A Life's Story
Kanchan Choudhary was India's first woman DGP, and only the second woman police officer after Kiran Bedi. There's a charge to not being the first in something
Not many of us may know of Kanchan Choudhary Bhattacharya, who passed away last week. But many people, who watched television in the 1980s, knew and admired her, through the television serial based on her life, directed and acted by her sister Kavita Choudhary: Udaan.
Kanchan Choudhary was India's first woman DGP, and only the second woman police officer after Kiran Bedi. There's a charge to not being the first in something. It is a position filled with possibility and hope, it is an invitation to others. And, Udaan was certainly that, even if looking back at it today, we might find things to critique.
When I asked women I knew what they liked most about the show, one said, "The overall optimism." All of them said, "The uniform." "And the way she got in and out of a jeep and shut the door. It was stylish." "There hadn't ever been the story of a woman's life on television or in the movies," said another. "I remember her father was so supportive and he always encouraged her not to curtail her ambition."
As for me, I remember how serious her expression was, how rarely she smiled. Her fierceness, her abstracted determination seemed to imply she wasn't there to please anyone but herself. Her endeavouring was for a set of her own principles, not anyone else's.
As one woman said to me, "She wasn't the bahu who broke free, or the wife who overcame oppression. She was this person who wanted to be something." That set the show apart: gender was a factor, but it wasn't about a woman vis-à-vis family. It was about her quest and journey in the world.
Udaan, is an example of a work that is inspirational, not aspirational. Inspirational works often trace unique journeys with a fullness and with respect to a set of personal ideals and drivers, rather than as progress towards fixed goals (marriage, conquest, success). They have a somewhat reflective, even poetic quality that encourages us—though differently located than the character—to think of our unique desires and somehow encourage non-conformity. Aspirational works, currently ubiquitous, seem to be about standing out by acquiring success. But, because they follow an identical format—overcoming odds or hesitations to win—they engender a kind of conformity. Personal success is often subsumed into identity: for country, for community, for family.
Recently, someone invited me to speak at an event. "It's about women," said the young woman on the phone, as if that were enough. If you are automatically special because you are a woman, how different is that from never mattering if you are a woman? In both ways, we are reduced to sameness and invisibility.
Udaan's impact as a show owes something to the fact that it appeared on Doordarshan. When there was nothing else, each thing that appeared on TV acquired a larger-than-life presence in our consciousness, even as it played out in the intimacy of our homes. That it ran for a long time gave us a chance to build a long-term relationship with an idea and a character, and that it was a weekly, allowed for a respectful and ruminative distance, as in novels. Learning the story of a life, often gives us time to consider that we could craft an interesting one of our own.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at email@example.com
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