Dirty Picture Project: Bajirao Mastani

By Vidya Dronamraju and Devdutta Mukhopadhyay

Breaking away from the conventional damsel in distress trope, the trailer of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest production enticed us with the promise of a powerful warrior heroine in the form of Deepika Padukone’s Mastani. Walking into the theatre, we had high hopes from what we believed would be an epic tale of star crossed lovers who were truly equal in every sense. The movie began with a disclaimer that the events depicted may not be historically accurate but much to our dismay, the filmmakers certainly managed to get archaic gender roles right.

Warrior Heroine turned Full Time Dancer

The lovers meet against the backdrop of war with Mastani seeking help from the Peshwa, played by Ranveer Singh, to end the siege on her hometown of Bundelkhand. When he refuses to see her, she rushes into his tent swords drawn and takes down all of his guards. Her armour is practical, covering all the essentials, including her hair and face. This powerful scene comes to an abrupt end with one blow from the Peshwa, which uncovers her head gear and shows her flowing mane of hair and defiant eyes. The Peshwa agrees to help her and eventually plays a critical role in ending the siege. She saves his life on the battleground but gets grievously injured and has to be carried away in true damsel in distress style by the hypermasculine and undefeatable Bajirao. Mastani’s skill and determination is remarkable for a woman who lived during the 17th century. She rode into battle at a time when it was practically unheard of women to do so. She even refused to be thanked for saving Bundelkhand as she believed it was her duty to protect her home. Unfortunately, thirty minutes into the three hour long movie, the promise of a strong independent female protagonist is forgotten. For the remaining two and half hours, Mastani focuses all of her energy on making Bajirao fall in love with her. A battle wounded Mastani tries to enthrall Bajirao through song and dance. She even hints at marriage during her performance because regardless of how courageous and capable a woman is, at the end of the day, all she wants is ek chutki sindoor. Bajirao in turn seems to be smitten by the brave and beautiful Mastani who is unlike any other woman he has known. He gives her his short sword as a mark of love and respect but Mastani takes it to be an offer of marriage because of the customary practice prevalent in Bundelkhand. She gives up everything all in the name of ‘ishq’ and follows Bajirao to Poona, much to the consternation of Bajirao’s orthodox mother. She is made to live with the dancing girls and is made to perform at the main palace, something that is clearly beneath her royal station. Yet, she does not protest against this treatment meted out to her and dances beautifully much to the chagrin of Bajirao’s mother. Bajirao finally succumbs to her persistent efforts and takes her as his second wife, warning her that she would never command the respect a first wife would. However, she gratefully accepts his offer of marriage and graduates from being a dancer to an illegitimate second wife. Mastani’s character had immense potential to showcase the difficult experiences of a woman who has to bear the double burden of marginalization because of her gender and religion. But at the end of the day, it is a love story and the strength of Mastani’s iron will can only be gauged through her devotion to Bajirao.

Kashi’s Sorrow

Kashi, played by Priyanka Chopra, is the embodiment of the Sati-Savitri stereotype. In the first half of the movie, she is the loving and devoted wife whose entire existence revolves around her husband. She is unwilling to hear a word against him, and in her eyes, he can do no wrong. When he returns from war, she dances with joy. She welcomes him home with an aarti and a limerick on her devotion. She undoes his armor for him even when he is fully capable of doing it himself. She is ready to go to battle with him the next time even though she doesn’t even know how to straddle a horse! Predictably, when she learns about his infidelity, the truth hits her hard with her image of a loving and faithful husband going up in flames quite literally. In the second half, she is morose and heartbroken, but remains the dutiful first wife who would do anything for her Peshwa. Her interaction with Mastani is limited to a handful of scenes and all of them are in connection with Peshwa. Any attempts to portray her as a multi-dimensional character by having her warn the Peshwa about the threat to Mastani’s life or her welcoming the couple to the new palace fail to add any depth to her character because they are all the actions of a self-sacrificing wife.

The Angry Widow A.K.A Radha Bai

The only other major on-screen female character is Radha Bai played by Tanvi Azmi. She is Bajirao’s widowed mother who serves as an antagonist by standing in the way of Bajirao and Mastani’s love. She cares for Kashi and is a stickler for tradition. Even though she opposes her son at every turn, she clearly loves him as is evident by her reaction to news of his illness. She is caustic towards Mastani, and uses every opportunity to humiliate her and throw her out of the Palace. She cannot tolerate the fact that her son has a second wife who is a Muslim. She would prefer to have him step down from the throne rather than to continue seeing Mastani as his wife. She follows all the traditions of widowhood and is devoted to the Hindu clergy. This devotion, is the only aspect of the movie that is not directly connected to the Peshwa as it is fuelled solely by her spiritual beliefs.

