The Curious Case of Friendly Women

While there are countless films showing men being buddies, friendships between women are still rare in Hindi cinema
The Curious Case of Friendly Women

Take a moment to name an iconic male-buddy film.

Did you think of Dil Chahta Hai? Or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara? Or perhaps the image of Munna and Circuit filled your mind, jeans rolled up to the knees, deepening their bond while drinking away their sorrows.

Now, name a film about female friendship. We’ll wait.

“There are very few films on female friendships because there are very few films about women,” said Devika Bhagat, who struggled to pitch Aisha (2010) in the early 2000s because women-centric films were considered ‘niche’ at the time. Later, she’d write the hit Amazon Prime Video series Four More Shots, which first aired in 2019 and its second season was the streaming platform’s most-watched show of 2020. “The creators [of Four More Shots Please!] and I are all in our early 40s and the one thing that we have never fought over with our friends is a boy,” said Bhagat, pointing out that traditionally, most women characters in Hindi films have had only one point of connection: The Man.

The advent of streaming, along with the rising number of women directors and writers in the industry, has slowly changed this dynamic. The last decade has given us stories that feature the kind of companionship among women that was at best granted to sisters before – the untainted friendship in Queen (2013); the ferocious loyalty in Angry Indian Goddesses (2015); the unwavering support in Parched (2015). It has also laid bare the judgement and expectations we carry towards seeing female characters bond on-screen. Projects like Four More Shots Please! (2020), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and Veere Di Wedding (2018) have shown that narratives led by women can be commercially viable and also made the space for layered female characters and their complex relationships with other women.

Yet, from the experiences of screenwriters, it’s evident that female friendships are yet to be normalised in the collective imagination (even though it’s very much a lived reality for most women). While the bromance is considered natural and pre-ordained, womances take much more convincing. The recently released thriller series Hush Hush, starring Juhi Chawla, Soha Ali Khan, Shahana Goswami and Kritika Kamra, revolves around a group of four very different women who are nevertheless very close friends. The series has been written by Shikhaa Sharma, Tanuja Chandra (who is also one of the directors), Juhi Chaturvedi and Ashish Mehta.

Mehta recalled that one of the questions he was asked by his friends, when they watched Hush Hush, was ‘Why would these women be friends?’ “For me, this is very surprising because it’s a given [that they would be],” said Mehta. “We have a lot of preconceived notions about the kind of women who can be friends.” He pointed out that when it comes to male friendships, certain genres, like the buddy-cop film, actively celebrate radically different personalities becoming friends despite their dissimilarities.

Writers and directors who choose to make a female-centric film, struggle with the burden of voicing a historically-marginalized community. “People think that women friendship series or films should be about women discussing serious issues – always. In Dil Chahta Hai they can talk about everything from women to going on holiday, to their careers. But [if it’s women], then it’s like we need more ‘depth’,” said Bhagat. Sonam Nair, director and co-writer of Masaba Masaba, agreed. “We need the representation of our normal lives. Female characters shouldn’t have to go through drama or some horrible torment to feel that they are important enough to be shown on-screen,” she said. Both Masaba Masaba and Four More Shots Please! touch upon the larger issues like patriarchal structures while showing women living (relatively) everyday lives. They point to the complex lived reality of Indian women, many of whom stand at confluences of liberation, frivolity, helplessness and bondage.

Writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava pointed out that a friendship between women is articulated differently from one between men. “Female friendship doesn’t have to be translated in the same male-buddy kind of a way,” she said. Her film Lipstick Under My Burkha traced the lives of four women who mostly seem to be in silos – a nod to how most middle-class women do not have the time or energy to maintain their friendships – but Shrivastava included moments of solidarity. For instance, there’s a scene in which Rehana sneaks out of her orthodox Muslim house to go to a college party, and finds Leela waiting for her with her scooty. “Women coming together may not look like the conventional, urban way of friendship but rather like finding a way to connect within your lived reality. This might not have space for that kind of very Western idea of how a friendship is in a woman’s life – grabbing coffee or eating cupcakes. Unless you’re making something about women from that specific strata of society,” said Shrivastava.

Part of the reason that so many of the on-screen relationships between women feel artificial is that the characters are written without complexity. Bhagat, who has worked in the industry for almost two decades, said, “[Male counterparts] often give a lot of layers to male characters but for women it will be like ‘She’s a simple girl’. What does that mean? Is it that she doesn’t wear make-up? Is it that she projects herself that way because it’s easier to get along in a conservative family? Has she been made to believe that she needs to be that way?”

Most women creators dip into their own life experiences while writing, often affording the gender a creativity and authenticity that’s difficult for male writers to access. Speaking about the friendship between Masaba and Gia in Masaba Masaba, Nair said she and her writers dug into the nuances of their own friendships — where do you stand in your friend’s room? How are dates discussed? How often are you scrolling on Instagram while talking? “We wanted to make sure that Gia was a full, developed character, who was going through her own shit and wasn’t just feeding into the main character’s [arc], which is usually what happens with the friend character,” said Nair.

We will perhaps continue to grapple with questions of whether we must differentiate between solidarity and friendship, between social messaging and glossy femininity. But across the board, our creators seemed to agree on one thing: The lack of female friendships on-screen is but one indication of the lack of diverse storylines that place women and other marginalised communities at the centre. We must keep them coming.

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