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Wanted: Madhuri-Manisha equation!

Deepa Gahlot

Madhuri Dixit in Lajja There is a scene in Lajja in which Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala sprawl on a bed and gossip.

For a moment, their problems and tensions are forgotten as they giggle with abandon.

Women will talk of several such casually affectionate encounters with their female friends. But we hardly see any female bonding in Hindi films.

At the most, one saheli or a gaggle of them around serve as a kind of chorus. But no real, intense friendship of the kind the men in, say, Dil Chahta Hai share.

Come to think of it till Prakash Jha's Mrityudand and Deepa Mehta's Fire came along, there were hardly any films about female bonding, while male bonding is a recurring theme or sub-plot in every other film.

Two women have never been heard singing Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge, chhodenge dam magar, tere saath na chhodenge, since it is inevitable that marriage will break up their friendship.

Deepa Mehta At the most, they might dreamily sing Man kyoon mehka, or saawan numbers on swings, thinking about their absent beloveds.

Sacrifice or strife are the only two ways in which the relationship between two women may be defined in Hindi cinema.

Even though the sakhi is part of folk tradition, she is a companion only till the woman is married, after which she must break all ties with her past. Or she will contend for the same man, as women in traditional Indian society have nothing else to compete over -- individual ambition is still an alien concept.

Since women in Hindi films are almost never seen pursuing careers, they cannot even forge friendships in the workspace like normal women. In college, a girl will hang out with female friends only till she runs into the hero. The mother-daughter relation is temporary since it is inevitable that the girl will go away to her sasural. In any case, in most films the mother will stand around meekly while the father decides the childrenís fate, like in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

In Rudali, mother (Rakhee) and daughter (Dimple Kapadia) become friends, but they are both outcastes.

In nearly all films and stories rooted in the Indian reality, if there has to be high drama, women have to be antagonistic towards each other in the joint family setup.

The saas-bahu, jethani-devrani, nanad-bhabhi are traditional enemies. If they get along, well, there is no melodrama.

And then, there is the classic patni-souten relationship which can hardly be anything but acrimonious. The traditional patriarchal structure thrives on keeping women apart -- at various levels of adversity.

Even today, in Hindi cinema, the woman is not an independent entity, but one whose existence is defined by her relationship to men -- father, brother, lover, husband, son.

Naturally, to safeguard these relationships, she will have to treat other women with suspicion and contempt.

Dil Chahta Hai It is not so surprising, then, that Deepa Mehta's Fire got the violent reaction it did. Two women -- sisters-in-law who ought to have been squabbling for dominance in the family, get together and overthrow the male yoke!

The fear and anger was not because they chose each other as sexual partners, too, but because they decided to escape the confines of an oppressive family system.

Interestingly, the most virulent reaction to their relationship comes not from their husbands but from their bedridden mother-in-law, who hatefully spits in the face of the daughter-in-law (Shabana Azmi) who has, so tenderly, been looking after her for years.

All the more reason why Mrityudand, Godmother and Lajja are important for breaking the 'woman is woman's worst enemy' stereotype.

In Prakash Jha's Mrityudand, the older sister-in-law (Shabana Azmi), after years of bearing her husbandís cruelty, has an affair with another man and comes back pregnant with his child.

Her widowed younger sister-in-law (Madhuri Dixit) accepts her decision without passing any moral judgement. When things get rough, she rallies other women and picks up a gun in support of her jethani. This sort of unconditional sisterhood is rare in our films.

Shabana Azmiís character of the politician-don in Vinay Shukla's Godmother is shown to be ruthless towards men, but completely sympathetic to other women.

Shabana Azmi in Godmother When she is elected Panchayat head, she solves the water problem first because women suffer most from the shortage. When her son tries to forcibly marry a girl who doesn't love him, she supports the girl, only to lose her life in the bargain.

