Director and writer Pradeep Sarkar's filmography is a complicated love letter to women. As a music video director, he brought out the feisty, hearty fullness of Shubha Mudgal's voice. From his feature film debut, Parineeta (2005), he showed a remarkable affection for the various shades of feminine — coy, sweet, brave, blunt. Even when his films falter, his affectionate gaze for the feminine never crumbles. While we often think of "hero" introduction scenes, Sarkar opened up the possibility of thinking of "heroine" introduction scenes.
Sarkar’s debut film, the hauntingly beautiful Parineeta, gave the world its very first look at actor Vidya Balan. The first glimpses of her are seen through her lover Shekhar’s memory. On his wedding night, as his bride smiles amidst the festivities below, Shekhar sits before the mirror and dreams of Lalita (Balan) – of her face, her naked arms wrapped around him but mostly, those brown, luminous eyes. The first time Lalita appears in flesh before the viewer, Sarkar once again frames only her eyes (and those perfectly arched eyebrows), peeking through the blinds at her soon-to-be-married lover. Lalita’s gaze carries both mischief and melancholy – two themes that chafe against each other in this film about young and broken love. When she finally appears, dressed in beautiful Bengali attire, Sarkar pauses, allowing us to drink in her face. The title card appears next to her and you know you’ve just met the hero of this film.
Sarkar’s second film, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, began with stunning shots of the city that houses his characters – Benares, or Varanasi. With shots of the river Ganga, evoking divinity and tradition, the opening is as much an introduction to itself as it is to the leading lady – Badki, played by Rani Mukerji. The opening is a fun dance number, where Badki and her sister Chutki (Konkona Sensharma), waltz around the city, introducing its sights and rituals. Through their familiarity and ease around their home, Sarkar establishes the simplicity with which life and happiness unfold for Badki. This is a stark contrast with the rest of the film, which will see Badki being forced to move to Mumbai and become an escort to support her family. With Badki frolicking around her home, Sarkar foregrounds what the misogynist world will take from her – innocence.
Deepika Padukone plays Pinky, a girl from the slums. We are introduced to her skating with a man, training for a competition. One of the taporis, disrupting her riyaaz, sings 'Appadi Pode'. "Aye Madrasi, jaa na idhar se," she says, confidently telling him off. Her first dialogue in the film, and she already insists on not being bogged down. She threatens to kick their balls, throws water, and whacks them with a jhadoo. She won't stand down to anyone and she’ll stand up to everyone. There is nothing screechy or sensational about Pinky’s insistence. It is understated, natural, as though it was the lay of the land. The tone is set.
This one’s a gorgeous introduction, with Mumbai's night lights illuminating the silhouette of Mukerji's face. She plays Shivani Shivaji Roy, a Crime Branch senior inspector. Playing on the actor’s filmography that usually shows her as the epitome of femininity, the first time we see Mukerji as Shivani, she’s wearing a sari and blouse. As it turns out, this is a disguise. She is on an operation, joking with her officers, showering love on her niece, kicking down doors, screaming power. It’s a strange and alluring mould of what Sarkar imagines the modern woman to be capable of being — powerful, unyielding, sensitive.
The story of a woman who returns to college after 22 years, this film was not among Sarkar’s most accomplished works, but it shows the director’s continued determination to showcase women who go against the norm. Eela, played by Kajol, is instantly charming from the very first moment she appears on screen. It’s worth noticing that no one else enters the frame (except Ganesha as an idol, and even his presence is fleeting). Sarkar will have you know that this is Eela’s story and she will be sharing the spotlight with no one. As she comes out of the bathroom, drying her hair, Eela hums Suneeta Rao’s unforgettable “Pari hoon main”, which subtly dates her as an older woman. You can feel the excitement in her as she looks in the mirror, puts on her kajal and smiles at herself. She then lights an incense stick, prays, and rushes out — a good, traditional woman who’s got things to do and places to be. The nerves and the excitement all make sense in the later scene that introduces us to the central premise of Helicopter Eela — she’s a single mother of a teenager, and this is her first day at college. The opening scene is an ode to the world that Eela has created.