In the Netflix film Guilty, Kiara Advani does what you expect an Anglophone feminist from the sort of prestigious Indian Liberal institution that takes out rallies against conservative politics, to do. She pushes away a girl lurching towards her for help in the wee hours of the morning, a girl who later says she was raped that night on campus. The rape accuser, is from a small town, Dhanbad, and is shown to be a Hindi speaker. Later, Advani's character, Nanki Dutta, calls the girl resentful for not having privilege, and dismisses her rape allegation.
The rape charge is made against her boyfriend. After the allegation, Advani continues to go for evenings out with this boyfriend. The strain in their relationship emerges because Advani learns her boyfriend got into their prestigious St. Stephens- modelled college by using his social capital. At one point in the film, Advani runs back to a lawyer she has behaved pettily with to ask for a ride because there is a man masturbating in the subway. We see that she is well aware of the masculine arrogance that Delhi runs on yet she doesn't extend a word of empathy for the small-town girl who alleges rape.
Grey characters are always sexy, but grey women are especially so because we have locked women in silos of good and vampish in popular Hindi film for ever.
Advani plays her nastiness well, especially for an actress who has shown solid comic chops in Lust Stories and Good Newwz. There is a skein of instability to her performance all through that makes her palpably vulnerable, and keeps you invested in her, though the characters around her are annoyingly collegial and bratty. Advani keeps doing awful things, like we expect students at elite institutions to do, but you never stop hoping that she will do the right thing.
It is still a relatively unusual thing in a Hindi film to have an unlikeable heroine, a person who makes serious mistakes with consequences. You might argue Guilty is not a Hindi film and you'd be right. The language is mostly English, but the sensibility is Karan Johar's Bollywood. And Bollywood heroines are broadly of two kinds — bubbly or haughty, and the haughty are always invariably tamed in time. But Neither, however, makes seriously compromised decisions. When a heroine does make a 'mistake', for instance have an affair, this is prompted by personal tragedy. For instance, Rekha's character was in love with Amitabh Bachchan in Silsila but a tragedy among the main characters meant they could not be married to each other. The affair, therefore, is justified by tragedy.
In Badla (2019), Taapsee Pannu spent the film playing the price for an extra-marital affair. The film was a remake of the Spanish film, The Invisible Guest. But director Sujoy Ghosh changed one thing, the sex of the protagonist, and that made all the difference. To see a mother who coos to her child over a video call, a confident, sensitive young woman live down an affair, gave the film an unexpected charge. The allure of her adultery lies in the weight of our social conditioning — we expect women to be moral and gentle in the straight and narrow sense. Hence, even a relatively small transgression, swells intrigue in a character, even if this eventually amounts to a dislike for her.
Grey characters are always sexy, but grey women are especially so because we have locked women in silos of good and vampish in popular Hindi film for ever. Perhaps, these are universal instincts—Freud calls this the Madonna and whore complex, and it refers to how men see women as motherly or sexual. Hollywood film employs the Madonna and whore tropes too, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is actually sweet and maternal though she may be a professional sex worker. (This corresponds completely to the Bollywood trope of the golden-hearted tawaif. Think of every courtesan who is a main figure in a Hindi film, and check.)
The longevity of the femme fatale—a sexual woman who kills—is testimony to the appeal of the whore persona. In Bollywood, the windows between the silos opened some years ago with heroines who smoke and enjoy their drink. Now, a door seems to be opening with women who are allowed slightly more serious mistakes.
Radhika Apte's character in the first chapter of Lust Stories and Manisha Koirala's in the third chapter, offer similar prospects. Apte says she is married, and initiates an affair with her student in college. She continues to speak to her husband every day on the phone. Koirala is sleeping with her husband's best friend. Of the two, Koirala's reserve worked better for me than Apte's talkativeness, which felt like something akin to confessing. It takes away from the thrill of imagined guilt.
Badla is set in a snowy, White Western terrain. In the Hindi film's imagination, the West is associated with adulterous tendencies. For instance, the infidelity in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna happens in New York. There is, however, Manmarziyan, which is set in small town Jalandhar, and has at its heart a woman who cheats on her husband. Taapsee Pannu has a lover before she decides to get married hot-headedly to someone else. But it is, nevertheless, an active choice she makes, underlined by her heavy drinking and long solitary runs to accustom herself to her husband.
In Haraamkhor, a marvellous indie without any 'stars', the school-going protagonist played by Shweta Tripathi is sleeping with her married school teacher. This character, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is a lecherous, mean man, and the wife he cheats on is barely a few years older than Tripathi. But Tripathi is also a caring daughter, yearning for her father's conversation, and though she dislikes his girlfriend, she keeps her heart open enough to grow closer to her. The push and pull of Tripathi's callousness and sweetness makes her a character you invest in deeply, you want to know which bit of her defines her, and by the end of the film's arc, my acceptance of her and the world had grown a little more.
For most of the two decades since the new millennium, the culmination of such choices in Hindi film have amounted to negative characterizations for women, the femme fatale trope as it is called. In Aitraaz, a copy of the Hollywood film Disclosure, Priyanka Chopra effectively rapes her employee played by Akshay Kumar. In Jism (2001), Bipasha Basu's adultery is laced with murderousness. Both films paint their heroines as bad women, and both did well at the box office. But this too marked a change: lead actresses were now playing Bad Women, earlier the domain of 'vamps' reserved for Helen and Bindu.
And then, there is Tabu, who has rendered two irresistible performances of complex Shakespearean women. In Maqbool, her Nimmi has an affair and encourages murder. She is Lady Macbeth, arguably the most iconic of difficult women. In Haider, she is Ghazala, the hero's mother who has had an affair with her brother-in-law and perhaps plotted her husband's end. This is a rendition of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, but Ghazala is a far more magnetic presence than the relatively colourless, clueless Gertrude in the original play. Ghazala's infidelity gives her an impossible thrill, especially when you see what a loving mother she is to Haider. But Tabu is frankly a problem. Her charm is a real chemical substance, which can make full-fledged villains desirable. In Andhadhun, she played a murderess with such charisma that it is hard not to fall a little in love with her.
Karisma Kapoor in Zubeidaa is much more difficult to like, arguably the first genuinely complicated heroine in a Hindi film. She leaves behind her a very young son to disrupt a marriage, and become a man's second wife. Kapoor produces a brittle persona, given to tantrums, and when I first saw the film, I didn't like Zubeidaa, the person. She felt like a petulant child.
It is only in the past couple of years that I realised that Zubeidaa does what many men do without being judged. I do know men who pursue women who are already attached, I know men who leave behind their children to live the lives they want. We all do, don't we? And we rarely see them as difficult men. We see them as people who make choices to shape the lives they want.
It is not only about playing sport, and working in espionage, and taking over the mantle of men, I think. It's when women are allowed to make the choices and mistakes that men make, errors of judgement or selfish decisions, without being deemed bad, that we come closer to that thing called equality.