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Vishal Bhardwaj: The maker of strong, layered female characters


On the surface, he tells stories about male protagonists, but his female characters are some of the most fascinating in Hindi cinema. On the director-writer-music director's 50th birthday, we look at how he has created some of the most layered women on screen.

Suparna Thombare

Best known for directing Shakespearean tragedies and delving into interesting male protagonists in his films, Vishal Bhardwaj is also a rare director-writer who has been able to create some of the most layered and strong female characters in Hindi cinema.

That stems from the fact that while on the surface his films revolve around the male characters (except 2011's 7 Khoon Maaf), he manages to write some of the most fleshed out and beautifully crafted parts for actresses. He writes them with utmost care. Hence it is impossible to point out a single bad performance from any of his heroines.

In 2004, when most mainstream filmmakers were busy using the stereotypical female characters as props for the glamour quotient, Bhardwaj made Maqbool, which portrayed a woman who plots the downfall of her husband, a gangland boss.

While her manipulative ways are there for all of us to see, Bhardwaj makes you question if she was wrong in doing what she did, considering that she was challenging the authoritative and dangerous men around her.

The scene in which Tabu mockingly threatens to kill Irrfan Khan if he doesn't call her "jaan" is as scary as it is intriguing. And Tabu excelled in playing this complex character.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Bhardwaj’s Nimmi (Tabu) was not driven only by raw ambition; she was also driven by love. She did not want to be with a man she did not love. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she was portrayed as a seductress – someone who seduces her lover to achieve her goal.

This theme has been a recurring one in Bhardwaj's writing. In the screenplay for Ishqiya (2010), his protagonist, wronged by her husband, uses that same sensuality to get two men to do exactly as she wants. And again two female protagonists use the same ploy in Dedh Ishqiya (2014) to trap men into helping them escape their unfortunate circumstances.

Vidya Balan in Ishqiya (2010)

Interestingly, though, the women are not reduced to mere seductresses. Vidya Balan (in Ishqiya) comes out as a smart and strong woman who knows what she wants.

Then there is Tabu as Gertrude in Bhardwaj's Haider (2014). Caught in the midst of her husband, lover and son, she makes choices given the stifling circumstances. She is the one who drives the narrative.

You will often find Bhardwaj's women looking into the mirror in some very interesting scenes – Tabu in Maqbool and Haider, Priyanka Chopra in 7 Khoon Maaf. These scenes often depict how these women, either from their own perspective or through the eyes of the person they are with in the shot, look at themselves. And these scenes portray that they are unapologetic about who they are or what they are becoming even in their weakest moments. And therein lies the strength of Bhardwaj's writing.

These women do what they need to do or want to do.

His characters are not the ideal women as society expects them to be. They are flawed, tremendously flawed. And therein lies their beauty.

Priyanka Chopra in Kaminey (2009)

Even the fiery Sweety (Priyanka Chopra) in Kaminey (2009) is seen faking a lisp, using lies and emotional blackmail to attain the love she wants. But you still love her for her fire and spunk.

His characters are never black and white. In 7 Khoon Maaf, Susanna, played convincingly by Chopra, is let down by the sins of her husbands, which leads her to commit the ultimate sin of murder. But her character seduces the audience just as brilliantly she did with her husbands.

Bhardwaj takes this character to a really dark place and yet you do not hate her. You are scared, but also intrigued.

Bhardwaj’s women are often flawed and grey, but they are an organic outcome of their surroundings and circumstances. They are seen fighting, challenging and manipulating the male-dominated world they inhabit. Thus his female characters come out on screen as some of the strongest and most fascinating ones in Hindi cinema.