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Kalpana Lajmi’s films highlighted varied aspects of womanhood — from Rudaali to Daman

Renowned filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi breathed her last at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai early morning on 23 September. The writer-producer had been diagnosed with kidney cancer last year. Actors close to her tweeted their condolences, remembering her polemic against exploitation of women, which often formed the crux of her films.

After making her debut as an assistant director on one of Shyam Benegal’s films, she went on to make movies which had women and themes of womanhood at their very core. From starting a conversation about marital rape and the struggles of the LGBTQIA community, to exploring India’s urban landscape, here’s a look at some of her most noteworthy outings.

Rudaali

Probably the most acclaimed Kalpana Lajmi directorial, Rudaali was India’s pick for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 66th Academy Awards. However for some reason, the film was not accepted as a nominee. Starring Dimple Kapadia, Raakhee and Raj Babbar in lead roles, Rudaali borrowed its plot from Mahasweta Devi’s short story about Shanichari, a woman in a caste-conscious village in Rajasthan. Tears evade Shanichari even as the biggest tragedies strike her repeatedly.

Poster for Kalpana Lajmi's Rudaali; Raveena Tandon in Daman

Darmiyaan: In Between

Set in Bollywood in the 1940s, Darmiyaan: In Between tells the story of a famous actress who finds out her son is intersex. She refuses to accept the child as her own and addresses him as her younger brother till destiny reverses the roles. A poignant tale of love, loss, and acceptance, the film is considered way ahead of its time, by giving the LGBTQIA community a voice.

Daman: A Victim of Marital Violence

A chilling narrative capturing the horror of marital rape an violence, Daman got its leading lady, Raveena Tandon, the distinguished National Award. The story follows the life of Durga (Tandon), a young woman born into a poor family, who is married off to a man with a raging temper. Her life is turned upside down as her drunken husband beats her up and forces himself on her, forcing her to live a life of anonymity, only to be tracked down again.

Chingaari

Starring Sushmita Sen, Chingaari is an impassioned attack on using religion as a tool to subjugate women, especially those on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. Chingaari exposed Indian society’s double standards which allow men to exploit women to fulfill their desires, but keep women from claiming agency. The film ends with Sen, who plays a prostitute, avenging the death of her lover by killing the main priest of her village.

Kyon?

Although different from the films in her repertoire, Kyon? made for an edge-of-the-seat thriller, directed by Lajmi. Set in urban India, the film aimed to shine a light on the problems faced by the privileged teenagers in the country. Sex, alcohol and drugs remained Lajmi’s focal points in Kyon? to show corrupt morals and lack of remorse in the younger generation.

Other lesser-known films in which Lajmi showed her directorial prowess include A Work Study in Tea Plucking, D.G. Movie Pioneer, Along the Brahmaputra, Lohit Kinare and Ek Pal.

Alia Bhatt on being directed by father Mahesh in Sadak 2: ‘I think I may just end up being born again

Mahesh Bhatt will be once again donning the director’s cap for Sadak 2, the follow-up to his 1991 film Sadak, starring Sanjay Dutt and daughter Pooja. Alia Bhatt and Aditya Roy Kapur are also part of the sequel slated to release on 25 March, 2020. In an interaction with DNA, both sisters expressed their admiration for him

Pooja Bhatt, Aditya Roy Kapur, Alia Bhatt, Sanjay Dutt and Mahesh Bhatt. Image via Twitter/@TaranAdarsh

Alia told DNA that she had never thought that her father would step out of his retirement and work with her on a film. Pooja talked about Mahesh’s acumen as a director that very few possess. Alia also spoke about being narrated the film’s story which made her realise that no other filmmaker could direct Sadak 2 other than Mahesh.

“When I heard the story, I told him what Sanju had already said, that I cannot do this film if you are not directing it. I was not just in tears, but I was sobbing and shaking at the end of it. He put up the most creative narration that I have heard in my life with the music and the beats. It was so earnest that it broke my heart. Sanju recently told me, ‘Alia you don’t know what you are getting into. You have no idea what it is to be directed by your father’. At the shoot of the picture with the cast, I got a glimpse of it. And to tell you the truth, I am scared for my life because if that’s the kind of emotional journey that we are going to go on for I don’t know how many odd days, I think I may just end up being born again.

Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyan isn’t merely a ‘comeback’ for Abhishek Bachchan; it’s a reminder of his potential

The one thing that Abhishek Bachchan almost always brings to every role he plays, is a hint of gravitas – and this is irrespective of the commercial fate of his films.

Revisit some of his now-forgotten lead roles over the last decade and a half – Naach (2004),  Bluffmaster (2005), Delhi-6 (2009), Dum Maaro Dum (2011) – and you’ll see why brand Abhishek Bachchan continues to find takers among film creators and film consumers alike, despite the fact that he mostly relies on his own real life personality and charm to coast through performances.

Abhishek Bachchan. Image via Twitter/ @ErosNow

Heist leader Charlie in the disastrous Abbas-Mastan non-thriller Players (2012); suave NRI Rishi in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006); or even the London-returned Robbie who’s sewn from husband material in his latest film, Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyan; Abhishek Bachchan has often done a fair job of playing himself on screen.

That, though, is the real tragedy of Junior Bachchan’s career – because his best, most impactful performances have been those where he actually manages to escape his own persona and dive deep into characters.

It’s when he’s stripped of his slick, urban skin – like Mani Ratnam did with him in Yuva (2004) and Guru (2006), or shorn off the stature and privilege associated with him (Happy New Year’s Nandu Bhide comes to mind) that Abhishek Bachchan the actor comes to the fore. (This might be an unpopular opinion, but irrespective of how Happy New Year was as a film, Abhishek’s Nandu Bhide was easily one of his best characters to date, one that was made impressive by how much of his inhibitions the actor was able to shed to play the part.)

In Manmarziyan, Abhishek seems to be reprising his role as the bland arranged marriage proposal for the feisty heroine in Sooraj Barjatya’s melodrama-on-crack, Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003). Like his Prem Kumar (*not* Prem Kishen) in MPKDH, Manmarziyaan’s Robbie is stoic and polite, speaks softly, likes drifting off into long silences, and is generally the guy who the girl’s family backs in the love triangle.

Yet, his latest performance shows you how much Abhishek has grown as a screen performer, while also reminding you of how much more untapped potential he still has.

Abhishek Bachchan may have been the first in Bollywood to brood with his beard, but his Robbie is a little more nuanced than just that. It helps that there’s an attempt to set the character apart in the way it has been designed. Writer Kanika Dhillon makes Robbie a millennial upgrade to Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s selfless, benevolent husband Vanraj – a man who’s secure about his own masculinity as well as his wife’s right to make her own choice. He’s instantly smitten by the spunky woman of the story, but doesn’t try to force-fit his own beliefs and values upon her.

Abhishek on his part makes Robbie instantly likeable and trustworthy, but the character doesn’t really push him to dig deep and make him seem less like a Bachchan and more like a whole other person. Abhishek may have made his entry into Bollywood’s Aram Nagar club, but the film never seems to challenge him in the way some other films may have done in the past.

In Yuva, which is still arguably Abhishek’s best performance to date, you see an angst, a pain, a drive in his eyes that you’ve only ever seen sporadically in other films. He was fierce, battle-worn, street-smart and so real. Yet, even realism can be a hit-and-miss with Abhishek Bachchan. He tried a character in a similar zone in 2010’s Raavan, but that was a complex part that even Mani Ratnam didn’t seem to have a firm hold on. The result was a mangled mess of a man who never connected with the viewer.

Abhishek Bachchan also managed to flesh out an intriguing character in Rohan Sippy’s Bluffmaster – that thoroughly underrated ‘adaptation’ of John C. Reilly-starrer Criminal, which shows that it isn’t so much about which world his character is set in, as opposed to how much effort is made in pushing the actor towards completely unshackling himself from the tics and traits that come so naturally to him.

Abhishek Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra in a still from Dostana. YouTube

Abhishek Bachchan may have managed to remain relevant and keep his career on the rails with his portrayal of ACP Jai Dixit in the three Dhoom films over his career, but it’s his little obscure parts that reveal what’s otherwise hidden – talent that needs to be mined and honed. You can see glimpses of this in Robbie – when his eyes gently widen at the sight of his newly-wed wife guzzling neat whiskey without a flicker of discomfort, or when he merely stands next to his wife’s lover, calm and composed, as far away from insecurity as one could be.

Manmarziyan, thus, isn’t so much a return from a hiatus from Abhishek Bachchan, as it is a gentle reminder that the man is capable of so much more than what we’ve already seen. It’s him testing waters outside his comfort zone, which is the first step. Who knows – perhaps a truly great Abhishek Bachchan performance isn’t too far away.

