Goodbye 2010s: The Decade When Bollywood Found Heroes in its Heroines

When Millennials Grew Up

Goodbye 2010s: The Decade When Bollywood Found Heroes in its Heroines

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

There is a scene right at the beginning of Shoojit Sircar’s Piku where Deepika Padukone is pulling laundry out of the washing machine while arguing with her curmudgeonly father about his bowel movement just before she is ready to leave for work. There was something strangely familiar about that scene, a quiet resonance in the moments that seemed to have been stolen from my own life. The domesticity, the arguments, Piku’s frustration as well as her love for her father, every little element in that scene reminded me of one part of my life or the other. But resonance was not the only thing that appealed to me. There was also a sense of quiet heroism inherent in that simple scene, a kind of a rare homage to the extraordinary effort it takes to be an ordinary, multitasking, working woman balancing her persona and professional priorities.

As a child from a single-parent household, Piku was my hero, not because she wore a cape or punched people. But simply because she spoke a language I understood, lived a life I related to, and made me feel seen and heard in ways I had rarely experienced before. 

Piku wasn’t an isolated example. She was part of the pleasant phenomena of the Hindi mainstream heroine being relatable and often the unabashed hero of her own story. In a lot of ways, 2010s was the decade when Bollywood came of age in terms of how it perceived and represented its women. In other words, 2010s was the decade when the mainstream Hindi cinema finally discovered the idea that women too have great stories to tell.

Personally for me, 2010s was a decade of finally embracing adulthood and dealing with the real-world revelations that came with it. The downside of this development was a slew of horrifying, childhood-destroying realisations like Rahul and Raj were no heroes, that the Alok Nath’s brand of sanskars were actually misogynistic, and that the idea of virginal purity, and the sanskari girl was nothing more than a patriarchal notion designed to keep women in check.

kahaani

Kahaani didn’t just prime Vidya as the ultimate hero, but also parodied the patriarchal trope of pregnant woman, who is usually rendered helpless, by using her pregnancy merely as a camouflage.

Viacom 18 Motion Pictures/ Pen India Limited

The upside was that I started looking for new heroes. And I was not the only one. The evolving cultural discourse, the hyper-aware residents of the internet, and the influx of a newer, demanding generation of actors and filmmakers signaled the oncoming of a change. Bollywood sensed both the opportunity and the shift in its market, and responded to it. And so I found my heroes… in the heroines.

Until 2011, there was only one way to make a women-centric movie – the Khoon Bhari Maang template where the plot would hinge on the happy-go-lucky heroine aggressively transforming from the wronged, helpless woman to a gun-wielding, blood-thirsty woman. Think the narratives of Mrityudand, Bandit Queen, Lajja, and even Damini. These were films that serviced this predictable trope, and in one way or the other, played around with the same moral virtuous binaries that were a staple of all mainstream Hindi movie heroines.

In 2011, Vidya Balan challenged, and in a way annihilated the basis of this binary, starring in Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture as Silk Smitha, South’s iconic soft porn star, who went on to have an illustrious career as an actress. It was a complicated, controversial story that threw caution to the wind and almost heralded a new way of mining heroism from heroines. The film can be counted as one of those rare outings that was almost as kind to its female protagonist’s flaws and checkered history as most mainstream movies tend to be towards their heroes.

But The Dirty Picture was only the beginning. Balan followed it up with Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, a classic saga about a woman seeking revenge for her husband’s death that actually subverted every trope in the genre. Balan’s enterprising Vidya defied the sorry image of a wronged woman, and destroyed it completely with a brilliant twist at the end. By casting her as a lethal, calculative assassin, Kahaani didn’t just prime Vidya as the ultimate hero, but also parodied the patriarchal trope of pregnant woman, who is usually rendered helpless, by using her pregnancy merely as a camouflage. Kahaani’s overnight success was especially crucial because it cemented for perhaps, the first time in the decade, that Bollywood could make a habit of finding its hero in actresses instead of seeking them out of male superstars long past their expiry date.

There was something distinctive about how the films in the last 10 years or so reimagined a brand of heroism that came without an assigned gender.

To be fair, the movies of the last decade weren’t the first evidence of Hindi cinema going out of its way to reclaim sexual agency and question the traditionally codes of masculinity. But there was something distinctive about how the films in the last 10 years or so reimagined a brand of heroism that came without an assigned gender. And that perhaps was what made 2010s a remarkable decade.

Look closely at the last few years and you will realise that movies led by women did not need to make grand statements about social issues and empowerment to justify its existence. They could simply be about the dichotomy of being the daughter who enabled her father’s co-dependence by indulging him (Piku) in the same way they could chronicle the odyssey of a woman who decided to go on a solo honeymoon after being abandoned at the marriage altar (Queen). Shining a light on the neglect of a middle-aged mother trying to learn English to earn the respect of her family (English Vinglish) was as necessary as a slasher film that mined commentary from the horrors of being a woman (NH10) and a spy thriller that took a long hard look at the sacrifices of a daughter, a wife who also happened to be a spy (Raazi).

If I’m being frank, I did not love Piku because it surpassed box-office expectations, or worse, because I was obligated to appreciate a woman-led movie. I loved it because it resonated with me, because it saw me as an individual complex enough to have her experience replicated on screen. I loved English Vinglish because it reminded me of my aunt, a lovely, enterprising women who despite her success as a small-time business woman in a hinterland town, routinely struggled with her self-esteem. I loved Dum Laga Ke Haisha because it reminded me that unlike Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’s world of selfish heroes and saree-driven hypocrisy, a heartwarming love story was the one that did not depend on the size, looks or makeover of its heroine.

As the decade comes to an end, I still love these movies because they actively destroyed the conditioning that kids like me had grown up with. It goaded me to dispel unwarranted beliefs about beauty and values, about appearances and attractiveness, about the aspiration of being a saree-clad Anjali for a dumbass Rahul, about sacrificing our happiness for the sake of love, about putting up with things instead of standing up. I loved them because they gave me heroines I could believe in. I suppose, there is no better way for Bollywood to grow up.

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