From huge billboards, bus stand posters to tepid reviews of a much hyped release, Haseen Dillruba on Netflix has gotten as much attention as any big ticket theatrical film. Extreme responses to its protagonist Taapsee Pannu and its story, has driven both its heroine, and its writer Kanika Dhillon to also react angrily. This Dillruba is obsessed with a pulp fiction Hindi novelist and his interpretation of passionate love – the kind that hurts physically and mentally. She doesn’t seem to want to do anything with her days, other than read and dabble in beauty parlour hobbies. In short, she is lazy, uninspired and unreal about human relationships.
While biting back sexism seems fair, reacting to film reviews as ‘untrained’ reflects angst. Not suitable from a successful team that has, after all, released a film on Netflix, which can set you up financially for quite some time. When one finds huge commercial success, one must also be prepared for staunch criticism.
Not responding with anger but absorbing sharper, shrill criticism was Imtiaz Ali for Love Aaj Kal 2020. Zoe, played by Sara Ali Khan, is confused, muddled, hyper- reactive and a god awful mess. Perhaps an interpretation of millennials and Gen Z, Ali missed the point. There’s nothing likeable or endearing about a young girl that flip flops over her emotions and responses without rhyme or reason. Young folk are more flexible, sometimes flippant, about emotions and human behaviour than those over 30. But they exercise an opinion and make a choice based on logic even today. Zoe completely reverses such reasoning with her annoying conduct onscreen.
The core argument here is not whether one can empathize or connect the woman who is Haseen Dillruba or Zoe from Love Aaj Kal 2020. An emerging trend in Indian cinematic and series writing – of creating an unlikeable heroine is where trouble begins. Being real, with character traits that verge on abrasive and defiant without provocation, these heroines do not endear themselves to the viewer. While they might be akin to women from real life, putting them at the center of a film or story weakens its ability to connect with, or engage the audience.
A story needs to pick a side. Why do these women do what they do? Their reasoning, like of flippant heroes of yesteryear, isn’t sound at all. These women characters seem unable to pick anything worthwhile in their lives; in fact, their decisions, like discussing a nascent sex life with family members in Haseen Dillruba; or Zoe walking out a ‘Meet the Parents’ dinner with her boyfriend; verge on being stupid and rude.
The Unlikeable Heroine is not new. She has grown and evolved in different stories, manifesting imperfect and uncomfortable behaviour convincingly. For instance, Mildred Hayes of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, can’t control her rage and grief against an ineffective police system. She has lost a daughter to violent rape and murder and she hasn’t found closure. To make everyone around her, in his or her sleepy small town, feel her pain; first she puts up a billboard claiming police failure. She goes on to burn down the police station, without a thought to anyone that might be inside even after midnight. When the police station combusts and bursts into flames, only then, she realizes the enormity of her action. Nothing about her bitter and sarcastic persona is pleasant throughout the film; but her pain is palpable. And so this piece of art went on to win accolades. That it also won an Oscar for Frances McDormand is incidental.
Similarly, good women do bad things in powerful stories with conviction in today’s liberated stories. Kate Winslet’s character Mare in Mare of Easttown plants drugs on her daughter in law to frame her. Her motivation is to not lose custody of her grandson. Being motivated to do morally dubious things can still become interesting to watch if they are rooted in a solid reason.
We saw a rather flawed, manipulative survivor in Tara Khanna of Made in Heaven. She does what some might choose to do in her position; manipulates a super-rich boss into marrying her after a sexually heated fling. Her choice seems justified given her background, where both mother and circumstances constantly pressure her to reach for higher status and bank balances. Tara’s choices, after marriage, seem rational, as does her decision to walk out on living a lie. Flawed is not bad if it is set up in circumstances that resemble real life challenges.
It’s not reassuring that established writers and filmmakers fall back on a touch of sensationalism when they craft their idea of a defiant Indian female protagonist. Making our women onscreen real and more easy to relate to would definitely accentuate our stories. Mothers that fight everyday battles for their children, women that balance so-called boring jobs with households, women that fly into space or go on to lead the World Bank, set an example for real strength and evolution in our country and culture. About time, our heroines reflect a sliver of this.