The Women Of DIL DHADAKNE DO (2015): Best Depictions Of Female Characters In Bollywood
‘Dil Dhadakne Do‘, released earlier this year, was a film about realistic family drama with elements that can be broadened to any South Asian family and their issues. The movie was a success, not only critically and commercially, but also from a social standpoint of providing portrayals of characters that transcended the usual Bollywood film tropes.
Now, while I’m not a female, and may not fully grasp the concepts of true feminism to be able to be considered an authority on the subject, as a person living in our society, I can speak towards some semblance of equality and gender realities, at the very least, from my own perspective. Given that, I thought ‘Dil Dhadakne Do‘ was one of the best examples of any Bollywood film in depicting a great range of female characters of various backgrounds, and break the dangerous stereotypes that have thus far been prevalent in almost every Bollywood movie.
So let’s take a look at The Women Of ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ and how each female character’s depiction highlights the manner with which women are treated today.
[ Spoiler Warning: This article will be diving deep into the story of the film revealing plot points and the climax. If you haven’t seen the movie, check out my Spoiler-free Movie Review of ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ here, and return here once you’ve watched the film. ]
Shefali Shah as Neelam Mehra
The Mature Unhappy Wife
Playing the unhappy mother in an affluent Punjabi family is Shefali Shah (no relation) as Neelam Mehra in a powerfully quiet role. Neelam is a repressed wife who is attempting to make the best of her situation with a husband who, as has been implied, has cheated on her multiple times. Neelam continues being the dutiful wife, at least for keeping up appearances within their social community, while being completely unhappy in reality.
Depression Exists. Accept It.
Sadly, this may be the case for many older married South Asian women. Even if we remove the element of infidelity from the situation, which acts as a more dramatic catalyst in a movie, Neelam’s marriage is by no means a healthy one, with almost every aspect of the relationship being determined based on, the very South Asian responsibility of, ‘what will people think’. Even her interaction with her husband is lacking any romance, or even mutual respect for one another. How ‘Dil Dhadakne Do‘ and writer Zoya Akhtar showcases the manifestation of her unspoken depression, is through a couple of subtle scenes that are as heartbreaking as they are worrying.
Depression isn’t considered to be a valid mental illness for most South Asians, and it’s not spoken of in the movie either, but Neelam clearly is depressed. In one scene, after an emotional altercation with her husband, Neelam breaks down and reacts by privately and tearfully gorging on some sweets. It’s sad because despite depression being a very real thing, it’s rarely acknowledged as being something women have to deal with at many stages of their life. Let’s not even talk about resulting weights issues & eating disorders which perpetuate the depression even further due to the ridiculous standards of beauty that most woman feel like they have to adhere, to, especially middle aged women such as Neelam.
The Helplessness Of It All
Another profound moment featuring Neelam that perfectly sums up the helplessness that mature married women in South Asian marriages may go through, comes near the end of the movie. When her husband, remorseful of his actions, asks Neelam why she stayed with him all these years, despite his infidelities and faults, her response is simply that she had no where else to go. While this may be interpreted as a romantic gesture of being incomplete without him, the harsh reality of it is very different altogether.
While it may not be politically correct to say that a woman needs a man, in a lot of cases, it may be the unfortunate truth. South Asian women just a few generations ago, were married at a very young age, some in their teens. Most had little or no education beyond secondary school, as being married was considered to have been their career. So a woman of Neelam’s age, may not have had the financial or practical resources to leave her well-to-do husband, who was her only form financial support. This is a reality for many South Asian women. While empowerment teaches us that if a woman is emotionally abused or feeling unfulfilled in any relationship, the independent and responsible thing for her to do is do what’s best for her; but the harsh reality of it is that most women are unable to do so realistically. As Neelam herself mentions: where would she go without him?
Priyanka Chopra as Ayesha Mehra
The Modern Day Woman
While Shefali Shah’s Neelam Mehra symbolized what older married woman have to deal with after decades of marriage, Priyanka Chopra as Ayesha Mehra provides us with the depiction of a modern day career woman with ambitions, goals and a marriage that is just as important. However, despite her progressive and contemporary life, Ayesha has to deal with personal issues that stem from the influences of the men in her life, most notably her father and husband. These influences suppress whatever desires and principles she attempts to have, and affects her emotional well being, but not in an overt or obvious manner.
The Obvious Daddy Issues
In Bollywood the parental relationships that are usually depicted are mother-son, father-son and very rarely mother-daughter dynamics. Very rarely are father-daughter relationships focused on, despite a father being the first man in a woman’s life. ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ finally shows a proper relationship between a father and daughter, with all the complexities and problems that come with it.
