Two Bollywood films by female directors to kick off the year

FEBRUARY 1 — Not being someone who keeps up with developments in the Bollywood film industry, only catching titles that interest me either because of a director’s track record or because of some other random reasons, I’ve never really noticed any patterns beyond obvious ones like Diwali and Eid being the Indian equivalents of the Christmas box office season in Hollywood.

But getting to catch not just one, but two very worthy “quality” films akin to Hollywood’s Oscar bait films, I might be noticing another pattern here in January for Bollywood, since it’s around the same time last year that I caught another sensationally good “quality” Bollywood film in the form of Gully Boy

So maybe January is their preferred month to release films like these, for whatever reason. 

What I’m doubly excited about with the two films I caught this January in Malaysian cinemas is that they were made by female directors, telling very female-centric stories. 

And knowing how entrenched patriarchy is in India even today, it’s really heartwarming to see something like this happen, especially when the films’ quality speak for themselves.

Chhapaak

The third film from Meghna Gulzar, the director of the awesome Talvar, Chhapaak is based on the life of activist Laxmi Agarwal, a victim of an acid attack in 2005, who became an advocate for banning the sale of acid in India. 

Not an official biopic, as names and details have been changed, but the film’s story more or less follows Laxmi’s and her character is now named Malti; she’s played by none other than one of Bollywood’s biggest sweethearts, Deepika Padukone. 

Cleverly using the well established Bollywood melodrama formula to tell this story, complete with heart-wrenching songs about the plight of acid attack survivors (but without the standard song and dance scenes included), Gulzar has crafted an eye opening film that’s filled with powerful emotions, from sadness to anger to defeat to triumph, but coats everything with a very classy layer of dignity, none more evident than in Padukone’s superb performance.

Starting in the present with Malti hunting for a job, showing the kind of hardship that awaits an acid attack survivor AFTER she has already overcome the trauma and mental block to muster enough confidence to go out and show her face in public, the film cleverly finds very reasonable excuses to go into flashbacks in order to show what happened to Malti, how the acid attack happened, why it happened, its painful aftermath (both physically and mentally) and who did it, because the film is also part police procedural and part courtroom drama, which means that there’s absolutely no shortage of drama and excitement here, even if the film is tackling a really grim and serious issue.

Padukone, hidden under some pretty impressive make-up and prosthetics to show the evolution of her character’s face after plenty of surgeries, delivers a fully realised performance, helped by Gulzar’s by now trademark grounded approach to storytelling (which includes casting real life acid attack survivors in the film), even when playing around in a genre as heated with emotions as the Bollywood melodrama, which results in a surprisingly non-preachy film about one woman’s crusade to bring the seriousness of the plight of acid survivors to mainstream India’s attention. 

It’s probably as nuanced and classy a Bollywood studio film can ever hope to be, and that’s really saying something.

Panga

My only previous encounter with the films of Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari was her 2015 feel-good hit Nil Battey Sannata, about a mother whose only dream is for her daughter to succeed and break free from poverty, even to the point of going back to school to join her daughter’s class to cajole her rebellious and lazy daughter into studying. 

It’s a masala film that, despite its obviously preachy content, still brought tears to my eyes when I saw it back then, such was its irresistibility.

Looks like Tiwari is banking on our love for our mothers and the need for us to appreciate their many sacrifices again with her fourth and latest feature film, Panga, which is again about a mother’s sacrifice, but this time about her trying to take back her dreams and live it. 

Played by the current queen of Bollywood, Kangana Ranaut (of Revolver Rani, Queen and Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi fame), the film’s heroine is Jaya Nigam, a former captain of the Indian women’s kabaddi national team, who had to give up the sport in order to take care of her son, who was born with plenty of health problems.

At age 32, her passion for the sport is somehow reignited, initially by the humorous request of her son who wanted her to take up the sport again, and what is initially a wonderfully warm tale of domestic happiness turns into an underdog sports movie, imagine Dangal with a 32-year-old as the protagonist, and Panga is off to the races, showing the push and pull between a mother’s domestic responsibilities and her right to chase her dreams and happiness.

By clearly illustrating this push and pull, in its many forms and variations, Tiwari also underlines the many sacrifices that our mothers make in order to raise a family, and the toll those sacrifices can take on a person. 

Like her debut film, this is still pretty preachy stuff, but damn if I can hold back the tears when those obvious tear-jerking moments come on. 

A crowd pleaser that you should definitely bring your mother to, as it’s still playing in Malaysian cinemas now.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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