Women In Film in 2020: The Good, Disappointing, And Ridiculous

A look at female characters in streamed content and theatrical releases across languages 
Women In Film in 2020: The Good, Disappointing, And Ridiculous

It was a dark and stormy It was 2020. The one thing almost all of us have achieved this year is viewing several hours of streamed stories, locked down at home. I have, therefore, done the list differently this time, covering streamed content across languages -both web series and films—and the handful of theatrical releases. The real gift of streaming services is the access to non-Hindi projects from India, and the notional levelling of ground.

A 9-episode series is a very different thing from a 2-hour film, and comparing performances across mixed genres is arguably unfair. To me, the writing of characters is as important as the performance, thus the length of performances is not important. The impression they leave is. Feels arbitrary? It was 2020. Everything's fair.

The Good

The Uncomfortable Sex of Dolly Kitty: Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar

From the time that flowers have been retired from their conjugal performances, sex has been a silken smooth thing in Bollywood-literally satiny white sheets and the hardworking backs of gym-sculpted men. Occasionally, it is a joke about trembling cars. Heroines in recent Hindi film like Goliyon kii RaasleelaManmarziyanTanu Weds Manu are increasingly sexually assertive. But almost never is there articulation about the disappointments of the sexual experience, with exceptions like the mostly English-language film Finding Fanny  where Deepika Padukone's character informs Arjun Kapoor that the sex needs improvement.

Dolly Kitty aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is premised on sexual realisation, and how it frees the two women from various cages. SenSharma's Dolly tells her husband that she feels nothing, numb almost and Pednekar's Kaajal wonders aloud that the sex will probably get better after her first time. Dolly finds her answer to her "frigidity" when she meets a gentle young MBA student, and Kaajal locates a reserve of self-awareness that reshapes her expectations of the world. It feels especially self-aware after Pednekar's character said sex in her hobby in Pati Patni aur Woh last year. Sen Sharma has played a version of this part in Lipstick Under My Burkha, also made by Alankrita Shrivastava, but that character also derived her confidence from her new-found work identity. Here, the resolution lies entirely in the bed.

The Impossible Subaltern Desires of Is Love Enough, Sir: Tillotama Shome 

It is possible to see Is Love Enough, Sir as the completion of an arc in Shome's [peerless] career: she debuted in film with the part of Alice, a "maid" in Monsoon Wedding, and here she is a "maid" again, this time called Ratna. She was wide-eyed at the affluence of her employers in Monsoon Wedding, here Ratna has a stoic yet un-cynical familiarity with the savage inequality between employee and employer. But she has kept her heart open enough to offer unsolicited advice to her employer Ashwin (Vivek Gomber): "Life never stops, sir."

Alice fell for the wedding organiser played memorably by Vijay Raaz in Monsoon Wedding, a man in the same socio-economic class as hers. This particular role is far more transgressive—she realises she likes her boss, and in one tremendous scene, she gives it back this "sir" when he appears surprised to hear that Ratna wanted to be a fashion designer: "Why? Someone like me can't think of being a designer?" In a television interview, Shome said that when she searched the internet for references to films where the employer and "maid" fall in love, she found only porn. There is no reference, because it is arguably seen as impossible.

The Anxiety of Middle Age, and the Pangs of Childlessness in Paatal Lok and Tasher Ghawr: Swastika Mukherjee

The midlife crises of men is the subject of several prestige projects, including this web series. But the middle-aged anxieties of women are rarely articulated despite a canonical text like Madam Bovary, incidentally made into the Hindi film Maya Memsaab (1993). Paatal Lok too is a show about men and their crises, but the show really comes alive when the three women with considerable spoken roles appear—Swastika Mukherjee, Gul Panag and Niharika Lyra Dutt. The character of Dolly Mehra (Mukherjee) arguably owns this year's most delightful arc: a middle-aged woman disintegrating in anxiety about her husband's affairs and her own invisibility is saved by a dog and her puppies. Mukherjee has a terrific scene where she scoops up her breasts and tries to hold herself up against the gravity of ageing. Right afterward she tells her husband Sanjiv (Neerj Kabi) that it's not too late to have a child.

Later this year, Mukherjee played a more knowing version of middle-aged loneliness in the Bengali film Tasher Ghawr. Here too, her character Sujata is childless and her husband is having an affair. But Tasher Ghawr goes further, Sujata articulates the grief of having a miscarriage, something the American model Chrissy Teigen spoke about on social media this year to rapturous praise.

Mukherjee is one of the most hardworking actors in the Kolkata industry, appearing in several projects in a year. As she wryly said in more than one interview, it took one project in Hindi for her to be "discovered" after a career of 20 years.

