The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 11, 2001

A vision of female follies & desires
By Aradhika Sekhon

SHYAM Benegal spearheaded the parallel cinema movement in the 70s and the 80s with movies like Nishant and Manthan whereby making icons of Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil. His genuine concern with womens’ issues is evident in movies like Mammo and Sardari Begum (both scripted by Khalid Mohammad) with their women-oriented themes. His latest film Zubeidaa offers perspective vignettes and explores the female psyche and interaction in different environments. Benegal has a kindly vision of female follies and characters, their motivations, desparations and desires.

Starring Karisma Kapur, Rekha and Manoj Bajpai, the film has strong a backup in Surekha Sikri and Lillette Dubey, supported by his favourites Amrish Puri and Rajit Kapur, Shyam Benegal calls his film a "lyrical romance" and it is one, but that is not all that his film offers. The film, a period romance set in the 1950s, is the story of a young muslim girl from an affluent family. When her father discovers that his daughter has signed a film, he forces her into a marriage which ends in a divorce and a baby. Zubeidaa meets her true love, a Rajasthani prince (Manoj Bajpai) but the trouble is that he is already married. However, she consents to becoming his Chhoti Rani.


Basically there are four strongly etched characters in the film. Surekha Sikri is the Muslim wife in an urban, educated setting who abides by the laws set down by the husband and accepts his tyranny as a traditional male domain, "you know saheb always has his way. You’ll have to do what he says in the end". Her contemporary is Lillette Dubey who plays Miss Rose Davenport, a dancer in the movies…and she’s utterly irrepressible! Out to have a good time, she interacts on a superficial level with everyone connected to her. Still she has a kind heart and when she decides that Zubeidaa has had enough of moping around after her divorce, she promptly introduces her to the dashing prince and shamelessly abets the romance. Her statement, "men and horses are more my style my dear", (said with a mischievous wink) is completely her! The interesting thing is that the same fact, when examined by her and by Sikri, portrays diametrically different views of the truth making one realise that truth is never absolute! These two utterly different women, belonging to the same generation, remain true to type till their old age.

Karisma Kapoor and Rekha in ZubeidaaBenegal is never judgemental and nor does he allow the audience to become holier-than-thou. So human are both the women and so sympathetically has the director dealt with his characters that one simply accepts them and likes them.

The main character, that of Zubeidaa, superbly portrayed by Karisma Kapur, has overlapping shades to it. Zubeidaa has fiery feminist instincts and is rebellious and tempestuous until the end. At the same time she’s feminine, vulnerable and very young. She chooses to live her life the way she wants to. After giving into paternal authority once in her first marriage, she isn't willing to throw away her chance for happiness the second time. Fully aware of the prince’s previous marriage and family, she’s ready to accept a strange environment and a different religion for the sake of love. She makes her choices and sacrifices willingly and knowingly. Karisma has surpassed herself as the passionate, defiant, wilful and troubled Zubeidaa, the truly modern woman.

In direct contrast to her is Mandira Devi, the Patrani of the prince. Graceful, mature and traditional, she upholds the role and duties of the Rajasthani princess, yet surprises Zubeidaa by saying, "call me Mandy". She treats Zubeidaa with resigned, amused affection, never losing her savoir-faire while she instructs Zubeidaa in her expected role.

The most important facet that Benegal has been able to bring out through the film is the fact of female bonding. Whether it is Lillette with Karisma or Karisma with Surekha or Karisma with Rekha, females in the film interact, react, exist and equate with each other, despite the parameters set by males. They understand and accept each others' drives and emotions. Rekha and Karisma, in fact, have a frank discussion about their respective relationships with the prince. Both accept that they have a different role to play in his life—but in the final analysis, that role is assigned by the male. So if the prince says of his senior wife, "woh ek achchi Rajput bahu hai", he says to Karisma, "sada haseen bane rehna aur dil behlana", leaving no ambiguity in the respective role expectation.

The plot of the story moves fast from scene to scene—from the 50s to the 80s (the film is in a series of flash-backs) without losing track of the story. It is also not so ‘period’ that one cannot relate to it. There are traces of the British upper class manners,eg. The meals and decor in Karisma’s house is very anglicised, people speak English comfortably, on the stereo a Dean Martin song is playing, in a party is a live band with the saxophone, trumpet and drums playing a waltz. There are puff sleeves, shingled hair and net dupattas, there is talk of the newly-formed Pakistan, the Privy-purses being withdrawn is a burning issue and many details like these to make the setting completely authentic. Back home in Fatehpur too, the true Rajasthani setting has been portrayed with attention to minute detail.

In the final analysis, Benegal has made a film which is a milestone as far as women-oriented movies are concerned. The theme, characterisation and issues that the film examines are fair to women and have been examined without any searing criticism to mar the tone of the picture.

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