Language: Hindi and Marathi with some English
Yaari, dosti, yaarana – there was a time when Bollywood routinely churned out films on this theme, and a foreigner studying India through Hindi cinema might have been misled into believing that only men form friendships here. By the turn of the century, the preferred label became “male bonding flicks”, which was a more honest, accurate description of this almost-exclusively-male genre.
The likes of Dil Chahta Hai and Rock On have finally begun making way for women, the most high-profile example of this evolution being Shashanka Ghosh’s Veere Di Wedding (2018). I remember speaking to women friends who were as tickled as I was that Veere caused discomfort among so many gentlemen we know. Believe it or not, yaaron and doston, women bond too; contrary to what the public discourse tells you, women can be allies of women; and – this might come as a shock – women are not devis or every man’s (virtuous) maata, behen or desh ki beti; women are flawed and fabulous in ways that do not conform to patriarchal stereotypes.
That Renuka Shahane is conscious of all the above is evident throughout her directorial venture, Tribhanga – Tedhi Medhi Crazy, a welcome addition to the so-far-scanty female bonding genre in Bollywood.
The actor best known for her endearingly toothy smile as a co-anchor of the 1990s Doordarshan cultural programme Surabhi, Shahane has written and directed this film starring Tanvi Azmi, Kajol and Mithila Palkar as three generations of a family who clash, crash, burn, love and laugh together.
Kajol in Tribhanga plays Anuradha Apte, a controversial Bollywood star and Odissi dancer who is often the subject of gossip in the media. She has had a difficult relationship with her famous mother, the multiple-award-winning writer Nayantara Apte (Azmi). These two feisty, non-conformist women are more alike than Anuradha can tell, and completely unlike her daughter Masha (Mithila Palkar).
The narrative kicks off with Nayantara – she is trying to write a letter to Anuradha and her son Robindro (Vaibhav Tatwawaadi), watched by Milan Upadhyay (Kunaal Roy Kapur), a writer who is helping her with her autobiography. When she collapses from a stroke in the middle of an interview to Milan, the family gathers at the hospital where she lies in a coma.
Through Milan’s recordings of interviews with Nayantara, his interviews in the present day with Anuradha and Masha, the mother-daughter pairs interactions with each other and flashbacks to the trio’s earlier years, Shahane unfolds a story of women making their own road against humongous odds in a world that expects them to kill their dreams and desires for their spouses, offspring and social acceptance.
For decades, Bollywood assumed that cinema centred around women must perforce be teary-eyed, if not completely tragic. It has taken too long for them to realise that women-centric films can and should cover the entire gamut of cinema from frivolous, frothy and fun to grave and grim, as men-centric films do. Tribhanga is at the mid-point of these extremes: moving, sometimes amusing, thought-provoking.
Kajol is the major star of the pack here, but Shahane is careful not to give her Anuradha more importance than the other two women, from the first shot to the last and all the way in between. This is just as well because both Azmi and Palkar are fine actors, as are the artistes cast as the younger versions of the protagonists, in particular Shweta Mehendale as young Nayantara.
Azmi imbues Nayantara with warmth and a tthehraav, a stillness and calm, that can only come when inner turmoil has settled and an older person has come to embrace herself for who she is, warts and all. She is, as always, excellent here.
The age make-up and styling for Azmi and Kajol are subtle and interesting.
Kajol always needs a watchful director to rein her in when her acting goes OTT and lets her Kajol-ness subsume a character she is playing. Shahane largely manages to keep her in check and extracts a solid performance from her in Tribhanga’s more subdued passages. When the drama is all in Anuradha’s mind, Kajol is spot-on.
Mithila Palkar is a good foil to the star’s dynamism, an understated young artiste with the versatility to pull off fieriness in Karwaan (2018), a maturing adult in the sweet Netflix series Little Things and the somewhat diffident adult she is here.
