(L to R) Ekta Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Mita Vashisht
Every generation has its own wars to fight, Ekta Kapoor told me recently in an interview. What seems progressive in one era may well seem retrograde in another. What seems bold can look exploitative, and what seems inclusive can be patronising. Popular entertainment does a lot to change social and cultural mores. When she made the saas-bahu serials in 2000, she says women were finding their voice in their homes, in domestic decisions. So, whether it was Ba, the mother-in-law, rediscovering her identity when she was older, or whether it was marital rape, she says she fought battles that don’t look like battles any more. So, if Udaan and Kalyug of the late 1980s and early 1990s normalised the working woman, her soaps made us enter the world of the homemaker, understand her frustrations and her fantasies, which has led us to the point of the wildly popular Anupamaa (Star Plus) of the 2020s who can have both a happy domestic life as well as a successful business. Soaps and movies have done much to change the image of happy and ‘normal’ families as well. As Ekta said to me: “We protect our children and try to give them this perfect upbringing, protected from all harsh realities, but is the world normal? They’ve been told fairy tales, and then life happens. That’s why when I see kids from harder, tougher backgrounds, they seem much more able than kids from pampered, conventional backgrounds who’ve never seen life for what it is.” Of her own and her brother’s decision to have children via surrogacy, she says it is as much about children learning from their parents as the parents growing and evolving with their children after a certain point. “We didn’t lead the conventional life, but we are the most dysfunctional functional family there is,” she says laughingly of her own three-generational family.
Alia Bhatt is an artistic adventurer, and that’s great for this generation of filmmakers who need an able collaborator to tell different, more realistic stories. But something seems so terribly wrong to me about her portrayal of Gangubai Kathiawadi. At first, I was tempted to compare it with her mother Soni Razdan’s depiction of a prostitute in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983). You can see the ease with which the Guildhall School of Music and Drama-trained actor performs as one of the prostitutes in Shabana Azmi’s character Rukmini Bai’s brothel populated by practically every notable indie film actress of the time—from Smita Patil to Neena Gupta, from Ila Arun to Anita Kanwar. Make no mistake, Alia is confident as Gangubai, unafraid to look ugly on occasion, and throwing herself fully into the art. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director, has even praised her performance which, he says, transcends the upper class she comes from. Regardless of the fact that acting is all about transcending one’s limitations, what strikes one as odd about the performance is the physicality, which is more akin to the swagger of a male gangster, bhai rather than bai. There is no guile and there are no wiles there, just an aggressive abandon in the walk which comes from not being comfortable in a sari. The life one lives, the way one behaves and the dress one chooses affect one’s art. Then one has to spend a fair amount of time acclimatising to one’s movie garments. In the prep for A Suitable Boy (2020), for instance, the male actors got high-waisted pants to wear a month before the shoot started so they could be comfortable in the environment of the 1950s. Otherwise, the film costume will look like borrowed clothes. And the persona will look as if it has been pinched from someone.
There’s another Gangubai in the making. Ravi Jadhav, who directed the effective Nude (2018) in Marathi, is creating Chidiya Udd for MX Player. Based on a novel, the series focuses on a young woman who runs away from Rajasthan to join Gangubai in Mumbai. Gangubai is played by the remarkable Mita Vashisht as a Bengali, Reshambai, with alta on her fingertips and grace in her mien. May the best Gangubai win.