Bechdel Testing Bajirao Mastani

In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test, it needs to have at least two named female characters discuss something other than a man. But in a movie like Bajirao Mastani, whose sole focus seems to be on the larger than life Bajirao and his relationship with his wives, even a passing conversation about Mastani’s religion between Kashi and Radha Bai seems like an achievement. The only words that escape Mastani’s mouth are all about her undying ‘ishq’ for Bajirao. She stops fighting after meeting Bajirao, and the next time she wields a sword is to protect her son. Therefore, her warrior persona is conveniently used to highlight her maternal instincts. Kashi spends the movie either swooning over Peshwa or crying over him. She is the ultimate martyr who sacrifices everything for the men in her life. The other major female character is Radha Bai who is also the only non-romantic interest. Her repugnance of all things Muslim stems from her devotion to the Hindu clergy, and it is her religious bigotry that allows her to have a conversation about something besides her son. The movie barely passes the Bechdel test but the idea of it being a feminist film is ludicrous. It could be argued that Bajirao Mastani is a period drama, and one cannot judge a movie set in the 1600s based on modern egalitarian sensibilities. However, for a film to be considered feminist, it need not show women constantly defying gender roles and breaking conventions. The only requirement is that it portrays women as full human beings with their own struggles and limitations. Bajirao Mastani is disappointing not because Mastani and Kashi didn’t burn bras or lurch picket lines. The reason why the movie fails is because these women remain love interests, and never graduate to being people who are trying to navigate their lives to the best of their abilities even though their choices are curtailed by oppressive societal structures. The viewer does not even know what happens to Mastani after Bajirao’s death. The film ends with her collapsing on the floor once she learns that her ‘ishq’ is no more, and she ceases to exist in the absence of Bajirao. None of the female characters get their own narrative arc, not even one that supports a man’s story. Overall, Bajirao Mastaani had immense potential to showcase the complexity and consequences of transgressive love but by playing into the same old stereotypes, the filmmakers squandered away an opportunity to prove that women in love need not be solely focused on love, but they can be multi-dimensional characters with their own history and destiny .

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University is running the Dirty Picture Project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. This particular review is by law students, but anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying the work out is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg@nludelhi.ac.in with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]

The Dirty Picture Project: Tamasha

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University is running the Dirty Picture project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. This particular review is by law students, but anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying the work out is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg@nludelhi.ac.in with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]

By Suniti Sampat and Bhargavi Vadeyar

 Imtiaz Ali’s attempt at creating a modern love saga that is unlike any other

Tamasha, as its name suggests, is high on drama and is certainly a story well told. But does Imtiaz Ali manage to deliver something different from the usual sexist content that is routinely doled out as entertainment to audiences?  

In this coming-of-age story, the leading female character,  Tara (Deepika Padukone) is a tool in Ved’s (Ranbir Kapoor) journey of self-realisation, though her role is perhaps a defining one. Their dalliance is initiated in the sun-kissed locales of Corsica. Our heroine is a stranded damsel in distress, having lost her passport and other belongings. Ved steps in now, the knight in shining armour.

What Happens in Corsica stays in Corsica (Thankfully)

The two decide to spend the next few days as strangers to avoid a stereotypical interaction based on societal norms. Ved wants to be free of such societal expectations; shockingly, this appears to be so that he could then behave in an inappropriate manner with Tara. Though this could be seen as a comment on societal norms and stereotypes on sexuality, it leads to a slightly discomforting exchange between the duo.

Ved believes that he should not be expected to behave in a ‘decent’ manner, now that they are in a foreign land like Corsica. He declares that in an ordinary set-up he would look for reasons to touch Tara, who plays along and says that then she would have to act as though she dislikes the attention. While the intention of the writers may have been to mock sexual stereotypes through this exchange, it may have the alarming effect of encouraging the often-prevalent notion in Bollywood that when a woman protests, she does so out of consideration for societal norms rather than because consent is in fact lacking.

On balance, however, Ved does re-assure Tara that he has no interest in trying to pursue her. They therefore enter into a “what happens in Corsica stays in Corsica” agreement. In their brief time together in Corsica, Deepika’s sexuality is treated in a regressive manner. A particularly cringe-worthy scene is one where in the midst of hauling a suitcase, Deepika’s cleavage becomes visible. Not being one to miss such things, Ved comments  “Aap ke husn ki waadiya dikh rahi hain,” ( the vales of your beauty are visible)  perhaps as an indication that she should cover up. Way to make someone feel uncomfortable! In response our heroine unabashedly removes the shrug and flings it in true filmy style, causing Ved to jokingly cover his face in a pretense of embarrassment. There are equally problematic sexual stereotypes ahead in this movie which is touted as a modern love saga. In one scene, when our duo is out of money, Ved wishes aloud that he were a woman, so that “chorai ke pe izzat bech sakta” ( could sell my dignity at the marketplace).