The Women Pillars of Chhapaak, Panga and Ponmagal Vandhal: Madhurjeet Sarghi, Richa Chaddha and Jyothika

It is a truth cinematically established that a woman in need of support requires a male mentor/saviour: we've seen this in Bollywood (DaminiPinkChak De India!), Calcutta's Tollywood (Adalat o Ekti Meye), Hollywood (Million Dollar BabyThe Next Karate Kid). This year, there were two films that released in January with female mentors: Deepika Padukone's acid attack survivor has a stern lawyer played by Madhurjeet Sarghi in Chappaak, and Kangana Ranaut's retired kabbadi player has a coach played by Richa Chaddha in Panga. Of the two, Chaddha has the crowd-pleasing one-liners, and she plays the poker-faced feminist Meenu Singh with terrific charm and the finesse of several years' worth of performing. Sarghi is a newish presence to film viewers who may not have seen her on television, and she has the more strait-laced, hair-pulled-back-in-a-bun role, but she performs the lawyer with remarkable attention to detail—she is the sort of correct person who nods her thanks to the gateman who lets her in. She also imbues the part with humour, there is an ongoing arc about Padukone's Malti never returning her phone calls which adds a nice dimension to the fundamentally unequal relationship between a power lawyer and a college drop-out assault survivor.

Ponmagal Vandhal is made in the melodramatic pitch. It is full of lines that you would never be able to say in real life without being booed. Jyothika's hair-pulled-in-a tight-ponytail lawyer Venba delivers monologues of such melodramatic lines, and they land in this shoddy film because of her conviction. The film is also unusual because it puts its faith in the legal system in a climate of vigilante justice.

The Growing Political Gains of Panchayat: Neena Gupta

That many women are made dummy panchayat pradhans to fulfil a constitutional provision in letter is a fact we have encountered in news stories. We meet such a pradhan in Neena Gupta in Panchayat, and realise that she could be a formidable presence despite her placeholder status. Her husband, played by the marvellous Raghubir Yadav, is a canny politician who strategised to get around the women's reservation quota. He needs her permission for everything in the house. Gupta may not be politically political (she does not know the words of Jana Gana Mana), she is also not versed in the contemporary gender politics of the day (she wants to pay a good dowry for her daughter's groom) but she quickly grasps the import of the central government's pungent messaging on family planning.

Hindi cinema got one of its first female politician protagonists with Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika, but she portrays Rani Lakshmibai as a superwoman. Gupta's work in Panchayat, as a political woman in progress, is far more potent.

The Ceiling-breaking Ambition of Scam 1992: Shreya Dhanwanthary 

When Shreya Dhanwanthary, playing the investigative journalist Sucheta Dalal, does light a cigarette, I didn't cringe "please no". The cigarette does not establish her confidence and ambition. This is done by her single-minded digging on the last great business story broken in India (the stock market scams of Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh). This means it is not lazy short hand for confident career woman. Dalal is a calm, serious, hardworking reporter completely free of bluster. In a delicious face off, the equivalent of Paro meeting Chandramukhi in Devdas, Dalal meets the superstar stock broker Harshad Mehta played by the magnetic Pratik Gandhi. "You're not even capable of running the neighbourhood kirana (grocery) store, what will you run the country?" It's the sort of line many of us dream of telling some other prominent Gujaratis with industrial-strength charisma.

The Self-Assured Businesswoman of Soorarai Pottru: Aparna Balamurali

In the enjoyable masala film about low-cost flight pioneer Capt Gopinath, Soorarai Pottru, the masala lines belong to Bommi (Aparna Balamurali), who is the film's other determined entrepreneur. She takes her family to see the groom Maara, turning the practice of the boy's family assessing the girl on its head, and inspects him like a business prospect. When he asks her why 20 prospective grooms rejected her, she says, "Why did 23 banks reject your loan proposal?" In a moment of despair, when Maara dismisses her bakery, she says, "Don't demean the work that puts food on our table." And when he hesitates to ask her for a Rs 15,000 loan, she responds: "Why is that men are so ashamed to ask their wives for money?"

In most masala films, both the lines and the brute determination go to the hero. This film directed by Sudha Kongara is written differently. That and Balamurali's glint-in-the eye cheekiness make the difference.

The Progressive Mothering of Raat Akeli Hai: Ila Arun 

When Jatil (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is annoyed with his mummi Ila Arun for broaching marriage with an "inappropriately dressed" girl, she informs him that his mind is filled with dung. "Who judges a girl by her clothes these days? I am looking for a life partner for you. She must be someone fun, someone you enjoy spending time with."  She knows Jatil uses fairness cream and keeps it hidden behind his mirror. She gets a new tube when the old one is running thin and replaces it without telling him. Arun plays the part with a poker face and a salty knowingness. Her progressive ideas are picked up from watching television and films. Her son meanwhile, who scolds her for watching too much television, probably has not had this opportunity to brush up his gender politics. Conceptually, it is such a liberating notion—that it is possible to educate yourself by watching televised entertainment. You don't necessarily need degrees.

