Women’s empowerment seems to fashionable not just in Bollywood cinema. Marathi cinema is also picking up on this trend of the urban empowered, career-minded woman. The career-minded city girl who dresses as she pleases, eats and drinks what she wants, and makes her own romantic decisions has now replaced the pious and coy female love interests in mainstream as well as regional cinema. But can these films give these women equal treatment?
Let us take a look at the treatment of the heroines of two recent romantic comedies, Chi Va Chi Sau Ka
Savitri (Mrinmayee Godbole), the female lead in Chi Va Chi Sau Ka
is introduced with one of her strongest personality traits: her love for animals. She picks up a worm from the road and escorts it to safety on a leaf. Whenever she needs to use a rickshaw, she asks the drivers whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, and will only ride with the ‘shakahari’ ones. Her puritanical casteist behaviour, which she feels entitled to enforce on every person she comes in contact with is the character’s biggest failure. Her potential suitor Satya (Lalit Prabhakar) is equally eccentric about protecting the environment. Savitri declares she wants to live with Satya before getting married, to see if they are compatible. In spite of opposition from both the sets of parents, Savitri refuses to budge. Throughout the film, she refuses to change her personality or habits in spite of growing a fondess for Satya, and actively voices her concerns and problems. This is a welcome change from the stereotypical heroines who become a mellowed down version of themselves and start dressing more traditionally once they fall in love. Even though Savitri has a seemingly strong bond of friendship with her female friends, this film sadly does not pass the Bechdel
test. In spite of having very different and strong personalities, Savitri and Satya predictably decide to get married in the end. What causes a tiff between the two is the presence of non-vegetarian food that Satya throws for Savitri. Even though Satya gives up meat for her, she remains miffed that he hasn’t enforced her principles on others who may not have the inclination or privilege to be purely vegetarian. She agrees to be more eco-friendly, thus showing some willingness to compromise and accept others’ beliefs.
One of its most interesting characters is Satya’s grandmother, played by Jyoti Subhash. The widow finds love in her neighbour (played by Satish Alekar), and sneaks away on dates with him, since her son refuses to let her do as she pleases. As the head of a patriarchal family, he even feels the need to control and morally police his aged mother. The fact that even a much older woman’s sexuality and wishes are controlled by her son is a sad reflection of the lack of power women have over their own lives, irrespective of their ages. Satya’s support for her romantic endeavours is endearing to watch, as is her support for the live-in relationship of Satya and Savitri. Her character also stands out against the ageism of the film industry, and the notion that romance is reserved only for the young.
In Muramba, we also see a career-oriented Indu (Mithila Palkar) and her romantic turmoil with her long-term boyfriend Alok (Amey Wagh). The couple decide to break up, as we find out in the course of the movie, because of Alok’s lack of focus and fear of professional failure. Since the film is for most part, a conversation between Alok and his parents, Indu’s perspective is unclear. In Alok’s flashbacks, we see him being silently resentful towards her professional success. He becomes passive aggressive when she speaks to him of an opportunity to work in Kerala for a year, and acts defensive and passive aggressive whenever Indu tries to speak to him of his career. In the end, Alok apologises for his behaviour and asks her to get back together with him. Even though he does not address what he plans to do about his career, Indu readily agrees to get back with him without solving the problem that got them to break up in the first place. She however does voice her concerns about being able to manage her career and home after marriage, and not being able to enjoy the freedom she does as an unmarried girl. These, of course, are gender specific issues that a man in Alok’s position and privilege may never have to face. Indu tells him that sometimes he needs to be strong for her, and sometimes she will be strong, which seems like a healthy basis for a relationship.
Alok is unable to feel happiness for his partner’s success. After telling his parents about his break up and failing to receive the sympathy and comfort he seeks, he needlessly tells his parents about an incident where Indu had too much to drink and vomited by the road. His scheme in ‘shaming’ Indu only partially succeeds. He is able to see the world only through his own perspective. So when his father asks him about one of Indu’s good qualities, he says, ” She’s better than me at everything.” He is unable to view her as a separate individual and admire her qualities in isolation, and judges her competency compared to his incompetency. Towards the end, Alok’s father explains to him how Indu is the girl who truly understands him, and he needs her as a life partner. But Alok’s infantile behaviour and emotional manipulation unequivocally demonstrate why he’s the wrong life partner for Indu. Nevertheless, this film does not afford Indu some space, emotional growth and the ability to detect an abusive relationship.
A social trend that both these films have picked up on is parental approval and acceptance of youngsters’ romantic and life choices. In spite of Savitri and Satya’s parents being scandalised by the trial live-in situation, they never actively forbid or stand in the way of their strong-minded children. Savitri’s father nags her about keeping the relationship strictly non-physical, and Satya’s mother keeps an eye on them constantly, to which the pair literally and metaphorically shut the door on. In Muramba as well, Alok and Indu’s relationship is openly accepted by both their parents. Their refusal to accept the break up and give the couple some space is annoying, but progress in the older generations’ attitudes is clearly visible.
As women become more confident, outgoing and ambitious, it is refreshing to see relatable characters in these romances. Films from the woman’s perspective without familial or patriarchal pressures weighing her character down would be most welcome. However both the films lack the space for self-reflection and growth for the woman. In Chi Va Chi Sau Ka, Savitri is shown as a fiercely principled woman, who lacks the courage or willingness to accept different beliefs. By giving in to her unreasonable demand to be only surrounded by herbivores, she is treated as greater than equal by her partner. In Muramba, Indu, in spite of being a hard-working and career-minded woman, has to give in to an emotionally abusive relationship where her partner neither values her success nor her efforts to encourage him into facing his own professional fears. She has to settle for a relationship where she gives a lot and gets very little out of it. If such films are able to rid their women of a certain superiority complex (Chi Va Chi Sau Ka) or the romantic obligation to end up with the hero (Muramba), maybe the female leads will some day actually be feminists.