2021 is the year when women on screen came into their own

It is not every year that you get to watch a young window unable to grieve her husband’s death, a female athlete banned for failing the gender test, a trans-girl making people question what is normal, an abandoned surrogate mother, and a woman faking her husband’s death to prevent him getting convicted for murder.

In the column Let’s Talk About Women, Sneha Bengani looks at films, the world of entertainment, and popular media through the feminist lens. Because it’s important. Because it’s needed. And because we’re not doing it enough.

You could call it a silver lining, and an extremely feeble one at that. The COVID-19 second wave this year forced theatres shut for an indefinite period. It was an uncertain, unnerving time for all people and businesses, including cinema. But as most Indians fought with the 2.0 version of a global pandemic, a quiet, tectonic shift happened in films.

Sure, we have been talking about “women-oriented films” for several years now, but until this year, only a few heroines dominated the narrative, and such movies releases were sporadic. A Vidya Balan film here, a Konkona Sensharma film there. However, this year, shut theatres gave way to streaming platforms, and the change we had been wanting to see for decades now finally moved from discussions to our screens.

Yes, there was a regular supply of films such as Sooryavanshi, Antim, Satyameva Jayate 2, and Radhe, but 2021 will be remembered as the year of women in Hindi films. As we struggled with a virus that brought the world to a stop, these women inspired us to keep up the good fight and see it to the finish line. Their battles gave us strength and their victories, hope. Moreover, these films brought to fore the simmering talent of several female actors who had been waiting to break out.

Here, we discuss five films that showed women as we know them — strong, gritty, exercising their agency, and changing their worlds. Their stories may be peculiar but their struggles mirror our own.

It is the story of the eponymous Rashmi, an untrained but unusually talented sprinter from Kutch who faces a professional ban and social ostracisation after she fails the draconian gender test. It is not easy to make a film on a controversial issue in a way that is palatable enough to be understood and appreciated by the audience. But Taapsee Pannu’s earnest performance makes you root for Rashmi. You want her to win, even outside the track. This Akarsh Khurana film may be a little too simplistic, but it never waters down the severity of Rashmi’s battles.

Another remarkable quality about Pannu’s Rashmi is that even though her travails change her, she is the hero of her story from scene one. There is an arc to her character but it is not the hackneyed abla naari to the empowered woman.

This one, again, is a little too simplistic in the handling of its subject, but you want to ignore it and more because it shows you Vaani Kapoor as you have never seen her before. She is effervescent as a trans-girl who underwent a full sex reassignment surgery to change her gender from male to female. In what is easily her career’s best performance thus far, Kapoor is a revelation in this film which also stars Ayushmann Khurrana.

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui focuses not so much on her character Maanvi’s physical transition but its social aftermath. Kapoor plays Maanvi with such grace, restraint, and good humour, even in the most volatile situations, that she makes you want to hug her. Of course, they should have cast a trans person to play Maanvi, but Kapoor ensures the casting of a cis woman to play a transgender is not the worst decision of the film.

This film did for Kriti Sanon what Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui did for Vaani Kapoor. Though director Laxman Utekar ably cushioned her performance with a stellar supporting cast, Sanon shines through as Mimi, a local Shekhawati dancer. In her pursuit to become a Bollywood heroine, she unwittingly agrees to bear a child for an American couple for some quick cash.

Mimi is an act of total surrender on Sanon’s part, who has played a small-town girl earlier in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) and Luka Chuppi (2019). She is remarkable as a woman stuck with someone else’s dream, trying to make it her own. Though she is surrounded by stellar actors like Pankaj Tripathi, Supriya Pathak, and Manoj Pahwa, Sanon gives them all a run for their money, thanks to terrific scriptwriting and a character as real as you and me.

This one too is a career-defining film for an actor who was susurrating at the seams for a while now. Sanya Malhotra is terrific as the quiet Sandhya trying to come to terms with her young husband’s sudden death. She is unlike any widow you have seen on screen. You meet her at a pivotal point in her life. She is standing at crossroads. Never been allowed to decide for herself thus far, she now has to make a seminal choice. Her dead husband has named her the nominee of a large sum of money. She can do whatever she pleases with it, and now, since she is no longer encumbered, she can also do whatever she pleased with her life. Sandhya takes her time —finds out more about her late husband and her own self — so that when, at the end of the film, she packs her bag and leaves, you too are ready to embark on her journey.

Love is never linear. Neither are Taapsee Pannu films. This Vinil Mathew directorial is very Gone Girl-esque. Just when you begin to trust the narrator, you realise she is unreliable. Pannu’s Rani Kashyap is no regular new bride. She knows what she wants and makes her disappointment known when she does not get it. Though the film borrows heavily from the colour-saturated and make-believe world of pulp fiction, it is Pannu’s portrayal of the conflicted Rani that roots it in reality even at its most bizarre. Haseen Dillruba is one of those rare films that dares to show the journey to love without sugarcoating it. Sometimes, it takes rejection, heartbreak, infidelity, retribution, murder, and even losing a limb to realise that what you were seeking was right in front of you all along.

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