How Cocktail Complicates the Cool Girl’s Quest for Acceptance

In this Homi Adajania film, Deepika Padukone played Veronica, the heroine who rebels against freedom
Deepika Padukone in Cocktail
Deepika Padukone in Cocktail

What’s in a name? With apologies to William Shakespeare, a lot when it comes to Cocktail (2012). Directed by Homi Adajania and starring Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone and Diana Penty, Cocktail’s two women protagonists are named Meera and Veronica. Padukone played Veronica, and yes you are absolutely supposed to think of the glossy, rich girl by the same name from the Archies comics. Veronica lives in London with two flatmates: Gautam (Khan), with whom she has an on-off sexual relationship, and Meera (Penty) who is the quintessential good, sanskari Indian woman. 

In a scene that comes halfway through the film, Veronica has a conversation with Gautam’s mother Kavita (Dimple Kapadia), who has landed up in London without warning. Kavita suggests Veronica get married soon because “ladki ka zyaada din akela rehna theek nahi hai (it’s not right for a woman to be alone for too long).” The older woman — who is dreaming of a wedding between Meera and Gautam — has no idea that her son and Veronica know each other biblically. 

So far, marriage as an institution doesn’t come out looking particularly rosy in Cocktail. It starts with Meera discovering that the husband for whom she’s come to London, only wanted the dowry her family had given at the time of their wedding. When Veronica meets her at the start of the film, Meera is sobbing in a washroom at a gas station because she’s homeless in a strange country. Then there’s Veronica’s parents’ failed marriage, which has clearly left her with some abandonment issues. 

In both cases, the best is made of the situation, thanks to Veronica. Being the child of a single parent means that Veronica quickly becomes independent in spirit if not in financial terms (her life is bankrolled by her somewhat disinterested father) She invites Meera to live with her, thus setting the stage for a friendship between the two women and a love triangle with Gautam in the middle. Under these circumstances, you’d think being single and steering clear of marriage sounds fantastic. 

Dimple Kapadia in Cocktail
Dimple Kapadia in Cocktail

Yet one conversation with Kavita — in which the camera flits from Veronica's face to Kavita's, indicating a meeting of minds — and Veronica swaps her bikini for a salwar kameez. Not just that, she turns to Gautam, with whom she had a no-strings-attached policy, and suggests marriage. “We like each other. We do, right?” she says, as an explanation for her proposal. Then she adds, “Agar main Meera jaisi ban jau toh you think maa mujhe accept karengi? (Do you think your mother will accept me if I become more like Meera?)” Gautam’s response is to remind Veronica that theirs is a casual relationship. For something of a non-casual variety, he subscribes to his mother’s vision of an ideal wife. While Cocktail lays bare Gautam’s hypocrisy, it doesn’t punish him for it. That sort of treatment is reserved for Veronica alone.   

Meera is a goody two shoes, the ideal bahu and wife whose sanctimony defines her self-worth. Initially, she’s scandalised by Gautam’s ‘wild’ ways, but eventually, she falls for him. Gautam, on the other hand, is drawn to Meera because of her goodness. It inspires him to be a better person (whatever that means). That Kavita would prefer Meera to Veronica feels predictable, but in terms of a narrative device, the older woman’s disapproval has unexpected repercussions. Kavita’s sexist judgement of Veronica and her lifestyle, the suggestion that she get married, and her general preference for Meera goes from amusing to troubling because of how seriously and earnestly Veronica takes note of Kavita’s opinions. It’s a reaction that works at an emotional level because it shows how Veronica, for all her flamboyance, is also vulnerable and prone to feeling desperately lonely. At the same time, it’s such a sharp contrast to the independent-spirited behaviour we’ve seen from Veronica so far that it feels jarring. 

Things ravel and unravel at a steady trot after Kavita and Veronica’s conversation. Unbeknownst to Veronica, Meera and Gautam develop a serious case of feelings and when Veronica discovers this, she reacts angrily. This is not because she feels possessive about Gautam, but because of a sense of betrayal that Meera would pursue someone whom her friend likes. Veronica's quest for acceptance shows itself when she tells Meera (before kicking her out of the flat) how she has been betrayed countless times, but Meera's stings the most. 

Deepika Padukone in Cocktail
Deepika Padukone in Cocktail

As an individual whose first encounter with freedom was through abandonment, Veronica seems to be quick to confuse condescension with care, and paternalism with protectiveness. It is tempting to think of Veronica's regular hookups with men, partying, and dressing up to espouse sexiness without constraint, and in many ways, for the film to show Veronica as a heroine was a liberative choice. Unfortunately, in the hope of giving her a redemptive character arc, Cocktail sends out the message that she’s the ‘cool’ girl who needs fixing. The choices she made are not assertions of her own self and her desires, but reactions to the absence of a mentor or parent figure. When she tries to keep her relationships casual, it’s because she’s almost afraid that she'll find what she's looking for, only for it to wither or leave her alone. The absence of long-term relationships is a signifier of her being flawed. It’s to Padukone’s credit that she’s able to make Veronica seem complex and unapologetic despite the film’s moral judgments of the character. 

That the film believes Meera’s chastity is worthier of romantic consideration than Veronica (with her many sexual exploits) is obvious. Also obvious is how Veronica’s lifestyle is depicted as worthy of punishment. She is literally hit by a car after a night of abandoned drunkenness, only to be piously taken care of by Gautam who is present when it happens (yes, it was 2012 and we gave men points for reacting with basic humanity). Rewarding Meera’s modesty with love and punishing Veronica for exercising her agency suggests that the latter is what makes Veronica unworthy of love. According to Cocktail, Veronica doesn’t flit from one man to another because she chooses to, but because she’s emotionally incapable of sustaining a stable relationship. The sexual uninhibitedness that made her seem irreverent, fun and brave, is recast to be a performance that papers over past hurts. For Veronica, the turning point is that conversation with Kavita. After that, all roads to happiness begin with marriage, and Veronica loses sight of the companionship and freedom that has characterised her life so far.    

The film's decision to strip Veronica of her personality in order to play both martyr and Cupid to bring Gautam and Meera together, is a curious one. Is this act of generosity Veronica’s bid at stability? Is it an effort to assuage herself of the guilt she feels when, feeling betrayed by Meera, she kicks the other woman out of her house? Are we supposed to see Veronica as someone who has made peace with the fact that Gautam chose Meera over her? Or is it an admission that the consequence of her past choices is a life of loneliness and what-ifs? As redemptions go, this one leaves a bitter aftertaste. 

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