Posted by Pratyusha Pramanik
Virginia Woolf in Professions for Women (1931), while speaking of her professional experiences writes that she had to kill the ‘Angel in the House’ and overcome many other spectra and prejudices. By ‘Angel in the House’, Woolf refers to the guiding consciousness within women that prevents them from possessing a mind of their own; a mind that lets them be unfettered from human relations, morality and sex. With the beginning of a new decade, Bollywood is not only witnessing the rise of ‘women-centric movies’ but also of movies being written, directed and co-produced by women. Since Kahaani‘s commercial success in 2007, producers have shown more willingness to make movies with women as protagonists. With the success of these movies, actresses like Deepika Padukone have bridged the pay gap. Women-centric movies do not assure that they are necessarily gender equal. In fact, these women-centric movies like Kahaani, Queen, were neither written, directed or produced by women. There were some remarkable works by women writers and directors, but 2020 has seen the ultimate rush of content driven by women. Now, the question arises, could these women kill the ‘Angel in the House’?
Of the five movies written, directed or co-produced by women, four of them have addressed the issue of violence against women. Chhapaak has been directed by Meghna Gulzar, co-written by Meghna Gulzar and Atika Chohan, it was co-produced by Meghna, Deepika and others; Thappad was co-written by Anubhav Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo; Guilty was directed by Ruchi Narain, co-written by Kanika Dhillon, Ruchi Narain, and Atika Chohan; Bulbbul was written and directed by Anvita Dutt and produced by Anushka Sharma’s Clean Slate Films. Panga is a sports drama film, released in 2020, is written and directed by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari. But for the purpose of my argument I am taking into account the first four films, because violence against women have been an instrument to silence them, control and repress their desire, so movies addressing gender-based violence is a way of breaking this silence.
An important aspect is that these movies unlike their predecessors Kahaani, Queen and Pink do not restrict themselves to the trials and tribulations of one woman, but they go beyond to bring changes in the community at large and especially among people around them. In that sense of the term, the women filmmakers have been successful in killing the ‘Angel in the House’ and also depict a movement with a ripple effect, that is how one woman’s story attempts to bring change in the life of several other women around them.
Chhapaak was compared to Uyare, the Malayalam movie where Parvathy Thiruvothu plays the role of Pallavi, also an acid attack survivor. However, the fundamental difference about Malati from Chhapaak and Pallavi from Uyare is that the movie’s central focus is how Pallavi carries the burden of her trauma yet navigates through obstacles to realise her dream. Malati in Chhapaak shoulders the responsibility of other acid attack survivors as well; to not just ban acid, but to change the narrative. By killing the Angel in the House, Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak is not about a victim, but about the survivors. Its title track is therefore not another background score, but the anthem for all survivors. The movie is never melodramatic; we feel uncomfortable but never choked or nauseated by overwhelming emotions.
The movie most importantly deconstructs the idea of the activists with a saviour complex. Amol, the founder of Chhaaya-NGO shown in the movie that worked for acid victims, reprimands Malti for celebrating a small success with a party, Malti retorts back saying that Amol’s problem is he thinks that the attack had been on him. Each choice Malti makes is a step towards moving on, to lead a ‘normal’ life. The movie surely does not have the build-up, expected from a film that comes under the genre of Drama. It is impossible even to imagine the magnitude of the impact that an acid attack may leave. It cannot be put into data, figures, and words or even into any fancy art house movie. The audience will also include who have been through similar trauma in their personal lives, the subtle representation that the writer and director choose not just helps in recording the narrative but also question the existing narratives.
Thappad released a month later is a family drama that deals with various dimensions of domestic abuse. The movie moves slowly and gradually makes the audience part of Amrita’s routine. We develop a warm place for her and her choices. So when the slap happens, we are as much shocked as Amrita. The brief period of haze following the slap, recording the responses of people around her is one of the poignant moments in the film. It was the writers’ choice to make Amrita and Vikram as flawless as could be. And when Anubhav and Mrunmayee kill the Angel in the House, they do so by making sure that Amrita’s life changed just after one slap, without adding any other other misbehaviour to it.
The audience, however, can see the red flags in his misogynistic comments and other ‘man of the house’ attitude. It is only in hindsight that Amrita starts seeing him for the ingratitude man child that he always was. It is not about Amrita and Vikram. Amrita’s brother who supports Vikram and his entitled behaviour towards his girlfriend and sister, the toxic relationship between Netra Jaysingh, Amrita’s lawyer and her husband and most importantly the house maid’s abusive relationship with her husband throw light on different strata of the society. By killing the Angel in the House, the makers ensure each character makes choices that in one way or the other bring small changes in the lives of people around them.
