Divas of desire

Vidya Bagchi follows her desires and tramples patrimony but not without evoking a Hindu goddess, placing the imagery within religious structure

If desire is the fundamental motivation of all human action, what is the desire that motivates Bollywood female protagonists’ actions? If one were to assume that “we are what (films) we watch”, the box-office is the most representative of who we are.

Over the past two decades, Bollywood’s box office blockbusters almost entirely comprise storylines and female protagonists that are either middle or upper class. The portrayal of their desire and the resultant actions can be classified into four simplistic categories. For each of these, Bollywood has shining illustrations that met with exceptional box office success.
w The female protagonist defines her desire within what is actually a man’s desire
Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001): Sakina (Amisha Patel) is rescued by Tara Singh during the Partition-related slaughter. Over time, he falls in love with her. Sakina grows to respond to her saviour’s desire. She eventually even redefines her syntax of desire to include getting slapped by him as part of her wifely duties. It is Tara Singh’s actions that eventually save “poor” Sakina from her communal anti-India father.

She knows her desire, expresses it, and has it fulfilled by the actions of a man, not her own actions
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (1995): Simran (Kajol), the lead protagonist of the iconic DDLJ, knows her desire. She wants to be with Raj (Shah Rukh Khan). However, she does not have the stomach to fight her patriarchal father for her desire. He expects her to honour her childhood betrothal to his bestfriend’s son. Raj’s fortitude and magical familial charm “rescues” the wimp Simran’s desire from her father’s. It is Raj’s desire that acts itself out on the film. Simran’s desire is fulfilled by Raj’s actions.

She knows her desire, acts on her desire and is punished for this
The Dirty Picture (2011): Silk (Vidya Balan) has a meteoric rise from being a rural powerless girl desirous of fame. She seduces, manipulates and tramples many a male ego in her ascendancy to fame. However, this brazen acting out of her desire must be punished. So she meets her inevitable fate ending up as a “fallen” porn-trapped, sleeping-pill-overdosed ungainly corpse.

She knows her desire, acts on her desire and attains her desire by herself
Jab We Met (2007): Geet Dhillon (Kareena Kapoor at her liberated best) knows who she is — “Mein apni favourite hoon”, what she loves and who she wants to be. She pursues her desires with such verve, certainty and panache that she even manages to get the relatively subverted Aditya (Shahid Kapur) in touch with his own desires. Even as the film makes Geet flounder in the face of a dithering lover, it waits for Geet to herself unravel her desire and choose Aditya as her partner.
While Geet Dhillon brings us must-sought relief on portrayal, it is a struggle to find too many other female protagonists in Bollywood that match her or even come close.
2012 saw a fair representation of each of these categories as well. The dominant female protagonist type was the subservient one with films like Rowdy Rathore, Bol Bachchan, Dabangg 2 giving us many more forgettable female protagonists serving men’s desires while mouthing misogynistic platitudes.
In one of the most damaging female protagonist characterisations of the year, Heroine Mahi Arora (Kareena Kapoor) establishes with certainty that women who pursue their desire, whether it’s a successful career or a man, are psychologically damaged, and careening recklessly towards moralistic decay. Not only must she suffer (lose man, career and sanity) for embracing her desire, she must also be punished by losing her identity as she marches into oblivion at the end of the film.
Zoya (Katrina Kaif), a Pakistani secret agent in Ek Tha Tiger, knows her desires, be it to serve her country (Pakistan) as a secret agent (career) or to return to her lover, Tiger (she finds him via garbled spy-code if you please). She pursues her desires untainted by all the expectations of a predominantly male Salman-crazy audience without needing to convert to Hinduism or to change national allegiance! Meera (Katrina Kaif, again) makes her own informed, independent decisions on love and partnership unfettered by patrimony in Jab Tak Hai Jesus, oops, Jaan. She flails in the face of her father’s expectations and the promises she makes to Jesus, but eventually rides on the wings of her mother’s precedent (the rare of the rare onscreen mother to elope with her lover despite having a kid in a marriage) without being shamed for it.
Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) in Kahaani quashes many myths about “pregnant pavitrata” and hapless womanhood. Vidya utilises pregnancy as a ruse — rather than as a triumphal celebration of “womanhood is motherhood” — as she manipulates the male bastion of intelligence and police services. Vidya was by far the most powerful female protagonist in Bollywood 2012. She follows her desires and tramples patrimony but not without evoking a Hindu goddess, placing the imagery within religious structure. She also borrows her idiom of justice from the muddy pool of alpha-male-vigilantes. Must the angry woman of 2012 be a facsimile of Amitabh’s angry young man in the 1980s?
Even as a culture and a state are being forced to reflect on how its patriarchy is stifling its women, the debate on representation of the female protagonist and her desire is essential. We may watch what we are but we cannot continue to be who Bollywood portrays us to be. Movement from “no desire” to “desire as defined within a man’s desire” to “desire that cannot be followed by action” is not enough movement. We need more Geet Dhillons to reinforce what women today really want — to know their desire free from patrimony, to act on their desire and achieve what they desire without care of being judged by patriarchs. We hope 2013 will bring Bollywood greater desire to portray the desire of its female protagonists better.

The writer is an adviser on strategy, media, education and healthcare. He wishes to be a filmmaker.

Post new comment

<form action="/comment/reply/217691" accept-charset="UTF-8" method="post" id="comment-form"> <div><div class="form-item" id="edit-name-wrapper"> <label for="edit-name">Your name: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="60" name="name" id="edit-name" size="30" value="Reader" class="form-text required" /> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-mail-wrapper"> <label for="edit-mail">E-Mail Address: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="64" name="mail" id="edit-mail" size="30" value="" class="form-text required" /> <div class="description">The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.</div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-comment-wrapper"> <label for="edit-comment">Comment: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <textarea cols="60" rows="15" name="comment" id="edit-comment" class="form-textarea resizable required"></textarea> </div> <fieldset class=" collapsible collapsed"><legend>Input format</legend><div class="form-item" id="edit-format-1-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-1"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-1" name="format" value="1" class="form-radio" /> Filtered HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Allowed HTML tags: &lt;a&gt; &lt;em&gt; &lt;strong&gt; &lt;cite&gt; &lt;code&gt; &lt;ul&gt; &lt;ol&gt; &lt;li&gt; &lt;dl&gt; &lt;dt&gt; &lt;dd&gt;</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-format-2-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-2"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-2" name="format" value="2" checked="checked" class="form-radio" /> Full HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> </fieldset> <input type="hidden" name="form_build_id" id="form-bb34c80cc21482c2a6c950722828872d" value="form-bb34c80cc21482c2a6c950722828872d" /> <input type="hidden" name="form_id" id="edit-comment-form" value="comment_form" /> <fieldset class="captcha"><legend>CAPTCHA</legend><div class="description">This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.</div><input type="hidden" name="captcha_sid" id="edit-captcha-sid" value="80326818" /> <input type="hidden" name="captcha_response" id="edit-captcha-response" value="NLPCaptcha" /> <div class="form-item"> <div id="nlpcaptcha_ajax_api_container"><script type="text/javascript"> var NLPOptions = {key:'c4823cf77a2526b0fba265e2af75c1b5'};</script><script type="text/javascript" src="http://call.nlpcaptcha.in/js/captcha.js" ></script></div> </div> </fieldset> <span class="btn-left"><span class="btn-right"><input type="submit" name="op" id="edit-submit" value="Save" class="form-submit" /></span></span> </div></form>

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen didn’t make the cut. Neither did Shaji Karun’s Piravi, which bagged 31 international awards.