The movie presents us right away with the gender inequality present in South Asian households, where the heir to a business empire is considered the son, and not the daughter. This is despite Ayesha’s own proven worth as a business woman, however, it’s still not worthy of her father’s acknowledgement. Some of Ayesha’s success can be attributed to a desire to seek her father’s approval in that regard.
The way Ayesha’s is treated in her family is an example of the more overt manner in which South Asian women are treated in today’s generation. While sexism today may not be as blatant as thinking all women should cook and clean, Ayesha’s father’s actions toward her make his viewpoint pretty clear. He ends up manipulating her past relationship, under the assumption that he knows what’s best for her; he takes no interest in her business or pride in her success, as she’s not considered to be part of his family anymore after marriage, something he makes clear later on in the 3rd act of the film. In fairness, the father tries to manipulate the son’s relationship as well, but at least the son is afforded the misdirected respect in the manner of a face to face bribe, instead of orchestrating to send his lover away unbeknownst to him as he did with Ayesha.
Then There’s The Hubby
Despite being part of an influential family, enjoying all the benefits of a western influences and liberal thinking, the story alludes many times to the subtle manner with which Ayesha was ‘persuaded’ to marry her current husband, implying she had very little involvement in the decision.
‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ provides an example of antiquated thinking still, through everyone else’s perception of Ayesha’s marital problems; how despite modern day progress, the thought of being financially supported, materialistically indulged and not be cheated on, is perceived to be a healthy and successful marriage. Outwardly concern of society’s impressions still takes a priority for Ayesha’s parents over the emotional well being of their daughter, as evident by the bath house scene where Ayesha attempts a heart to heart with her own mother, but is instead dismissed.
This attitude that all a woman needs, is to have her material and practical means cared for, and that should be good enough, is perpetuated in many Bollywood movies, where any hero’s explicit interest in a girl is enough for her to reciprocate his feelings. ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ drives this point home even more, by not having to demonize Ayesha’s husband, because what kind of man he is secondary to how she feels about him. The husband has flaws and may not be perfect, but if he was portrayed as an antagonist whom Ayesha had to ‘get away from’, it would have undermined her journey of self actualization.
So despite all the applause of the feminist empowerment movement that is slowly making headway in South Asian culture, it’s still completely incomprehensible that a woman’s right to choose her own husband, deserve his respect and attention should be of paramount importance to all parties concerned, yet this idea eludes everyone close to Ayesha. While the arranged marriage idea has definitely made strides and isn’t as restrictive anymore, there is still a subtle amount of invisible pressure or obligation that women feel to acknowledge and appease their own family’s desires, before their’s can even factor into the equation. While Ayesha was never shown as the timid or obedient daughter, she still didn’t express herself as openly as she did with others, and the why is evident. Despite calmly attempting to discuss her marital issues with her family, she is shut down and blatantly refused to be understood. Yet, in the 3rd act, when the son (a man) has an emotional outburst and brings up similarly harsh truths about his own life and desires, he gets through to the parents, even if minimally.
Anushka Sharma as Farah Ali
The layers and complexities of both Chopra’s & Shah’s characters are important given the film is about them. Anushka Sharma appears in almost a guest appearance, but still providing yet another type of South Asian woman with a slightly modified back story, most of which is revealed through dialogue, and not actually occurring on-screen. However, it’s still a great contrast to the characters above, as her story is a bit more extreme and less subtle than the two lead women in the movie. Farah is basically the reckless and impulsive artistic type who runs away from home to pursue her own dreams and actually lives the life she wants free of constraints from any man or woman trying to hold her down.
Free As The Wind
As evident by the other two female characters in the film, it may be very hard for South Asian women to express themselves to their family in an open and receptive manner. Farah’s solution to this is essentially the romanticized idea that is mostly presented in Hollywood films, as it would be unthinkable for a South Asian woman to do what she did. Running away from home at a young age, Farah survived, lived and made her own way to accomplishing her dreams. It almost feels like Farah’s presence in the film was to showcase the blatant contrast between Ayesha & Neelam who have lived a life of suppression and compromise in order to not rock the boat, while Farah has gone overboard completely in an attempt to live life on her terms.
It’s a completely unrealistic approach and one that many aren’t seen as adopting, however, ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ present that extreme approach as still being an option that some women may choose to utilized, regardless of practicality or reality. Sometimes, emotionally driven life decisions may work out better, despite those depictions of a women being represented in a Bollywood or Hollywood movie.
Now, I realize that my perspective on The Women Of ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ may not be that comprehensive and obviously isn’t based on a first hand capacity to even begin to grasp what women go through on a daily basis. I am in no way drawing absolute conclusions about the way women have been portrayed in the movie either, despite how a lot of my phrasing may seem that way. However, based on my experience, ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ features some of the, if not the, best depictions of leading female characters in any Bollywood movie. Ever.
Feel free to agree, disagree, or tear me a new one in the comments below, or on Twitter @theshahshahid