes when Sweety admits she is 'chaalu' (cunning) and challenges Sonu to prove so to Titu and his family.
This writer believes while Sweety was not originally a cunning fiance as she later admits to be, she does so only to initiate a game of one-upmaship with Sonu to test who Titu is more loyal to. While the climax reveals Titu's loyalties reside with his BFF, the heartbroken expression on Sweety's face only shows how she could have tread more cautiously, though it would have come at the cost of her self-respect. Nonetheless, it is an interesting lens to revisit the film through, though it would be more just in the hands of a more feminist filmmaker.
2019 - Tabu from De De Pyaar De
Akiv Ali's romantic comedy makes for another film where the second female lead has much more shades yet is left relatively unexplored. It sounded rather odd that an experienced actor of unparalleled caliber like Tabu signed up for a Luv Films production. But a couple of scenes show exactly why her character Manju had far more depth, than her ex-husband Aashish (Ajay Devgn) and his much younger girlfriend Ayesha (Rakul Preet), whom she hosts at her place despite the presence of her kids with Aashish.
In a scene in the second half of the film, Manju's daughter is seen packing her bags as a sign of protest to have her estranged father and his girlfriend invade her space. But Manju orders her back into the house, and follows it up with a smashing monologue. She breaks down, asserting how her kids have to assert their parents' broken relationship just like they inherit their wealth and social status. She also points out how she is not a victim because the decision to get a divorce was mutual. However, in the very next scene, when Aasish comes to her to console her in private, she opens up on how alone she feels as a single parent. This fine blend of assertion and vulnerability lent more range to Tabu's character. It should have been graphed in much more detail for the film to enjoy a similar range.
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