One of the biggest disadvantages of having a group of friends where everyone is 3-5 years younger than you is that you're always waiting for people to grow up. You keep making excuses for them and keep saying: they'll grow up when they get a real job, they'll grow up when they find a steady girlfriend/boyfriend, they'll grow up when they move out, etc. And there is some truth to that because that is usually how people learn responsibility and maturity. In fact, on the opposite end, the most telling sign that someone is refusing to grow up is that they will do anything (and I mean ANYthing) to not get a full-time job, or what we call a "real" job.
In a way, Bollywood is like these friends of mine: it keeps refusing to let its heroines (and heroes sometimes) grow up. In real life, if someone is responsible enough to keep a real job and live on their own, we also expect them to be emotionally mature. (Of course that expectation can backfire horribly, but that's for a different day to discuss.) But Bollywood, as I have discovered, doesn't like emotionally mature characters. It follows logically that they cannot have jobs (or if they do they're in the artistic realm), live on their own or make reasonable (read: mature) decisions. So... they don't.
We've already discussed that a fair percentage of the male characters have become manchildren (without actually getting to the bottom of why that is, but we might get there in this post), so it's only right to now discuss what type of female characters will suit these boys. Not surprisingly: girls! Not women. Girls. Sometimes (not very often, thankfully!) manic pixie dream girls and other times just girls in the process of growing up along with their hero. But girls nonetheless.
Look around at Bollywood movies from the past two decades: how many women can we count and how many girls? And of those women, how many are the heroine? Moreover, how many of those heroines end up with the hero? Three questions, each worth exploring in some detail.
By the way, as I was writing this I realized that this is a very a-typical post for me because I'm never big on women power. To me everyone is equal and no sex should be more equal than the other. But a few recent stinkers from Filmistan have made me a little fed up with all these cutesy bubbly teenage dream girls that Bollywood (and regional cinema) loves so dearly. And I realized that normal grown-up women have been a bit of a rarity lately. Hence my upcoming rant.
How many women and how many girls are there?
For a while there it seemed like Bollywood was going in the right direction with its female characters, providing some much needed relief from the whiny, spine-less love interests that populated the last decade of the millennium. And here mad brownie points go to Dil Chahta Hai for giving us not one but three female characters that despite being at different stages in their development shared one quality: they all had a level head on their shoulders. Then Southie remakes started happening. And Hollywood "inspirations". And then it all started going downhill again.
While it's understandable that a certain amount of innocence should go with the virginal ideal woman (according to Indian cinema anyway), it's incredible how often that degenerates into ditsiness and childlike behaviour. Even some of my favourite movies manage to slip into this cliche. I adored Dimple in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, but let's face it, mature is not the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe her. One of my favourite movies ever, Jab We Met, features another good example of innocence and airheaded-ness, despite a few well placed dialogues that manage to give Geet some depth. Her behaviour however is not exactly what we would expect from a grown woman. In another intriguing example Kaminey's Sweety is a strange mixture of determination and puerility.
And mind you these are the films that balanced it well and gave us some truly memorable, three-dimensional characters that I will always love. Most films out there either don't even try to give us a round character, or if they do, it reminds us of how we used to be at 15. This is, by the way, much much worse in regional cinema, which is probably why I'm so fed up with them.
Whether that innocence comes from having grown up in a warm family that has sheltered the girl from the evil world, or from simply being a carefree type of personality, the fact is it exists in far too many female character out there. And while I do understand the appeal of a sweet, wholesome, happy and (usually) virginal creature, there is something to be said in favour of a lady who has some knowledge of how the world turns. And who has some depth to her even if that means being manipulative or selfish. No? Too much? Ok, then at least a girl who has kissed a boy before and doesn't look like it's the most miraculous moment in her life when she kisses the hero. You see what I'm getting at here.
But evidently Bollywood does not agree because it keeps serving us these lovely wide-eyed caricatures of women who more often than not seem inspired by high school cheerleaders (or bookworms, depending on the story) rather than by real life women.
Of these Women, how many are the heroine?
This is a startling conclusion that I came to: a lot of times the female characters who seem real and who make mature decisions are not the main characters in Hindi films. Think of Jai's Swiss girlfriend in Love Aaj Kal. Think of Luv's ex in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Think of Tanu's best friend in Tanu Weds Manu. Think of Ria in Monsoon Wedding. Or Raina in Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl. All these secondary characters behave like a normal grown-up woman would in front of a tough situation. They don't call mommy, they don't cling to the hero like ivy to an old house, they don't give up on life. They do what any adult does: deal with the problem. (Or in Tanu's case, they deal with their best friend's problem.)
So this is where it gets really confusing now. I used to look around at all the different kinds of fabulous women that I know and wonder: why is it so hard for scriptwriters in Bollywood to create a character that feels real? Normal women walk around us all the time, why is it so hard to transfer them to paper and then to screen? Why the need to go over the top with these unnaturally bubbly characters? Or worse, come up with flat characters whose sole purpose is to look pretty in a sari and possibly fuel the hero's transformation into a real man. Now understandably if we're talking about a movie like Dabangg or Dhoom 2, we won't take offense at the flatness of the female characters, the movie is, after all, not about them. But why can we not have grown-up women in rom-coms? In love stories? In dramas?
