Cinema: A tale of two women

Dum Laga Ke Haisha and NH10 are nuanced yet gripping films that veer from standard Bollywood fare and hold a mirror to contemporary India

Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata

 

This is a story of two women from India. One is a plus-sized girl from a small town, the other an urban sophisticate from the capital. One lives in a day of audio cassettes and VCRs, the other in a world of SUVS and mobile phones. One has a loving, even devoted, husband, the other a completely indifferent one. What these two women do have in common are strong reserves of courage, confidence, and candour—traits rarely exhibited by the female protagonists of Hindi films. Dum Laga Ke Haisha and NH10, both released in March, not only embrace these traits but also make them pivotal to the plot, giving us films that do justice not only to their characters but also the expectations of the audience. 

Set in the 1990s, Dum Laga Ke Haisha is steeped in ’90s nostalgia. It is set in a purportedly gentler, more innocent world than we live in today. However, that does not mean that this world does not come with its
little cruelties.

Prem Prakash Tewari (Ayushman Khurrana) is a young audio cassette seller who is a Kumar Sanu fan and a card-carrying member of the “Shakha.” When he marries Sandhya  Verma (Bhumi Pednekar)—a confident young woman of the ’90s all he can see is a woman who  does not have the sylph-like figure of a Bollywood heroine.

The tagline of the movie is that love comes in all sizes, but here is a love story that does not follow the conventional Bollywood plot line. Sandhya does not just break through Prem’s stereotypical preoccupation with her weight; in doing so, she also smashes the formula of ’90s Bollywood—winning the audience over with her outspoken, mature outlook, rather than the coy flirtation of two songs and three romantic scenes. She is confident in her own skin even if Prem, raised on a diet of Barjatya movie starlets, does not think she should be.

Sandhya is no shrinking violet. She can cajole and seduce, and fight for her rights without raising her voice. She is a young woman who knows what she wants, and sets out to get it without any regrets while Prem is a boy-man, who likes to play grown up in khaki shorts, doesn’t know what he wants in life, and feels his existence is just one regret
after another.

 In this finely nuanced film, the director explores the fragile male ego, the age-old adage that beauty is not skin-deep and an intimate portrait of a marriage with gentle wit. The Haridwar and Rishikesh setting comes off as authentic, and the world of the ’90s is intertwined beautifully into the story. Landline phone lines are used to seek advice on marital matters, Vespa scooters bring a couple closer, and popular songs from the ’90s are used wonderfully in a proxy fight. The joint family here is also very different from the perfect screen family of the ’90s depicted in films like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Here it is loud, argumentative and unapologetically dysfunctional. It is also full of strong women, like Sandhya’s mother-in-law, who can stop an ugly fight with neighbours with a plate of pastries and can manipulate divorce proceedings with an IV tube inserted in her arm.

Sandhya’s mother tells her to take the initiative in marital matters—all over the telephone, as does her aunt, who is a woman who has fought her battles alone and does not want to see the next generation face life the same way. It’s the men in the film who always stumble and fall, whether it is Prem’s father, pushing him into a hasty marriage, or the Shakha members, playing revolutionaries in their khaki get-up, when the actual revolution is being wrought by the women in
their lives.

The moral here is that marriage is not a win-or-lose competition, and it’s only when Sandhya and Prem  work as a team that they finally get along. This point is driven home through a laboured metaphor of a ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ competition. Thankfully, the competition is kept in the background and the director focuses on the real cause of problems between the two —Prem’s insecurity about his lack of education, his envy of anyone above his station, and his deep-rooted belief that he will never succeed. And here it is not the woman who has to adjust or change to fit into her marriage, but the husband who must do so. That is something that will resonate in a lot of Indian homes, and what makes this otherwise fable-like story ring true.

In NH10, Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalan) are like any couple we might see at a traffic light. They are successful professionals who drive the right car, wear the right labels, and, it seems, lead the right life. They are people like us, who work hard and party hard, caring little about what’s happening outside the safe cocoon of their parties, offices, and condominium. 

All this unravels when Meera is almost assaulted one night while driving home. She escapes with a fast-thinking, city-dweller’s survival instinct. But the scare shakes the couple enough to purchase a gun, and prompts them to take a break from work for a trip out of the city on Meera’s birthday. But the highway proves more dangerous than the city.

Director Navdeep Singh knows that horror stories work best when society’s real fears are played out on-screen, so he mines every newspaper headline of the recent past to build an atmosphere of discomfort, suspense and terror— exploiting the country’s new anxiety about women’s safety. The film is loosely based on the Savitri and Satyavan fable, and borrows from Eden Lake. But Singh makes it his own.

Meera’s character development is demonstrated less through her words than her actions. Her initial refusal to even keep the gun in her purse and her urban instinct to not get involved in trouble do little to keep her from getting sucked into the quagmire of horror that is to follow.

Having failed to help Meera when she faced assault, because he was not there, Arjun suffers another blow to his ego when he tries to stop a fight and Satbir (Darshan Kumar) slaps him rather than backing down. The two failures leave Arjun desperate to prove himself, prompting him to recklessly pursue a gang that has kidnapped another couple, frightening them off with his shiny new gun.

Here again, Meera is the pragmatic one, cautioning him not to interfere. Yet she is strangely passive in letting him have his way. At least before her own ordeal on the highway, she is an “India’s daughter” who needs to be protected rather than standing up for herself.

What Meera and Arjun don’t realise is that they are city creatures, out of their depth in the countryside. In Delhi, they can move about freely as faceless, nameless citizens of the big city. Here, in the badlands, they not only have to fight the hunters, but also the deep-rooted caste and community loyalties of a village that acts as a family, tightening its noose on this doomed couple.

As the night unfolds, Meera goes from being terrified, to being hunted, to becoming as feral as her hunters. There is a blurring of good and evil, and Meera turns into a woman who has to use her courage and cunning to best these men at their own game. Here again, every action is finely detailed. Meera’s smoking, for instance, which was earlier a furtive, hidden pleasure, becomes an emblem of rebellion or perhaps twisted victory, which can inspire as much shock as the sight of Satbir flipping through the couple’s photographs on their mobile phone. Rare for Hindi cinema, Meera shows us that she does not need a muscle-bound hero to rescue her. She can fight it out in the boardroom as well as the badlands. In the end, she stands resilient and courageous, yet is not deified, as would happen in most Hindi films.

NH10 walks a fine line between questioning and defining roles for women in a patriarchal society. It acts as a dark gripping thriller, while also creating strong women characters—both positive and negative. And it holds a mirror to our reality while still giving us a good story. 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2015