The wimp beneath her wings: Vidya Balan, Kahaani and the Bengali babu

Two women get full screen billing in the splendid new thriller Kahaani.

One, of course, is the film’s heroine, Vidya Balan.

The other is Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of Paschim Banga who gets an entire screen’s worth of gratitude, possibly for allowing her state capital to be shown in such noir-ish light where death lurks in stairwells and the subway.

. Poster of film

Apart from Ms Balan’s, Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi, the only female character that gets respectable screen time is the Goddess Durga herself. Every other woman with a speaking part is just a bit player – an HR manager, a receptionist, a housewife.

The woman’s film of the year is really about men, or more accurately how men react to a woman (make that a very pregnant woman) in their midst. You are so busy following the twists and turns of the plot you don’t even realise that it has at its core a deeper mystery – how do women get things done in a man’s world?

Well, it turns out in Kolkata, it’s not that difficult because Vidya Bagchi has to deal with that special sub-species of manliness known as the Bengali man. Kahaani has a cast full of Bengali wimpiness in all its various manifestations in glorious bloom.

There’s the potbellied Bengali cop played by Kharaj Mukherjee who hums Rabindrasangeet, drinks tea, and is completely rattled by computers. He is not to be confused with the real-life  leering Bengali policemen from the Park Street thana who make passes at a woman trying to lodge a case about a rape in a moving car. This is the kinder, gentler, rice-satiated version – ineffectual but largely harmless.

There’s also the out-of-shape namaskar-ing Bengali hitman by night, LIC agent by day, hilariously portrayed by Saswata Chatterjee lugging around the other prosthetic belly in the film. His insurance agency boss hectors him incessantly, abuse he takes silently like a good doormat. But he leads the fantasy life every wimp dreams of – mouse by day, deadly assassin by night. Of course, being a Bengali assassin, he gripes incessantly about his work. He might be the world’s only assassin who rides around town in a hand-drawn rickshaw.

Even the most enterprising can-do Bengali in the film, Parambrata Chatterjee’s young rookie cop Rana, is very much second fiddle to Vidya Balan. Rana is sensitive, solicitous, kind but completely wrapped around Vidya Bagchi’s little finger. In their very first encounter he politely wheels her luggage. Fifteen minutes into the film he’s effectively her personal assistant. His nickname is Rana, his “good name” is Satyaki – Krishna’s charioteer. It’s quite clear who is Krishna in this set up. It’s the heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi who hacks into computers, breaks into dark abandoned offices at night, rummages through file cabinets while Rana flutters about nervously, pleading “Mrs. Bagchi, jaldi please.” The one time he actually gets into a real fight, it’s almost funny. But at least Rana fights, unlike the actual Kolkata cop who won’t scale walls because his trousers are too tight.

Perhaps the only trait director Sujoy Ghosh misses out on is the finely honed passive aggressiveness of the Bengali male.

The wimpiness of the Bengali babumoshai has been the subject of much serious debate. Orientalists like William Jones dismissed Bengalis as a “placid and submissive people” because they seemed to prefer their siestas to resisting foreign invasions. Macaulay, a true Englishman, blamed it on the weather – Bengalis were weak because they spent they days “in a constant vapour bath.” Bengalis were classified as a “non-martial” race by the Brits, unwilling to join the army, perfect for a desk-bound job as a company clerk that sapped every last drop of manly derring-do.  Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the man who gave us the muscular Vande Mataram, complained that Bengali literature “does not contain a single expression of manly feeling – of womanly feeling there is a great deal.”

It’s not that the Bengalis didn’t try to pump up the testosterone. The Tagores organized the first “Hindoo mela” in 1867 to promote wrestling, gymnastics and other sports to reclaim Indian manliness. Bankim tried to give Bengalis a more masculine karmayogi sense of God.  Vivekananda exhorted them to play football instead of reading the Gita. But the Bengalis remained happily in the thrall of the female deities - Durga, Kali and Radha. The “manly Englishman” and the “effeminate Bengali” stereotypes worked perfectly, as Mrinalini Sinha pointed out in her book Colonial Masculinity, to justify the Raj. The British deemed Bengalis unfit for political enfranchisement because they possessed “essentially feminine characteristics.”

The Raj is long over but its shadow still hangs over the Bengali male. Finally in Kahaani, the Bengali man, sensitive yet hen-pecked, poetic if potbellied, gets a break. He is no longer the object of derision as much as he is the wimp beneath Vidya Bagchi’s wings. In that sense, Kahaani needed to be in Kolkata not for the spectacle of a  sea of yellow Ambassador taxis or the rather menacing ululating cavalcade of sindoor-smeared women in red-bordered white saris. Kahaani needed the Bengali man for its tale of woman power to be complete, to allow Vidya Balan to really triumph solo. In Delhi or Mumbai, some hero would have to finally save the day, rescue the damsel in distress or at least have the last word (as SRK does in every scene with poor Priyanka Chopra in Don 2). The pregnant woman at the centre of Kahaani is as powerful as she is because this is a story set among the people of the unsnapped umbilical cord.

In one scene Rana is going home in a tram after a hard day of sleuthing with Vidya Bagchi. He is lost in a reverie of the lovely Bidya for whom he imagines he is the gallant knight. His mobile rings, interrupting his daydream. You think it’s Vidya. Or perhaps the head honcho at the intelligence agency with some breaking news.

But it’s his mother.

Hyan, ma, aaschhi (Yes, mother, I am coming (home)),” says our intrepid hero and trundles on home.


Updated Date: Mar 13, 2012 16:17 PM

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