The Heroine gets Real, No Strings attached

Prerna Mittra

Mar 02, 2019 03:30:48 IST

Being not likeable is no longer a male prerogative on the Bollywood screen. Over the past decades since Shah Rukh Khan made the antihero popular, flaunting shades of grey was mostly the hero’s privilege in mainstream Hindi cinema. Over two and a half decade now, that trait has allowed the male protagonist acquire a realistic and more humane persona on screen.

The heroine on the other hand was mostly always expected to be nice. Unpalatable traits were the bastion of the vamp.

There was, of course, the odd Gupt or Aitraaz, but these were stray examples. Such departures were few within Bollywood’s mainstream domain. The heroine in commercial Hindi cinema largely stuck to acceptable societal traits.

That trend has been changing lately, as Hindi mainstream cinema increasingly makes an honest effort to understand the female psyche. Bollywood’s newfound fancy for believable female protagonists — replete with her flaws — is actually an overall progression of the industry’s growing interest in heroine-centric themes.

Over the recent past, we have seen a surge in mainstream heroines who do not fit in a box. In a world that loves imposing archetypes, these female protagonists have audaciously defied, even at the risk of appearing less affable on screen.

The Heroine gets Real, No Strings attached

(Clockwise from top left) Tabu in Andhadhun; Alia Bhatt in Raazi; Neena Gupta in Badhaai Ho; Taapsee Pannu in Manmarziyaan

Tabu in Andhadhun and Alia Bhatt in Raazi are a couple of instant recalls. In Sriram Raghavan’s black comedy Andhadhun, Tabu’s Simi Roy is a femme fatale who murders her much-older husband with the help of her illicit lover. The impact leaves a morbid aftertaste, yet it impresses owing to its sheer believability.

“There are no heroes or villains in this movie. They are just being themselves, carrying out their desires, and doing the best in the situations they are in,” Tabu told Firstpost around the release of Andhadhun.

Unsavoury realism can also be spotted in Alia Bhatt’s Raazi protagonist Sehmat, one of the most extraordinary female characters in mainstream Bollywood lately.

Based on a true incident, Raazi is set during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, when Sehmat (name changed), a young Kashmiri girl, is married into a family of Pakistani armymen, so that she can spy on the neighbouring nation’s military secrets.

Sehmat is a portrait of irony, resilient about her mission and at the same time torn by her affection for her Pakistani husband — a thorough gentleman doomed by fate.

When Sehmat is forced to make grim choices for the sake of her country, she does not hesitate to tap her dark side, shedding her garb of an innocent homemaker that she usually reserves for the world and her family — at one point, her operation is threatened to be exposed by a loyal domestic help at her in-laws’ residence, so Sehmat coldly kills the man.

She then calls up an aide at the Indian embassy to apprise him of the situation: “Chhat tapak rahi thi, marammat ho gayi (the roof was leaking, it has been fixed).”

The impact was altogether varied in the comedy Badhai Ho, where Neena Gupta’s character marked a departure from the prototype mother figure of the Hindi screen. For a change the hero’s mother, played by Gupta, gets pregnant, much to the embarrassment of her entire extended middle-class parivar, including her son. At a time when the well-established son is about to get married, the mother leaves them even more shocked by announcing that she has decided to give birth to the baby.

Elsewhere, Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan explored a streak of feminism that is normally shunned by society. In the film, Taapsee Pannu’s young protagonist Rumi is a smalltown girl who is unapologetic about her feisty and flagrantly-flawed disposition. The point of conflict in the film happens because Rumi ends up undecided between two men. She is not able to choose between them, and even after getting married to one of them, continues to shower attention and affection equally on both.

Some of the most pathbreaking work in reimagining the female protagonist is being done on the Net, by way of web series and web movies. Last year, Netflix’s Lust Stories tread taboo terrain when it set about exploring female sexuality through the tales of four different women. Radhika Apte’s married college professor explores polyamory, and obsesses over a student. Manisha Koirala plays a mother of two who seeks pleasure outside an unhappy marriage. Bhumi Pednekar essays a maid who has an affair with a bachelor employer. Kiara Advani plays a young homemaker in a conservative household, whose sexual desires are triggered off by chance.

Harking back to what Tabu said in her interview, female actors are progressively choosing roles that allow them to be themselves. We have come a long way since the time of Gupt and Aitraaz, where scripts needed to justify a flawed female protagonist, underlining  why she behaved in a manner that conservative society would condemn. In Gupt, for instance, Kajol goes on a murderous spree after being spurned in love. In Aitraaz, Priyanka Chopra plays a young woman married to an old man, and wants to start an affair with a young ex-lover.

Bollywood’s new-age female protagonist is learning to live unconditionally, without justifications for her flaws.



Tabu plays a femme fatale who murders her much-older husband with her illicit lover’s help



Alia plays a Kashmiri girl who marries a Pakistani armyman with the intention of spying



Gupta is the hero’s mother who gets pregnant, much to the embarrassment for her family



Pannu plays a feisty smalltown girl who cannot decide between two men who love her

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2019 17:51:32 IST