Article Hindi

Rise of feminist sisterhood in Hindi cinema: Raksha Bandhan special

On Raksha Bandhan, we take a look at the changing equations of brothers and sisters in Hindi cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

Once submissive and dependent, the long ignored sister in Hindi cinema has now emerged at the forefront. She is not vulnerable anymore, she is, in fact, on par, with the brother, if not stronger.

In 2015, after the screening of her film Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) at the IIFA Awards in Dubai, director Zoya Akhtar said, "Brother-sister relationship at the core hasn't been well represented on Indian screens. It's always wrapped in rituals, never what it really is. Nobody else knows you better. I wanted to show that relationship in Dil Dhadakne Do."

Zoya's film, whose dialogues were penned by her brother Farhan, was built around the strong bond between a financially independent, but domestically leashed sister, and her sensitive, but repressed brother.

As this trailer demonstrates, it is the stifling control of the parents who want to keep up with the 'happy family' drama, that leads to the siblings bonding together as equals under a dictatorship.

With films like Dil Dhadakne Do, Dear Zindagi (2016), or Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na (2008), the portrayal of siblings, brothers and sisters, on the same footing, is an increasingly familiar construct.

This was not always so. As recently as the 1990s, brothers were expected to be, and were, protective father-figures to their sisters. In Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya (1998), Arbaaz Khan played the violent brother who had a unique way of vetting any possible suitor for his sister, Kajol. He wanted to decide whom she should marry, and any man who claims to love her had to prove his worth to the brother.

Take Agneepath (1990), where Amitabh Bachchan sends a lungi clad Mithun Chakraborty to protect his sister. Brothers protecting and fighting for their sisters' chastity was a trope that entertained the masses for decades together. Sometimes, to such an extent that a brother would force his sister's rapist to marry her, because well, who else will now.

The vulnerability of the sister in turn became a vulnerable point in a hero's armour. This traditional cinematic trope has been persistent since the early years of Hindi cinema, including the 1940s.

In Chhoti Bahen (1959), a remake of the Tamil hit, En Thangai (1952), Balraj Sahni and Rehman play the brothers charged with the responsibility of taking care of their sister (Nanda).

The male heirs often carried the burden of protecting and providing for the female members of the family, which was heightened with the death or abandoning of the father. In Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), it is left to Dev Anand's Prashan Jaiswal to bring back his drug addict sister from a hippie cult. While Majboor (1974) saw a terminally ill brother take on a murder rap, to help provide for his disabled sister, and widowed mother. In both cases, the brothers were the ones to shoulder the responsibility.

The trope of a brother acting as a guardian of the sister took a turn with the turn of the century. In Fiza (2000), Karisma Kapoor takes up the responsibility of bringing back her wayward brother (Hrithik Roshan) by chasing after him throughout the country. Her performance as the woman of courage earned her the Filmfare award for Best Actress that year.

In My Brother...Nikhil (2005), it is Juhi Chawla's sensitive sister who protects and stands up for her gay brother. Similarly, in Iqbal (2005), the male protagonist's phenomenal talent as a bowler is anchored on his teenage sister's relentless strength and voice.

This change in gender roles was only the beginning to a neutral balance. In Jaane Tu..Ya Jaane Na (2008), Genelia D'Souza and Prateik Babbar share a love-hate relationship where each replaces the other at opportune moments as the care-giver.

In Gauri Shinde's Dear Zindagi (2016), Omung Kumar's Sarbjit (2016) or Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), the respective sisters share a bond with their brothers that survives the despair of their own lives. It shows a sign of Hindi cinema that is increasingly recognising the true nature of a sister's role in the brother's life.

Divya Dutta and Farhan Akhtar as brother-sister duo in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) had the sister play an anchor for a brother who seeks to follow the path of his destiny. While Dhoni is confused about his career choices, it is his sister's encouraging words that push him to take that decision of pursuing cricket, instead of a stable and secure job.

In Zoya's Dil Dhadakne Do, Ranveer Singh, the prototype superstar of the current generation, is portrayed as the bullied, sensitive child pressured into business by his almost rowdy father. Even as the mother stays disinterested, and mildly encouraging of her husband, the only one to stand up and show some opposition is the sister. While the parents pressurize him on taking on the family business, he demands that it be handed over to his sister simply because she is more capable than him.

Parents might think they act in the best interests of their children, but it is the siblings that truly understand each other's needs. Perhaps, it was apt that Farhan wrote the words for Zoya's cinematic vision.