Ms. Representation: Small town wonders
Bareilly Ki Barfi is the latest addition to a host of films which talk about the portrayal of small town women and their desire to not be judged
Bareilly Ki Barfi (directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari) is the newest film to join a genre that has grown steadily over the years. These films feature women like Bitti (Bareilly Ki Barfi’s leading woman, played without much fuss by a breezy Kriti Sanon), and others like her; small town girls who have interests, often a career, and are a bit different from their parents, because that’s how generation gap works. These films capture the anxiety young women face, across the country, over marriage and the idea of arranged marriage, and then neatly accommodate them in the rom-com genre.
There is almost certainly some amount of pressure to get married, on these heroines, and that premise keeps the story going. And this isn’t just a small town twenty-something woman problem, is it? A lot of twenty-something women in India, wherever they may be from, are busy dodging questions about marriage and babies, even as they try to figure out ways to keep that demanding job where they have to work twice as hard (thank you wage gap..not!). Just look at the memes and listicles on the Internet on attending weddings, and avoiding comments about the dwindling ‘market’ (of eligible men in the arranged marriage scene), and you’ll know that this is a struggle everywhere.
By placing this dilemma and its leading ladies in a small town setting, these films are transformed by their makers into films with ‘heart’. Films that resonate with local flavour and settings that appear more stifling and lend depth to characters that are relatable to everyone. If set in cities, they might become multiplex-ish and lose their charm even, a friend once told me, and I couldn’t agree more.
Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu, who went on to wed Manu in Kanpur, in the 2011 Anand L Rai film, was in many ways the ‘guru’ of this category, whose influence continues to be seen even today. The thing I love the most about this trend, and thanks to Rai and Ranaut for starting it off, is that it does not make the heroine ‘cute’ or ‘bubbly’. She is effervescent sure, but she has to rebel because of the very nature of her predicament and the setting. That is a given. Of course there’s nothing wrong with cute, but when that is all that's expected of women on screen it gets so boring!
Whether it be Bhumi Pednekar in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, who packs up and leaves when she has had enough and fights hard and dirty with her family, or Happy whose plan to elope leads her to Lahore from Amritsar, or the other Kangana, Kusum in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, who represents another kind of strong, small town gal with a mind of her own… Of course, who can forget the Dulhania films (Humpty Sharma ki and Badrinath ki), that feature Alia Bhatt as Kavya who wants designer clothes for her wedding and Vaidehi who wants a career and to be treated as an equal more than she wants a husband…
Though Lipstick Under My Burkha could have joined this genre, I couldn’t help but see its casual peddling of clichés - such as burkha-wearing = oppression, and the completely uni-dimensional treatment of the husband character (Sushant Singh’s Rahim) as the embodiment of all that a man (a Muslim at that) can do wrong (marital rape, affair, lies, lack of jobs) - especially within the small town setting, as a form of prejudice.
Because these films are in the rom-com genre, there is almost always a man in the picture but he isn’t really moving the wheels. In fact, it's the woman who is often chasing something. How great would it be if we were making films where the leading ladies chase careers, economic and social independence, break taboos, etc, without the need for this romance angle? Far-fetched you say? Well, a gal can dream.