Kanika Dhillon On Writing Messy Women Characters And The Impact Of #MeToo On Bollywood

The screenwriter of Manmarziyaan, Kedarnath and the upcoming Judgementall Hai Kya on why she was rooting for Kabir Singh

Kanika Dhillon has written two of the most interesting women in films last year – Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) in Manmarziyaan and Mukku (Sara Ali Khan) in Kedarnath. Ahead of the release of Judgementall Hai Kya, starring Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao, she spoke about the allure of messy characters, what she thought of Kabir Singh despite its criticism and whether anything has changed in Bollywood  post #MeToo:

Anupama Chopra (AC): I feel like some of the more interesting women I have seen on screen last year have all been created by you. Rumi in Manmarziyan, Mukku in Kedarnath and now Bobby in Judgementall Hai Kya. And what’s amazing about them is that they are not perfect, flawless women. They are very messy, they make stupid decisions, they’re very strong-headed. You talked about Bobby as being chipped and broken. What is the allure of these fabulously messy women and where do they come from?

Kanika Dhillon (KD): We as people, are way messier than the characters that we portray on screen or the characters that we cook up. For the simple reason being that I as a writer have to justify why they are mad to the audience. And in real life, we don’t need to give any justifications. We can be completely erratic. I tend to gravitate towards characters that are not perfect, that are not complete, because I feel that if there is no void to fill, if everything is perfect, there is nothing to really look at.

So there is a natural tendency to create these characters, which resonate with people that have influenced my life or the state of mind that I have been in, or the things that I have empathised with. So all my characters, all my creations have a very strong, solid bond, connect or origin. They come from somewhere within me, because I have to be able to feel that emotion very strongly or be in a position like that personally. It is a very intimate kind of a creation. Not to say that I am crazy and broken, but my characters tend to have this quest, this kind of chip, these of dilemmas that they are grappling with, because perhaps they reflect my state of mind to a large extent. I’d like to say that all of us go through these points of conflicts, these situations. But usually we are very sanitised versions of characters that are portrayed on silver screen.

We’ll work harder and we’ll try harder, but at least it’ll be a safer place to work in

AC: Yeah, it doesn’t get messy messy.

KD: It doesn’t get messy because usually the heroine is always the most beautiful, she has the best hair, she sings in a perfect voice, all the men love her, God loves her or him. Divine justice is beautifully laid out for all these characters. In real life, that never happens, we just keep waiting for that perfect moment to arrive. I’ve always been more interested in delving into the psyches of these messy people because that is who we really are.

AC: You used the word moral compass also in a conversation, when you were asked about Rumi from Manmarziyaan – when she sleeps with her ex-lover right after she gets married. You said, ‘I don’t want to be second-guessing the moral compass of the audience, I have to be true to be my story instead of imagining what impact it could or couldn’t have. So it has to ring true for whatever my context and my narrative is. When I say something like that then I truly wonder why the hue and cry about a Kabir Singh?’

KC: I was late to the party, Kabir had released and the critics had a very important point of view to put forward and red flags were being raised. I went into that theatre wanting to hate Kabir Singh, because those red flags had been placed meticulously in my head. I knew that I was not going to like this film because the arguments that were being put forward rang very true to a rational mind. But as I started watching and I settled into my seat and I started going on this emotional journey with this character Kabir Singh, slowly I felt that all those red flags were suspended. I went into an emotional journey and I thoroughly thoroughly enjoyed the film, despite the length. I had a very good experience.

Kabir Singh’s not perfect, he’s really broken, he’s violent, he does things that are socially unacceptable, that’s why he has created a living hell for himself. I don’t see him as a representation of somebody who is living a glorious life

Then I sat down and I dissected it for myself. I viewed Kabir Singh as a character who needs help. He’s not perfect, he’s really broken, he’s violent, he does things that are socially unacceptable, that’s why he has created a living hell for himself. I don’t see him as a representation of somebody who is living a glorious life, he’s living in a hell. And that reached out. I was rooting for him to get out of it, I was rooting for him to make sense of his life and I was definitely rooting for them to come together. I am not disregarding what the critics are saying and I am not disregarding that there could have been a sensitive portrayal of certain issues. Is there a sense of responsibility? Yes. But I would like to add that as a creator, I understand why this character is behaving the way he is and why he would want to delve into such depths of helplessness. I wanted him to come out of it.

