Ms Representation: Surviving desire
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about Badhaai Ho
In one particular scene in the film Badhaai Ho, Priyamvada (an utterly convincing Neena Gupta) well into her pregnancy watches as people make uncomfortable, gossipy eye contact with each other, while discussing her pregnancy at a wedding. Priyamvada is a mother of two sons, one of whom, Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana, who seems to know a thing or two about picking scripts), is 25 and has a steady girlfriend, and the other is an adolescent in school. Both sons are embarrassed to learn that their parents have sex. Are these sons embarrassed of their parents already, with this pregnancy only magnifying that feeling? Do the others, the relatives, only tolerate them because these people fit into their idea of respectable? These are the questions at the heart of Badhaai Ho.
Coming back to that scene I liked, even as Priyamvada is dealing with the embarrassment of her desire showing itself for all the world to see, her husband Jeetender (Gajraj Rao), a TT in the railways by day and a poet who writes of rain and love by night, has newfound admirers among his male friends. She even tells him as much later that night when he shows off his ‘macho’ image inflating his ego and chest ever so lightly.
Badhaai Ho is an interesting film, not simply because it deals with love and lust at a mature age, but also because the woman dares to show the world that she and her husband are still having sex. Everyone’s reaction is “At this age?” and “What will people say?” Including the rich and seemingly progressive mother of Renee, Nakul’s girlfriend.
Neena Gupta as a Priyamvada struggling in anguish, hope, love and anger, holding it all in, used to it all like the good little middle-class daughter-in-law that she is, is perfect in frame after frame. When she rubs her lipstick off, sobbing, as her old mother-in-law berates her; when she asks Nakul if he’s eaten, when for the first time since learning of her pregnancy he ‘talks’ to her in the real sense of the word; when she blinks back tears and swallows the insults that come her way as she makes the choice to bring this child into the world; when she nonchalantly disagrees to have an abortion because she thinks it’s a sin… It’s a tough role to play.
At the beginning, you don’t know if she simply wants to have this kid because it’s a sin to abort or if she wants this baby really. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Perhaps it’s neither. Indeed, these are tough choices for any woman, and so long as it is her choice, and in this film it clearly is hers, that is what is important. I wished, however, that someone had patiently explained to her that abortion was indeed not a sin, and then allowed her to decide without the burden of this guilt weighing over her. She would have still had this beautiful baby girl, surely, but without feeling like a martyr of her circumstances, knowing fully well that she was in control of her body and narrative. Sexual agency doesn’t always translate to agency in other matters. Badhaai Ho and Priyamvada show us the many ways in which women have to balance their desires with the inherent sense of guilt and sin that is associated with their bodies.