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Moshé, Manju, Queen & I

Anna MM Vetticad | Updated on November 28, 2014 Published on November 28, 2014

Breaking good. In an ageist industry that usually relegates lead actresses to supporting roles after 30, Manju Warrier plays her age in How Old Are You

Anna MM Vetticad   -  BUSINESS LINE

2014 threw up three pleasant surprises — entertaining films that tell credible stories of women. That such films are rare is a result of gender politics, not economics

Winter is a time for bonfires, boots and smart overcoats. It’s also the season for a parade of best-of-the-year-gone-by lists from film critics. But I want to share with you a more personal compilation — three pleasant surprises for a cinephile forever in search of entertaining films that tell credible stories of women.

Queen

Watching a mainstream Bollywood film which makes me go “oh my god, that could be me” is a rare experience. Queen was that kind of film. The story of a conservative middle-class Delhi girl (Kangna Ranaut) who rediscovers herself after her fiancé dumps her shortly before their wedding, it reminded me of how starved we women are of films about us.

The US and India, home to the world’s largest film industries, are guilty on this front in different ways, governed by gender politics that drives economics. Here in India, film industry power structures are so male-dominated, that despite a steady trickle of women executives in production houses and the occasional woman director or writer, films remain largely dictated by the male gaze.

Result: most tell stories of men and are told from a male point of view, even if women have substantial roles in them. It is also generally assumed that women-focused films need to be about a dispiriting ‘issue’ because someone somewhere thinks women do not have amusing, uplifting experiences.

In this scenario, Queen was path-breaking in many ways. It was about a woman whose existence in the film was not dependent on her relationship with a dominant hero, and it was highly entertaining. Director Vikas Bahl shared the writing credits with Parveez Shaikh, Chaitally Parmar, Anvita Dutt and lead actor Kangna Ranaut herself — reminding us that sometimes all it takes to make a warm, fun film about a woman is a sensitive man who asks women what they want and who they are.

How Old Are You

Director Rosshan Andrrews’ How Old Are You marked Malayalam actress Manju Warrier’s return to films after a decade and a half. It turned out to be startlingly courageous. Think about it: how often does a mainstream Indian heroine ask her onscreen husband whether he would have wanted her to emigrate with him to a foreign country if servants there were inexpensive?

Warrier plays a woman who subordinated her career ambitions in favour of a boring job that would allow her to focus entirely on her husband and daughter, only to become the object of their disdain because of her limited interests and achievements. In an industry that tends to retire lead actresses at a relatively early age or relegate them to supporting roles, it was unusual to see an actress in her late 30s playing the heroine in a film positioned as commercial, not ‘art cinema’. For the record, Queen and How Old Are You were money-spinners, proving once again that audiences are far more open-minded than gendered film industries give them credit for.

Les Stances a Sophie

Indian film buffs would perhaps best know Israel’s Moshé Mizrahi as the Oscar-winning director of Madame Rosa (1977). He made his debut in 1971 with the French film Les Stances a Sophie (Sophie’s Ways), which was lost to the world for nearly four decades thereafter because the producer went bankrupt and most prints were seized.

And then the Embassy of Israel called earlier this month. They were screening Sophie’s Ways in Delhi. Would I moderate a discussion with the octogenarian director?

Sophie’s Ways is about a young woman in 1970 Paris who does not believe in being tied down to one man, but impulsively succumbs to a marriage proposal early in the film. As she becomes frustrated with the relationship, Moshé delivers an incredibly progressive, grim yet humorous take on women’s sexuality and sexual freedom.

The film had a limited release in France back then but got a lukewarm response, according to Moshé, “because the women’s liberation movement had not yet come into the French media in a big way as it had in America by then, so French people thought the film was too much.” In 2008, a digitally restored version was released on DVD. Six years later at the Delhi screening, I asked myself for the millionth time: what prevents film industries from making more such mainstream, women-centric films?

“Economics” is the standard answer. The truth lies elsewhere. In India’s male-dominated industries, for instance, mainstream heroes are perennially cast in lead roles with larger-than-life personas. Mainstream heroines are rarely offered such films. Over time, this creates a disparity in numbers and obsessiveness between fans of male and female stars. This usually ensures that the occasional commercial, woman-centric film — which is rarely marketed as heavily as hero-oriented films — doesn’t get the same opening collections that a hero-centric film does, and is more dependent on word of mouth. “We told you so,” producers promptly say.

But hey, you created the system, and you work hard to perpetuate it. Films like Queen and How Old Are You (and the Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom, for that matter) have been hits despite these constraints. Make such films in large numbers over a period of time, create equitable circumstances for heroes and heroines, and then see how many more of these you get. It’s a crying shame that in the 21st century, film buffs like me are making such lists of pleasant surprises

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic)

Follow her on Twitter >@annavetticad

Published on November 28, 2014

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