Simran wanted to travel the world, starting with a Europe trip with her friends. She has a loving family and dreams for her future, all till she falls in love with Raj, who is an outright creepy Romeo even for film standards. Yet, the female lead in Bollywood’s highly celebrated love story Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) decides that living her life to the fullest meant collapsing in a man’s arms. The problem is, this is a girl living her best life, according to screenwriters Aditya Chopra and Javed Siddique, the two men who scripted the cult-classic.
But the dynamics of film industry has since changed (thank goodness!). Over the years, Bollywood has also witnessed a fine crop of women screenwriters ruling the roost in storytelling, bringing real women on screen rather than the womanhood imagined in a patriarchal tradition.
Showing it as it is
“There is the crime and then there is the environment around it, which allows this crime to be committed with such brazenness," said Atika Chohan, the screenwriter for recently-released Chhapaak and Margarita with a Straw (2015). With the backing of strong women directors as well, both movies seek to address two very distinct and inherent problems in the country.
Directed by Meghna Gulzar, Chhapaak tells the story of acid-attack survivor and activist Laxmi Agarwal.
The masterfully-told story puts the spotlight on the strength of the survivor, giving hope to others as well. Notably, this is also not sugar coating; Laxmi’s own life – even before the movie – is a tale of believing in oneself and rising through the ashes. Chhapaak is less about sympathising with the survivors and more about correcting our perspectives. Deepika’s character, Malti, who represents Laxmi, struggles through everything that life throws at her, but does not play a damsel in distress. Vikrant Massey’s character Anmol is her supporter, friend, and later lover, but never once a knight in armour. Also, Malti’s positivity and hope gives strength to women around her who are acid attack survivors too. Malti’s perseverance is not super-human; it’s the height of a woman’s struggle for justice. You can almost hear the scriptwriter’s pen announcing the arrival of strong independent women on the big screen.
Margarita with a Straw more or less falls in this premise too - of changing our attitude and accepting others for who they are. The teenager protagonist Laila (played by Kalki Koechlin) deals with cerebral palsy and comes to understand her sexuality and desires through the course of the movie. Not many writers have dared to put together physical disability and sexual desire together on the protagonist on screen before now. More importantly, to Atika’s credit, Laila is portrayed just like any other girl; her handicap does not eclipse her character. Atika’s Laila is funny, smart, naughty- like any regular teenager.
“The utterly remarkable thing about Margarita is that Laila isn’t a differently abled person. She’s a person who is differently abled,” writes film critic Baradwaj Rangan. (Laila’s girlfriend Khanum is blind; yet neither’s ‘disability’ craves the audience’s sympathy.)
Where most people fail to comprehend the unfamiliar reality of the minority, movies make them see the other side of the story. Few movies have done it without a woman to write that story: Koshish (1972) and Khamoshi (1996), both featuring deaf-mute couples, are among the few that stand out.
Director Shonali Bose dedicated Margarita with a Straw to her sister suffering from cerebral palsy. Can you think of a better way women can come together and celebrate each other?
Just Like the Women in Your Life
In lighter narratives too, women writers have shown off their skills -especially our cherished characters like Deepika’s Piku in Piku (2015), Kangana Ranaut’s Rani in Queen (2013), and all the female characters in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016). While they are the rare breed of relatable female characters, these movies also pulled off realistic male characters.
This rings particularly true to the relationship between Piku herself and her 70-year-old father who has digestive problems, a performance for which Amitabh Bachchan won his fourth national award for best actor. Sprinkled with humour, Juhi Chaturvedi’s National Award-wining screenplay for Piku also unpacks the anxieties of aging and death, as an independent woman nurses her eccentric old man.
Interestingly, in Queen – which won the National Award for Best Actress for Kangana Ranaut –the way the protagonist’s friendship with a woman (who is her polar opposite) is portrayed shows a woman’s touch: Chaitali Parmar, one among Queen’s three script writers. In Lipstick Under my Burkha, written and directed by Alankrita Srivastava, it is the friendship between the four women – all going through hell in different ways – that keeps them together.
When women write women, reality walks on screen with its head held high. Characters born out of these women’s pen are flawed, like the women we know in our day-to-day lives, and not Sati-Saavitris or Mother Teresas. And that’s why we need more women to take up their pen for cinema.
(Edited by Athira Nair)