So I did the most Indian thing I could think of on Independence Day. I went to watch Chennai Express. Oh ok, fine. I went to see it because of my well documented love for Shah Rukh Khan and could think of no better way of feeling free than to lose myself to this love for a few hours.
Of course it is a Rohit Shetty film, so I was nervous. After truly suffering through the rhythmless potty jokes of Golmaal 1, despite the glimmers of soul in the black and white song featuring Sushmita Mukherjee and Paresh Rawal, I never looked back. All that boyish loudness bored me. And the girls in the film irritated me. Sure, adolescent boys and silly girls -- that may make sense together. But not a sense I found enticing.
The most striking thing about Chennai Express is that it is not a film for adolescent boys -- but something of a chick-flick or a fairytale. Maybe that is why it can also allow its female lead to inhabit the screen with such energy and game-ness.
Deepika Padukone is a very beautiful woman. But from her first film, Om Shanti Om onward, she has carried her beauty in a very by-the-way fashion. What she chiefly conveys is self-possession and composure, a direct gaze that asks you to bypass her beauty and engage with the intelligent, emotional being that she is as a person. It’s an odd thing to say about such a long lissome woman -- but she seems almost wholesome.
It is this quality that has made her so suitable for roles, which directly confront sexual and romantic morality and stereotypical gendered behaviour in relationships.
In a lot of our movies and television serials, it is a struggle to present the infinite complexities of human choice as a given. Sometimes there is a demand to pander to traditionalism. So an unconventional choice is presented as highly controversial or sensationalised. At other times there is the equally constricting demand for a tick- the-boxes radicalism -- women especially must be presented as dentifiably dabang. They are required to carry evidence of their non-conformism through flat, irrefutable characteristics that will please a politically correct mind (for one cannot call the part that feels that way a heart).
But life mein toh aisa nahin hota. People are highly individual even while being conventional. How to convey this complexity in movies which work with very broad brush strokes?
I think it takes actors whose body language allows them to subvert and turn upside down, to cheerfully undermine stereotypical expectations with their being. Deepika’s being communicates a transparency, a lack of coquettishness which renders her characters’ personal choices serious, even in poor scripts.
She has a kind of steely niceness -- of a girl who, though used to not being understood, clings to her choices with a composed tenacity. It feels, from Love Aaj Kal to Bachna Ae Haseeno to Chennai Express, like she takes responsibility for her choices and the hurt that comes with them. She does not wait to be rescued, even if she longs to be understood and then loved for exactly who she is.
So it couldn’t be nicer than to have her paired with Shah Rukh Khan. If there is one actor who knows how to give women full space for self-expression on screen -- if they want it -- without losing himself, it is SRK. It takes a man who can toss gender stereotypes away with a twinkle to love a woman who just wants to be who she is. It takes a special kind of khadoospan to see that and not feel happy.
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.