The Girl On The Train and the rise of the functioning yet flawed female character

With The Girl on The Train, and recent series such as The Queen's Gambit and Sharp Objects, creators have refused to define their heroines by their vices or flaws.

Karishma Upadhyay March 02, 2021 08:17:39 IST
The Girl On The Train and the rise of the functioning yet flawed female character

Parineeti Chopra in a still from The Girl on the Train

In one of the best scenes of Tate Taylor’s The Girl On the Train (2006), Rachel Watson (played brilliantly by Emily Blunt) is spiralling out of control in a bathroom at Grand Central Station. Every day, she watches a perfect couple from the train she takes into New York City. Though her marriage has disintegrated, seeing them renews her hope in love. Until today, that is. Today Rachel saw the wife with another man and it sends her into an explosion of fury. Fuelled by all the martinis she’s chugged, Rachel violently smears lipstick on the bathroom mirror and screams her desire to storm into Megan’s house, grab her by the hair and ‘…just smash her head all over the floor’. She had been teetering on the edge of a break down for weeks and now she’s just keeled over. 

On Friday, 26 February, Netflix debuted the Hindi version of The Girl On The Train, with Parineeti Chopra enacting out the same scene as above. It’s interesting that an award-winning psycho-thriller novel, set in London, gets a desi version. What’s most interesting, however, is that a story centred around a female alcoholic gets a desi version. For those who have read the Paula Hawkins bestseller or seen the role essayed by Blunt in the Hollywood version, it’s a character that has multiple shades of grey - the kind that forces an audience to separate their ‘drinking problems’ from the people they are. The drinking itself is an emotional crutch for the protagonist, but has little to do with how an audience will finally perceive them because of everything else that’s going on. 

This isn’t the first time in the recent past that we’ve had female leads that would conventionally be termed ‘problematic.’ Take Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), for example, in The Queen’s Gambit. A toughened orphan and chess prodigy, Beth is socially challenged but it comes across as a choice - she doesn’t get close to people because it would get in the way of her chess. And she drinks and is addicted to tranqs. Cassie Bowden (played by Kaley Cuoco) in The Flight Attendant is an alcoholic and loves to party - till she wakes up next to a freshly murdered corpse in a strange hotel room after blacking out. In a lot of ways, you’d think of Cassie as the complete opposite of Beth - highly sociable and the life of a party, but erratic in her ways. 

The Girl On The Train and the rise of the functioning yet flawed female character

Still from The Queen's Gambit

What binds the two characters though, is the childhood trauma of being orphaned and getting addicted very early in life. The alcohol and substance abuse that we see is clearly a crutch, but it’s slid into the narrative the way ‘male saviours’ have been thrown into these kind of stories in the past - insignificant to the central plot really, but there to help our protagonist deal with some kind of trauma.

These saviours have little or no bearing on the intrinsic ability of the protagonist, except for creating situations and for the story to chug along. Most importantly, these filmmakers refuse to define their heroines by their vices, which is something that’s begun to happen only recently. 

It’s been a gradual journey though. While female authors have given us deeply flawed heroines in the past, it’s only in the last decade that we’ve begun to see these characters make the transition to screen. David Fincher’s rendition of Gone Girl (2014) might be credited by some for the slew of ‘messy’ heroines we’ve seen in the years after, but in hindsight one can’t help feel that the award-winning director picked Gillian Flynn’s easiest novel. The lines were clearly marked out in that one - there was little doubt that Amy Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike) would be perceived by the audience as an out-and-out bad seed. 

The Girl On The Train and the rise of the functioning yet flawed female character

Rosamund Pike in a still from Gone Girl. Image from Twitter

It was Sharp Objects, Flynn’s 2006 debut novel that truly captures the essence of a female protagonist that’s neither a vamp nor a virgin, neither perfect nor broken, neither black nor white. When HBO adapted the book into a series a couple of years back, it truly marked a shift in how filmmakers were willing to take on female characters that were flawed and completely unapologetic about it. Amy Adams plays Camille Preaker, a crime journalist who returns to her hometown to investigate the murders of two young girls. Preaker has an alcohol addiction, suffers from depression and has a self-mutilation disorder, but none of this takes away from the functioning woman and crime investigator that she is. She may not be likeable, she might come across as self-serving, but she isn’t trying to be anything other than herself. The filmmaker isn’t trying to actively make you like or hate Preaker either. It all just is what it is.

On the other hand, we’ve always had alcoholic heroes and problematic male protagonists. Did anyone use words like 'messy' to describe Charlie Chaplin getting wasted in City Lights (1931)? Did we have long discussions on the drinking problems of Anthony Gonsalves (Amitabh Bachchan, Amar Akbar Anthony, 1977) and the negative role model he most decidedly was for an entire generation of young men in bellbottoms? Did Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm, Mad Men, 2007-2015) excessive drinking and philandering make him less of a hero? 

In contrast, just look back at how ‘drinking’ women in Indian films have been portrayed though the years. Till the turn of the century, the easiest way to portray a woman of questionable morals (criminals, hookers etc.) was to put a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Some might think that things have changed a little in the past couple of decades, but it’s just semantics. The criminals and hookers have been replaced by the evil ‘career woman’, the feminist, and the woman who dares to do what she wants, without the need for male approval. 

The Girl On The Train and the rise of the functioning yet flawed female character

Kangana Ranaut in a still from Fashion. Image from Twitter

In Fashion (2008), the downfall of a successful model Shonali Gujral (Kangana Ranaut) is shown through excessive alcohol and drug abuse. In Cocktail (2012), Veronica (Deepika Padukone) is the quintessential rich party girl who’s always ready to get drunk and laid. But to get the guy of her dreams, she must undergo a transformation into a salwar-kameez wearing teetotaller. Her unvirginal and unbecoming-of-a-decent-Indian-girl behaviour, of course, makes her tainted for life and she doesn’t get the guy in the end. While the first is a cautionary tale, the other sounds like a bedtime story that’s told to little girls, with a moral at the end and all of that. There are more than a few of these characters in our recent films, and what’s common to all of them is that these women are never portrayed as ‘good’ and always need some form of salvation. These characters are designed to elicit either pity or hate from an audience that’s inherently patriarchal.

With the release of The Girl On The Train this weekend, one hopes that it could be the film that opens doors for others to take on more flawed female characters, to break the mould that society has given us, of what their ‘ideal functioning woman’ should be.

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