I recently discovered this gem called Parks and Recreation. This show is so wonderful it made me wonder what I was doing wasting my time with all those other sitcoms all this while. The subtle and effortless way in which it manages to dismantle stereotypes is such a rarity in the genre of comedy. Though I could rave about the greatness of Parks and Recreation from so many different angles, I’m going to restrain this conversation to the very relatable friendship between the protagonist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). The portrayal of their friendship opened my eyes to a kind of story-telling where it is possible to showcase the life of the protagonist without downplaying the lives of the supporting characters.
While watching this show, at no point do you feel like Ann exists solely to be Leslie’s life coach. You’re convinced that she has a wholesome and fulfilling life of her own, though you don’t get to see all of it onscreen because the focus here is Leslie’s life, thus, shattering the best friend trope and successfully painting a picture of a relationship that is mutually beneficial and supportive. They laugh, they genuinely support each other’s dreams, they fight, they party, they tease each other, they have friendship rituals, and are there for each other when things don’t work out as planned. What was most refreshing about this was that just like in most of our actual lives, their relationship troubles didn’t take up the major part of their interactions.
This got me thinking why we never see anything of this sort in Bollywood. Surely friendship is a universal phenomenon and gender isn’t a bar for it? Yet, finding a movie purely based on female bonding was easier said than done. On looking closely it was clear: no, Bollywood has never shied away from exploring the theme of friendship. It does believe that friendship is the true essence of life and makes it all worthwhile; it just doesn’t believe it can exist between two or more women.
Yes, female-centric films like Kahaani or No One Killed Jessica or Mary Kom now exist. These films are very important and I’m glad Bollywood is moving in a direction where it isn’t impossible to imagine an actress carrying an entire film on her shoulders. But when there exists a whole genre of ‘slice of life’ films on undying bonds, of guys unwinding and having a good time where are such stories for and about women? It isn’t difficult to imagine female friends struggling to survive college like in 3 Idiots or inseparable female childhood friends letting their hair down on a road trip like in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Yet, we never get to see them on the silver screen.
Even when the film stars both men and women as main characters and is sold as a film on friendship, like Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na or Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (YJHD) it is most likely to revolve around the romance bit. Take a film like Cocktail, for example, it starts on a high note with the two female protagonists bonding based on mutual love and trust. But as soon as Saif Ali Khan’s character enters, their respective relationships with him take centre stage and their friendship with each other becomes irrelevant. Why did the plot need to gear towards them pining for the same guy?
YJHD seems to feature on most lists of great female bonds in recent mainstream Bollywood cinema. I had to rewatch the entire film to make sure I wasn’t missing something. The only indicator of their best friendship is when Deepika’s character Naina makes a toast at Aditi’s (Kalki Koechlin) wedding. I’m not entirely convinced that counts as a conversation between the two. Between the time they first meet and the toast, their friendship goes only as far as taking pictures and dancing together. Yet, in the same movie, it is obvious that the dynamics between the two male leads Ranbir Kapoor and Aditya Roy Kapoor is very well thought out and developed.
When two women are cast in the same movie and are not playing blood relatives, it is more likely for them to be pitted against each other for the affections of a man or to be completely irrelevant to one another’s storyline than to genuinely bond and be supportive of each other. Now, even if they are friends, there is a higher chance for them to be like ‘Poo’ and her friends (whose names I cannot recollect, no surprises there!) from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham than to be characters with equal relevance and screen time. Here, there exists a clear divide between the lead to whom wonderful things happen and the sidekick who will loyally sit by her side while nothing of significance ever happens in her life.
What are the possible reasons for our mainstream cinema to still refuse to acknowledge relationships women can have outside of their love interests or families? Given that this is an industry that would choose box office records over art any day, could it be that they’re afraid they’ll lose half their audience if the focus shifts to women? The likes of Neerja and Piku in recent years have definitely proven otherwise. Is it because there aren’t enough female scriptwriters and directors to incorporate well-rounded female characters from a more realistic perspective as opposed to the same half-baked clichés we’ve seen over and over again? Or is it because we are still at a stage where we aren’t ready to exclude men from any possible conversation in pop culture? Is it because a woman having other kinds of relationships is too outlandish in a cinematic landscape where we are only mothers, daughters, sisters or romantic interests? It probably is a combination of all these factors and more.
Times are surely changing and all hope is not lost. In 2013’s Queen, the blossoming friendship between Rani and Vijayalakshmi was probably the most endearing part of the movie. Their conversations ranged from burping in public to the mortality of human life. Though the focus of the film is Rani’s solo journey in a foreign land, her friendship with Vijayalakshmi plays a major part in her path to self-discovery. Last year, the movie Angry Indian Goddesses, about a gang of female friends vacationing in Goa, was released. Though the film was far from flawless it really was a welcome change from the stereotypes we’d grown so tired of seeing. These women actually fought over their career choices and not men, they talked about their aspirations and their struggles. They lifted each other up and reminded one another why they deserved good things. However, the tone of the film drastically changes in the second half when it becomes a story about vengeance. This probably makes it a misfit in the genre we’re talking about.
Most recently hope also came in the form of Parched, a movie that was released just 3 weeks ago.This film that is set in rural Rajasthan, centers four women as they build genuine female friendships through lighthearted and honest conversations and attempt to explore their sexuality in a patriarchal set up. According to the director Leena Yadav “Parched celebrates the small joys that even the most oppressed women enjoy in female company”. Then there is Veerey Di Shaadi set to release in 2017, which is changing the game by being Bollywood’s first all-female buddy film starring four friends reuniting for one of their weddings. This movie has Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor playing the leads.
But, when most of our films are still struggling to pass the Bechdel Test, are we still a long way off from seeing more of such stories on screen?