In Lajja, Manisha Koirala runs away from her oppressive husband and finds shelter and sympathy from women. From a couple of men, too, but then that is only to be expected in a mainstream film.

The other heartwarming example was Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala, in which a group of poor spice workers unite to save their colleague (Smita Patil) trying to escape from the clutches of a lecherous official (Naseeruddin Shah) by flinging bags of chillies into his face.

In a similar rural backdrop, women in Aruna Raje's Rihaee, come together in support of a woman (Hema Malini) being accused of adultery.

In Avtar Bhogal's Zakhmee Aurat, a cop (Dimple Kapadia) and a group of women get justice for raped women by castrating the rapists who manage to get away in court. Crude and sensational though it was, this was one of the few films in which women do not turn away from other women in trouble.

The other such film was Damini, in which heroine (Meenakshi Seshadri) took on her in-laws family for the sake of a raped maidservant.

Once in a while, a Badi Bahen Suraiya will make undue sacrifices to protect the reputation of her kid sister (Geeta Bali), or a girl will avenge the rape-murder of her sister (Dushman, Arjun Pandit).

It is as if women are not meant to be friends and equals -- especially within the joint family system. There is almost always a chasm of mistrust between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, a power struggle between sisters-in-law and antagonism between sisters.

Rakhee and Dimple Kapadia in Rudaali

The kind of mother-in-law one sees in Raj Kanwar's Deewana, who actually encourages her widowed daughter-in-law to remarry is extremely uncommon.

Usually, the wicked ma-in-law -- personified by Lalita Pawar and Shashikala -- heaps abuses on the hapless bahu or the evil daughter-in-law (Bindu, Aruna Irani), treats the saas as an unpaid slave.

In a film like Hum Saath Saath Hain, there will be a superficial bonding between female relatives, but it will be a woman who will endanger the togetherness and a man who will heal the rift.

Sisters have been vying for the same man right from Anhonee (Nargis) to Sharmilee (Rakhee) to Aaina (Amrita Singh-Juhi Chawla).

While a man will generously sacrifice his love if his brother happens to fall in love with the same woman, the sisters or best friends will plot and scheme. There will be a singular woman like Shashikala in Sujata who cheerfully encourages her sisterís (Nutan) romance with her intended (Sunil Dutt); Rekha in Jeevan Dhara, who will give up her lover for the sake of her sister; Rakhee in Basera, who will step aside for Rekha... Or a Zeenat Aman who will kill for her sister Padmini Kolhapure in Insaaf Ka Tarazu.

The only film in which sisters fought over a career and mother-daughter fell for the same man was in Sai Paranjpye's Saaz.

The most unusual relationship between women in Hindi films is that of the wife and the other woman. The still from Silsila with Jaya Bhaduri and Rekha standing with their backs to each other comes immediately to mind.

Sometimes, the childless wife will force her husband to remarry (Bewaffa Se Waffa). Or in the bizarre case of Judaai, will sell her husband for money.

Or like in Zubeidaa graciously suffer her rival.

Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge Obviously, they can never be friends. In Lal Patthar, a jealous mistress plots to get rid of her lover's wife. But occasionally, a courtesan will befriend the wife as in Utsav, or the wife will sympathise with the sauten as in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, or inadvertantly try to help her (Maang Bharo Sajna).

However, more often than not, the man will be let off the hook as the two women claw each other's eyes out. Not even shared misery or social oppression are sufficient for bonding women as sisters in suffering.

The images of female friendship that spring to mind are peculiar -- Sadhna and Amita prancing about a room singing Mere mehboob mein kya nahin, Parveen Babi stroking Hema Maliniís cheek with a feather in Razia Sultan, Shabana Azmi and Neetu Singh picking pockets together in Parvarish, the boisterous camaraderie between the brothel inmates in Mandi.

And yes, the scene in a cinemahall in Lajja in which Madhuri teaches Manisha to whistle.

Earlier column

E-mail Deepa Gahlot

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