Female characters being introduced into a film surrounded by a horde of children has been a pet peeve of mine for the longest time. It is not because I consider children as bad foil but it is because of the mental association this creates for the audience. There is a constant gripe among audiences that female actors do not get roles to shine in at best and do not have a role of any value at worst. The reasons as to why that happens is an essay for another day. What I would like to address with this little piece is how female characters in Indian films are reduced to entities with no decision-making capabilities whatsoever.
We have all been witness to a whole bunch of movies where the lead actor/hero comes into frame with an act of total grandeur. He either beats up a group of 50 men or rides in on a motorcycle (shot in slow-mo) or charms the audience with his wit etc. These are usually done with the utmost care. These scenes are thought out over and over again with a lot of attention paid to the actor’s image and packaging, even if the scene is not dictated by logic.
Ask yourself a question. Why is this done?
This creates a mental association for the viewer. He/She knows this is a man who has everything in place. He is either strong/smart/savvy or many more of such desirable qualities in an uber-man. The films may usually write themselves into a hole with such nonsensical character writing but then again, the character is not made to look weak. He is usually made to be a person who can make his own decisions and has his life under his control.
This brings us to the opposite number. The female lead.
Ask yourself another question. How many times have I seen a lead actress in a film introduced with children? If you can’t remember any, I will drop a few examples to jog to your memory.
Gajini (Tamil), Remo (Tamil), Sundaranga Jaana (Kannada), Bommarillu (Telugu), Arya 2 (Telugu) just to name a few. Bollywood is not above this phenomenon. They do it too. You know there are a ton of other films that do this just as I do.
You may ask me, What’s the problem with that? It is harmless and looks cute.
There in lies the problem.
Every time a film does this, the credibility of the female character is completely lost. As we discussed about mental associations in a paragraph above, the effects are similar here as well. One need only remind oneself the last time they entrusted an important decision to a child. The answer will be a resounding NEVER a 100% of the time. A 10 second shot of introducing an actress with a group of children might seem to convey innocence but in all honesty, it conveys ineptitude. It tells the audience to not take the character seriously as she is just as playful and innocent as a child who has no capabilities to make complex decisions whatsoever.
Think I am over reacting? Question time again.
Take Bommarillu as an example. Ask yourself if Genelia’s Hasini ever makes a complex decision by herself or if every decision is made for her throughout the film. Ask yourself if her character is ever written to have the slightest bit of mental maturity. One need only think back a few seconds before he/she realizes that even though the film is exceptionally well made in terms of its two male leads, the lead actress gets the shorter end of the stick. The character of the mother is usually written well conveying poise and grace but the character of the love interest is written as a pawn to propel the arcs of its male leads.
Arya 2 for example has Kajal’s Geeta play a pawn between the two male leads again. She has no thought process of her own and chooses her personal relationships based on actions of the male leads. All she is concerned about is how she comes off to the one or the other man. This pattern of behavior is child-like and bears no semblance to a grown woman’s thought process.
These are but a few examples to illustrate how inept some of the writing gets with a lot of films the audience are subject to on a weekly basis. One might make the argument that if the writing were better, the introduction makes no difference. I would like to counter that by saying the introduction put to film sets the tone for the rest of the character’s actions. It is a narrative crutch used to aid weak character development. Any film which says the goal of a woman is to be pretty, innocent, meek and child-like does not understand women in general.
One may ask me an example of a good female character. I would say check out Gautham Menon or Mani Rathnam’s catalog of films. Every single one of their films has characters chalk full of character. Neither of those men choose the easy way out when it comes to defining their characters. They have handled multiple genres and most of the readers are fans of their work. The characters are etched in your memory and are not interchangeable because they are written as grown up, smart and capable women.
I do understand that movies are just movies and one need not look too far under the surface. The argument against that is, movies are the most accessible forms of art. Young men and women grow up watching them. It molds thoughts and solidifies mental imagery. If a young man feels like he can emulate the great qualities of a complex hero, he also needs to understand the complexities that go into every woman who appears on-screen. Women are not children who can’t think for themselves, they are fully formed human beings who are capable of complex emotions and can make decisive decisions.
It is just a sad sight when I see this trope being so overused in Indian cinema. I would like to see it purged off our screens and also to see our film-makers put in some more effort when writing their characters. When one can think one’s mother is complex, the same mind can also come to the realization that a woman in her youth can be a complex individual as well.