VEERE DI WEDDING, a recent all-women Hindi comedy, includes a masturbation scene, complete with a vibrator and the bliss of orgasmic release on actor Swara Bhaskar’s face. Even male actors think twice before performing that most ‘taboo of acts’ on screen. Featuring Sonam Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Shikha Talsania alongside Bhaskar, not just this scene, but nearly everything about this buddy comedy—with its drinking and smoking, swearing and general fuck-you attitude—has come under flak. Not surprisingly, certain guardians of ‘Hindu’ culture (and their grandmothers) seemed the most incensed. Daring or disgusting, empowering or embarrassing, or simply boring, no matter where you stand on the Veere Di Wedding debate, the film—call it a ‘chick flick’ at your own risk—is a rare event in the testosterone-fuelled, all-male gated enclave of Bollywood. Rarer still, for its rejection of that much-tossed about and maligned term, ‘feminist’. There’s a reason why its female cast has repeatedly emphasised that this is a light-hearted peek into the inner life of a girl gang and attempts to read feminism into it would be to miss the point—and all the fun, too.
To bond over food, travel, shopping, men, sex and other existential forest essentials is normal and Veere Di Wedding is designed precisely to normalise the normal. As Swara Bhaskar, who’s fast filling the firebrand activist-feminist spot long vacated by Shabana Azmi, says, “It’s taken 105 years for mainstream Bollywood to make a film about four girls who are friends and not falling in love with the same guy. I’ve said this again and again, but I think it bears repetition. People saw four girls who are in a certain urban setting being realistic to what young, urban working women and their lifestyle is—we do curse, some of us more than others, we do drink. We’re empowered by our choices.”
Female agency, in recent years, has emerged as an interesting cinematic tool—and a highly profitable one. The female- centric film is no more a box-office risk. Recent examples like Queen, Pink, Lipstick Under My Burkha and now, Veere Di Wedding, have set the box office on fire, ushering in a new era of fromances and creating a genre that lets women see their real selves reflected on the big screen. Men have enjoyed that privilege for decades, after all—cussing, lusting, objectifying, generalising and bro-yoying their way into a Hangover-style carefree haven. If Hangover is made with an all-women cast, it would be an entirely different film. The reason is simple: women tend to bond in a different way from men. Female bonding is face-to-face, as one online piece notes. Male bonding, in contrast, is relatively shoulder-to-shoulder.
Male humour, according to Christopher Hitchens, ‘prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understand that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste.’ That ought to be music to the ears of Bollywood’s bromance merchants. Author Fran Lebowitz puts it even more bluntly (as told to Hitchens), ‘The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying that a woman is pretty. Also, humour is largely aggressive and pre-emptive, and what’s more male than that?’
Applied to Hindi cinema, that’s true. Traditionally, the industry has devoted a great deal of time and effort to bromances and male bonding, sidelining the female territory completely. The rise of fromances has been recent but nothing short of remarkable. With Kangana Ranaut’s Queen, Hindi cinema seemed to have had its very own Thelma and Louise moment. While Ranaut, along with Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt and Swara Bhaskar et al have been anointed Bollywood feminism’s poster girls, Sonam Kapoor has been quietly adding her own high-fashion flagship charm to the ‘chick flick’ genre, beginning with Aisha—the champagne-soaked soul sister to Veere Di Wedding. What Veere Di Wedding seems to be suggesting, among other things, is that if Pyaar Ka Punchnama is no guilty pleasure for men, why should Veere Di Wedding be seen as embarrassing? If men can objectify women, why shouldn’t women serve the opposite sex a taste of some of their own bitter medicine?
The #MeToo movement coinciding with a wave of neo- feminism has brought the issue centrestage. Think about it. Just a short while earlier, would Philip Roth’s death have triggered such a backlash from mainly female critics who find the ultimate male Jewish-American’s fiction derogatory and an impediment to the female wave? One Roth reader compared her relief at his death to the comfort of taking ‘my bra off after a long day’. Without undermining the ‘chick flick’ territory, Sex and the City, which incidentally celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has contributed in a fundamental way to how we see the fun side of women.
