Saiyami Kher and Roshan Mathew in Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai
IN MUMBAI, DON’T fear anyone,” says Chandrakka to the new migrant Yamuna from the village in the 2018 Marathi movie, Nude. “If someone tries to overpower you, you raise your voice. Be loud and clear.” Chandrakka is a nude model at the JJ School of Art and encourages Yamuna to do the same as it provides a living. The anonymity of the city, the necessity of earning a livelihood and the freedom it offers from a life of humiliation and abuse at the hands of her husband in the village are attractive to Yamuna. At least for a while.
She is like many who in real life we saw lining up reluctantly for handouts, hiding in trucks to go home, and walking for days without end. If ever there was a moment when the image in our minds of the migrant as north Indian and male was shattered, to be replaced by photographs of women carrying babies, girls cycling 1000 km, and babies suckling at their mother’s breast, it was this. If Do Bigha Zameen (1953) immortalised the poor villager who comes to the big city of Kolkata only to become an even poorer rickshaw puller, then a handful of new movies are putting the woman back in the frame. She can be Ratna, the widowed domestic worker, who runs a young bachelor’s house with no hitch in Rohena Gera’s arthouse hit Sir. She can be the still beautiful mother of a twentysomething played by Shobana in Anoop Sathyan’s ode to Chennai, Varane Avashyamund. She can be the failed reality show singer from Nashik in Anurag Kashyap’s new Netflix film Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai. “I was tired of the stereotype of the migrant as a North Indian male,” says Kashyap. His woman comes to Mumbai from Nashik, while her husband comes from Bengaluru. “He’s a musician so it makes sense to have him come to Mumbai to make it big, since Bangalore doesn’t have too many opportunities. Mumbai does.”
The new female migrant in the movies is no longer a victim. She is the woman in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink (2016), who has made her home in the city—one of them is even from the North-east which for Hindi cinema is an exceedingly brave step in emulating real life. She can be any of the four women in Amazon Prime’s Four More Shots who can work and party their way out of loneliness and remain true to each other. It helps to be upper class. As it did when the world of Indian entertainment first noticed the singleton in the city with Vinta Nanda’s Tara, which ran for five years (1993-1997) on Zee TV. Those were the times when two important events were taking place in the country’s economic and social history. One was the rapid urbanisation with jobs to be found in bigger cities, says Nanda. The other was that young middle class women were now highly qualified and seeking positions in the mainstream and not allowing themselves to be thought of as less than men.
The city is a place for reinvention, a refuge as well as a retreat, where almost everyone is from elsewhere. What makes the woman migrant worker of contemporary Bollywood different from earlier periods is that she is now seen as a dominant figure
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“I was one of those young women and I was not going to settle for less than what was due to me as I thought. So then how could my characters be different,” asks Nanda. The four main women in Tara were hard-up for money. “They didn’t earn enough to pay fancy rents and therefore lived in dingy rooms and apartments like I had lived with my friends after we had come to Mumbai from Chandigarh to make a life and careers,” says Nanda, so they found ways to make the show look smart and snazzy but never compromised with its truth. “Navneet Nishaan, who played Tara, and I actually went to Mumbai’s Elco Market to buy jewellery, which was very good looking but could not be termed Tribhovandas Zaveri. Similarly, we searched for export houses that were selling seconds at throwaway prices. We found one—Anita Dongre, now one of the country’s biggest designers—and she was happy to part with rejects from her manufacturing unit and they looked great when the girls wore them.
The series didn’t last despite being enormously popular. Nor did the independent women. A regressive backlash soon put the woman back into the domestic orbit with Balaji serials such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, being broadcast on a reinvented Star TV in 2000.
The woman as a migrant figure is coded in two classics of the second half of the fifties, points out scholar and associate professor, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kaushik Bhaumik. “There’s Mother India where the deluge comes and we see images of villagers migrating and Nargis going from town to town looking for her husband in the Nagari, nagari, dware, dware sequence. In Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Apu’s mother becomes a migrant in Banaras,” he says. In both films the women return to the village but what both directors are saying in a metaphorical manner is that the deluge of modernity (signified by rain in these films) shatters the fabric of an earlier village making migration inevitable.
SEVENTIES CINEMA IS also awash with migrant women, he points out. The problem is that this fact gets lost because the films are male-centric. In Sachcha Jhoota (1974) and Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977) Manmohan Desai is actually focused on women as migrants to the city because of the biographical pathos of his mother having brought him up. Adds Bhaumik: “The focus on migrants in Mahesh Bhatt also comes from the same logic. Both are Gujarati directors, which means an additional reason why migration gets lost as the core issue in Mumbai cinema because Mumbai is naturally made up of migrants.”
Each of the characters now, apart from a specific zipcode, has a particular history. In Udta Punjab (2016), Bauria, a young woman whose dream of playing hockey for India is broken, comes to Punjab to find work. In Dhadak (2018), a young couple escapes caste violence in Rajasthan to come to Kolkata to make a new life. The city is a place for reinvention, a refuge as well as a retreat, where almost everyone is from elsewhere. What makes the woman migrant worker of contemporary Bollywood different from earlier periods is that she is now seen as a ‘dominant’ figure, even as a ‘hero’. With globalisation having reached Indian villages, and with the need to earn more money, many men are not up to the task, and this is where the women are rising to the fore. These women include the domestic helps who work at homes, labourers at construction sites and street vendors on highways. The seemingly invisible women, whom we are now seeing on the roads, trying to make their way back, these are the women from the village and from lower castes that Udta Punjab catches, notes Bhaumik.
New movies are putting the woman back in the frame. She can be Ratna, the widowed domestic worker, in Rohena Gera’s arthouse hit Sir. She can be the still beautiful mother of a twentysomething played by Shobana in Varane Avashyamund
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As one goes up the caste and class divide, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury believes in the modern urban milieu the migrant becomes gender agnostic. The three women of Pink,“Just happened to be women,” he says, “who are trying to make a living and create their own little world in Delhi.” The story, he notes, is much the same in all other metros where single women migrating from smaller cities for life and livelihood is now a ghar ghar k ikahani. And once they have made their home in the big city, they don’t want to leave. Like Shobana’s character in Varane Avashyamund. The daughter tries to persuade her to move back to Kerala with her soon-to-be-husband, in a separate apartment, so she can have her privacy but Shobana has no interest in uprooting her new life, with its French lessons, potential love interest in a gruff major played by Suresh Gopi, and the conviviality of a big city building. As director Anoop Sathyan says, “Chennai is like a second home to many Malayalis.” The film was infused with his own experiences of living in the city when he was a software engineer, and it was only natural that the mother-daughter would want to make the city their own.
It isn’t always as perfect as Varane Avashyamund makes it seem. In Sir, Ratna is as conscious of her lower class status as are her boss’s friends. Her boss, possibly because he is in the creative field and has spent some time outside India, doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between him and her. He helps her with her dream of becoming a designer, she helps by keeping his home immaculate and listening to his insecurities. Despite his entreaties, she can never call him by his name. When she finally does call him Ashwin, and not Sir, you can hear the sound of the glass wall shattering.
It is a much more hopeful new world where the woman migrant can find a new identity, miles away from Chandni Bar’s tragic Mumtaz, a bar dancer whose efforts to educate her children come to nought. The string that binds her to her riot-hit village finally end up strangling her ambitions. In the 2001 movie, the city offers no comfort, only repeated punishment. Is it because she chooses to be a bar dancer or is it because she had aspirations? It is difficult to say.