I love a good character arc. It’s one of the main reasons that we fall in love with TV characters the way we do, because we have seen this person transform over an extended period of time. We don’t often get such a satisfactory growth arc with movie characters. It is either too rushed or left incomplete. But one movie character that escaped this trap is Divya a.k.a. Kunju from Bangalore Days, beautifully portrayed by Nazriya Nazim.
In the beginning of the film, she is fresh out of college, ergo extremely wet behind the ears. She has hopes and dreams, but she is clearly not going to overstep her parents’ authority to achieve them. We see this early on in the movie. The girl wants to do an MBA. Instead of taking her to college admission fairs, her parents take her to an astrologer, who decrees that she should be married off within the next two months.
Her immaturity is put on full display in the pennukaanal, or arranged-marriage rendezvous, scene. After revealing that he is yet to recover from an ended relationship, her prospective groom asks her if she has anything she’d like to share, to which she responds that, contrary to her mother’s claims, she did not cook the snacks offered to the guests. She also seems more eager about the possibility of hanging out with her cousins in Bangalore than about the prospect of marrying Das.
From this point until a little later in the film, we have pretty standard fare. A wedding song (an iconic one, no doubt) where we can see the stars in her eyes, cold feet right before the ceremony, and the awkwardness of suddenly having to share a life with a stranger. Divya’s challenge comes after the wedding and the much-anticipated move to Bangalore.
After a few attempts at winning over her new husband, she has to come to terms with the reality that the man does not intend to put any effort into the marriage. She also has to deal with being chastised for attempting to make friends in the alien environment of her high-rise apartment complex, and the maid snitching about her poor housekeeping skills to her mother-in-law in America.
When she finally realises her husband’s terrible secret, she does what most women in her socio-economic status would probably do. She goes back home to her parents. But she surprises us by choosing to return to Bangalore when she learns the details of Das’s past and refuses her conservative parents’ offer of divorce as a solution.
She enrols in an MBA by pledging her wedding gold, makes friends in the neighbourhood, and hangs out with her cousins—all things she intended to do from the get-go. But she no longer waits around for Das’s approval because she is done playing the dutiful wife. She has accepted that the two of them are flatmates, not a married couple. She does eventually get her happy ending with Das, but even that she does on her own terms and entirely through her own efforts.
Kunju’s is a very realistic empowerment. She is aware of her boundaries and works within them to lift herself up. She is offered divorce as a way to free herself from a bad marriage, but she chooses to stay because she knows that in the long term, divorce just means going back under her parents’ thumb. She is no longer the girl who makes empty speeches about empowering women by employing them in her as-yet-undecided business. She now knows that she first has to empower herself, and she finds ways to do it.
Hers is not the cigarettes-and-tequila kind of empowerment. No judgement towards the women characters who are given that treatment! I’m only saying that Kunju’s growth story is a lot more relatable for most of us upper-middle-class viewers. She is still operating within the bounds of patriarchy, but she gets what she wants out of it, in the best way that she can.
She is not a goody-two-shoes though. She does puff the occasional cigarette and goes on dangerously fast bike rides with her cousins. But none of this is done in front of the family. She probably thinks, like most of us, that what they don’t know won’t hurt them, and that’s good enough for her.
It makes perfect sense that Kunju was born of a woman’s pen. Writing a story of a family in a social milieu that probably closely resembles her own, Anjali Menon understood Kunju’s reality only too well. Divya’s challenges and triumphs may not be the stuff of legend, but that is okay. What matters is that in a film full of interesting characters, Divya is probably the one we can take the most realistic learnings from.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.