On 10 April, the handle @RKRadhakrishn posted a tweet with the images of six heads of state that gathered 310 RTs and more than 1,300 likes within hours. It featured six women: Angela Merkel (chancellor, Germany), Jacinda Ardern (prime minister, New Zealand), Sophie Wilmes (PM, Belgium), Sanna Marin (PM, Finland), Katarin Jakobsdottir (PM, Iceland) and Mette Frederikson (PM, Denmark). The caption reads, “Covid19 is everywhere but countries with heads of state managing the crisis better seem to have something in common…”
As it turned out, the tweet was borne out by facts. On 13 April, Forbes magazine did a story looking at the Covid19 strategies of these six women, and a seventh—Taiwan presidet Tsai Ing-wen. All their countries are in a relatively stable situation in the pandemic. It’s one of those things that are hard to stop thinking about. What if we had a woman in charge? Would the grocery supply chains be better managed? Would there have been more thought given to the elderly? Might there have been lightly-supervised outdoor activities for the men to keep them in better humour?
Forget who might have taken the place of Prime Minister Modi in real life. There’s only one formidable female Opposition leader, Mamata Banerjee, and she is too polarising a figure. Forget real life for a bit, because don’t we have too much of it for the moment? Here, instead, is a list of eligible pandemic queens from the movies, women who have already given us proof that they have what it takes to lead us in unprecedented times.
Sulochana/Sulu from Tumhari Sulu
When she settled into her radio show at the FM station, Sulochana (Vidya Balan) in Tumhari Sulu started carrying peas to shell them while she spoke with her listeners, without missing a chance for witty repartee. Something about that multi-tasking is so reassuring, the juxta-position of vegetables next to glamorous studio equipment , that it tells you that when the epidemiologists told Sulu about the need for a lockdown, she would first ensure that every household had access to their share of peas and tomatoes and all essentials. She’d listen to the complex and frankly impractical rules for distancing in densely-populated Indian cities, and tell them “Main kar sakti hain (I can do it).” Then, she’d find practicable can-do solutions, and communicate them with citizens, where else, on her radio show.
Seema Soni from Mr India
The ancestor of Sulu’s can-do spirit is the hardnosed investigative reporter Seema Soni, played unforgettably by Sridevi in Mr India, an ancestry underlined by the use of the all-time chartbuster Hawa Hawaii. Seema is more aggressive and less cheerful, perhaps also meaner than Sulu, but there’s that same intrepidity that Sulu showed in walking straight up to the boss of the radio station to get a spot as an RJ.
Seema would go straight to the PMO, and ask them to explain why they were sitting on their bums while travellers from Europe and the Gulf entered the country without testing and quarantine. And then, when all this was over, she’d treat us to pastries and other goodies out of those old familiar folded cakeboxes, like she’d fed the orphaned kids who lived with Mr India (Anil Kapoor) and Calendar (Satish Kaushik).
Gita and Manju from Seeta aur Geeta
Seema’s spiritual ancestor in turn is Hema Malini’s Gita, who was even more forthright. She didn’t need to be zany and put grapes in her head gear, she would simply crack her belt at the Islamophobic reportage and graphics on “super spreaders”, and swing from the light holders of the police station if the need arose to get the cops to register FIRs against the organisers of every religious ceremony during the lockdown.
Malini’s superb Gita was reprised with as much heart by Sridevi in Chaalbaaz, with her night loitering, beer-loving persona Manju. Again, someone who could trust the handling of the pandemic to. She’d make sure those who wanted a couple of beers would get it home-delivered with their essentials.
Miss Hunterwali/Nadia from Fearless Nadia
The godmother of Manju, Gita and all the brassiness and bossiness we see women in Hindi film display is Fearless Nadia, the name by which the British-Greek performer Mary Ann Evans was known on screen. “…she roamed the countryside on horseback sporting hotpants, big bosom and bare white thighs, and when she wasn’t swinging from chandeliers, kicking or whipping men, she was righting wrongs with her bare fists and an imperious scowl,” writes the scholar Rosie Thomas. “By the time Nadia hitched up her sari and cracked her whip in the third reel, declaring ‘Aaj se main Hunterwali hoon’, the audience was cheering.” And indeed, while Hunterwali was the film that launched the Nadia persona—a horse-riding, whip-cracking badass who vanquished evil (men mostly)—for the rest of her career, Nadia played this fearless character.
Imagine her riding up to the Secretariat, cracking her whip saying, “Hey-y-y, where is the cash compensation that was supposed to reach those with Jan Dhan accounts? When will the Rs 2 per kilo rice/atta be available?” Who would have the courage to lock eyes with her in that iconic eye-mask? If a print of Hunterwali survives, it is not easily accessible. But you could watch Miss Frontier Mail, which released the year after, or indeed, Muquabla which features in Nadia in a double role a la Sita aur Gita and Chaalbaaz.
