We inspire movies and movies inspire us. For instance, a biopic is an account of an extraordinary life once lived by someone which in turn may motivate us. But a great disservice of cinema is the byproduct of stereotypes; characters that emerge out of either lazy writing or a cheap shot to appeal to the masses on the basis of the cultural biases of “what works”: the bad boy with a golden heart, the all-evil drug lord with cars and arm candies, savior male protagonist with a six pack…you get the point.
I won’t deny the fact that these characters come with an entertainment quotient. Who does not like to unwind to a mindless, cliched comedy that doesn’t ask you to spend your brain calories? But what we undermine is the potential of these movie characters to creep into our real lives and alter our perspectives, if especially consumed at a young age. Gradually, we lose the sense that these stereotypes set pretty damaging standards, and subconsciously we are already internalizing them. And there is one such stereotype in particular that shaped my earlier years and continues to do so for many young women around me, definitely not in their best interest. She is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl was defined as the term by Nathan Rabin, a film critic, to fling his reproach towards the character of Claire Colburn (Kristen Dunst) in the rom-com Elizabethtown. In Rabin’s view, an MPDG “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
By the means of which, Claire is carved to be an eccentric, fun lady who is the personification of Carpe Diem. And that’s alright, except for the fact that that’s all there is to her character. Her role revolves around the transformation of the male protagonist who courtesy her vivaciousness, learns to “live life to the fullest” by the climax of the movie. Because, in the end it’s a man’s story, and the manic pixie dream girl is merely an instrument to take it forward.
Bollywood and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Now let’s take this template of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and move eastwards to apply it to roles in Bollywood. How many female characters does it fit? I say, an overwhelming lot!
My first serious tryst with such a women was on the screen, Asin as Kalpana in Ghajini. Before she gets violently killed in the movie, all we know of her is that she has a heart of gold, and her presence is so sunny that you probably can’t look straight at her without sunglasses. We never get to dig into the depths of her personality, her flaws, insecurities and moments where her mascara is not on point. She teases an ease out of the alpha male lead (Aamir Khan) and propels him time-to-time to juice out life. That’s all there is to her.
However, girls at school (including myself) loved her bubbly beauty and we were quick to, nothing short of, idolizing her. Why not? She was agreeable, slender, had long hair and most importantly, this portrait of a girl was devoid of any real flaws. The only way I could ever win a man over was by being that girl, because enough movies testified. And once I did, all my efforts had to be directed to make him see double rainbows in the sky.
Before Kalpana, there was of course Kareena Kapoor with her bandwagon of chirpy roles that earned her a status of a diva in the 90s, with her ear to ear smile, willowing dupattas, or bright tank tops. Then there was the case of Katrina Kaif whose sole purpose in movies like Zindagi na milegi dobara, Meri Brother ki Dulhan, Dhoom 3, etc. was to make the hero feel loved or triumphant. I could cite a page full of references, but my objective of bringing the prevalence of this rampant movie trope to notice is that although now I have clarity on the utter shallowness and outright sexism weaved into it, as a girl I struggled to match up with the manic pixie dream girl.
I tried to grow my nails, dance to any beat that played, straighten my hair, and to put up a smile the instant I saw a guy; none of which gave me a sense of being myself. But teenage is a tough time to navigate, when we come to the brim with questions about who we are and what we want to become, and for many, our upbringing or education does not equip us to answer them. To many Indian young women, grappling with their identity, the MPDG stereotype presents a ready mould for the mind and the body, that is well accepted by our families and stretches within the societal limits.
And I say societal limits because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a widely exportable narrative, but the one existing in Bollywood has been brushed a bit and assuaged at the edges to appeal to the Indian audience. In English cinema, a classic MPDG is a always a bit on the edge, with a crazy hair colour or a sneaky sex appeal. In India, she is super kempt, pale skinned and often sexually coy (if that matter arises at all in a Hindi movie). She has a voice, but never can it be louder than the hero’s. Her attributes are fixed and well, with those we consider her to be perfect! There is no transformation or growth that she undergoes.
Blame it on the lack of insight because, this is what happens when men write women. There is a deluge of screenwriters and filmmakers in the industry, but most of them are men out of which a handful seek to tell stories of women with investment in truth, analysis, empathy and depth. And without it, they pen female characters that are projections of their own vivid fantasies, stealing bits and pieces from contemporary culture and ignoring the real female voices altogether.
And we as women desire to become that woman? Seriously?
As much as it shakes our roots as a woman, it also proves to be a toxic trope for men who consume it. It creates an atmosphere of brooding self importance for them, with a complete disregard towards developing emotional intelligence because along the way they will find a girl who will compensate for it. In the Indian society, where the battle against patriarchy is still an on-going one, characters that ascribe nurturing, empathy and support to only be woman-specific traits can be more harmful than we can imagine.
Women are not the catalyst of the emotional transformation of men, and they need to be loved all the same for being the “heroes of their own stories”. In reel or real life, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists because the idea of a woman’s world revolving around a man’s problems hasn’t been entirely banished. We need pull ourselves out of the built-up fantasies in our heads and learn to appreciate women for all their good, bad and ugly.
And just before I rest my case, I know I have wrote a big deal about female characters that identify as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, here’s a dialogue for the closing from a trailblazing female character that smokes the trope explicitly- Clementine Krucynski (Kate Winslet) in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,
Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.
Harshala slings her ink, professionally and otherwise. Her parents think it’s just a phase. Sigh. Most of her personal writing revolves around issues with a strong Indian voice and spunk, something she believes that present-day web content is largely devoid of. Apart from that, her life oscillates between being buried under books or devising plan to steal Nutella jars. PS. Is she the only one who’s a sucker for Hannibal TV series? You can find her on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Miss Malini