The leads are backed by a well-chosen supporting cast, a script that smoothly blends Hindi, Marathi and English as they would be spoken in Tribhanga’s setting, and a clear-headed director.
Tribhanga is a rare Bollywood film that gives centrality to an older woman, joining a small club that includes Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) starring Ratna Pathak Shah and the Amazon Prime Video anthology, Unpaused (2020) with Pathak Shah and Lillete Dubey.
Without being overtly didactic, Shahane litters her script with insightful conversations that have set me thinking, most especially about how young people often confuse normalcy with patriarchy.
The film’s title comes from a scene in which Anuradha uses Indian classical dance poses to characterise her mother, her daughter and herself. Tribhanga is Odissi’s signature triple bend pose, in which the artiste’s knees are bent in one direction, hips in another, shoulders and neck in the opposite direction again. She uses “Tribhanga – tedhi medhi (weird, skewed), crazy but sexy” to describe herself. But for me, it also describes Nayantara, Anuradha and Masha as a composite whole. I also suggest you try to hold the Tribhanga position for a few minutes to gauge the tremendous muscle strength and balance it requires despite its deceptively easy appearance. Life throws soul-crushing challenges at women but we make it look easy, the title seems to say.
The conformism and rebellion in Tribhanga come in layers, placing a spotlight on a question we rarely discuss: when a woman refuses to be straitjacketed, social opprobrium is directed not at her alone, but at her loved ones too – is it inconsiderate on her part to rebel nonetheless? (Minor spoiler alert in this paragraph) A female character in Tribhanga apologises to another, though she does so – and this is crucial – not for the choices she made, but for being unaware of how society consequently treated that other person. (Spoiler alert ends)
That moment in the film, when Anuradha sees her mother’s life reflected in her own, arrives without fanfare and lingers without the intent being spelt out. It is the lynchpin of this enterprise, for which Shahane truly deserves applause.
Unlike the recent Shakuntala Devi that was driven by a daughter’s dislike and judgement of the iconic real-life woman whose story it told, Tribhanga is non-judgemental even as it shines a light on Nayantara, Anuradha and Masha’s failings and strengths, foolishness and wisdom.
That said, I am waiting for a time when Bollywood consistently makes films in which alcohol, cigarettes or a foul mouth are not underlined as a marker of a strong woman character or an emblem of her strength and freedom. I am not passing moral strictures here, but pointing out gently that there exist in this world many tough-as-nails women who have none of these habits, but even some wonderful filmmakers have treated these as symbols of feminism (rewind to the cigarette after the heroine vanquishes the villains in NH10 or the one passed around in a group in Lipstick Under My Burkha’s climax), thus giving fuel to anti-feminists who want to define feminism in such superficial terms rather than by the massive battles women worldwide are fighting – against female foeticide, sexual violence, regressive families, discriminatory employers and worse. For the most part, Tribhanga walks a tightrope without falling off, but it does very consciously use the glass of alcohol in Nayantara’s hand as representative of her liberation, even getting literal about it in an interview scene.
This is a necessary debate, but what is beyond debate is that Tribhanga is an entertaining, thoughtful, well-acted female bonding flick, as unconventional as the three women whose stories it tells. I would pay Netflix’s entire annual subscription fee just for the joy of watching a film gutsy enough to have a female character describe marriage as “societal terrorism”, for Tanvi Azmi’s dignified screen presence or for the manner in which Shahane presents that final, poignant shot of the three women with Sanjoy Chowdhury’s sublime score playing in the background. Lovely.
Tribhanga streams on Netflix.
Time to Dance is pulled down by its unexceptional story, prosaic dialogues and colourless performances by the leads
As it unfolds, Things Heard and Seen becomes more a story of marriage than of ghosts and spirits, shattering the illusion of a life two people have built together to reveal the imperceptible horrors buried underneath.
Oxygen is a thrilling watch, as much for its concept and the questions it raises about what it means to be conscious, as for its exploration of what humans are willing to do to survive.