Begum Jaan from Rajkahini
What if you prefer your leaders less physical but stern, the sort who can make you drop your gaze with the intensity of hers? Rituparna Sengupta’s Begum Jaan in Rajkahini is your candidate. As the ‘madam’ of a brothel that lay along the abruptly drawn Radcliffe Line dividing India and Pakistan on the east, she was effectively the leader of her own independent republic like the heroine of a magic realist novel. Sengupta dropped her voice to a low gravelly growl, and spoke Hindustani (Hindi heavily mixed with Urdu) without a tinge of the roundedness of the Bengali tongue. The voice especially was lethal, and for once, Vidya Balan who plays Begum Jaan in the Hindi film, is outdone.
Sengupta’s Begum Jaan maintains order effortlessly in her brothel, through the bloodied lawlessness of Partition riots. Just the sort of leadership you need to maintain this hard-to-navigate lockdown.
Sivagami from Baahubali
Ramya Krishnan’s Sivagami is of the same mould as Begum, perhaps a bit softer in make. She has the same ability to make you stop mid-sentence with her infra-red gaze. She is the sort of just ruler that you read of in fairy tales (and what is Bahubali but a fabulously filmed fairytale), who chooses her nephew over her son for the throne because he is the most eligible. She’d be the PM who praised chief ministers from other parties for doing the groundwork of implementing this lockdown, and dispersed overdue relief funds to all states irrespective of whether they were governed by her party or not.
Pishima from Goynar Baksho
If you like your leaders a bit more salty and colourful in their language, then Moushumi’s Pishima who returned after death in Goynar Baksho is a solid bet. As the post-Partition family navigate a new life in Kolkata after uprooting themselves from their homeland in Bangladesh, Pishima directs the finances and savings. “They’re all bastards,” she tells the young wife Somalata (Konkona Sensharma) newly-married into the family. “They fobbed me off with a box of jewellery and had fun all their lives.” She supports Somalata to start her own business, which holds the family in good stead in hard times. “Garbage,” I imagine her saying about the Rs 20,000 crore plan to makeover Rajpath, and directing the money for buying personal protection equipment for all those who work in healthcare. Not only the male doctors who appear on TV panel discussions.
Samantha Akkineni’s Vaembu is the leader you need if you want a quick thinker and efficient doer, a person who knows what to do with a boyfriend who dies abruptly on her after an afternoon rendezvous on her marital bed. She sits his corpse neatly into their comfortably large refrigerator, and admits swiftly to her husband about what happened when he returns. When you think of all the international travellers who entered India untested through February and March, though the first case of Covid-19 was detected on 31 January, you realise why we need someone like Vaembu. Who would apologise swiftly and know what to do about the sick and dead bodies piling up in India. Who would let us vent our anger in a proper press conference, like Vaembu listened to Mugil (Fahadh Fasil) cry his heart out in the car.
Aparna from Aranyer Din Ratri
One for the sapiosexuals, the Arundhati Roy and Aruna Roy fans. Sharmila Tagore’s Aparna in Aranyer Din Ratri wins the summer afternoon’s memory game coolly, while gently preventing the picnic proceedings from sliding into mocking people callously or general disintegration. Imagine if we had a prime minister who would remember to discuss migrant labourers, HIV-positive, TB and other chronic patients, blood bank supplies, hydroxychoroquine trials like Aparna said Rabindranath, Karl Marx, Cleopatra, Atulya Ghosh, Helen of Troy, Shakespeare. And when anyone spoke of gaumutra or Ayush products, she would press her lips bemusedly in that famous Tagore pout.
C K Prameela from Virus
This vote holds real pangs of envy because Revathy plays a real-life Indian political leader, Kerala state health minister KK Shailaja who has now succeeded also in “flattening the Covid-19 curve” in the state. Here, Revathy delivers a devastatingly moving performance of the leader during the Nipah virus outbreak of 2018 in Kerala in which 17 people died. Through the film, Revathy? barely speaks. Much of her performance comprises close-ups of her face as she listens to the doctors, health workers and bureaucrats in the control room that she sets up. She speaks up memorably twice, once to say that if there scientific evidence then there is no room for discussion or doubt, and then at the end, when she gives a speech to mark the remarkable containment of the outbreak to the district. “Let them see me as a human being,” she tells a health worker asking her to wear a personal protection equipment kit at a hospital. But by then, the disease is contained. Science and heart and the ability to listen, you can see I have a real crush on this leader. Wouldn’t you?