Is Pataakha the Sisterhood Story Bollywood’s Been Waiting For?

Bollywood

Is Pataakha the Sisterhood Story Bollywood’s Been Waiting For?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

H

indi television has cracked the winning Sister Act formula. Every possible hoary combination that the sister trope has to offer has been exploited: We’ve seen biological sisters (Behenein), half-sisters (Swaragini), cousins (Bidaai), twins (Hubahu), conjoined twins (Amber Dhara). You get the drift? But this is no celebration of sisterhood – more often that not, this is sisters pitted against each other, plotting and planning as women are wont to, in the limited imagination of Hindi TV.

Hindi cinema, on the other hand, prefers its brothers in arms. Sisters serve as an accessory: They are mostly bechara, often vidhwa because mainstream Bollywood’s patriarchal roots are as subtle as a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film set.

Be it the boisterous brethren of Satte Pe Satta (1982) or the miserable long lost ones in Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973), the reincarnated brothers in Karan Arjun (1995) or Deewar’s (1975) ideologically distant sons, Bollywood has milked the bhai-bhai formula dry. But somehow the industry hasn’t been able to extend the same warmth to films about sisters. Those have been sporadic and occasionally brilliant – but largely predictable.

This week Vishal Bhardwaj’s Pataakha, a rural drama about two warring sisters, is up for release. Going by the trailer, Pataakha seems to have taken a diversion from Bollywood’s usual sisterhood films that straddle selfless love and envy.

From the ’40s to the noughties, sisters in our cinema have one great common trait – they are all self-sacrificing. In the 1949 tearjerker Bari Behen, Suraiya plays the big-hearted older sister who takes on the blame for her younger sister’s indiscretion. In a nondescript Gumsoom (1982), the heroine asks the man she loves to marry her mute sister who has been raped. Seemo (Amrita Singh), the adopted sister in Waaris (1988) goes a step further and agrees to marry her elder sister’s widower father-in-law. Even in the ’90s we’ve seen the selfless Madhuri ready to give up love to marry her brother-in-law in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! But Tuffy saves the day.

Because even as we continue to love Anju and Manju, it’s time Hindi cinema gives sisterhood its version of an emotionally hefty Deewar or the life-like informality of Kapoor & Sons.

The last big-ticket film using the long-suffering sister template was Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007). In a year when a spirited Geet from Jab We Met breezed across screens declaring “Main apni favourite hoon”, Rani Mukerji’s sob story about a small-town girl taking to prostitution for her sister’s future was rejected quicker than stale cheese.

Yet another popular trope are the twins. Hema Malini’s Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) remains the most iconic one in the genre, but the “twin sisters separated at birth” puzzle had long debuted in black-and-white action star Fearless Nadia’s Muqabla (1942). The story made a comeback with Pankaj Parashar’s Chaalbaaz (1989). What worked for the film was its big energy, a sassy re-imagination of the plot, and an extremely entertaining Sridevi delivering the role(s) of a lifetime as the sharp-witted Manju and shy Anju. But in films about twins, it’s always the dynamic sibling who is in charge. That changed with Tanuja Chandra’s Dushman, with the reticent Naina (Kajol) training to kill her twin Sonia’s rapist. What did not change is that if one sister is an extrovert, the other ought to be an introvert.  

What worked for the film was its big energy, a sassy re-imagination of the plot, and an extremely entertaining Sridevi delivering the role(s) of a lifetime as the sharp-witted Manju and shy Anju.
Image credit: Lakshmi Productions

Even the sister vs sister stories involve broad and mostly embarrassing generalisations.In Anhonee (1952), Nargis plays the double role of a polished socialite and her lookalike half-sister – an uncouth courtesan with a dark complexion. An Evening In Paris (1967), Sharmeelee (1971), and Aaina (1993) make sure to drive home the point that the “outgoing, modern girl” is destined to suffer while the homely girl finds happiness.

Even in films supposedly pegged as “heroine-oriented”, the spotlight is on the man. The quest is for him. He is the ultimate prize. Like in Tohfa (1984) where two sisters (Sridevi-Jaya Prada) fall in love with the same man. Besides featuring a cult saree song, Tohfa is the patron saint of all saas-bahu serials with its melodramatic confrontations, extreme close-ups, and a martyr heroine. However, Baseraa (1981), where two sisters marry one man because of unforeseen circumstances, tackles the idea of shared love with empathy. The most nuanced and affecting picture of sibling rivalry came with Sai Paranjyape’s Saaz (1997) as two singer sisters, Mansi (Aruna Irani) and Bansi (Shabana Azmi) drift apart because of professional jealousy.

But for me, the most incendiary take on sisterhood came from Govind Nihalani’s Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1991). This retelling of the Spanish play The House of Bernarda Alba has five unmarried sisters living with their autocratic mother in rural Rajasthan. The absence of social life and physical intimacy has scarred each girl profoundly. Built around themes like rebellion, cruelty, and jealousy, the relationship between the sisters is repressive and hostile.

In many ways, Rukmavati is the antithesis of Gulzar’s Namkeen (1982) – an intimate portrait of sisterly love. Set in a quaint Himachali village, Namkeen honours the dignified fortitude of three tightly knit sisters Nimki (Sharmila Tagore), Mitthu (Shabana Azmi), and Chinki (Kiran Vairale), as they tend to their old senile mother, and run a household without a man’s help. The trio’s trials and tribulations are seen through the eyes of their paying guest Gerulal (Sanjeev Kumar). As he gradually gets to know them better, Geru discovers that beneath the withdrawn veneer are three exceptional women embracing a life that is at times salty, at times sweet, and otherwise tangy – just like their names.

Namkeen is a poignant ode to sisterhood and Hindi cinema’s rare, fine offering on the subject. For a bond as organic and ubiquitous as sisterhood, it is a pity that our films have mostly paid lip service, never delving deep to explore the connection. Their narratives, weighed down by frivolous and fanciful tropes.   

Thirty-six years after Namkeen, Gulzar’s protégé Vishal Bhardwaj attempts another earthy, slice of life story about sisters with Pataakha. We can only hope it breaks away from the stereotype. Because even as we continue to love Anju and Manju, it’s time Hindi cinema gives sisterhood its version of an emotionally hefty Deewar or the life-like informality of Kapoor & Sons. Bhardwaj’s Badki and Chhutki may just be what we’ve been waiting for.

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