Sushmita Sen in Aarya, Kangana Ranut in Panga and Janhavi Kapoor in Gunjan Saxena are projects centred on female protagonists and the women deliver the goods competently. Shweta Basu Prasad as the tightly-wound doctor administering an unregulated medication in High is remarkable in her economy of expression.

The Disappointing

The Odd Pregnancy in Thappad 

The uncompromising premise of the Hindi film Thappad that even a single slap is unacceptable in a marriage is unusual in a society that tells women to adjust. The young woman walking out of the marriage because of the slap is a loving housewife who used to wakes long before the household does, and turns in long after everyone else has slept. But the slap undoes everything for her, and she informs her husband that she does not love him any more. It feels very odd, therefore, when she decides to birth his child after discovering she is pregnant. Why would a person explicitly walking out of a marriage because she does not love her husband, birth a child she has conceived with him? Why this compromise? It does not add up. Mainstream Bollywood and Hollywood has for a long time been seriously conservative about abortion: instead, we always get the "liberated" woman who decides to birth her child though the man in question has chickened out at the thought of commitment.

Then there's the caricaturing of the "maid" Sunita, played by the remarkable Geetika Vidya Ohlyan. The routine violence in her life is the obvious counterfoil to the slap that upends Amrita's life. Sunita reacts to the violence with violence and retains her cheer. The violence in her life is comedy, the violence in Amrita's life is dramatic. This may be life "as it is", but the lack of awareness denied to Sunita, the subaltern, is patronising. It suggests disappointingly that it is the wealthy and educated who have the ability to question norms.

The Heroic [Mis]Adventures of Keerthy Suresh 

The ambition is magnificent. Keerthy Suresh's name appears first in the credits before anyone else's. In Miss India, her name appears even before the film's title. It is deeply satisfying that since her masterful turn in the Telugu film Mahanati, Keerthy Suresh has taken herself seriously enough to sign projects centred around her character. Miss India is the optimistic story of a determined entrepreneur. In Penguin, she is a melancholic mother driven by the loss of her child (call her Mother India). But both films are silly, undeserving of her distinctive presence. Suresh needs to choose better, perhaps hire a script consultant to shepherd the films better.

The Tiresomeness of the Full-time Ailing Wife: Nirontor

This is not so much about the performance but the writing. Ankita Majhi turns in a competent performance in a smallish role but the depressed childless wife is now an exhausting cliché past its expiry. The stoic decent husband played by Prosenjit Chatterjee, is also boring though the actor has an impressive screen presence as always. The childless need not be spent by grief. This year's Tasher Ghawr is a fine example of how such a character can be written. Kareena Kapoor in last year's Good Newwz was nicely matter of fact about her inability to carry a foetus to term. It's also extremely annoying to see the hero be a martyr like caregiver, bursting at the seams with grief which we have seen in Hindi films like Pink, October  and the Bengali film Machher Jhol. Statistically it is women who outlive men and it would be nice for cinema to reflect this reality.

So Bad it's Delicious 

The Co-Op Rape Revenge of Mirzapur 

It is an arresting possibility—the youngish daughter-in-law Beena Tripathi (the marvellous Rasika Dugal) being raped serially by her father-in-law Bauji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). Incidentally this is a year for gerontophilia in the Hindi language industry: there's also Aarya where Jayant Kripalini has a much younger girlfriend, and Raat Akeli Hai, where the murdered man has a thing for much younger women. But Mirzapur squanders the possibilities arising from this horrifying abuse by making Dugal's revenge a co-operative movement. When Beena seeks to shoot him dead, the "maid" stops her and says, allow me my nemesis. A moment of compelling tension deflates into an Amul advertisement. Resentment is primarily a private sentiment, and revenge works best as a private enterprise. Incidentally, this Amul revenge is also copied from Rajkumar Santoshi's Lajja, an annoyingly didactic film.

The Tediousness of Oye Daaru Heroines:  Yami Gautam in Ginny Weds Sunny, Nusrat Bharucha in Chhalaang, Swastika Mukherjee in Charitraheen

There's a certain kind of Hindi film where the lead actress opens her mouth to say "oye", and you know she will in a moment ask for "sutta" and "daaru".  Don't be that filmmaker. In Bengali film, the woman will not say "oye" (a huge consolation) but she will have short hair and reach forward to light her cigarette from the man's cigarette, and this will mean she works in the sex industry. Please don't be this filmmaker either.

The Failed Imagination of Akshay Kumar in Laxmii

Since the 1990s, Bollywood has found men in drag hilarious, or murderous (the Bhatt films). So what does Akshay Kumar, billed as the first major Hindi film star playing a transwoman, bring to Laxmii? An exaggerated sashaying of the hips, a pronounced affectedness in speech, and a winking sexual assertiveness. In other words, the Nineties. Sir, please watch Vijay Sethupathi in the Tamil film Super Deluxe, and Riddhi Sen in the Bengali film Nagarkirtan to see how much beauty is possible if you permit yourself to imagine.

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