When it comes to talking about gender, Bollywood often makes films that fall into two categories, i.e. the so-called "feminist" films, which are filled with girls taking shots or drawing a puff now and then, and the preachy "I can do anything!" films, which do nothing but serve to a mass appeal with its heroines facing taunts from society to reach their ultimate glory. Very rarely do filmmakers go to ground zero and direct films that fall under the invisible third category, i.e., films that show "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". Dibakar Banerjee's Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is one of those rare films. Through its exceptional storyline and carefully timed screenplay, he goes to the depths of the patriarchal society in our country, highlighting the reality both men and women have to face every day.
I recall when the title was announced, I was expecting a typical story where the boy and the girl are stuck in a common mess and try to wriggle their way out of it. It was when the posters were released that I was intrigued to see this film. The fact that Sandeep (Parineeti Chopra) can be a girl's name and Pinky (Arjun Kapoor), a boy's name took me by surprise and possibly set me up for the commentary on gender Banerjee would introduce.
The film starts with a one-shot sequence of a bunch of guys discussing a hypothetical situation. At a party, the guys have a choice between two girls, twins. The only difference between them is that one wears lipstick and one does not. As the conversation proceeds, it is interrupted by a haunting yet simple tune played on the santoor. Through this simple gesture, Banerjee highlights how talking about taking advantage of innocent girls, irrespective of her consent ,has unfortunately become an everyday conversation amongst people. The interruption can also signify that while we wish to see a change in our society, we don't have the guts to face reality and do something about it.
Another aspect that makes this film stand out is the intersectional approach taken by Banerjee to draw out the problems faced by the protagonists. A term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to how a person's social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Over the course of the film's run time, as Sandeep and Pinky continue to get dragged into the mess they are in, the former has to bear most of the brunt. It is easier for Pinky to move around and not be noticed, given his tough masculine exterior. But for Sandeep, it becomes almost unbearable. For her, it was more than just letting go of her natural habitat of fame and riches. She was stripped of her identity, of everything she had earned and, most importantly, of her purpose as a woman. From constantly being picked to cook and serve the food, to being eyed by a timid yet toxic bank manager for sexual pleasure, to losing her child, it comes to a point when Sandeep decides that she cannot keep putting out fires as they come up and must tend to some unfinished business.
Moreover, as we compare Sandeep and Neena Gupta's character (hereafter called Aunty), the discrimination amongst women become more evident. Sandeep's education and her privileged background can still protect her, to some extent, from all the subjugation she faces. Aunty seems to have nothing of that sort, which constantly makes her the subject of her husband's (Raghubir Yadav) harsh taunts. The very fact that he controls everything that happens in the house, even his wife, makes him a character everyone would love to hate. His position of authority is established every time he speaks in broken English, trying to show off his educational background. What was even more disheartening to see is that Sandeep has the resources to get herself out of trouble. Aunty has no choice but to stay, as she mentions when she narrates an instance where she tried to run away from her marriage: "Mere peeche aake bola ja toh rahi ho, magar jaaogi kahaan" (He came up behind me and said, you are leaving me, but where will you go?).
So, to answer the question mentioned in the title, I guess to talk about gender and society is to just stick to the ground reality and address the elephant in the room. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar does just that. Through its minimalism and hauntingly real storyline, Banerjee forces us to think about the expectations we set for the gender binary and how toxic masculinity can prove detrimental to our efforts to bring in gender equality.