Mid-way through Sanjay Leela Bhansali's operatic Padmaavat (2018) set in the 13th Century, Aditi Rao Hydari's character Mehrunisa, Alauddin Khilji's wife, comes face to face for the first time with Padmavati, Alauddin Khilji's erotic obsession played by Deepika Padukone. Mehrunisa is a character resigned to her gilded cage, which on paper reads as Malika-e-Jahan, but which translates to constant jealousy, with her husband's libido snaking into any bed it gets. Mehrunisa is awestruck by Padmavati's beauty, "Noor-e-ilahi hai aap. Aisi khoobsoorti toh farishton ka bhi imaan badal de. Sultan toh sirf insaan hai."
The friend I was watching the film with in the theater, screeched in the darkness, at Mehrunnisa, "Gurl, what are you on about, your eyebrows are on fleek!" This was a swipe at Deepika Padukone's CGI unibrow. But under the millennial lingo, the point still stood—what beauty did Mehrunnisa, or Aditi Rao Hydari playing her, lack, for her to find in Padmavati's beauty not just awe-inspired humility, but an excuse for her husband's infidelity?
Two scenes later, her husband sentences her to life imprisonment, where she's doomed to perish, and that's all we hear about her in the film. This, despite the film starting with her, her obsession with ostrich feathers, and her marriage to Khilji—a cards-against-humanity evil in the body of a sexy, sexed beast.
This isn't the first time Hydari played the damsel whose life courts distress. Melancholy is her artistic calling card, and her globular tears have trickled through her career from her debut as the Devadasi in 1920s Thanjavur who dies in Sringaram (2007) all the way to her role in The Girl On The Train, recently released on Netflix to a universal pan, which begins with her being clubbed to death in a forest in modern-day gothic London. What is it about Aditi Rao Hydari's innocent beauty and infectious being that makes filmmakers want to pulverize it into tragic circumstances and characters?
When we are introduced to Aditi Rao Hydari's character through Parineeti Chopra's voiceover in The Girl On The Train, we are told that her life, as seen from the window of a train, looks perfect. She is languorously leaning over the rails of her balcony, a coffee cup in hand, a husband in tow. It's this idealized perfection first established that soon gets bloodied—there's a stalker, there's a therapist, there is an extortionist, and there is another abusive lover. Her beauty is supposed to make her murder all the more unfortunate—not just that it happened, but that it happened to someone so beautiful, so innocent, so aspirational is supposed to give an additional veneer of pain.
This creation of the over-unfortunate death trope is heightened in V (2020) where post a meet-cute and love-song montage, she's killed while playing saviour, attempting to help girls being pimped out. It makes the sadness gutting. Not just that she didn't deserve to die, but that she died while performing an act of goodness. The kind of sadness that made Asin's death as the virtue-queen rescuing victims of human trafficking in Ghajini first unwatchable, then unforgettable. Death is arbitrary, but must it also be unfair?
Fitoor (2016) milks a more devastating self-inflicted sadness out of Hydari's Kashmiri-complexioned character. In this adaptation of Great Expectations, Hydari plays the role of the Begum in her youth. She inhabits the tender backstory that becomes, over time, the brittle and masochistic Begum that Tabu plays. It is thus made clear that the Begum became brittle, betrayed by love, family, and time. Hydari invokes all the the petite allure as she evokes joy, and then pain as she's left at the bus-stop, abandoned and looted by her lover, and then later her miscarriage as he father kicks her into submission and apologia. It's the sort of brutalized pain that can only express itself hereon as bitterness. Later, as the Begum jumps to her death in deep satin-clad grief, it is hazy filters of Hydari's innocent happiness as she rollicks around the palace in royal fabrics that play, to make the point clearer. Once there was beauty. Then came life. Then came death.
At this point we are trained viewers—if we see a happy Aditi Rao Hydari montage song, we prepare ourselves for the sadness that lurks beyond, either as death or despair. In Wazir (2016), there is a dysfunction that defines her—the death of her daughter. Even at the end when she reunites with her husband whom she holds responsible, both frayed by grief, there is no sense of finality, even as there is forgiveness.
It is easy to unpack why pain pairs well with her—her visual innocence, and wide-eyed enchantment with a blackened waterline, makes the violence imposed on her all the more gruesome.
