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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Aanand L Rai’s Representation of Female Characters

Aanand L Rai’s Zero has been making huge waves. Within 24 hours, the trailer has ranked in some big numbers.

Besides starring the superstar Shah Rukh Khan, the movie also features two of Bollywood’s reputable heroines: Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma.

Their characters seem solid and promise to play a huge part in the film’s narrative.

On one hand, Anushka plays Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder, a physically-challenged who suffers from cerebral palsy.

Katrina Kaif portrays an actress, who (according to media reports), battles alcoholism.

Both actors seem to be battling a demon of some kind – but whether they will be able to beat it will be narrated through Zero.

Amidst the Zero hype, Filme Shilmy explores Aanand L Rai’s representations of female characters in his successful directorial ventures Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa.

Kangana Ranaut as Tanu – Tanu Weds Manu (2011)

Tanu Weds Manu is a progressive romantic-comedy of today.

A hopeful NRI doctor Manu (R Madhavan) comes to India to find a bride. He meets a wonderful, free-spirited woman Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) who seems to have no plans of marrying him.

Kangana is a vivacious, independent girl of today.

Despite wearing traditional Indian clothing, we see her hanging out with crooked men, drinking, smoking and occasionally swearing.

But the progressive factor about it is that her parents and family accept Tanu for the woman she is.

Though it is a concern for the family, they do not stereotypically curse her or compel her to change. They let her be.

Tanu’s effervescence remains intact despite the fact that she is about to get married.

Even when we see her with friend Payal (Swara Bhasker), their conversation and interaction are almost ‘Veere’ like. They talk about the things that only men would be ‘considered to do.

Prior to Tanu Weds Manu, we had seen strong female characters in Indian cinema.

However, this film projects women’s lib in a very subtle yet impactful manner.

It symbolises that female empowerment does not amount to carrying weapons and beating the bad men. But in fact, appreciating and celebrating oneself without any care.

Kangana as Tanu & Kusum – Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015)

The sequel of Tanu Weds Manu is a runaway success.

Like the last film, we see Tanu being her carefree self, without any inhibitions, even when she’s going through a divorce.

This time, we get to see Tanu’s doppelganger, Kusum, a Haryana-based athlete and student who (unlike Tanu) is more sporty, predominantly wears western clothing and has a boy-cut.

Whilst her outlook is less womanlike, her attitude is equally happy-go-lucky to Tanu, though Kusum is more fierce… And she even gives karate chops.

The main aspects are quite strong. Some critics have even identified two types of female characters. For instance, Huffington Post notes:

“Both Kangana exists only to show that there are basically two kinds of women: hysterical and self-centred; and sober and self-sacrificial.”

To a certain extent, this point is justified.

On one hand, we see Tanu not being considerate towards Manu, even four years into their marriage.

Even though her husband is locked up in a mental hospital, she runs away to Kanpur, not caring whatsoever about Manu.

Despite ill-treating her husband, she still wants to cry over him and doesn’t want to let him go.

On the other hand, Kusum, despite being the youngest character out of the lot, is more sensible/understanding.

The fact that Kusum leaves Manu shows her as a ‘sacrificial’ woman. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

In Bollywood, we have seen characters leave their beloved for their true love – i.e. Salman Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.  

So, why is it a big deal that a female character sacrifices their love for another woman… Surely, it’s a positive step?

Sonam Kapoor as Zoya – Raanjhanaa (2013) 

Raanjhanaa has been praised for being an ‘interesting, entertaining and fairly different love-story’ – as mentioned by critic Komal Nahta.

As such, the music, cinematography and performances have been praised. It is considered to ranks amongst Sonam Kapoor’s best works in her career.

She plays Zoya, a pristine Muslim girl who resides in a neighbourhood in Varanasi.

As described by Sonam, Zoya is a “childlike and unpredictable. She can be cold and at the same time, objective. She has every quality that makes her desirable to a man.”

The character is quite unconventional as she does exactly what her heart desires – even if it is falling in love with a man outside of her religion.

However, this character has been a subject to much critique as it is considered to lead on the ‘stalker’ and admirer Kundan (Dhanush) when clearly Zoya was not interested in him whatsoever.

Lata Jha in a column pens:

“A screenplay that depicts its female lead as the proverbial doll is offensive to me.

You’re telling me that she could, very well, be this strong self-reliant woman who goes on to lead a political party, but at heart, she’s a complete fool.

She doesn’t even know what she wants in life.”

The fact that Zoya is credulous (despite a formidable appearance), raises many such points, which Lata conveys.

It really makes one wonder why such a character has been penned, given that there were so many stronger female characters like Vidya Balan in Kahaani and Dirty Picture (to name a few), during the time Raanjhanaa released.

On the whole, Aanand L Rai’s successful directorial ventures have been entertaining and have even worked wonders at the box-office.

Whilst Tanu Weds Manu celebrates women lib through appreciating oneself, the sequel has been subject to critique. 

Consequently, Sonam Kapoor’s character in Raanjhanaa makes one ask whether this really is an apt representation of women today. 

It will now be interesting to see the role two strong Bollywood heroines like Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif will play in a major film like Zero. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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