Feminism and gender equality has a huge domino effect. The movie might seem to be too optimistic, catering to popular Bollywood sentiment, but it had a rippling effect in the lives of the people who watched. The movie was successful in generating conversations at least in middle and upper-class drawing rooms. Movies like Chhapaak and Thappad make sure it is not just about the protagonists, the supporting characters play equally important roles to create a compact effect. We see fathers serving tea and making better braids than the mother; we see husbands promptly handing over the keys of the car when the wife has to leave the daughter’s birthday party for an urgent meeting. There are toxic patriarchal patterns juxtaposed against these characters breaking stereotypes. The binary still exists, but it is gradually being bridged.
Guilty takes us to a college in Delhi, which becomes the epicentre of the #metoo movement. The survivor is Tanu Kumar, and the rape-accused is the college heartthrob, wealthy and powerful VJ. VJ is happily in a relationship with Nanki until the small-town girl Tanu Kumar comes in between. She is slut-shamed, her character is analysed, and questions of merit and reservation, consent and rape are raised. To document a movement that was essentially enacted on social media, the plot does get lopsided. We do not develop empathy towards any character; Nanki’s character gets more space and light than the survivor’s. Nanki the artistic and academically bright girl is a thinker and is herself a survivor of child abuse. Kanika Dhillon has a series of woman characters who have been ‘fragile’, unreliable and indecisive protagonists in Judgementall Hain Kya and Manmarziyaan; and Nanki is under the guardianship of the school Principal who considers her ‘fragile’ but artistically bestowed.
Nanki’s character reminds us of the concept of ‘Madwoman in the Attic’ While the principal is ready to accommodate her for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship but is protective about her experiences and her recurring trauma. We do not get to hear from the survivor as the movie takes us through the social media phenomenon, and the mob policing that takes place in online. Like Chhapaak, this movie is also about activism for women, but the mechanism behind both is different – the #metoo movement in Guilty resorts to social media justice as a last resort jeopardising their career, social positions and relationships. The legal battles that women have been waging over decades now have proved to be disappointing, Malti too knew her journey is long and banning acid is only a little milestone on the way. Nanki’s monologue too, is a milestone in her journey – the hardships that she may encounter from the administration and in her personal life following this, may make or break her.
The demonisation of women characters by writers is a Victorian phenomenon. It is what remains after the ‘Angel in the House’ is killed. When women realise that they have a voice, it is to stifle this voice and marginalise their narratives, that male writers categorised the women in their works as either angelic or demonic. In Bulbbul, the child bride, is married to Thakur Moshai, a man much older than her. She is inquisitive and intelligent and thinks she is being married to Satya, her younger brother-in-law. Satya becomes her playmate, and together they start writing stories, but Bulbbul’s stories always found the presence of demon-women. In the beginning, Bulbbul is a flawless character; her innocence is reflected in her eyes until domestic abuse and rape kill the Angel of the House. It is the pages of Bulbbul’s incomplete story that triggers her husband, while jealousy is the driving force, but the punishment which was meant to paralyse her feet was also to restrict her flights of fancy.
The ‘Angel in the house‘ is killed, but that which remains of Bulbbul is what men would call the demon woman. Bulbbul hunts down her victims and seeks revenge – what starts as personal vengeance gradually becomes a community service. She targets men committing domestic abuse and child abuse. Women audience has found this form of female vigilantism cathartic. Nevertheless, can we call Bulbbul’s revenge or Sunita, the house help in Thappad slapping her husband just an act of vigilantism? Or is it just the movie reaching a point where the writers do not know how “to complete the story”?
Before Satya leaves, Bulbbul feels she needs Satya to complete her story. When Satya comes back, she finds all of them the same, Satya and his brothers. Dr Sudip may be an ally, but he too looks at her through the binary lens of Goddess and Demon, but Bulbbul is just another girl who always loved climbing trees and telling stories. The female writers and directors in Bollywood have been quite able to kill the ‘Angel in the House’ and also slay a few demons. They are gradually bridging this gap, but they still have not quite accomplished the art of completing stories.
In the first half of the year itself, we have seen fairy tales being rewritten, relationships getting unknotted, movements finding another platform, but the steps are still shaky. It is, as if, the writers are still not sure about what would find acceptance, so even amidst all the discomfort they successfully create through the movie by killing the ‘Angel in the house’, they tend towards a more traditional and predictable ending. With more women as producers and increasing popularity of OTT platforms, privileged women filmmakers surely could choose to be more experimental and break more stereotypes. The change is evident, the audience is now prepared, together we need to take the leap of faith that changes the history of women in Indian cinema.