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Triumph of the 'underbitch'

Meenakshi SheddeFeminism has made a spectacular return to the movies, as a spate of recent films reveal. There’s Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang, Nishtha Jain’s documentary Gulabi Gang, Vikas Bahl’s Queen, Spike Jonze’s Her and Deepa Dhanraj’s Invoking Justice. Between them, these films encompass a whole range of feminist shades.

Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang pits Madhuri Dixit, the leader of a violent vigilante women’s gang, against Juhi Chawla, a devious politician. It plays a familiar trope, with the underdog (underbitch?) wielding a trishul to slay the baddies. And because it stars Madhuri D, she assumes a glamorous uber-Durga avatar, even leaping off a truck to skewer ration shop thieves, shampooed locks all a-flying in seductive slomo.

Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit in Gulaab Gang
Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit in Gulaab Gang

As a study of woman power inspired by the real life Sampat Pal Devi’s Gulabi Gang it is not so much about women triumphing over men, as proof that women can play it just as dirty as them. In a cringy scene, Juhi makes a male politician crawl between her female subordinate’s legs, striking a new low in nari shakti’s justice-between-the-legs. Eventually, both women end up in jail, indicating what the director makes of their female power.

By contrast, Nishtha Jain’s theatrically released documentary Gulabi Gang is a powerful film that shows how a woman and the women she inspires has been driven by desperation to seeking justice through violence, since the law treats them like dirt. In contrast with Pink Saris by British director Kim Longinotto, which plays mainly in hagiographic mode, Jain’s film, which won Best Director (International) and Best Film (Documentary) at the Mumbai and Dubai International Film Festivals respectively, is more nuanced, underlining the members’ hypocrisy as well.

More revolutionary in feminist strategy, is Deepa Dhanraj’s Invoking Justice, on the unique, all-women Tamil Nadu Muslim Women Jamaat, that responded to allegations of corrupt, traditional all-male Muslim jamaats by quietly according itself power, tackling dowry deaths and domestic abuse cases by working within Sharia law and quoting the Quran. They work within the system, employing persuasion and persistence to co-opt and shame the enemy, their triumphs more long lasting. The film won Best Documentary (national competition; 40 mins plus) at MIFF.

Vikas Bahl’s Queen is another quiet, but very different triumph, a Bollywood revolution. A crackling good film, its feminist victories are greater because, after Rani is dumped by her snooty NRI fiancé, and returns a self-assured woman following a solo honeymoon, she does not even need revenge.

She thanks him, because he’s liberated her not only from himself, but her own limitations—and sashays off. That is a master-stroke for Bollywood. Rani, superbly played by Kangna Ranaut, takes the gains of the delightful English Vinglish further. In Gauri Shinde’s film, after Sridevi’s husband demeans her for her wobbly English, and she later learns to speak it well, she still sticks with the blighter. In Queen, Rani simply moves beyond him.

So too, in Spike Jonze’s Her (Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), an operating software an artificial intelligence called Samantha offers the lonely protagonist companionship, before moving on. She is too intelligent for a pathetic chap like him, and lets him go with gentle affection. She is a consciousness that seems to merge with cosmic consciousness. As a friend remarked that’s advaita. For a mainstream Hollywood film to make a feminist, existential triumph, is remarkable.

Meenakshi Shedde is India consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, an award-winning critic, and curator to festivals worldwide. Reach her at smdmail@mid-day.com

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