Chiffon sarees in sub-zero temperatures, fasting on Karva Chauth, silliness as a superpower, guiltless about desire — the markers of femininity in the women that Karan Johar depicts on screen are an eclectic mix. The gloss and glam are often a facade for a complexity that’s been tucked into the details, slyly ensuring that these women, unrealistic as they may be, are still a combination of relatable and aspirational. Always glitzy, frequently ditzy, but invariably idealistic and strong, Johar’s women have something that mainstream Hindi cinema rarely gives a heroine: Agency.
“He blurs the boundaries of the virgin and the vamp,” pointed out literature professor Dr Anamika Purohit, “but those categories exist very much, no?” Indeed these categories still exist in cinema, and they indicate that such airtight compartments still exist in our mindset as a society. Johar cleverly constructs his women around these stereotypes, think about Rekha (Neha Dhupia) from Lust Stories (2018), a woman who could easily be categorised as the “vamp” – a divorcée who wears deep-neck blouses, and pleasures herself in the school library (she ticks all the boxes). But Johar positions her as Megha’s (Kiara Advani) role model. Rekha inspires Megha (the “good girl”) to take pleasure into her own hands – literally. Megha reclaims her sexuality and refuses to be shamed, or punished for having desires. Johar effectively rubbishes these categories by consciously making his heroines sexily disarming, and charmingly empowered.
Cinema has always been a reflection of the dominant ideology. Commercial cinema especially, has been made for men, by men. Johar, however, opts for some polite disruption.
Consider Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016). She insists, “Mai kisi ki zarurat nahi, khwaish banna chahti hu (I don’t want to be needed, I want to be desired).” The difference is between want and need. Women are taught, nay indoctrinated, to find the purpose of their lives in the service of their male counterparts. The aim is to be needed in every possible capacity. Saba embodies the feminine ideal, she’s everything you want in a woman, but she actively resists being the woman you need. It is at odds with what is expected of women, especially women like her.
Saba, however, is a force to reckon with. She’s cryptic, mysterious, unapologetic, gorgeous – reader, she ate and left no crumbs. At the same time, Saba is, arguably, a cougar whose primary role in the film is to enable the hero’s emotional development. She passes the sexy lamp test, she is essential to the plot but her role still is second-fiddle to Ayan’s character development. Saba gives Ayan a much-needed understanding of what it is like to be on the receiving end of love that isn’t entirely reciprocated. When Saba realises that Ayan won’t ever be able to love her in the way that she deserves, she ends the relationship. It’s poetic and heartbreaking but it’s also mature and Johar ensures Saba retains her agency till the end.
Similarly, there’s Mandira, played by Kajol, a single mother in My Name Is Khan (2010). She falls for Rizwan (Shah Rukh Khan) and chooses to bring this man — a Muslim — into her life. Johar doesn’t make it a point to underline how unconventional and brave Mandira is, to dismiss prejudice and social convention. Instead, he preempts any misgivings an audience may have for Mandira and Rizwan by casting an iconic on-screen couple (Kajol and Khan). Their popularity and the legacy of their previous films together means the audience is immediately rooting for them to be together, social mores be damned.
Later, Rizwan’s and Mandira’s relationship breaks down — her son dies because he gets assaulted by a bunch of boys in school due to his Muslim surname, and as a result, she kicks Rizwan out of their home. The situation is complicated. There’s no right or wrong. He has our sympathy but her anger also seems justified. Neither him nor her love is questioned. Her ability to love isn’t questioned either. Johar manages to show you both sides of the argument. His empathy as a director ensures that telling Rizwan’s story doesn’t mean losing sight of how Mandira is a grieving mother, or how they’re both victims. It’s not Rizwan vs Mandira; it’s the both of them against the world — a combination we rarely witness in commercial cinema.
Although they’re often noticeably more complex than the standard issue heroine of mainstream Hindi cinema, Johar’s heroines can never be mistaken as indie film characters. There’s a glossiness to their appearance, an easy air of privilege about them, that ensures these women feel cinematic in the Bollywood sense. It is a testament to Johar’s storytelling skills that his stories never judge his heroines. His films have been criticised for being frivolous and melodramatic, but it’s worth keeping in mind that he uses the formulae of mainstream Hindi cinema to present heroines who are not judged by either his story or his audience.
Consider Maya and Riya (Rani Mukerji and Preity Zinta respectively) in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (KANK, 2006). Technically, the two women are at odds, given Maya falls in love with Riya’s husband. Yet Maya isn't a simplistic femme fatale home breaker. It would be convenient to champion one woman and vilify the other, but Johar doesn’t take that easy way out. Riya — the breadwinner, career woman and eventually the bigger person in her relationship with Dev (Shah Rukh Khan) — helps Dev and Maya reunite even after everything Dev has done to hurt her. Meanwhile, Maya is a woman married to a man who loves her more than he loves himself (again, Johar doesn’t use the easy way out by giving her a douchebag husband). She can’t bring herself to love him despite her best efforts. We care about her, even though we feel bad for her husband. She is not a bad wife, she fulfils all her traditional wifely duties – she cleans the house, cooks, and even tries to spice up their sex life. But the marriage just doesn’t work.
Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna is careful to make sure we’re not blinded to what is dubious in these women without pointing fingers at them. In Riya, we’re shown a woman consumed by her career, with little time for domesticity. She speaks up for herself and makes sure that all those around her are conscious of the sexism that pervades the expectations placed upon ambitious women. Meanwhile, the other woman (literally) is looking for love outside her marriage, which is taboo. However, Johar makes sure you feel her internal turmoil and relate to how she buries herself under the determination to do what’s right. When she finally gives in to her desires — like in My Name is Khan, Johar again softens the blow of his characters’ boldness through the casting. Who’s going to fault a woman for falling in love with Shah Rukh Khan? — it feels like a personal victory. Maya is ridden with guilt, but it’s a victory nonetheless.
In an industry where women characters are invariably flattened to service either a hero or a trending topic, Johar writes women who are complex, complicated and joyous. His unapologetic love for and commitment to offering fully realised female characters is unusual, especially when you keep in mind how quintessentially mainstream his storytelling is otherwise, with all the tropes and melodrama that we associate with the term “Bollywood”. Chiffon saris as a Trojan horse that will sneakily push the envelope when it comes to gender — who’d have thunk?