Mulk: Anubhav Sinha is among the growing breed of filmmakers who do not want to whitewash reality

In the first twenty minutes of Mulk, director Anubhav Sinha takes a dig at the Swachh Bharat campaign and the government’s demonetisation move. Blink for even a second and chances are, you might just miss the director’s disenchantment with the Centre’s policies and schemes. He goes a step further and attacks the issue of islamophobia. Mulk also ventures into a territory which many filmmakers shudder to think about – the perils of neo-nationalism. In other words, the film does not hesitate to call a spade a spade and shreds to pieces the government’s many theories. It’s a film that breaks stereotypes and conventions which hitherto had not been seen in Bollywood. Judging by the past record of such films, it is astonishing to see that it did not have to face the ire of the censor board. Mulk is a fine example of a growing breed of filmmakers who are determined not to whitewash reality.

Taapsee Pannu in a still from Mulk. Screenshot from YouTube.

Fanney Khan, another recent release, has a song very much in tune with the current government’s slogan for the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. Again, despite the hue and cry, the song ‘Mere Achhe Din Kab Aayenge’ featured in the final cut of the film. Netflix’s Sacred Games, helmed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap created ripples amongst the cadres of a certain political party when it mentioned Bofors. Congress took objection to the Netflix series for allegedly showing former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in poor light but Congress chief himself put a lid on the entire controversy when he came up with his own statement. Kashyap himself lauded Rahul Gandhi’s act and hailed his views. Despite the brouhaha, the objectionable scenes and the dialogue can still be seen on the streaming platform. The fact that here is a director who mentioned things about the Bofors scam and did not shy away from stating facts reflects subversive courage, one that is rare in the times of playing it safe territory.

Not so long ago, the superhit Tamil film Mersal criticised the government by raising questions on implementation of the GST. The government countered by declaring that the film portrayed ‘untruths’ about the central taxation scheme. Despite being cleared by the censor board, though the two and half minute sequence was later trimmed from the film, but not before it made everyone aware of the government’s attempt to thwart freedom of expression.

This change needs to be lauded and filmmakers should be given due credit for not kowtowing to the establishment. The change today is a far cry from the days when policies and the government itself were considered to be sacrosanct and their reflection on the screen required them to be in sync with the stated policies. If at all someone dared to swim against the tide, they were forcibly calmed down by just muttering the dreaded ‘censor’ word. One reason why filmmakers are embracing muted reality from the past and the current could be attributed to the influx of global content that an average viewer has now access to.

Showtime in the US can air an animated series called Our Cartoon President and The Looming Tower on Amazon can denounce the administrative decisions that led to the 9/11 attacks. No one blinks an eye and no furore is created. In other words, the mature level of content that the world is being exposed to is now seeping into India’s viewing appetites. The need to make Mulk arose from the fact that Anubhav was sick and tired hearing different interpretations of nationalism. “The definition of nationalism has become jingoistic, if you can shout louder then you are a nation lover. I wanted to change this notion.”

Last year, it was Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar that dug out an old chapter from Indian history – The Emergency, and did not hesitate in putting forth facts which were either omitted or conveniently altered to suit the vested interests of a certain group of people. Rajinikanth’s Kaala too touched upon a sensitive subject when it talked about caste politics. Udta Punjab had an ugly brush with the censor board but the fact that the film eventually saw the light of day in theatres despite revolving around the drug menace in Punjab – the very theme government and censor board objected to — can only be termed as a short-lived struggle by the makers who were associated with the film. Newton too took a dig at the way elections are conducted in remote areas. None of these films were stopped from getting screened in theatres.

Things which till now were swept under the carpet are now coming out in the open. The change is slow but it’s happening nonetheless. Apart from giving voice to filmmakers, social media too has made the world a smaller place. The very concept of living in isolation now exists no more. Filmmakers have now comprehended that stating facts is the way ahead and any attempt to dilute the truth will lead to the fear of getting exposed. A change is here and it should be commended and kudos to the authorities that have allowed this change to take place.

