As someone who grew up watching Hindi cinema, it is not an exaggeration to say that I am not used to seeing real women on screen. By real, I mean the women who I can relate to. I have found myself either aspiring to be as ‘perfect’ as them or cringing at the way they are dealing with their life situations. The woman, of Hindi cinema, is mostly weaved into the story to be a beautiful part of the family or a companion to her lover but never an individual. We hardly get to go inside her headspace or see her as a flesh and blood human who feels anger, frustration, joy and jealousy. She is either too nice or too evil.
Watching Little Women, for me, was an experience because the women of this film reminded me of the women in my own life. It is even more delightful to know that the movie is based on a book written in the 1800s and still the conflicts are so relevant. The movie constantly jumps between time periods and considers her audience intelligent enough to catch up; however, once you are into the world, it is not difficult to follow.
I have had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.
The film begins with this quote from Louisa May Alcott, the author of the original novel. It is, indeed, a jolly tale that beautifully captures the hugs and snuggles of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth. The screen space is predominantly filled with women who go on from talking about their dreams to finally living them. The beauty of this film is that it does not try to dictate what a woman should dream about. In one scene, Meg tells Jo: Just because my dreams are different than yours does not mean they are less important.
Little Women is set in a time when marriage used to be an economic proposition and the only way for a woman to be rich was to marry rich. Meg defies it and falls for a tutor with blue eyes and an old soul, which in her words is much more important than the money. However, the film does not make an effort to go out of the way to glorify her decision. Meg is someone who, while growing up, knew what it is to want little things and feel less than the other girls and she is still the same person. Marriage does not change a woman. Neither does it make her more sacrificing and motherly, as the society conveniently likes to believe. In one scene, Meg tells her husband that despite trying, it is hard for her to be content with whatever they have. This film beautifully portrays how to let a woman be and NOT raise her to a pedestal.
Marmee, who is raising these four young women, is mostly seen smiling through all the odds of life, just like our mothers. However, in a vulnerable moment, she tells Jo that she is angry almost all the time and it took her forty years of effort to not let anger get the better of her. And in that moment, you realise that the constant smile on her face needs work. The effortlessness with which women are expected to serve their families does not come to them naturally. Homegenising a gender and believing that all women are born nurturers is unfair. Some of us are not and neither do we aspire to be. In my other favourite scene, Marmee gives some of her jewellery to Meg who is going to a ball and says that she does not understand the idea of saving jewellery until marriage. She goes on to tell her daughter that some things should only be yours and pretty things are meant to be enjoyed. As a woman who has grown up believing that ornaments are only there to tie women in the chains of patriarchy, this was the first time I saw them differently and gladly so.
Amy, who always felt second to her elder sister Jo while growing up, goes to the extent of burning her writings only to hurt her. Jo gets angry and it takes a while and a really bad accident for both the sisters to forgive each other. Honestly, I, as a young woman, would like to see more of this because I am done watching stories of caring sisters wanting to sacrifice everything for each other. That is not real. Anger, as an emotion, is hijacked by men but sorry to disclose it, dear world, women are angry too. In another scene, Amy rejects mediocrity and says that she would either be a genius or a nobody. She also unapologetically accepts that she has always thought of marrying rich because that is the only way for a woman to be rich. She believes that she has some power over who she loves and when a man tries to tell her that the poets might disagree, she immediately responds and says, “Well, I am not a poet, I am just a woman.” Amy is unabashedly ambitious and selfish but you do not dislike her. The visual grammar of the film makes sure you don’t. Maybe that’s because this film is written and directed by a woman, maybe this is what happens when women take charge and start telling their own stories.
Unlike Amy, Beth’s personality is like a cold breeze on a pleasant day. She is calm and giving and visibly shy. She is one of the characters in the film I would have liked to know more about. However, it is hard to know people who do not express themselves through words and on top of that she dies young. Her way of expression was music, she played the piano. You see Jo’s willpower in trying to bring Beth back to life. The long shots of the beach where Jo tells Beth her stories and they talk about life and death will make you feel alive but will also tell you the truth of death. It will make you feel small in front of the hugeness of this world and this awareness is always calming.
Jo March, the one who is telling this story, is a writer who is asked to make her stories short and spicy by her editor who is, of course, a man. He says that the country went through a war and people want to be amused and not preached at. He also goes on to say that if the main character is a woman in your story, make sure that she is married or dead by the end. The readers this editor-man is talking about are of course all men. This is the time when men decided what will be written and they are the ones who read.
It is relatable to see Jo struggling through the ‘terms and condition’ of womanhood. In one scene, when one of her sisters says, you could be pretty if you want it; she replies, don’t want it, won’t do it. It hits a chord because vanity even today is an inseparable part of womanhood, there is a constant pressure to look a certain way and popular culture has made it only worse. In another scene, you see Jo expressing her disappointment in being a girl because she cannot be in the army like her father. How else can Jo feel useful? The only way she could have been useful to the nation is by joining the army. Even today, after so many years, the participation of women in this hyper-masculine institution called the army is being discussed and debated.
Jo owns her fragility but does not conform to the norms. She sells her hair to help her family with some money but then also cries about it. The film does not try to make her ‘brave’. When she is younger she rejects the idea of marriage but in the latter half, you also see her reconsidering her decision because she is lonely. She is craving love but is also anguished by the fact that women who have their own minds and ambitions are only known for their beauty and their ability to love.
Aren’t we all anguished though? It is still hard for women to be ambitious and yet have the desire to be loved and cared for. The popular culture also asks you to be less feminine if you want to make your own way. It only made me wonder: Why do women need to wear pants to be taken seriously when they can do equally well in their floral dresses too. The laughter, warmth, love, kindness and the incessant chatter in the house of March sisters fill your heart. If you have to go by conventions then each frame is feminine and, as the film shows, femininity is beautiful.
This film is a delight majorly because you get to be a part of the world that is full of living-breathing women and that too so many of them. You know how sometimes you do not realise how thirsty you are until you see the water bottle. This is exactly how I felt after watching this film. I have been craving real women on screen. Little Women served me a buffet when I could have been satisfied with an Econo-Meal too, and I cannot be more grateful.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.