Ms. Representation: The office-goer
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is about working women
I was watching Tumhari Sulu, recently, and was reminded of Ray’s Mahanagar for some reason. Of course there are similarities. The orthodox family members, the discomfort with the leads’ jobs, the partners who oscillate from comfort to discomfort and suspicion, and finally comfort again… Through the last several decades our cinema has tried to locate ‘the working woman’ in the context of her family and social settings and the conflicts that arise from her ‘stepping out’. The woman at the centre of these kind of films, I always found relatable. She was very familiar. One could’ve even possibly seen someone like her at home.
She’s probably a lot like your mother. You were bound to run into her if you stepped out. She probably sat next to you on the bus. You know, the woman with the handbag, dressed in chiffon or Garden saree, her hair neatly braided, a watch in hand… I remember first encountering her in the delightful Tamil director Vasanth’s film – Keladi Kanmani. Here I must come back to the clothes. Why am I so obsessed with this, you might wonder, but it has something possibly to do with watching a woman on screen very close to the ones I had seen around me. Someone (in this case the delightful Radhika) who, gasp, dressed the way my mother did, and was the heroine of a film! Vasanth would later go on to recreate this magic with the metro/suburban train using Meena, in the vastly underrated Rhythm.
It’s a cliché, but of course there’s no way to talk about office-going women in Indian cinema without talking about Sujatha’s iconic Kavitha in Aval Oru Thodar Kathai – but approached from the point of view of a ‘burden’. But hey, who are we to judge Kavitha if she yearns to finally give up her job and have someone ‘take care of her’? After all, she is burdened with caring for too many people from the beginning in the film. In any case, the woman never gets her wish. The scenes in the bus, Sujatha’s biting delivery that land as whiplashes on various men in the film, all of whom, she feels are failing her... all make it worth watching.
Later on, in 1994 Magalir Mattum would capture the same working woman, who’s boarding a bus to get to office and her many complaints – leery boss, snarky co-workers, lack of care for her kids… The only upside to their ride to work is that Ladies Special Bus that comes on time and gives them their space. As someone who took the bus through the 90s, I know the sense of relief one would get, if a Ladies Special came their way. There would always be seat. The air would seem light and everyone looked relieved. Wonder why hmmm. Even in Tumhari Sulu the question of transport is handled pretty well with an intelligent plug for a cab service.
In today’s cinema though the venues of conflict seem to be shifting, from the bus-going woman to the women making choices in the board room – like in the eminently forgettable Ki & Ka. A promising premise made terribly boring with ridiculous acting and bad writing. Or with ambitious women making it big in unorthodox spaces like wedding planning. Of course I am talking about the super-likeable Anushka in Band Baaja Baarat. Anushka, in fact, plays the woman with ambition well in many other movies – NH 10 (though her career angle isn’t the focus, at all) and Phillauri. Sonakshi Sinha in Noor was pretty spunky.
This week, I raise my glass to all of these women on screen, and to the ones they represent. And, of course, to jobs that pay the bills.