Coming to the other argument of the girl being portrayed in a very submissive manner  – I disagree that the girl was uni-dimensional and didn’t have any say in the way things were unfolding. If Kiara’s character was submissive and did not take a stand throughout the film, I buy into the fact that she is dismissive. But there were certain points in this film where this character decided, ‘I am going to marry this guy’, ‘I am not going to let this guy touch me’, ‘I am going to stay away from this man who perhaps has been with another woman’. Here my argument is only that if a woman is not launching into a very out-there a protest, does not mean that she is not more outspoken than a woman who chooses to express what she is feeling in an outright manner.

We are different kinds of people, we react differently. There is another argument regarding when he comes in and he says, ‘you’ and expresses his fondness or love for her. If a woman likes it and a woman is not objecting to it, that’s her personal choice. It’s not that she is dumb, it’s not that she’s not taken decisions. Why can I not give her the benefit of the doubt of being somebody who is okay with it? Why does she have to fulfil my definition of a woman who can stand up for her rights? She did stand up for what she felt for. When she went to meet the guy and tell him: I am getting married, can you come stop it? He did not turn up and she decided, ‘Okay, I am not going to now turn around and be with you.’

AC: I read something you wrote in The Quint about sexual harassment in the film industry and you said that there is no place for being neutral in the politics of sexual harassment. Given all that has happened, where do you think the film industry is today? Do you think anything has really changed?

There are a lot of loopholes, it’s considered trial by media to a large extent. Women don’t go out and complain because they feel that the system is designed to fail them

KD: I think about this a lot and I don’t have a yes or no answer. There is a good and bad part. The good news is that with whatever conversation that started in Bollywood around #MeToo – because as a nation we are obsessed with Bollywood, people started talking about it, the conversation percolated down to smaller towns, corporate sectors. People were talking about what the right touch and wrong touch are. It’s a big deal. I’m sorry to say that. It should not be such a big deal in an ideal world, but the fact that this country was talking about it, it was being reported, it was discussed in drawing rooms, I think it is fantastic.

Also Read: Meghna Gulzar, Swara Bhasker And Parvathy On How To Prevent The #MeToo Movement From Getting Derailed

How far have we come from the real-life situation on ground? Not much has changed because one sees that people who were accused are back to work. Independent bodies have looked into it and allegedly, they have been not guilty of the crimes they have been accused of. Basically, we don’t have a system in place as of now. There are a lot of loopholes, it’s considered trial by media to a large extent.

Women don’t go out and complain because they feel that the system is designed to fail them. There is no way to figure out what is a legitimate case of sexual harassment and what is a case of getting back at someone, or revenge. These rules are not there, there is no machinery or body that is created around it, so it’s all up in the air right now. The only criteria that people were thinking of was how do you figure out what is correct and what is not? If there is an offender who has multiple cases of harassment against him, then one would feel that this is one genuine case. But even then, how have you dealt with it?

Women don’t go out and complain because they feel that the system is designed to fail them. There is no way to figure out what is a legitimate case of sexual harassment and what is a case of getting back at someone, or revenge

So, the ground reality has not changed much but there has been a conversation around it, and yes, definitely there is one filter. There is a sense of fear perhaps, which again is good. Overall, there is an argument that women will not be employed now as ADs, and in fact, it (the movement) is a disservice and it will be harder for them to work. To that, I’ll say that fine, we’ll work harder and we’ll try harder, but at least it’ll be a safer place to work in.

AC: So I guess that we just hope things will move.

KD: Yeah, we just have to march on. This is something that has been going on for decades, it’s not going to get fixed in a month, one year, two years even. There is a starting point, and at least we have started. Bollywood is a micro industry and it reflects everything that is happening in and around the country. Be it representation of women, which is really poor. Be it lack of safety. Be it all the ailments we suffer from as a country – we see them reflected in Bollywood.

Also Read: Strong Female Leads, MeToo, And More: A Look At Women In Hindi Cinema In 2018

So Bollywood can’t be blamed for everything, because it is a microcosm and a macrocosm. The kind of changes that we’re going to see at an overall level are going to be reflected here as well, but the good news is that because we are looking at Bollywood for so many things, reasonably and unreasonably, it is a great thing that #MeToo happened here and the conversation started.

Anupama: At least the right signals are going out.

Kanika: The right signals are going out. We may have a long way to go, it may be a long journey, but at least we have begun, and it is heartening.

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