A common problem with filmmakers seems to be that they think that a well-written female part can exist only when the story revolves around her (sometimes even those are written poorly). But when the film is about the ‘hero’, the female co-star is relegated to the side. A recent example would be Sara Ali Khan’s role in Simmba, where she was really nothing but Ranveer Singh’s love interest.
It’s Not Just the Lead Actor
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy was refreshing because it gave us an electrifying lead character in the form of Safeena, played by Alia Bhatt, who more than held her own against Ranveer’s Murad. I found myself narrating Alia’s now popular line from the film “Mere boyfriend ke saath gulugulu karegi toh dhoptoengi usko (If she tries to hit on you, I’ll beat her up)” again and again.
But there were also smaller female roles such as Ranveer’s mother (an excellent Amruta Subhash), his step mother and even his aunt who had some killer lines. In one scene Ranveer is in a sullen mood after a confrontation with his father when his step-mother comes and says, “Mujhe toh pasand aaya, (So what if he didn’t like your rap? I still liked it.) Or when his aunt comes to reprimand him and says, “Your uncle really likes ghazals. Why don't you do that instead of rap?”
Zoya gives equal respect to her characters by giving them complete arcs, sometimes at the cost of an increased length of the film.
She often works with an ensemble cast, but ensures her female characters are never sidelined.
Her debut film Luck By Chance was as much Konkona Sen Sharma’s story as it was protagonist Farhan Akhtar’s. Her’s was a flesh and blood character, one that was ambitious and yet vulnerable. She was given the agency to decide to not compete in the rat race of Bollywood. Filmmakers often miss out on such nuance - a strong woman doesn’t have to be just that.
The Female Gaze
Maybe it’s also the gaze that makes a difference in how Zoya’s female characters come across.
If you remember that scene from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD) when Katrina Kaif’s character walks out of the beach in a swimsuit and then proceeds to wipe herself off, the camera doesn’t move across her seductively but merely treats her like another person a beach. The free-spirited Laila, unafraid to express herself emotionally and physically, also proved to be a definitive role for Katrina.
Dil Dhadakne Do also had definitive roles for both Priyanka Chopra and Shefali Shah who plays her mother in the film. Shefali’s Neelam Mehra, a rich socialite whose marriage is in shambles, started out as someone who wasn’t very likeable but you eventually understood where she came from. That one scene where she stuffs cake into her face after finding out that her husband was cheating on her has stayed with me.
That is Zoya’s biggest triumph – to humanise her characters.
Ambition Is Not a Bad Thing
Almost all Zoya’s characters are working women or ones with unabashed ambition whether it was Katrina as a scuba diving instructor in ZNMD or Alia in Gully Boy who was studying to be a doctor. Konkona was an aspiring actor in Luck By Chance and Priyanka’s character Ayesha Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do was a successful entrepreneur.
Zoya did receive some criticism for Ayesha, whose parents wanted her to stay in an unhappy marriage. People wondered how a woman who started her own business could tolerate such behaviour. It worked for me because I saw someone real.
There are women who are stuck in conflicting situations like that and it’s not easy to rebel no matter how ‘liberal’ one may consider themself to be. It would have been problematic if that was seen as okay, but you eventually see Ayesha standing up for herself.
Women on Top
Zoya’s characters are also unafraid to embrace and express their sexuality. One saw that in Bhumi Pednekar’s role as the maid Sudha in her short film as a part of Netflix’s anthology Lust Stories. Through her films Zoya tells us that men want it... and so do women. Katrina’s character in ZNMD too did not shy away from making the first move on Hrithik Roshan.
Zoya has been asked repeatedly why she doesn't make films solely about women, being a female filmmaker. What they don’t see is that her female characters are often more engaging than ones in films that ostensibly ‘feminist’ but give us cardboard roles instead. (Remember Sonam Kapoor’s Aisha, or Madhuri’s Gulaab Gang? ) Her women are not necessary espousing a social cause but are living for themselves, and how often does Bollywood give us that?
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