“Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
Vikas Bahl’s Queen, which released in March 2014, deals with the story of a young woman whose fiancé breaks off their engagement a day prior to the wedding, stating that the lifestyle that he has gotten used to while living abroad would not suit her sensibilities. Aghast, but with a motive to pull her life back together, the protagonist Rani decides to take a solo trip to her pre-booked dream honeymoon destinations. The movie showcases Rani’s adventures in the cities of Paris and Amsterdam, where she starts discovering her own identity through meeting different people, putting herself through situations she normally wouldn’t, and making decisions on her own - something she has never done before. Towards the end of the journey, she returns the engagement ring to her ex-fiancé, who now is interested in taking back the changed Rani, but she merely thanks him and walks away. A rather passive Rani transitions into taking control over her life - something which her family appreciates and supports her for.
Queen smashes female stereotypes from the onset of the movie, and challenges the notions society holds about women. The entire movie is from her perspective, rejecting the male gaze. At no point in the movie have female characters in different roles been judged or objectified; the myriad roles are in fact celebrated. Queen went on to become the most celebrated Bollywood release of the year, gaining positive reviews from critics and viewers alike, and bagging a National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. This character’s resistance against social norms to find herself was widely applauded.
Another Bollywood movie that portrayed a character with rebellious streaks and breaking stereotypes was Tamasha (Imtiaz Ali, 2015). This movie follows the story of Ved, a boy who is obsessed with stories and the art of storytelling. The movie starts where the protagonist meets a girl (Tara) in Corsica, where both of them are travelling. Together, uninhibited in a foreign land, they experience life as they have always wished to - unrestrained and without any expectations, making a pact to not reveal their true identities to each other. They flirtatiously converse with each other by embodying the famous Bollywood characters Don and Mona Darling. Tara falls in love with the offbeat, enthusiastic, creative, and spontaneous Ved, only to meet him four years later and realise that he is not the same jovial person she met earlier. Ved is the average, the mediocre man - he becomes an engineer, to fulfil his father’s wishes. He works as a project manager, because corporate life is the race everyone must run. He lives life on repeat – performing the same actions everyday - actions dictated not by the self, but by society. Realising that he is not the man she fell for, Tara rejects his marriage proposal.
Tamasha shows us the life of a man, stuck in the rut of daily life and living up to everyone’s expectations. When Tara makes him realise the disparity between who he really is and who he pretends to be, Ved breaks down. Ved gets fired from office and is tormented by his family’s attitude when he tells them about his situation. Throughout the movie we see flashbacks of how he is moulded into something he isn’t, and isn’t allowed to embrace his true self by anybody except Tara. In the end, his family only accepts his true self after he brings to light the torment he has gone through and repeatedly emphasizes that he is the hero of his story; it is he who will decide his fate, not anyone else.
Most Bollywood hits are built on the same plot, portraying very similar characters. The man is the powerful, decisive individual who makes rational choices and is always in control of his emotions. The woman is often lost, love-struck, helpless and waiting to be rescued by a man. Movies thrive off these cultural tropes – they sell. But Tamasha and Queen dared to tell a new story, a story that came with a few poignant differences.
Queen challenged female stereotypes. Tamasha challenged male stereotypes. And the audience’s receptivity to the two was a stark contrast. Even within the movies, the social support offered by the protagonist’s family and friends differed. Rani receives immense social support from her family. Conventionally, a woman ditched just two days before her marriage could be a source of shame for the family. The act of going on a honeymoon alone would be outrageous. However, Rani’s family supports her in her decision. At no point in the movie are the parents concerned with family honour. The focus is always the happiness and well-being of their daughter. The movie ends with a final act of rebellion, when Rani refuses to marry her ex-fiancé. For Ved, however, this social support was absent. Everyone around him, particularly his father, reinforces an adherence to stereotypes. Lack of social support accentuates his struggle and the constant compliance leads him to lose touch with his real life.
Another major point of difference between the movies is how the characters change throughout the movies. While Rani moves away from stereotypes to become her own person, Ved advances towards becoming something he is not. For Rani, the self-actualisation comes as she moves away from her ex-fiancé. For Ved, realisation dawns upon him as he moves towards Tara.
Is Queen’s success because society is ready to see female stereotypes being broken? After years of struggle and surges of feminist movements, society may have finally reached a stage where breaking the feminine stereotype is not only accepted but also celebrated. While a lot still remains to be accomplished, the first and most difficult step of being accepted may have occurred.
Conversely, breaking the male stereotype still does not have the privilege of being accepted. Movies with themes of male rebellion have been rejected in the past, the cult movie Fight Club being a classic example of the same; Tamasha follows suit. The depiction of a man as confused and emotionally charged does not always appeal to the audience. Indian society is still looking for a strong, dominant, financially secure man who knows what he is doing. And while this notion is far removed from reality, confronting this reality still remains a matter of discomfort.
But while society scripts every individual’s story on its preconceived notions, it’s time to tell a new story - one that is based on the individual, irrespective of gender. A story that is true, real and unfolds for the individual, not for a prototype of the society.
Sampada Karandikar & Chinmayee Kantak