Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing one of the most talked about films in recent times- the magnum opus Baahubali. A revolutionary movie, in terms of special effects, Baahubali can also be credited to be a pathbreaker in terms of the sheer scale on which it is mounted. At heart a simple revenge drama, the stunning visual effects and grandiose sets make it a cinematic treat.
While I enjoyed the movie tremendously, what stayed with me long after the movie got over, is the characters of the women in the film. Diametrically contrasting to each other, the women in the film, spanning three generations, reflect Indian society in so many ways.
Let me discuss the two ends of the spectrum, the two diametrically opposing characters. First the role of the Queen mother, Sivagami. The character of Sivagami uses a knife on her opponent, seconds before she breastfeeds her babies, and cajoles them. She takes major decisions with respect to her kingdom, from deciding the tactics of warfare, to appointing the king, all the while being a considerate and caring mother. Even in death, she devises a way to save a newborn baby. The character of Sivagami is a rarity in Indian cinema, and is by far, one of the strongest characters ever portrayed by a woman on screen. It is refreshing to see a woman dictate terms to all the men around her, in a strong and sensible way, and not coloured by overwhelming emotions.
In complete contrast is the female lead Avanthika. At first glance, Avanthika seems like an alpha female- engaging in guerrilla warfare, with a total no-nonsense attitude. However, it is not long before she transforms into your archetypical Indian movie heroine, who is wooed by a stranger in a romanticized rape scene, wherein she is undressed systematically and made to look more feminine. She then sheds the requisite tears, and hands over her mission, the one she was so passionate about, to her lover. What is disappointing about this character, is that under the garb of a liberated and ambitious woman, is a woman reflective of society’s expectations- leaving aside their own ambitions and handing them over to their partners to fulfill.
For long, women have been straitjacketed in Indian cinema- either in overtly maternal roles, or typical girlfriend/wife roles. Leave aside parallel and independent cinema, very few times have filmmakers tread the risky path, and given author backed roles to women in mainstream cinema. While Baahubali creates an eternally inspiring character like Sivagami, it also ends up following the tried and tested path of reducing its lead female character to a mere prop.
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