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Her-story Repeats Itself?

The film trade, much like the nation at large, continues to grapple with the acute cash shortage and a very visible slowdown in consumer spending. Thankfully, in this gloomy climate of financial uncertainty, some much-needed cheer has been provided by last week’s release, Dear Zindagi.

The film’s more-than-decent performance at the box office is significant on many counts.

First and foremost, it reassures backers of forthcoming films that while the ongoing cash crunch is undoubtedly a massive concern for our business, it need not be an insurmountable one. Secondly, it reaffirms that the assured touch we witnessed in English Vinglish was not a one-off and that in Gauri Shinde, we have a sensitive and exciting directorial talent to watch out for.

Further, the film provides additional proof – if indeed, more was needed – that no one epitomises romance like Mr Shah Rukh Khan does, irrespective of whether he is practicing it or preaching it!

Similarly, the film also underlines the fact that Alia Bhatt is the foremost actress of her generation, not only as an exponent of the craft but also as a box-office draw. While her career may be barely four years-old, Alia’s filmography already has a formidable air about it, both for its versatility as well as its high success rate.  Case in point, her body of work in this year alone: Kapoor & SonsUdta Punjab and Dear Zindagi now.

Finally, Dear Zindagi’s strong box-office performance, combined with that of Pink and Neerja earlier this year, should tell us that the so-called ‘women-centric’ film remains a genre that is on an upward trajectory. That being so, it is fitting, almost poetically so, that hot on the heels of the latest feather in the feminine cap, this Friday saw the release of the Vidya Balan top-lined Kahaani 2. After all, in so many ways, both the star, as well as the prequel to this week’s release, have been at the vanguard of our industry’s discovery of stree-shakti.

Let’s rewind a bit.

Honourable exceptions like Mother India,  Aandhi, Arth, Umrao Jaan and Damini aside, for much of the duration of the Hindi film industry’s existence, the role of the leading lady in our films has been largely restricted to being a mere prop for the male lead. All they had to do was look pretty, participate in the song-and-dance sequences, and help move the plot forward for the hero by having a classist/casteist/creedist father who opposed the lead pair’s romance, or else by getting kidnapped/molested/killed by the villain!

Thankfully, things began to change in the new millennium as films like Astitva, Kya Kehna, Chandni Bar, Chameli, Fashion and Black started making periodic cracks in the glass ceiling. However, it was when Ms Balan delivered four successful films in the short span of two years – Ishqiya (2010), No One Killed Jessica (2011), The Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012) – that the trade really woke up to what ought to have been self-evident: both creatively as well as commercially, you just cannot ignore virtually half the country’s population.

Consequently, the last few years have seen a steady stream of films centered around the leading lady – Highway, Queen, Finding Fanny, Mardaani, Mary Kom, NH10, Piku, Tanu Weds Manu ReturnsSarabjitAkira and Jazbaa, to name a few. And it is no coincidence that the same period has also seen the conventional ‘hero-heroine’ film also witness a substantial ramping up of the female lead’s importance to the narrative, as evident in films like Ram-Leela, 2 States, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, Tamasha, Bajirao Mastani and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

Make no mistake, we are still a lopsidedly male-oriented industry – both in its power structure as also its narrative bias – and the big bucks, whether as remuneration or as box office returns, still revolve around the big boys. However, with every Kahaani and Queen and Pink, that balance of power corrects a little bit.

It needs to correct a lot more. After all, an equal place for women in our films is desirable not just from a social justice standpoint or in order to widen the commercial and creative footprint of our business. It is a promise inherent in the very identity of our vocation.

Wondering what we mean by that?

Think about it… the Hindi language, unlike modern day English, assigns genders to most nouns. Tellingly, the word ‘film’ is seen as having a female attribute in our language, though it is gender-neutral when used in English.  For example: ‘it was a good film’ or ‘it was a long film’, as opposed to ‘film achchi thi’ or ‘film lambi thi.’

That’s not all. What else is a film other than the audio-visual presentation of a story? Well, the Hindi word for ‘story’ – kahaani – like the Hindi ‘film’, is feminine too!

It is time for us to keep our promise. It is time for us to grow up and be a woman!

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