* “As a woman who is trying to make a career in the industry, and functioning in a largely patriarchal society, the themes I choose to work on are inspired from my personal journey”
* “My heroines are always on the right side of gender politics”
* “ Haseen Dillruba allows its female protagonist to define the boundaries of her feminism on her own terms.”
In the 2016 French thriller film Elle , we encounter an unusual feminist heroine. The rich and successful protagonist develops an ambivalent sexual attraction for her rapist. A ruthless CEO and a woman of great intelligence, Michelle Leblanc (played by Isabelle Hubert) has grown up reading the seminal feminist text — Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex . Yet, in the course of the movie, some of her sexual choices seem unaligned with her politics.
Cut to 2021, and we have Haseen Dillruba , a Bollywood entertainer to the hilt putting forth similar complexities of the choices an empowered woman makes while navigating her way in a patriarchal society. Just like in Elle , Dillruba allows its female protagonist to define the boundaries of her feminism on her own terms. They are both flawed women, who wouldn’t carry on their shoulders the expectations of a patriarchal society but will also not be bogged down by the pressure of playing the perfect feminist icon.
Dillruba ’s Rani is not a reader of The Second Sex . Neither is she a self-made millionaire. When not busy painting her nails and giving makeovers to family members, Rani spends her time obsessing over Hindi crime novels by a fictional writer Dinesh Pandit. However, much like Michelle, Rani has an unapologetic commitment to prioritising her needs, rebelling against a system that trains its young to live in denial and repress their authentic selves.
It may seem that if only Rani didn’t exist inside the world of pulp fiction, her feminism could have shone brighter. But that’s the skill in Kanika Dhillon’s writing. Nothing is a gimmick — there is subtext in all her choices as a storyteller. The pulp fiction format not only elevates the entertainment quotient of the film, but is also a fitting device to tell a cautionary tale about a dysfunctional arranged marriage.
In an hour long chat with BLink , Dhillon, who shot to fame with Kedarnath and Manmarziya , and later backed her initial promise up with the brave script of Judgemental Hai Kya dives into the political and psychological core of her characters. Her attempt is to stretch the definition of feminism with her films, to make it more accommodative and inclusive of the lived reality of women in the interiors of the country and view their choices through a non-judgemental and compassionate lens.
Excerpts from the interview.
How did you conceptualise Haseen Dillruba ?
It began with my fascination and admiration of the largely uncelebrated work by Hindi pulp crime writers such as Surendra Mohan Pathak and Ved Prakash Sharma. In my journey as a writer, I have come to realise that Hindi popular literature is a great window into the unexplored and not so well understood interiors of the country. But this treasure trove remains mostly unexplored. We would happily lap up a Sidney Sheldon, but somehow this rich material in our own backyard is not good enough for us. An entire generation read them when they used to travel by train. There has always been this nostalgia around it. I have always wanted to capture that and bring it on screen. Then I wanted to decode the complexities of a dysfunctional arranged marriage in which two strangers with completely different temperaments are brought together. Lastly, the crime element came about because having always written love stories, I also wanted to stretch myself a little bit to get out of my comfort zone.I wanted to take my characters out of that choice and put them in a very uncomfortable situation where the issue at hand is not just about choosing another person, it is a matter of survival. Other themes that I wanted to explore were redemption, guilt and forgiveness, when you have done something wrong to your partner.
The scenes where Rishu is setting up booby traps in the house to take revenge on Rani has been seen by some critics as a promotion of domestic violence.
The onus of reading the text entirely lies on the viewer. What I would like to say is that my heroines are always on the right side of gender politics. Be it Rumi, Rani or any other character, they are not willing to be subdued by an overbearing patriarchal narrative. I give the power of choice in every aspect of the relationship in their hands. They have agency of choice — emotionally — the kind of guy they want to be with or leave; financially — do they want a career or not, and even sexually they take the lead in the bedroom. There is no glorification of domestic violence here.
Let’s talk about infidelity in your films. In Dillruba , infidelity allows the female protagonist to take back control of her fate, even if briefly. Do you think the institution of marriage is built on a shaky ground leaving much scope for infidelity?
Well, not all my films are based on infidelity. In Manmarziya , yes. With Haseen Dillruba, I wasn’t concerned as much about addressing infidelity. I wanted to explore the transactional nature of arranged marriages in which men and women are treated as objects. It is a potluck. You never know what you may land with. At the transactional level, an arranged marriage may look perfect on paper. The arbitrary parameters of matchmaking like caste, educational qualification and pay check can be met. But what happens to emotional and physical compatibility? These are never factored in. It is an unfair system that can totally mess up your personal life. I also wanted to challenge the romanticisation of arranged marriages. It is a deeply flawed system. But again, can we do without it? Do we have any other alternative of pairing up given that dating culture is mostly an urban phenomenon?
Rani forces Rishu into submission with her charm, even though in social hierarchy he automatically has power over her by the very virtue of being a man. What do you have to say about a woman using her beauty as a bargaining chip to navigate power dynamics in a relationship?
Rani is empowered in every way possible, not just physically. She is a Hindi literature major, she has work experience. She is not a career woman and chooses to be a homemaker, and spends her time reading novels. What is wrong in that? A majority of Indian women do not work. And many of them choose not to work. I have personally interacted with many homemakers who came across to me as empowered, articulate and liberated women. Where do we place this section of liberated women from the interiors of the country? My understanding is that whatever the background of a woman is, the only sacrosanct parameter of empowerment for me is the agency of choice. As long as the woman has a choice — to work, to have a child, to initiate sex, like Rani has, irrespective of career choice and educational background she is an empowered woman.
Why does the main protagonist Rani’s husband Rishu decide to make such sacrifices for her?
Rishu choosing Rani is more an insight into who he is as a person than a statement on Rani’s qualities. The question is why Rishu, who is painfully self-aware of his timidity, would choose to marry a fierce and free woman like Rani? He knows he is timid, he knows people can walk over him and that he is boring. And yet when he gets the chance to marry a girl like Rani, he laps it up. If you dig deeper you see in Rishu the desire to live an exciting life vicariously through Rani.
Other than gender politics what other themes excite you as a writer?
Well, as a woman who is trying to make a career in the industry, and functioning in a largely patriarchal society, the themes I choose to work on are inspired from my personal journey. So, gender politics is certainly going to be a theme I largely focus on. Of course, women’s suffering is far more compared to what some men may face... but I do want to turn my gaze towards the delicate and the very relevant topic of the agency of urban men, who find themselves thrust at the centre of gender politics. Men are always seen with a suspicious gaze, by default, irrespective of their guilt. Extreme religious fanaticism in our country also concerns me. Will the educated young people in India choose progress and technological advancement over communalism? How our religious identity becomes a matter of life and death in certain scenarios! I did address some of these issues in Kedarnath but I want to explore them further.
Somi Das is a freelance writer based in New Delhi
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