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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Women On Screen 2022: The Narratives Stronger Than Ever

This year, there have been exemplary moments in the Indian entertainment industry. Mouni Roy, an actor who had humble beginnings in Television is now the main antagonist of a major Bollywood flick, Brahmastra. For the first time in her career, a celebrated actor like Tabu plays a double role in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. Even a new reality show like Lock Upp, hosted and produced by Kangana Ranaut and Ekta Kapoor, respectively, became popular on the streaming front.

For a while now, we have been witnessing the much-needed growth of stories regarding women as the primary focus. Conversations questioning stereotypical presentation on screen and women’s safety in the workspace have pushed society to ask some thorny questions. Hence, cinema is no longer solely feeding the escapist sentiment.

Themes like fighting subjugation and dreaming of a better life have been brilliantly captured on screen in 2022, thus far. Despite characters hailing from various economic statuses, their core spirit of revolution remains unanimous. Though, in instances of grey characters, there is a lot more than the conventional hero and villain chronicle.

We explore these three areas in more detail, but with Indian cinema as the central discussion point.

Fighting Societal Oppression

Indian cinema presents films which deal with the themes of domestic violence fighters rising up against abusers. The approach in Darlings on Netflix is more distinctive and visually striking, with dark humour as a coating. It highlights that a daughter, with her mother’s help, seeks revenge on her abusive husband. She also gains the help of a neighbour who fancies her mother. Prime Video’s Ammu, on the other hand, is gritty and darker. It shows how a survivor finds an unlikely ally in a criminal to seek revenge. In both instances, males are strong supports and help to combat the negative ones.

Works from the country also have shown stories where the men act as change enforcers. Most such content is coated as comedies. Jayeshbhai Jordaar shows the son of a misogynistic village head who champions gender equality. He goes to all lengths to aid his wife from succumbing to patriarchy. In Fakht Mahilao Maate, a saree-shop vendor mystically receives the gift of hearing women’s thoughts. He subsequently, decides to help them. Titles like Doctor G, try to deconstruct social stigmas attached to gynaecology. It subliminally explores other issues and inequalities within society. A certain section of society may think that these movies are ‘mansplaining’. But one cannot deny that they present some thought-provoking perspectives.

Internationally, there have been strong stories about the ‘revolution’. Austria’s Oscar-Entry Corsage shows Empress Elisabeth rebelling against her public image. She comes up with a plan to protect her legacy. Danish Oscar candidate Holy Spider shows a female journalist investigating a serial killer who murdered hundreds of female sex workers. Hollywood’s The Woman King is a powerful epic about an 1820 general who trains the next generation of warriors to combat slavery. It showcases brutal stories of atrocities against the warriors and how they channelise the pain for a greater cause.

Gargi in Tamil adapts a legal-drama approach in showing the bout for justice. It exhibits how a daughter’s belief system is challenged after her father is accused of assaulting a child. She stakes her reputation and goes against the grain for the truth. America’s She Said depicts how two journalists break the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct allegations. The heart-breaking but insightful movie delves into the psyche of abuse survivors and the impact such ghastly acts have on them as well as their loved ones.

Dreams of Utopia

Whilst fighting oppression is a relevant umbrella theme in all titles, ambitions and dreams of utopia (a better life) seem to be a concealed concept. Pakistan’s Kamli shows a wife torn between loyalty and passionate desires prompting her to move on. It then goes on to show how two other women are also imprisoned in their own lives. The web series Delhi Crime Season 2 also shows entrapment through the antagonist. The character is portrayed to be an opportunistic killer. Her dreams are sacrificed at the cost of marriage and children. She is a villain but also marginalised in society.

In the hope of a better life, ordinary life battles result in bigger motives in India’s Janhit Mein Jaari, Maja Ma and US’ Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO). All of these have a light-hearted appeal but dig into some serious topics. These include sexual well-being and same-sex relationships. The first film shows how a woman takes on the job of selling condoms and while facing societal backlash, changes the lives of women. EEAAO is a melting pot of several styles. Through humour, it addresses pertinent subjects like mental health, economic pressures and migrants in America. Though a quirky character, the female lead becomes ‘the chosen one’ to save the multiverse. The third title shows how a closeted lesbian confronts her past when her son’s marriage comes into question. Her dream of an incomplete relationship becomes her strength and a greater cause.

