Deepika and Kangana in Chhapaak and Panga

A monthly eye on all things women in the entertainment business.

That rhetoric of women of coming into their own in Bollywood, hasn’t it become tedious? We’ve heard it for nearly a decade since the smashing box office returns of Kahaani (2012). Every year since then has seen at least one intelligent female-led film gathering acclaim and numbers at the box office. But it has not amounted to much more than that one film a year, typically starring Vidya Balan or Kangana Ranaut.

But this month, I am saying it too. When was the last time that two heroine-centred films with major A-list stars released the same month? Both directed by women, too? Chhapaak, which stars Deepika Padukone and no A-list male star opposite her, is directed by Meghna Gulzar. Panga stars Kangana Ranaut and is directed by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari.

What I liked especially is that both Padukone and Ranaut work jobs that are important to them. For Ranaut, her ticket-seller’s job came thanks to her career as a sportsperson. For Padukone in Chhapaak, the job is a necessity to keep herself and her family afloat.

This could also mark the turning-back point for this kind of film. The box-office figures don’t look great. Chhapaak is expected to finish at Rs 33 crore at the end of 3 weeks, while the film that released alongside it, Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, has crossed Rs 200 crore. Panga earned Rs 11.75 crore in its opening weekend, while Street Dancer 3D which released alongside, made Rs 39.5 crore in the same period. It might well be the moment when studios decide they don’t not want to take on projects like this, without the support of a male star of equal or higher wattage. Like a Secret Superstar, where you had Aamir Khan to tell a story about the dreams of a burkha-clad girl who wanted to sing, or a Dangal about a pair of ace women wrestlers, or a Pink where you had Amitabh Bachchan batting for three women accused in a sexual assault case. Just months ago, Akshay Kumar shepherded a team of competent women scientists who did all the real work in Mission Mangal. The film earned over 200 crore.

Whatever it amounts to, this is an unusual moment. If you are the sort of person who doesn’t watch Hindi films in the theatre, I’d ask you to go. See if you can catch Panga and Chhapaak the same day because the stories complement each other like companion pieces. They are both set in a nicely-detailed lower middle class milieu and are stories of identity, of women searching for a sense of self. In Chhapaak, acid attack survivor Deepika Padukone is the daughter of a wealthy Delhi family’s cook, who has to draw out a whole new person out of herself when her face, and life, are mutilated. She is no longer the stunning swan-necked girl who can dream of being an Indian idol. She finds herself growing into her role as an activist speaking up for acid attack survivors. 

“When I see you, I feel joy, when I see my son, I feel joy. When I see myself, I don’t find it,” Kangana Ranaut tells her husband in Panga. Once the captain of the kabaddi team, she is consumed by domesticity and motherhood. When she returns to training for sport, an old sense of worth returns. In this, they are different from Kahaani or Raazi or Mardaani, where the woman is on mission so to speak, and there is no search for self. 

What I liked especially is that both Padukone and Ranaut work jobs that are important to them. For Ranaut, her ticket-seller’s job came thanks to her career as a sportsperson. She cares enough for it that she stays quiet when her boss chews into her. For Padukone in Chhapaak, in fact, the job is a necessity to keep herself and her family afloat. Later in the film, her circumstances improve with the role of a television news anchor. In fact, both films have a strong second woman character, a working woman, who helps the heroine pull herself together—in Chhapaak, this is Padukone’s lawyer played by Madhurjeet Sarghi and in Panga, it’s Richa Chadda who is coach and confidante rolled into one.

I have written earlier about women without work in mainstream Hindi films. Films like Manmarziyan, Bareilly kii Barfi or Tanu weds Manu have interesting, enjoyable women characters at the heart of their stories, yet give them no work or non-romantic interests. When you show an educated, sexually assertive heroine (as the women in these films are) with no interest in anything but romance, it leaves them somewhat flat, less than fully realised. Don’t get me wrong: the sexual independence is empowering, but can it be the only thing?

Look back over the past decade and think. Who springs to mind? Isn’t it the women with full lives, who loved themselves, their lives and work, as much as they loved their husbands and families or significant others? I am thinking of Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu, Sonam Kapoor in Neerja, Deepika Padukone in Piku, Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom, Sridevi in English Vinglish. Aren’t they all women who set out to live their fullest lives? Women who found in themselves the person they had set out to discover?

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