It’s naive to believe that the success of The Dirty Picture will radically enhance female clout in the Hindi film industry
Game-changer. That’s the word I’ve heard most often with reference to the Ekta Kapoor-Milan Luthria-Vidya Balan juggernaut, The Dirty Picture, which steamrolled the box office, making over Rs 52 crore in week one. Incredibly, the film opened better than hero-led projects such as Singham and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Vidya oozing sexuality 1980s-style got more first-day, first-show viewers than Hrithik Roshan’s chiselled many-pack abs.
The Dirty Picture is a woman’s story. It has a superb lead actor, old-school dialogue-baazi, and, critically, no A-list male stars to prop up the narrative. Yet, it defied Bollywood naysayers and became one of the year’s biggest successes. Which has led many industry observers to ask: does the film pave the way for more women-centric stories? Is Bollywood going to create more fleshed-out female characters? Are we going to see more ‘real women’ and fewer assembly-line Barbie dolls? Over all, it’s been a fairly good year for women in Bollywood—both on and off screen. With Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Zoya Akhtar became Hindi cinema’s second contemporary commercially successful female director after Farah Khan. And at least five to seven films had female characters who made an impression—from the feisty foul-mouthed reporter in No One Killed Jessica to the murderous widow in 7 Khoon Maaf to the somewhat unhinged Nawab’s wife in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster. And, of course, now, the irresistibly sleazy Silk in The Dirty Picture.
In the US, cartoonist Alison Bechdel devised the Bechdel test as a way to assess how a film treats its female characters. A film passes the test if there are: 1) at least two women in it; 2) the women talk to each other; 3) they talk about something other than a man or men. Writing in The Atlantic about Ridley Scott’s iconic Thelma & Louise, Raina Lipsitz said that only three widely distributed Hollywood movies passed the test in 2011—Something Borrowed, Bridesmaids and The Help (according to the film website Slash Film, recent films that didn’t pass the test include Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass, Shutter Island, Avatar and Sherlock Holmes). I think Bollywood did better. And yet, history is evidence that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Thelma & Louise, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, was a watershed moment for women in film. I still remember my shock and awe as I watched the story of two friends whose road trip becomes a journey to freedom and, inevitably, death. It felt like someone had finally understood something essential about how women think, feel and function. The film made $45 million at the US box office and won six Oscar nominations—screenwriter Callie Khouri won the award for best original screenplay. And yet, the film did not usher any great change in how women were treated in Hollywood. In fact, a 2010 study by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism reported that only 29.9 percent of the 4,379 speaking parts in 2007’s 100 top grossing films went to women. Eighty-three per cent of directors, writers and producers on these films were male.
To believe that The Dirty Picture, essentially an ordinary film lifted by an extraordinary performance, will radically alter conventional industry wisdom or enhance female clout would be naive. But there are a few things that it does accomplish. I loved that the film had such affection and sympathy for a woman who refused to live within society’s circumscribed rules. I also greatly admired Vidya Balan’s ability to be fat and frankly unattractive onscreen. Bollywood currently is awash in a sea of fashionistas. Our heroines, no matter the role, always look salon perfect (do you recall Bipasha Basu’s immaculate jail hair-do in Dum Maaro Dum?). I hope The Dirty Picture inspires some to let go and become the character instead. That itself would be a small step forward.
By Anupama Chopra for The OPEN Magazine
The author tweets at @anupamachopra