Bharat: Katrina Kaif replaces Priyanka Chopra; Jackie Shroff to play Salman Khan’s father

After Priyanka Chopra walked out of Salman Khan’s Bharat owing to personal reasons, DNA has reported that Katrina Kaif, who was the makers’ original choice, has joined the cast. A source told the publication that producers Atul and Alvira Agnihotri share a warm relationship with Kaif and when Chopra’s departure from the film was announced, they called Kaif and sorted out her dates. Kaif, who will play the female lead opposite Khan, is expected to join the team in September.

Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif on Bigg Boss 11's Weekend Ka Vaar

DNA also found that Jackie Shroff, who has previously played on-screen dad to Akshay Kumar and Sidharth Malhotra in Brothers, will star as Khan’s father. “It’s essentially a beautiful story of a father and son, so when Jackie was offered the film, he liked the script and gave his nod.” The team is reportedly currently shooting in Mumbai and Shroff will join the crew around the end of September.

However, there has not been an official announcement regarding this development. While Priyanka has opted out of the Salman Khan starrer, she is also shooting for Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink alongside Farhan Akhtar and Zaira Wasim.

Bharat also has Tabu, Disha Patani, Sunil Grover in pivotal roles. It is a remake of the 2014 Korean film, Ode to My Father and will release in cinemas on Eid 2019.

Veere Di Wedding, Lust Stories puts women’s desires first, but female sexuality in Hindi cinema has been a slow, long journey

The year 2018 has brought in a definite change in Hindi cinema and its portrayal of a woman’s sexuality. It’s now parked firmly in the mainstream, the choice of a woman to pleasure herself. Karan Johar’s story in the anthology Lust Stories, Anurag Kashyap’s confused married woman in the same film, do not have morality driving them in essence. As remarks and counter remarks around Veere Di Wedding continue to stoke discussions online, it’s worth remembering that a woman’s sexuality has not always been a repressed matter in mainstream Hindi or Indian cinema. Films have explored this aspect in the past, and it has been a slow process of evolution that has equipped filmmakers today to show masturbation without compromise. Each time, such films have sparked conversations.

Posters of Veere Di Wedding, Lust Stories (Facebook)

Utsav, by Girish Karnad, might have sunk Shashi Kapoor financially as a producer, but the film stands apart for its aesthetic and forward-thinking depiction of a courtesan’s beauty and sexuality. True to form to an ancient Indian text, Utsav doesn’t paint the central character of Vasant Sena, played by Rekha, as an evil temptress. Made in 1984, Utsav is a breakthrough film.

As Veere Di Wedding and Lust Stories set a benchmark of sorts in putting women’s desires first, the journey of female sexuality has been gradual. It has also been slow to catch up, not in sync with India’s growing liberal, independent women. It’s easy to miss those films that sought to address female desire in the general categorization of mainstream Hindi cinema, which is reductionist. But the change has always been happening.

On the fringes of mainstream cinema, a few more have explored facets of female sexuality. Pink argued for a woman’s right to say no to sexual advances. Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Water directly addressed the conflict of social mores, family limitations against a woman’s physical desire. Fire took up lesbian love and Water touched upon love and desire that young widows, sequestered from society, experience. Both films were considered controversial, whereas they just addressed realities that prevail. Anarkali of Aarah and Parched deal with sexual desire and its role in shaping women’s lives in small towns and villages. In the former, a showgirl refuses sexual advances of a powerful local politician and has to face consequences; in the latter, four women in a rural setting have to travel different paths of sexual experience to solve their problems.

Since the onset of the new millennium, a woman’s sexual voice has begun to find expression subtly and slowly. Films that have put the woman’s sexuality out there and made it central to a story have made an impact in the past too. In these films, women were not suffering courtesans or nautch girls; they aren’t victims, seeking to be validated as good women by society, making them stand out.

Poster of Pink (left); still from Margarita With A Straw (centre); still from Astitva. Facebook

Utsav, by Girish Karnad, might have sunk Shashi Kapoor financially as a producer, but the film stands apart for its aesthetic and forward-thinking depiction of a courtesan’s beauty and sexuality. True to form to an ancient Indian text, Utsav doesn’t paint the central character of Vasant Sena, played by Rekha, as an evil temptress. Made in 1984, Utsav is a breakthrough film.

As Veere Di Wedding and Lust Stories set a benchmark of sorts in putting women’s desires first, the journey of female sexuality has been gradual. It has also been slow to catch up, not in sync with India’s growing liberal, independent women. It’s easy to miss those films that sought to address female desire in the general categorization of mainstream Hindi cinema, which is reductionist. But the change has always been happening.