INDIA: Kahaani (2012)

The Kahaani of the Indian Woman

by Vishwa Bhatt

Please watch the video above and then read the following crafter statement.

Who is she? We don’t know. And that makes all the difference.

Throughout the many years that Bollywood has been a prolific film industry and the number of transformations that Hindi films have undergone, one motif has remained constant: the archetype of the Indian Woman. She is perpetually light-skinned and young, her hair pulled away from her face to make her every expression clear and exaggerated. Her sari hangs from her shoulder and blows in the wind, and her makeup is done so naturally that male audiences will assume she is wearing none at all. Throughout the film, she will endure a number of petty tribulations, laugh, cry, sing in a ridiculously mesmerizing voice, and fall in love. The movie will lead to a climax in which it seems that things will not work out in her favor, but by some happy occurrence outside her control (and most likely facilitated by the men in her life), she will attain romantic contentment. The movie will end joyfully, often with her marriage to the man she fell in love with at the beginning of the film.

For years this was the formula which Bollywood movies were centered around: the attractive, sympathetic Indian Woman who conforms to India’s traditional standards for gender behavior is an easy character for audiences to root for. Though the actresses changed from movie to movie and generation to generation, the archetype which filmmakers subscribed to remained the same. Only in the later 2000s did certain audiences begin to question the authenticity of Hindi cinema’s portrayal of Indian women, and even then women in Hindi films remained frustratingly one-dimensional. Then came actress Vidya Balan, who paved the way for a shift in the depiction of women on screen with her resolve to challenge Indian societal notions on gender (Gupta). Balan took on a few key roles in female-centric films in the early 2010s that defied the traditional role of gender in Hindi films, including The Dirty Picture (2011), Bobby Jasoos (2014), and, perhaps most widely recognized, Kahaani (2012).

Kahaani (which translates to “fictional story” or simply “story”) is a film about a woman named Vidya Bagchi who comes to Kolkata, India in search of her husband, who traveled from the couple’s home in London to Kolkata on work assignment several months ago and never returned. Vidya, seven months pregnant, files a missing persons report with the local police, who assume that her husband has simply ran away from her. Only one officer, Rana, is willing to believe Vidya’s suspicions, and together the two of them attempt to puzzle out what happened to Vidya’s husband. Throughout the film, Vidya fulfills the constructs of the Indian Woman as a vulnerable, heavily pregnant, confounded woman who takes agency in a limited number of situations and is a sympathetic and complacent character — until she isn’t.

“You can win any child’s heart so easily”

The perception of motherhood that surrounds Vidya’s character is one of the many ways in which she is depicted in a stereotypical manner. Traditional gender notions are emphasized as she interacts with various children throughout the movie and manages to win each of them over, demonstrating to the audience that she is “good with kids.” This impression of Vidya is a prime example of her conformity to traditional gender stereotypes, in line with the standard for women to be patient and motherly figures who dutifully care for others. Even while searching for clues regarding her husband’s disappearance, Vidya manages to charm a young boy who unintentionally knows something vital to the case, and therefore conducts her investigation in a manner that does not deviate from her impression as a feminine and gentle figure who exists in line with the Indian Woman archetype.

“Sir, please explain it to her.”

Another recurring theme in Kahaani is Vidya’s inconvenient reliance on the men in the film, whom she must trust while alone in a foreign city. The most prominent example of this is the police officer Rana, who quickly becomes Vidya’s partner in the investigation and does a majority of the work in navigating around the city and asking the right people the right questions. As the investigation progresses and more and more characters fall under suspicion, most interactions in the film are between Vidya and various men who are somehow involved in the case. An unbalanced power dynamic is apparent in almost each of these scenes, as Vidya is constantly belittled and dismissed, with the men assuming that she is naïve and that they need to provide explanations for her. The only glaring exception to this is the character Agnes, who works at the same company Vidya’s husband does, and with whom Vidya has a few interactions early on that relate solely to business proceedings and the investigation, therefore deviating from stereotypical conversations between female characters (Kapoor et al.). For the rest of the movie, Vidya seemingly allows herself to be underestimated, pitied, and spoken down to when communicating with male characters, conforming to the expectation of women to remain composed and complaisant even when faced with prejudice and injustice (Gupta).

“Because no one fears a pregnant woman.”

Throughout the film, Vidya’s pregnancy is a visible reinforcement of her femininity, contributing to her image as a vulnerable and venerable figure. Her large belly causes her multiple fainting spells and a clumsy gait; the audience therefore is led to believe they are seeing her at her weakest, a weakness that is linked to her femininity. Vidya’s existence in the film as a pregnant woman itself supports her image as a typical Indian Woman, who is defined by her adherence to her feminine characteristics and fulfillment of the gendered expectation of motherhood.

The Ending

In every way, Vidya Bagchi remains within the confines of the Indian Woman archetype as the movie progresses and appears to be a conventional and predictable character. However, this is entirely overturned by the ending of the film, when Vidya confronts terrorist Milan Damji, whom the audience knows to be involved in Vidya’s husband’s disappearance. While seeming weak and overwhelmed against the terrorist at first, Vidya quickly sheds her helpless act and overpowers Damji; she pulls out a prosthetic belly, revealing that she has been faking her pregnancy this entire time, stabs Damji with a hair pin, and then shoots him with his own gun multiple times, ensuring his death. The events following this gradually reveal the truth to the audience: Vidya has actually been sent to Kolkata by the Indian intelligence agency to find and execute Damji, who was responsible for her real husband’s death two years prior to the start of the film. The story Vidya told to the police was, in fact, just a story, fabricated so that she would use the police’s aid and pity to carry out her mission (Gupta). The audience is then forced to recognize that Vidya’s character is a complex, multidimensional one that deviates from their assumptions about her as vulnerable, unintimidating, and in need of saving. The concept of the Indian Woman itself is questioned, as the film demonstrates to the audience its unrealistic biases in evaluating Vidya’s character and offers a nuanced understanding of on-screen women as being defined by something other than their gender tropes. When Vidya casts off her prosthetic belly, she also casts off the restrictions placed on her as an Indian woman in a Bollywood film, and by the end of the movie we have more questions than answers about the kind of person she truly is. It is in this way that Vidya’s character, and the film Kahaani as a whole, demystifies the role of women in Hindi cinema, paving the way for an Indian film industry that allows women to have multiple identities and complex character arcs separate from their traditional, gender adhering on-screen roles.

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