Spinster over shrimati

Anna MM Vetticad | Updated on August 14, 2014

My way: Kangna as Rani Mehra in Queen (above) jives to her own tune, unlike Deepika Padukone as Veronica in Cocktail who, sadly, turns rather desperate

My way: Kangna as Rani Mehra in Queen jives to her own tune, unlike Deepika Padukone as Veronica in Cocktail (above) who, sadly, turns rather desperate

Anna MM Vetticad

Queen’s atypical happily-ever-after is a refreshing change in a sea of gender clichés

Bachelorette, bachelorina, bachelor girl, singleton, single woman…in a bid to avoid the dreaded ‘spinster’, English language users opt for a string of alternative expressions to denote an unmarried female human. Their concerns are easily explained. After all, social prejudice has lent meanings to that word, going way beyond a woman’s marital status. Unlike the coolth associated with the male ‘bachelor’, over the centuries, ‘spinster’ has come to stand for a neurotic, frustrated, ill-tempered, despairing, unattractive woman, unhappy at being unmarried past what is prescribed by consensus as the socially permissible age.

By dodging the word, liberals are possibly succumbing to the very biases they no doubt decry. That’s a subject for another discussion. For the moment though, let’s turn our attention to how mainstream Bollywood keeps away from spinsters as doggedly as well-meaning English speakers do. Single women in Bollywood tend to be 20-somethings who are in the process of being courted, falling in love or getting married to men during the course of their films. Rare is the Bollywood story that dwells at length on a heroine’s singledom and celebrates it, or gives us a leading lady — young or old — who has pointedly opted to stay unmarried. It’s in this scenario that director Vikas Bahl’s Queen, now in theatres, springs a surprise on us.

Queen’s atypical happily-ever-after brings us a Rani Mehra (Kangna Ranaut) who is persistently single and pleased about it. This is a departure from the Hindi film norm of a woman’s position as the heroine being established in terms of her romantic relationship with the hero. Though there are exceptions such as Vidya Balan, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra (when she chooses well), the filmography of their contemporary Katrina Kaif typifies the Hindi film heroine’s job: to be a pretty showpiece the hero falls in love with, like Kat’s Aaliya was in Dhoom 3 last year.

Bollywood would argue that its sexism merely reflects real life where a woman’s identity is expected to revolve around whether or not she’s a wife; where a man is always the neutral ‘Mr’ revealing nothing to strangers about his marital status, whereas most Indians continue to prefix women’s names with ‘Mrs’ (married) or ‘Miss’ (unmarried) although ‘Ms’ (marital status unspecified) is also available. Queen’s Rani doesn’t want to be someone’s Shrimati for social redemption. She has the confidence to be a spinster — and yes, I insist on using that word.

The arrival of Rani in Bollywood is a welcome baby step for an industry that still insists on pigeonholing men and women. For instance, the carefree bachelor played by Saif Ali Khan in film after film ( Hum Tum, Salaam Namaste, Love Aaj Kal, Cocktail) has no spinster equivalent. Cinema and language respond to social diktats. And so, Hum Tums Karan and Cocktail’s Gautam would be widely described as a “ladies’ man” with no pejorative intent. If Karan had a female clone, what would she be though? ‘Gentlemen’s woman’ (a non-existent term) or ‘slut’?

Cocktail’s heroine Veronica exemplifies this hypocritical attitude. Humour emanating from sexually promiscuous heroes is commonplace in Bollywood. Cocktail was unusual in that it featured a promiscuous leading lady, adopted an equally non-judgmental stance towards her, and made her sex life — like the hero’s — a source of amusement. Post-interval though, the film descended into crowd-pleasing orthodoxy with the happy-go-lucky Veronica getting neurotically desperate for marriage, while the man remains his easygoing self.

Cocktail’s purported liberalism cloaked its deep-seated narrow-mindedness that was mirrored by a less high-profile film in 2011. In Turning 30,Gul Panag’s trite Naina turns frantic when she turns 30, and shreds her dignity as she panics about middle age, male disinterest, menopause (already?), wrinkles and drooping breasts.

To be fair, Bollywood is not alone in steering clear of spinsters or stereotyping them. Popular culture in the West often reflects similar sentiments even while pretending to do otherwise. British writer Helen Fielding’s bestselling Bridget Jones’s Diary and its film adaptation starring Renee Zellweger were widely lauded for their supposedly free-thinking portrayal of a single woman, yet Bridget was literally obsessed with three primary goals: getting a boyfriend, getting a date, getting laid.

Hollywood superstar Sandra Bullock has a track record of playing stereotypical spinsters ( Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice, The Proposal). Being career-oriented for her characters inevitably translates into being testy, gauche and — in the case of Two Weeks Notice — miserably eating pizzas at home alone.

Oceans away in Bollywood, Queen turns up its regal nose at that cliché. With the industry now planning to make Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations into a film starring Katrina and Aditya Roy Kapur, it would be interesting to see if Dickens’ Miss Havisham is updated for a modern telling or she is retained as she was in this 19th century classic: a tragic spinster who gave up on life simply because a man jilted her. C’mon Bollywood, prove that you’ve evolved beyond England of 150 years ago and Cocktail in 2012. Here’s your chance to prove that you don’t equate unmarried women with cobwebs and gloom.

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

Follow on Twitter >@annavetticad

Published on March 14, 2014

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