B-Town Wonder Women and their Wingmen

Pop Culture

B-Town Wonder Women and their Wingmen

Illustration: Akshita Monga

You didn’t have to wait until December 23 to hear the most affecting line in Dangal. There it was on the movie poster, “Mhaari chhoriyan chhoron se kam hain ke?” kick-starting the campaign to shape the way we would view Dangal: as a feminist film. Pick your quibbles with it, but Dangal delivers on the promise that it made on several counts: In the story that it chooses to tell at all, in centering the conflicts of its female leads, and in its refusal to sexualise their bodies for presentation.

The rhetorical question that Dangal sets out to answer over the course of two hours and forty minutes, could well serve as the tagline for a particular kind of film we saw in 2016. Movies that were premised on the struggles of their female hero/heroes – and the men who enabled them or delivered them from those troubles. Films like Pink and Dangal took off with a get-set-go feminist stance, while those like Kahaani 2 and Dear Zindagi chose to deliver the same message with subtlety – each with varying degrees of success. (Of course, four swallows do not a summer make, but who’s to prevent us from being hopeful?)

Dangal dives into the incredible true story of wrestling champions Geeta and Babita Phogat who were hurled into the sport by their father Mahavir Singh Phogat. A lot of the criticism that the film has drawn focuses on how Aamir hijacks a story meant to be about female wrestlers, how Geeta and Babita appear to have no agency without him.

Fair critiques really, but to my mind, this is also missing the wood for the trees. At its heart, Dangal is a film about breaching a male sphere: On the mat and on film. The only female bodies that occupy half of its substantial runtime are those of children. That’s a fairly progressive step for Bollywood, which has started thinking of its heroines as individuals only in the last decade and a half. Dangal is just as much a film about tiger parenting, and a man who would move mountains – and his own prejudices – to get his daughters to succeed.

In a 2014 essay titled “Why Feminism Needs Men”, author Rebecca Solnit makes a point about the three kinds of men out there. “So there are the allies and the haters,” she writes. “And then there are a slew of men who may mean well, but enter the conversation about feminism with factually challenged assertions that someone – usually, in my experience, a woman – will spend a lot of time trying to rectify.” While Solnit’s discussion is focused exclusively on how men think about violence against women, this third kind of man is crucial to any debate on feminism.

Does every male figure who aids a woman become a hectoring patriarch letting the girls know what is good for them?

These men, in my wholly unscientific observation, surpass the other two categories. They fill up our offices, our immediate and extended families, several of them are our friends. The fence-sitters who begin conversations with, “I don’t want to sound sexist, but…” It is to this category that films like Dangal and Pink can really speak.

I caught a morning show of Pink wound up tight in a nearly empty hall this September. Two young men behind me crunched through their nachos, pausing to giggle at certain junctures, particularly at lines laden with innuendo. By the end of the film, however, I overheard one of them talk to the other about consent: “Kabhi socha nahi tha na aisa iske baare mein?”

Of course anecdotal evidence proves nothing and Pink has several legitimate problems: Just like Dangal, its female leads lack agency, Taapsee Pannu’s spitfire character is completely flattened as the film goes along, the court scenes are particularly overblown… and then there is Amitabh Bachchan’s hamming. The last was exceptionally galling for most of us. “Why did it have to be a man,” asked a friend with whom I discussed the film recently. “Why couldn’t his role have been portrayed by a woman?” (Shabana Azmi, we both answered instinctively.)

But then again, why couldn’t it be a male actor? Is there a singular way of looking at men who come to the aid of women in film? Does every male figure who aids a woman become a hectoring patriarch letting the girls know what is good for them?

There are two ways to look at Bachchan and Khan lending their heft to two of the most feminist statements we have seen in mainstream cinema this year. According to the first, this is a cynical appropriation of a hot-button issue that both the stars have piggybacked on to make films where they have the meatiest roles. Likely; probably true.

On the other hand, a more generous – perhaps naïve – view, is that the two genuinely believe in the subjects that the films dealt with. It is helpful to include men in the conversation around women’s issues. No matter where you stand on the “He for She” campaign, we know achieving an equitable world would be way easier if men would pitch in. We’ve moved along from our witches’ covens: Feminism needs male allies and partners, and Bollywood could really do us a solid.

Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2 – the sequel to the original Kahaani only in spirit – has a fine example of an ally in Arjun Rampal’s character. He has just enough screen time and his character is perfectly positioned to come to the aid of a distressed mother of a wheelchair-bound daughter, whether in helping her get rid of a child-abusing villain or in hitching a ride from the boondocks to Kolkata. Even though Rampal’s character is linked closely to the film’s climax, its denouement belongs solely to Vidya Balan.

About a week before Kahaani 2 released, Dear Zindagi hit theatres. It’s rare to see a film that draws such polarised views. I found myself rather bored by its protagonist’s first-world problems, but I was secretly cheering to see that a young woman’s interior problems, her inability to commit to or hold down a relationship, her loudness were deemed fit enough for the screen, all without judgment. (Remember that this is a niche exclusively occupied by Ranbir Kapoor.) Shah Rukh Khan plays a dishy psychiatrist who helps the young woman find her feet, nudging her through gentle, if anodyne, advice and encouragement – not by telling her what to do.

The impact that these films leave is not going to be immediately measurable, but I hope in the years to come we’ll still think about how each of them have gone some distance in ensuring that the stories of women are just as relevant and just as successful. And that there will be some men who will enable them, on and off-screen, edging around the traps patriarchy sets for everyone. Of course none of these stories were perfect – but in the conversations that they have ignited, there is more promise than Bollywood has held in a while.