Ved’s sexual entitlement is further displayed when Deepika catches him staring at her and he rather forcefully says, “Dekh Raha Hoon”. An extremely disturbing conversation about “Jism ki Bhookh and “Kitna touching allowed hain” ensues. Again, this may be an attempt at mocking stereotypes, but the discomfort from the staring translated off-screen, and felt very real. The filmmaker perhaps fails to realize that such representation could lead to normalisation of  inappropriate behavior.

Heer toh badi sad hai

Finally, when it’s time for Tara to leave, one can sense some hesitation on her part to fulfil their no strings attached agreement. The two share a passionate parting kiss and this could well have been the usual end to a summer fling. Alas, it is not so. Tara must pine for Ved. Not for a month, not even for a year, but for four painful years! In contrast, there is absolutely no indication that Ved felt even a trickle of emotion about her leaving. But then, it’s always the woman who is more vulnerable about matters of the heart, and a woman always wants love more than the man, or so the stereotype goes anyway. The gloom of lost love follows her to Calcutta and to Delhi. As she finally locates Ved, one can see the gleam in her eyes and hesitation in her step as she makes herself noticeable for him to approach her. There is no nervousness and hesitation on his part as he confidently approaches her.

Of broken hearts and unfulfilled expectations

They decide to give a fresh impetus to their relationship. But this is the real world, which brings with it the mundanity of an everyday working life. Ved leads a rather boring life, seldom veering from his routine. They have their first date at a Japanese restaurant. It’s all very stereotypical, with Ved picking her up in his car and dropping her off. She invites him upstairs and they have sex. It must be mentioned that Ved rather endearingly removes his watch and belt before making out with Tara, presumably to avoid hurting her. They continue to go on these predictable dates. In one instance, Tara asks Ved searchingly if this is what love is. He responds amorously by stating that he loves her too. The viewer is left with the feeling Tara’s statement was a question, an expression of incredulity that there is nothing more that this love affair has to offer.   

Things come to a head when Ved proposes. Tara shockingly states that Ved is not the man she is in love with. She did not want to be with this “well-behaved, polite and decent product-manager”, but with the man he was in Corsica. These are the first indications of Tara’s exercising autonomy, as she seeks the excitement that she felt in Corsica. She walks off, with a sense of repentance about having broken Ved’s heart. However, we now know that Tara is a woman who knows what she wants, and this is perhaps the only time in the film that her character is portrayed so clearly.

It’s  (just) Ved’s happy ending

Unfortunately, despite this brief illumination of her character, Tara fits the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) trope to the T. Her character is never properly fleshed out, with no references to her own family. The viewer is not sure what she does for a living, though one may assume that she occupies an important position, as a number of people seemed to be working under her, carrying her suitcases et al. Tara, unlike Ved, seems to have no friends that she turns to in times of emotional turmoil; the only social interaction she has in the movie is with Ved.

As a typical MPDG must, Tara is attractive, immaculately dressed at all times, full of jokes and functions as a plot device to ensure that the male protagonist achieves self-actualization. She seems to have no troubles or unfulfilled goals of her own. This is even more disappointing considering that Imtiaz Ali’s last venture (Highway) had a female protagonist for whose characterization he received much praise. Unlike with Highway’s Veera, there is a reluctance on the part of the filmmaker to fully explore Tara’s character.  

Lest we forget, this is Ved’s story. Tara’s rejection of him is used as a tool by the filmmaker to initiate his process of self-realization. Within Ved’s family, it seems that he holds in regard only his father’s approval; what his mother and grandmother think are side-lined. Indeed, these two members of his family appear to function only as props for the story line. Apart from Tara, there are no other named female characters, which means that the movie miserably fails the Bechdel test at the very first step.

However, it is nice to see that Tara is given due credit for Ved’s transformation. A particularly heart-tendering scene is one in which he is applauded for a performance. He bows down in the direction of Tara in front of a large audience. They blow kisses at each other and one can see that all is well in their world. In this modern saga, Ved and Tara are portrayed as equals. There is an understanding that Tara has certain expectations from their relationship and from Ved.  However, one is left with the question: Is Tara happy too? Why does the film not dwell on her dreams and ambitions? Like most stories, these questions about the woman are left unexplored.