Cinema also shows the ‘creative’ dreams of women in a sinister light. The biographical film Gangubai Kathiawadi revolves around the titular young actress-aspirant who is sold to a brothel on the pretext of love. She subsequently becomes the Mafia Queen of Mumbai’s red light district. The ‘loss of innocence’ is also exhibited in Laal Singh Chaddha, where the female lead becomes a gangster’s mistress in exchange for Bollywood dreams to be fulfilled. Though both works differ in shades, the darkness of lost dreams is palpable. Whilst the former is directly based on a true story, the latter draws parallels with real-life incidents.

In the West, these too are re-imagined stories on celebrated legends. Netflix’s Blonde, which is based on American actress Marilyn Monroe, is a graphic picture that documents a famous personality’s emotional and mental pain. She gets trapped in a pre-set image for her and even trying to be a serious actor does not match her sensibility. Britain’s Emily is based on writer Emily Brontë. It depicts the societal pressures creative ambitions faced during the 19th century. Social ostracism and emotional suppression are at the cost of their freedom. For these women, in Emily’s case at least, art comes from a broken state.

Exploring Grey Shades… And Darker

This year, several personas have emerged where the central woman suffers from past traumas which results in a chequered present life. US Netflix original Luckiest Girl Alive shows how a famous editor’s life is turned upside down after a sexual assault incident resurfaces many years later. Despite suffering a horrific ordeal, she is still questioned as to whether she is a ‘hero or accomplice’. She fights the naysayers for her truth to come out.

Prime Video original Gehraiyaan shows the pivotal lead who has an affair with her cousin’s fiancé. This spirals into a lethal secret resulting in some devastating consequences. The role is seen as fighting past emotional baggage as she deals with suicidal tendencies and grief. Her volatility and irrational headspace cause her to make some questionable decisions. Both film examples highlight the long-term damage of mental and emotional disturbance. As such, an individual can understand the complexities a turbulent history can have on a person.

Perhaps a greyer example is that of the lead in Disney+Hotstar’s A Thursday. She initially is seen as a compassionate nursery teacher but is revealed to be a vigilante, taking kids hostage for a cause. We later understand how she underwent traumatic torment as a child. In both Indian movies, trauma has been a major cause of why particular individuals are pushed to the ‘moral’ edge.

It is particularly intriguing how the ‘negative’ characters are perceived by disdained men. The Hindi thriller Ek Villain Returns shows a woman who is seen as a serial killer accomplice. She is presented in a maniacal light. Whereas the main culprit, who is a male taxi driver, is shown to be heavily influenced by her almost a victim because she cheated on him. This, of course, is subsequently shown to be a figment of his imagination. In reality, he killed her due to adultery.

The Indian epic Ponniyin Selvan: I shows one of the main princes of a dynasty to be a scorned lover of a rival queen. Their separation is due to royal protocols prohibiting their relationship, resulting in her being banned from the kingdom. After the expulsion, she marries another enemy of his, whom he beheads. A sour love story forms the backdrop.

The queen, however, displays more negative shades in this first instalment. We observe her alluring the men with charm, beauty and wit. She is unapologetically ambitious and yearns for power on the throne. In an era dominated by men, the Queen seeks to call the shots. The character is layered, empowering yet ethically challenged. Antagonism finds a middle path.

Final Word

Globally, it is heartening to see more female filmmakers and producers emerge like Apoorva Guru Caran, whose movie Joyland is Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars. Singapore’s official entry to the Academy Awards Ajoomma is also special. Hong Hui Fang is the first Singaporean to be nominated for Best Leading Actress at the ‘Golden Horse Awards’. After three decades of working as an actor on television and in supporting roles, this is her first role as the lead.

The pursuit of strength and solidarity is not just limited to cinema. But a global phenomenon.  Draupadi Murmu becomes the first person from the Tribal community and the second woman to hold the Office in India. The United Kingdom, though for a brief while, got their third female Prime Minister.

Despite progression, however, #MeToo accused filmmakers/musicians, despite such grave allegations are given centre-stage on Indian reality shows. There has also been an increase in ghastly crimes against women. The killings of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa not only shook Britain but provided a magnifying glass on the perils women face at present. A similar thing can be said regarding the cases of Ankita Kumari and Ankita Bhandari in India, alongside Chanda Maharaj in Pakistan.

One is heartbroken seeing how a mere 22-year-old Mahsa Amini dies due to reported police brutality and not wearing the hijab according to government standards in Iran. However, the fact that women are fearlessly protesting and fighting back shows that the voice against patriarchy is rising louder than ever.

Having said that though, we must not lose hope as the fight continues and will not stop until the final shot is perfect.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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