The following was submitted by SMIW reader Damini Kulkarni to our section Spoilt Modern Film Reviews.
Released in 2012, Kahaani is an unforgettable film. It is impossible not to remember it for Vidvya Balan’s feisty presence, the menacing Bob Biswas, the unobtrusive shots of the city of Kolkata; which almost becomes a character within the film, the ever-adorable Satyuki and, of course, that spellbinding climax.
Kahaani was feted almost universally as a triumph for women in mainstream Hindi cinema. The film after all, is about Vidya Baghchi, who deftly upstages all the men in the story and accomplishes her goal with intensity and courage.
It is a woman-centric mystery thriller.
For the Hindi film industry, the two terms are almost paradoxical. It is perhaps this incongruity that seeps through – in the baffling, contradictory way with which the film depicts its female protagonist.
Kahaani is about a pregnant woman who is out to seek her missing husband in Kolkata. She meets people who she believes will help her and discovers that her husband’s face resembles that of Milan Damji – a man trained by the IB who has now gone rogue and engineered the metro attacks. As she follows clues that will lead her, ostensibly, to her missing husband, she uncovers a particularly nefarious plot. She teams up with a cop to snare Damji. Vidya finally kills Damji, but it turns out that she faked her pregnancy.
In a flashback, it is revealed that a pregnant Vidya’s husband died trying to stop the metro attacks. This tragedy, coupled with the loss of her baby, devastated her. However, she was urged by her husband’s commanding officer to find the man within the system who is protecting Damji and eventually eliminate him. She cooks up the story of a missing husband to set the wheels in motion.
Kahaani addresses a multitude of feminist issues within its 122 minute run, including pregnancy, freedom, female single-hood and motherhood. It steers around these issues in ways that are sometimes subtly moving (Vidya’s expression when she is told she will make a good mother) and sometimes gorgeously fierce (her self-assuredness as she speaks to the hotel owner). But its portrayal of women in general and of the protagonist specifically, is more layered than it may appear.
The Pregnant Woman
Kahaani’s navigation around pregnancy is replete with social commentary. The first half of the film cements the idea that pregnancy need not be associated with debilitation or incompetence. As the pregnant Ms. Baghchi eats up the streets of Kolkata with her decisive strides, she comes across as stubborn, strong and endearingly vulnerable. She is able to tackle software with casual confidence, hack into computers and websites and follow clues in a way that even leaves policemen impressed.
She attracts the attention of a rookie cop and not one reference is made in the movie to any ‘pregnant lady glow’ or hormones in general.
So it may come as a disappointment to the feminist in the theater when it turns out that she is not pregnant after all. As the stereotype-subscribing cynic would say:
Of course she did all those things, she was not pregnant at all.
That little twist in the climax does not take away from the fact that Kahaani exposes a number of (generally male) assumptions about pregnancy. But it does complicate the premise that the film shatters the pregnant lady stereotype; especially as it explicitly stokes patriarchal ideas around pregnancy in the narrative that help Vidya accomplish her goals.
The Manipulative Woman
Ms. Baghchi employs her pregnancy as a way to keep herself from being implicated (when she pretends to faint at the police station), coax a reluctant police informer to divulge details and get policemen to cooperate. In the words of Inspector Khan (played brilliantly by Nawazuddin Siddique) who plans to use Vidya to get to Damji, “No one suspects a pregnant woman”. She appears vulnerable and stubborn by turns, arousing the protective instincts of the men whom she meets. This cements, strangely, that the woman must manipulate men to finally get she wants.
Researchers Glick and Fiske use the term benevolent sexism to describe attitudes towards women that appear positive and chivalrous but are actually harmful to gender equality. The head-patting condescension by some men in the film towards Vidya is reminiscent of this phenomenon. However, Vidya uses their benevolent sexism to eventually get what she wants from them.
Her manipulation of the men around her, thus, is also replete with contradictions. While it panders to an old stereotype, it also uses patriarchal ideas to finally lead to the accomplishment of the woman’s goal.
The Unaccompanied Woman
The film consistently depicts Vidya navigating around an alien city. As one reviewer observes, the manner in which she reclaims public spaces is particularly inspiring from a feminist standpoint. Her state of un-accompaniment is constantly remarkable to men who view it as a reason to protect or pity her. At one point, a cop also states: ‘Some man got her pregnant and ran away. Ask her to give up and go back to London. What is the point in looking for him alone in an unknown city?’
The statement is wonderfully illustrative of attitudes towards single women or women whose husbands are not with them – they are either unsafe or abandoned.
The Avenging Woman
While Vidya Baghchi comes across as a competent, fierce and courageous woman who finally ensures that justice is served, her motives are somewhat complicated. She is a wife and a mother who, on some level, is avenging the deaths of her husband and her unborn child. The depth of her need for revenge is reflected in her final interaction with Damji when she poses the question: can you bring back my husband?
The film also tacitly endorses the idea that a female’s absolute wrath and fierce power are unlocked with the man or child in her life are threatened or killed. Thus limiting her agency to the role of a wife and then, a mother.
What is perhaps, most stark of all, is the parallel drawn between Vidya and the Hindu deity, Durga. Her menacing appearance as she looms over a dying Damji is reminiscent of the conventional portrayal of a Goddess within Hindu mythology – free flowing hair and ferocious eyes. However, the implication that she is like the goddess is not stark (by Hindi film standards). As reviewer Anna Vetticad notes, we are not subject to a tiring image of her as Durga.
Although, it does appear as a side note at the end of the film. Scenes of Durga visarjan are inter-cut with scenes of relatives of those killed in the metro attack as the narrator says: “Every year, Mother Durga appears. Eliminates evil. And goes away.”
This is meant to refer to both, the Goddess and Vidya, disturbingly echoing a dominant, inherently Indian mindset towards women. If they are extraordinary, strong and unique, women must be equated to Goddesses. They must be permanently robbed of the everyday-ness of their femininity. In fact, the very idea that every (or indeed, any) woman is powerful is so threatening that the male narrator (relaying popular Hindu mythology) is compelled to add: “Gods created Goddess Durga.”
Feminist theorist Kaja Silverman, in her book The Acoustic Voice, comments on how an omniscient narrator in cinema, who speaks from a position of power outside the story, is always male. As Amitabh Bachchan’s signature baritone resolves the story, one cannot help but ask the question – would it have been more powerful and fitting to have female narration in the end? Kahaani is certainly not the only film that steers clear of using a female as a narrator who speaks from outside the story. In a film that places the female at the center of the story, adherence to the norm of a male narrator appears incongruous.
Despite its woman-centricity, Kahaani does not prominently portray the perspective of the female. The camera never zooms into her body, it shows her point of view repeatedly (which is more than can be said about a majority of Hindi cinema), but it does showcases the male gaze in the form of Satyoki’s attraction towards Vidya.
Kahaani is replete with contradictions. And it is flawed.
Perhaps, readers might shake their heads at these observations and think: These feminist types are never satisfied. On the contrary, it is these flaws and contradictions that are most likely to satisfy feminists. They are revelatory. An examination of these contradictions would tell us more about the million conflicting ideas in women’s lives than resolving them ever would.
Kahaani defies a label; as do most Indian women. And that’s what makes it real.