When compared to real life, men seem to do a slightly better job at understanding women in the reel world. But even in this fictional world, women directors outdo their male counterparts when it comes to imagining the opposite sex.
Had it not been for women filmmakers, Bollywood’s representation of men would have, at best, remained two-dimensional. If on one hand the Angry Young Man was the best that commercial Hindi cinema could come up with then on the other hand Parallel Cinema couldn’t look beyond the so-called troubled common man. The perfunctory mode of going about his business made the Vijay of Zanjeer (1973), Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Shakti (1982) come across as someone cold and unattached when compared to an Albert Pinto (Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, 1980) or an Anant Velankar (Ardha Satya, 1983). Somewhere in the middle certain facets of the regular man went missing and it took films of Sai Paranjpye to fish them out. In Sparsh (1980) she extracted one of Naseeruddin Shah’s most poignant performances and in Katha (1983) she helped reimagine the common man unlike ever before. The story of a blind school’s principal, Anirudh (Shah), who falls in love with a widow, Kavita (Shabana Azmi), explores the complexity of a relationship between two people who are burdened by their existence and is nothing less than an absolute master-class in subtlety. No doubt that Shah is an actor who understands characters much better than most of his contemporaries but the studied restraint that he exercises in Anirudh owes a great deal to a woman helming the film. Similarly in Katha, a retelling of the classic tortoise versus hare fable, Paranjpye gave Shah a shot at reinterpreting a regular lower middle-class Indian in a chawl. Rajaram (Shah) is the good-natured simple man who secretly covets his neighbour Sandhya (Deepti Naval) but is too shy to even broach the topic. His fast talking smooth operator of a friend Basu (Farooq Shaikh) comes visiting and turns his life upside down by not only impressing everyone in Rajaram’s life but also wining over Sandhya.
One of the better actors in the business today, Aamir Khan has been at his best when women direct him. Khan has been acknowledged for his sharp instincts when it comes to picking up roles and Deepa Mehta’s 1947-Earth (1998) was the first time this trait was on full display. A decade into the business when he did the film, Aamir had hits like Dil (1990), Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), and Rangeela (1995) behind him but he had never really gotten an opportunity to play a character who wasn’t the star. His Shahnawaz, the Ice Candy Man in 1947-Earth was not only a supporting act in the true sense of the word but also the villain. Mehta managed to show Aamir in a light that a Bollywood star couldn’t have imagined himself in and 15 years on, that performance still remains one of his best ever. In Dhobi Ghat (2011) Aamir played the character closest to his physicality by letting himself be clay in the hands of wife and director Kiran Rao. The film might not have been as successful as his other films but it’s one where he seemed the most comfortable in years. There is a certain sense of studied spontaneity that only increases with every new film of his and this could be the reason that I don’t find myself revisiting Aamir Khan films released after Lagaan (2001) but in Dhobi Ghat he let go of his defenses and the result is a stellar performance as Arun. Imagine an actor who delves deep into the character he plays by growing his hair (Rang De Basanti, 2006) or not cutting his moustache for three years (Rising- The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, 2005) or sleeping with motor oil poured all over him (Ishq, 1997) and yet the best get-up he ever dons is when he is just himself physically! Kiran Rao’s bare bones approach to Arun freed Aamir of the shackles that he perhaps habitually imposes on himself in the name of characterization and pushed him to go into uncharted waters.
Looking at the Anirudhs, Rajarams, Shahnawazs, and Aruns it’s quite clear that it is the approach that women directors have towards male characters that makes all the difference. Somewhere men while creating women characters think of them as different from themselves and hence slant in a particular manner whereas by contrast women don’t look at them as complex or complicated. In fact, women writers and directors explore the opposite sex’s insecurities without making them look insecure. Look at the Vikram Jaisingh character from Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) and you’ll understand the point I’m trying to make. Had a man directed the film, Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma) might have looked the same but Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) would have been sanitized beyond repair but in Zoya’s hands, the character (can’t say much about her brother’s acting prowess) remains so true to life that in spite of being a scheming scoundrel of the lowest order he, somehow, manages to redeem himself. Even in a film like Talaash (2012), which may not have been as successful a whodunit as it imagined itself to be, a single scene at the end where Aamir Khan’s Surjan reconciles with the truth about his son suddenly makes it worthwhile. Khan cried his guts out as a parent in Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) but here, once again, Reema Kagti, pushes him to find a place that makes it a little more real. Now, only if the men in the imagination business could return the courtesy.
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.
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