A Single Shade of Grey

Paromita VohraMadhur Bhandarkar is the modern day Mr Manohar Kahaniyan and generates film upon film about the venal worlds of seeming modernity and advancement which lead nice Indian girls into a hell of throbbing hotel rooms, cigarettes, alcohol, pills and oh no, sex.

That his most successful films are the ones that track the downfall of women, not the descent of men, shows that we are still a society that gets our pornographic jollies from sleaze parading as high minded middle class homilies. Just like we prefer our meat disguised by masala, so we like sex wrapped up in lectures.

It was in anticipation of some kind of icky sleazy fun with a couple of nice dresses thrown in, that I went to watch Heroine. I thought it would be the filmi equivalent of pretending to listen wide-eyed to a hypocritical uncle drone on about purity, while sniggering inside because we had found his secret stash of skin mags. But.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

 In Heroine, Madhurji just did not seem to have his heart in it. There was one nun bursting with disgust at Kareena Kapoor’s unsuitability as an adoptive mother and for a lazy minute I entertained the idea that it was Madhurji doing a Hitchcock in drag moment. But.

Sure, smoking, drinking and filming yourself during sex were presented, but with feeble outrage. Instead bipolar disorder was bandied about often. It seemed a very important plot point for the director. Why?

With Heroine, this filmmaker has entered tricky territory. How do you express adequate contempt for something that you are firmly a part of? How do you take the moral high ground when you are playing in the exact same playground? How do you shine a headlight on the ill-doings of your world, without drawing attention to the fact that you too are a part of it?

Because, here is a director whose films are intriguing jeweled traps for his leading ladies. On the one hand, in real life, they get to inhabit the rare position of being the main lead. Of being in a ‘woman-oriented’ film that involves glamour not social issues. They are even given the impression that they are being bold — because they risk reminding the audience that they too have been part of MMS and sundry such scandals. It is the frisson of an ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ image. I am a new, powerful, free woman.

But simultaneously, they are agreeing to be used by this director, to create images of women as objects of derision and contempt, exploited through his double-edged moral-sexual innuendo. They are elevated to a position of importance, by the director, so he can take down exactly what these women — like Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor — pursue in real life. Kind of like the villains in Madhurji’s filmed worlds who lure women with lavish flattery and gifts only to despoil them.

So what happens when you choose to depict this dangerous territory where some of the shit you fling around could land on you? In this film Madhurji does it by repeatedly emphasising that his Heroine is crazy — it is not the world she’s in that infects her, her disease is her own, thus somehow absolving the world around her. No one does it to her — she does it all to herself, a victim of her own madness not the power dynamics of the industry. This creates a puzzlingly tepid world — one unremitting shade of grey. It is an expressionless mask held with a shaking hand before a panicked face. Perhaps Madhurji has finally realized that realism ain’t that simple.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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