Because it turns out that they can be written. They do exist and they do make it to the screen. Just... not as the heroine.
And the more I think about it the more if feels like I figured it out. In Bollywood where the love story is such an important element, a character who is already developed doesn't have anywhere to go. The whole fun of watching a story that's been told before (which most of the times is exactly what you're watching) is seeing how the characters change. So unless there's some sort of growth (and the growing up kind seems to be the easiest to handle), there is no satisfaction at the end of the journey. Unless, of course, there's action and sparkles and dancing in which case we really don't care about the character development.
Then of course there's also the issue of the fountain of youth which Bollywood is still looking for. There's no telling when it will be found, but in the meantime we're getting some practice with the kinds of characters that a forever-young actress or actor will need to play (ie teenagers). Though credit where it's due, Bollywood actresses are doing a whole lot better than the actors in choosing age-appropriate roles.
And finally: how many end up with the hero?
A few movies have managed to elevate these independent, strong women from the secondary character status to heroine or at least the "other" heroine. I'm thinking about Dev D.'s Paro, Ishqiya's Krishna, Chalo Dilli's Mihika, Delhi Belly's Menaka, Aaja Nachle's Dia, Luck by Chance's Sona and to a certain extent Riana in Ek Main aur Ekk Tu. All women who know what they want and don't rely on men to build their own happiness.
But strangely, of all these, Delhi Belly is the only one where there is a possibility she will end up with the main hero. In all the other ones they either are never meant to be a couple (as is the case with Chalo Dilli), or they just don't end up doing the "happily ever after" thing for whatever reason.
Actually, it's not for "whatever" reason. It's for a very obvious reason: the hero is not likely to make such a woman happy. Whether it's because he's too immature, or because he's too self-centered, or simply because... she's just not that into him. Puns aside, could we even picture them together? In most of these cases, not really. And not to say that it's imperative for a woman to be in a couple in order to be happy, but... it doesn't hurt either.
Strong women, it seems, don't belong with chocolate heroes. Maybe chocolate heroes wouldn't know how to handle them. The nervous boy who is in love for the first time and doesn't even know it would be crushed by a love interest who isn't herself a shivering fragile lily. So the grown-up women get sidelined and in come the girls who will be more than happy to stick around through thick and thin holding a man-child's hand. The one-eyed leading the blind...
(Of course there are a handful of films where the independent, strong-headed heroine does end up with the hero, but more often than not, their love story is not the main focus. I'm thinking of the adorable Well Done Abba, the intriguing Paa, and the brilliant Swades. Too few... too few.)
The conclusion here seems to be that in order for us to buy the hero and the heroine being happy ever after, we have to visualize that they will evolve together. If the female character is a woman and the male character is a boy, it doesn't ring true to picture them still together in 20 years, which is really what we should think at the end of a good love-story. On the other hand if neither of them has to wait around for the other to grow up, and they're in it together, it's easier to believe that they will make it.
The bottom line...
Bollywood certainly has a firm grasp on this one concept: there is nothing more intense, more romantic and more adorable to watch than two people falling in love for the first time. In fact, because this first-love magic usually happens to us when we're teenagers, Hindi films have gone as far as routinely selling us characters in their mid-twenties who act like teenagers in the turmoils of their first love story (and no, it's not just the female characters, it's both sexes).
But here's something that Bollywood apparently has yet to discover: grown-ups fall in love too. And it can make for some pretty cool stories.
It's not that girls are not fun to watch, don't get me wrong, I love my bubbly energy balls just as much as I love my man-children, but I do find that the stereotype has gone a little too far in recent years. I'm ok with being given a girl instead of a woman, but give me a well-rounded one (and I don't mean just physically in case you were getting ready with a pun here), give me one I can picture surviving in real life. I know... I know... Bollywood is not meant to be realistic. But I find that it's doing a great job with the male characters in that department, so why not with the ladies as well?
Maybe when mainstream Bollywood finally discovers adults we'll be treated to some real women, who act like they're firmly in their twenties or thirties. Or fifties. Who think for themselves and know what they want. Who make the right decision for themselves, not for mommy and daddy, not for the boyfriend or for anyone else. And who don't end up alone.
Until then we'll have to make do with girls who assert their independence through teenage rebellion acts such as *gasp* smoking, drinking and driving a scooter at high speed. In traffic. Whoa.
PS: This post was brought to you by Adam's Rib, a Totally Filmi initiative, made possible by the generous support of Bloggistan. For more women power (and for less cynicism than what I just served you) keep an eye on her blog for links to all the participating posts. I promise after I'm done celebrating the male power of Ali Zafar in London Paris New York, I will sit down and write a nice happy post about the ladies of Indian Cinema.
8 hours ago