Guest post by ARPITA DAS
In these times of celebrating ‘small’ films, ‘new’ unheard-of young directors, little India, and non-filmi characterizations, it seems to have become mandatory for critics to praise every film claiming to build its narrative around a so-called non-mainstream idea. If this were not so, two ‘small’, ‘different’ films which created a lot of hype recently, would not have gathered as much post-release steam. I am talking about No One Killed Jessica and Manu weds Tanu. Both have been promoted and described in reviews as bold films, with star heroines showing a no-holds-barred temperament and verbal acumen, and this being the central focal point of their ‘different-ness’, both have made that oft-repeated Bollywood claim, ‘pikchar hatke hai’. If the films are to be believed, this new Indian woman can be instantly recognized by one or more of the following traits: smoking nicotine or other substances, mouthing expletives both in Hindi and English with ease, being sexually promiscuous or even vaguely ambivalent, manipulating people close to them without giving a thought to causing hurt, and a sound lack of any sense of ethics in the professional sphere or personal turf.
In No One Killed Jessica, Rani Mukherjee plays the sexually aggressive, hard-talking, harder-cursing, ambitious career woman who, the film would have us believe, epitomises the new emancipated urban Indian woman. The stark contrast to this calculatedly delineated dominatrix is the mousy opposite played by Vidya Balan – here is the other kind of urban Indian woman – soft spoken and tentative to a fault; timid, wide-eyed in revelatory horror on confronting well-known truths about politicians, goons and the police, in other words, the classic middle-class, protected, virginal suitable girl. The binaries are seductive in their reassuring glossing over of the existence of any other possibility.
Tanu weds Manu goes a step further, in that it places the young girl in provincial yet connected Kanpur, right in the middle of a traditional, even conservative milieu, and then embellishes her character with some throaty abuses flung at the hero, seductive flirtatiousness in song and conversation that confounds our shy, hapless hero, and a friendship with another woman which seems to be built convincingly enough on confidence-sharing and smoking up together. There is even a scene where our heroine Tanu sits on top of her friend, forcing her to have the last drag of a shared joint before letting her go to her new groom for her suhaag raat. Under different circumstances, this scene in the film could have been discussed as the first genuine lesbian moment in mainstream Hindi cinema. However, the film has by this point already collapsed under the weight of a contrived lip-service to non-conformity coupled with the need to make sure that the moral values of the middle-class north Indian family remain unscathed. So, the smoking and ambivalent camaraderie with a female friend, expletives and seduction are all mere trimmings, even as the film drags its uncertain feet to a climax which I bet still sends a shiver down the spine of every north Indian woman with sons of ‘marriageable’ age. The weeping bride is ‘won over’ by the man she now fancies, our hero, over the gun-toting lover of yesterday. Finally, it is the men standing in the middle of the Kanpur street, at the head of their respective baaraats, who call the shots.
The out-of-control girl is tamed by the man who is ready to ‘accept’ her even with her many transgressions, and she is now on the verge of entering a life of ‘reality’. As her friend tells her in a moment of anger, ‘This is not college, it is real life, so stop playing the rebel and marry the nice boy who is a doctor in London.’ Enough said.
Arpita Das is the Director of Yodakin and works with Yoda Press