Recent examples like Queen and now Veere Di Wedding have set the box office on fire and created a genre that lets women see their real selves reflected on the big screen
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THINK BACK TO Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink (2016). It’s a fine example of igniting a women’s revolution of sorts. The subject of female choice and her right to say ‘no’ to male provocation lay at the heart of Pink. Yet, the female bonding of Pink is distinct from what’s seen in Veere Di Wedding. Though both films are set in Delhi, the world of Pink would be likely more relatable to the numerous young small-town middle-class girls who share not just an apartment but also life in the big city. (Set in Bombay, Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 evoked a similar feel. The working girls share an intimate bond as roomies. The Lata Mangeshkar number Kitne Ajeeb Rishtey encapsulates that bonding.) Veere Di Wedding’s posh South Delhi girls inhabit a make-believe world of luxury products, while Pink’s Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang, as working women, might merely aspire to these trappings of the high life. The degrees of separation is more than sevenfold. The bonding among Pink’s protagonists is based less on the idea of mutual fun and excess than mutual survival and closing ranks in the face of an ominous threat. Before the film gets down to its investigative thriller mode, there’s a moment when Minal Arora (Taapsee Pannu) tries to lighten the mood after an alarming few days. She reminds her roommates that they haven’t even smiled in days. “Toh hanso (then laugh),” advises Falak Ali (Kirti Kulhari), and the three break into unguarded mirth. Evidently, the laughter would be short-lived. But this scene ties in perfectly with Aparna Sen’s Sonata (2017); only the characters are older. Still, they are happily single and probably more footloose and fancy-free than Pink’s far younger girls. Azmi’s Dolon Sen spends much of the film blotto, dangling a glass of wine even as the ‘prude’ Aruna Chaturvedi (Aparna Sen) exudes a more guarded presence. (Call it an astute case of counter thinking, role reversal or an inside joke at the swapping of regional identities, Mijwan’s Azmi gets to play a Bengali to the Calcutta-born Sen’s UP Brahmin.) But close friend Subhadra’s (Lillete Dubey) arrival helps loosen their inner demons, supplying the womenfolk unending moments of laughter.
“Who the hell was looking at his profile? With those thighs, thunder thighs!” Subhadra says, invoking the memory of a college professor she’s probably had a crush on. This is exactly the sort of no-holds-barred dirty conversation you’d find in a male- only bar. With wine-soaked laughter, they gather in a football team huddle, hurling digs, teasing, sharing, abusing and bullying. Why hasn’t this film made the moral police squeamish? Could it be because the women are older and well beyond the purview of moral appraisal? More likely, nobody saw it.
Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha appeared the same year as Sonata, but didn’t have the privilege of being quite as niche. It got conservative India’s panties in a knot, quickly turning into a cause célèbre. Pahlaj Nihalani, the then Censor hawk, found the film “too lady-oriented” and refused to let it pass. This ‘too taboo to be true’ story of four small-town women, led by the widow Buaji (Ratna Pathak), flashed the ultimate middle-finger salute to Indian patriarchy. Buaji is a much-needed rarity on Bollywood screens and the way Ratna Pathak plays her—with her libido upright and lusty designs on a man half her age—you wonder why this powerhouse doesn’t do more films. Buaji is joined by women from other socio-economic backgrounds in a film whose central bonding happens to be for the cause of female liberation—be it social, symbolic or sexual, as in the case of Buaji.
Far removed from Buaji’s circumstances, but one who could just as easily pass off as her fellow traveller is Chandra Akka (Chhaya Kadam) of Ravi Jadhav’s Nude. Much like Lipstick Under My Burkha, efforts to get Nude banned had failed, and thankfully, it made its way tentatively to theatres in April this year. Chandra works at the JJ School of Art as a sweeper, but her secret job is to pose as a nude model for art students. She initiates her niece Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) into a profession that explores the female body—an investigation which is just as vital to the world, we are told, as a doctor’s study of human anatomy. In one key scene, she drops her sari at the grand altar of art and with it, all her fears. Through nudity— where all outer boundaries and deeply-held inhibitions collapse—Jadhav sketches some of the most sublime and intimate moments between Chandra and her niece. When Chandra’s husband demands a similar job at the art school for himself, the couple cannot contain their laughter. What will they tell him, the kind of a job it is? And, does he have a body that would inspire art? It seems fitting, then, that Jadhav (a former art student himself) opens the film with Yamuna’s river-drenched body, the camera caressing her curves. Later on, as she begins to think of nude modelling as a social duty, she looks admiringly at her own oil portrait. Captured on canvas, Yamuna has achieved immortality.
NOTICE HOW MUCH of Indian cinema’s most touching sisterhood moments take place not between friends, but between relatives. When we talk about female bonding, how is it that we forget that in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996)—a distant memory to most cinema-goers now—the homoerotic attraction depicted occurs between Radha (Shabana Azmi) and her sister-in-law Sita (Nandita Das as the young bride)? Or that, years later, Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar depended on mother- daughter bonding in a conservative Muslim family as its fodder for the young burkha-clad upstart’s musical ambitions? Or Nil Battey Sannata’s mother (Swara Bhaskar) and her efforts to ensure her daughter leads the life she never did? Add to the above list Leena Yadav’s Parched, an ode to the unsung pluck of rural folks and to womanhood in the face of oppression.
Talking of Parched inevitably leads us to the unlikely bond between Ayesha Takia and Gul Panag in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor, and finally, wasn’t Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala the original trailblazer, a worthy homage to the rural woman’s hard-fisted knock at the glass (and class) ceiling? While Hindi cinema is giving Indian women plenty of reasons to celebrate, the good news is not that the young among them are finally being heard. It’s actually the older women, from Sonata’s three doyens to Lipstick’s Buaji, who are unleashing their golden moment on Indian screens.