Girl Talk: Can Women Have Space in National Issues?

In the 25 years from Hum Aapke Hain Koun to Mission Mangal, women have moved from computer science to space science, but not without “home science” in the Hindi film. Yet we can’t stand Sonam Kapoor speaking on “national” issues
Girl Talk: Can Women Have Space in National Issues?

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

In an interview this month to mark 25 years of the blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun, the reclusive director Sooraj Barjatya told Anupama Chopra that he had inserted the detail that Madhuri Dixit's character studied computers during a rewrite of the script. "How many years will the heroine study home science? There must be a little change, no?" he asked. A quarter century later, the heroines are space scientists who dip into their rich reserves/reservoir of home science knowledge to power India to an elite league of space-explorer nations.  (I have written previously about how women in Hindi film rarely work any more.)

Every reviewer I read (and watched) mentioned the poori sequence in Mission Mangal, the filmed story of India's truly remarkable space odyssey to Mars in 2014. The most crucial breakthrough in the project is project director Tara Shinde's revelation that if pooris can puff up nicely in hot oil with the gas turned off, the rocket sending India's satellite to Mars might also be propelled in space for periods of time with the fuel switch turned off, saving fuel, and crucially reducing the rocket's weight. I was prepared to be annoyed by the sequence, but Vidya Balan, who plays Shinde with reliable joyousness, that eye shining expression she has patented, makes it enjoyable. I can't say if the science makes sense. "These women are applying home science in rocket science," the ISRO director played by Vikram Gokhale says to project shepherd Rakesh Dhawan (Akshay Kumar). 

At first, the comment irritated me but by film's end, I realised that it is mainly the women who get these "home science" revelations: Sonakshi Sinha gets an idea from a cushion pattern and Taapsee Pannu turns off the entire system and turns it back on like we power off phones and switch them back on. Kumar's Rakesh Dhawan does not crack a single problem, he is a manager, shepherding the majority women crew. The other major male star, Sharman Joshi, does not get this "a-ha" moment. (The senior citizen, played by the delightful HG Dattareya gets a plastic revelation from an anti-plastic protest on the streets, but he too is one of the underdogs in the film, an old man who is seen as a liability. )

Incidentally, Mission Mangal is the rare "nationalist" film in Bollywood where women are central. Most India-shaped projects, whether they are stories of the National movement (Lagaan, The Rising, 1942 A Love Story), or of Partition (Bharat, Kalank) or of nation-building (Chak De India, Gold, Padman), are driven by men. Films like Kalank, Pinjar and Indu Sarkar, which give their women some political convictions, failed. The exceptions are the real-life stories – Manikarnika (based on a real-life historical character), Mary Kom (the biopic of a living legend) and now, Mission Mangal. 

She's Talking Politics? Shut Her Down

Women in Hindi film are, in general, not political – she is a figure of love and lust and responsibility and maternity but not of political conviction. The image of the political bimbo is so pervasive that it shapes real-world expectations of Hindi film actresses. In an interview on 15 August with BBC Asian Network, actress Sonam Kapoor said that her roots are in Pakistan. "I am half-Sindhi and half-Peshawari (both Sindh and Peshawar are regions in Pakistan). So literally it's heartbreaking to see that part of my culture is something that I can't explore because of that." On August 19, Twitter filled with comments trashing her interview. Several users shared a photograph of her father actor Anil Kapoor with the terror-accused Dawood Ibrahim in what appeared to be a cricket match stand, and the comment that Kapoor's links with Pakistan are established. (Film Companion has not verified the authenticity of the photograph.) Other commenters asked her why she had not stayed back in Pakistan. 

Millions of citizens in Punjab, Bengal and states bordering Bangladesh have roots in the regions that were divided in the Partition. I do, too. To say that she has roots in Pakistan is a comment on Kapoor's ancestry, not loyalty. Take Shah Rukh Khan, who wrote an unexpectedly moving essay about being Muslim: "I have been taught my religion by my six-foot-tall handsome Pathan 'Papa' from Peshawar, where his proud family and mine still resides." My family, Khan said. Do you remember any trolling? Not for this interview at least. Aamir Khan faced enormous criticism in 2015 when he said his wife Kiran had thought of leaving the country. Without defending the absurd criticism of Khan in any way, there is a difference between what Kapoor and Khan said. He spoke of wanting to leave the country, she spoke of having family in Pakistan. But a woman talking politics? Shut her down. 

What if Roman Polanski had asked for age ID?

There's a different kind of shut-down, a meaner one in fact, in Once upon a Time in Hollywood. The Quentin Tarantino film is about the murder of director Roman Polanski's wife, actress Sharon Tate, and three of her friends one night in 1969 in Los Angeles. It was still 9 years to 1977 when Polanski would be charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl, he pleaded guilty to the charge of sex with a minor and has since been a fugitive in the US. But Tarantino makes an unmistakeable and nasty reference to the incident: In a sequence in the film, Brad Pitt's character is offered a blowjob by a very young looking hippie girl. Pitt's character looks pleased for the offer but smugly asks for age ID. Tarantino suggests that Polanski was seduced and trapped by the 13-year-old. That if only he had insisted on her ID, he wouldn't be a fugitive for the rest of his life. 

This may sound prudish, but really, the decent thing may sometimes be prudish. Of course, children are sexual beings and can be very interested in sex. The reason the law in most places in the world sets an age mark for consensual sex is that while young adults may be capable of enjoying sex, they are (usually) unable to think through possible consequences of intercourse (such as pregnancy), and may be vulnerable to abuse during the act. Pitt's character could have played it cool and said, 'You're a bit young for my taste', or something charming like that. Instead, he, and Tarantino, are insufferably smug, likely cocking a snook at the #MeToo movement that has felled some of Hollywood's most acclaimed and powerful.

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