In the ominously titled Murder 3 (2013), she literally Big Boss-es herself. In the house she lives, there is a room, like in Big Boss, where from inside you can see what is happening outside, but the outside cannot look in. She locks herself in the room to see if her boyfriend would cheat. He does, she sees. But she lost the key to open the door and now finds herself locked in, an eternal voyeur of her lover's love life. She escapes eventually, with the help of her lover's lover, and it all ends in a teary farewell where she zooms off in a car into the distance. There is a sense of new beginnings, but it's the button-sized tears that linger.
In her Malayalam digital debut, Sufiyum Sujatayum (2020) she plays a mute Hindu who falls in love with a Sufi, triggering the caterwauling cries of Love Jihad. The film begins with the death of her lover the Sufi in a mosque on a hill in Kerala, as she's trapped in an unhappy marriage in Dubai. The film begins with grief, and plays out entirely as a lead-up to and a let-down from this moment of pain. In Delhi 6 she plays a bronzed unwed youth who is too old to find a match and too young to have given up. She inhabits a radical goodness here, often seen in many characters including that of Sujata, that isn't muddied by all the muckraking around her. She plays a good person who is destined to be eternally kind, but is given none of the grace to cultivate it. Kindness in a Hydari character is a coping mechanism against the despair that life has hailed at her.
She also inhabits in a few roles the opposite of conventional grace— the foxy seductress to a married goon in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018), and the sex-worker and political fixer in Daas Dev (2018). In both films her track ends with longing, the men she wants either tied in love or dead on a red-earthed dusty cliff.
In perhaps one of the happiest movies she is in, a Telugu romantic drama Sammohanam (2019), Hydari's character must be thrown off a building and mended in a hospital in order to be reunited with her lover. She ends up with him, and the man who pushed her off the balcony by mistake is taught a lesson, and it is a happily-ever-after. But did the bones have to break?
Looking at her other films, in which she emerges alive and well at the end of the literal or figurative narrative bloodbath, it is easy to unpack why pain pairs well with her—her visual innocence, and wide-eyed enchantment with a blackened waterline, makes the violence imposed on her all the more gruesome. I don't have it in me to see Bhoomi (2017), a revenge drama centered around her character's rape. Elsewhere, in Mysskin's mythological masturbation piece, Psycho (2020), she plays Dahini, named after a sacred female figure in Vajrayana Buddhism. The atrociousness of the setup is immediately apparent—in a nude flowy dress and strappy heels, she is kidnapped by a psycho, to have her head severed, unless she is saved by her stalker. In the end she is retrieved, and in a press conference dressed in all white, pure as the first flash of snow, she calls her murderer a child, a violator who himself has been, in the past, violated. She offers her wounds to give closure to a killer.
In Yeh Saali Zindagi (2011), she is given a song montage sequence of good sex before her husband is taken away from her and jailed, leaving her with child. In the second half she does get some redeeming, literally palang-tod sex, and a sort-of happily ever after, but really it's such a band-aid euphoria, like the ending of Kaatru Veliyidai (2017). Here too she's made a mother by an impetuous, abusive man-child who comes back to her in the end, begging for togetherness. The quirky background score closes Yeh Saali Zindagi with black humour hope while AR Rahman's romanticism that can make a rock into a beating heart seals Kaatru Veliyidai. There's a listicle of "Assholes Redeemed By Beautiful Background Scores" somewhere waiting to be written.
This is not to say that there isn't variety in Hydari's filmography; it's just that the despair sticks out as an obvious pattern. Humour comes in drips, with stockholm syndrome in Guddu Rangeela (2015), and love comes through false-rape allegations and Akshay Kumar's saviour complex in Boss (2013). She even plays an astronaut in Antariksham 9000 KMPH (2018) giving her tears the additional acrobatics of gravity.
Then there is London, Paris, New York (2012) which gave a glimpse of hope in the blackhole of joy that her filmography is beginning to look like. That if an Aditi Rao Hydari character skips through three cities, changes her hairstyle just as many times, including an unflattering curly bob wig, gets her heart broken by seeing her lover in bed with someone else, gets her marriage ceremony that she perhaps spent months planning, called off, then maybe, maybe, maybe, she can be happy, afterall.