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May 26, 2014

Be The Change

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Soumya Kumar

Taking off from her thoughts on the success of the film, Queen, Madhu Jain discusses the merits of ‘fashioning a personality’ rather than going to the beauty parlour for a revolutionary make-over or aping the fashionistas

There has been an ocean of newsprint churning about the film Queen – from writers, admen, anthropologists, pop-up cultural historians and, of course, film critics. Essentially, the film tracks the journey of a young woman from Rajouri Gardens in West Delhi who is coming of age and coming into her own in Paris and Amsterdam. Ebulliently played by Kangna Ranaut, the film has had the kind of laudatory critiques seldom enjoyed by filmmakers and actresses. Now, if I may, I am going to add another drop to the overflowing ocean of apercus about Queen. But dear readers fret not: it’s not yet another review or sociological scanning of the film.

My take from the film, actually take off from it, is how the metamorphosis of a character is cannily reflected in the change of apparel, the posture, the walk, the expression in the eyes, and quite importantly, the laugh. In this film, as in many others these days both here and internationally, it is all about fashioning your personality. Well, refurbishing your inner wardrobe that lies beneath the skin. It is not just about going to the beauty parlour for a revolutionary make-over, throwing out the old clothes and then catching up with what’s the latest in town.

Nor is it about aping the fashionistas. And heaven forbid, taking a cue from what les belles dames of Bollywood/Hollywood are wearing this season. Worse still, placing the bling-encrusted stars of the small screen on a pedestal and making them the arbiters of taste.

Blinding opulence
Some weddings these days are blindingly opulent – you may need sunglasses to protect you, even at midnight, from the glare of chandelier earrings and fake diamonds as big as the Ritz. Wonder what that great American writer (known for the phrase which is the title of a short story and, of course, the era-defining novel, The Great Gatsby) would have written had he attended a big fat Punjabi wedding. Disclosure by necessity: I happen to be one so I claim the right to poke a little fun at my biradari or clan.

Talking about midnight, let’s revisit the fairytale that has fed our adolescent dreams and created (unhappily mostly) our idea of romance. It is a story that has been the template for thousands of Mills & Boon books, not to forget Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer; the latter’s appeal embraced the bluestocking-ed school girls and undergrads. Yes, it is Cinderella. Written by the Frenchman Charles Perrault in 1697, its influence on popular culture is immeasurable, including countless films which are variants of the theme.

The message of this literally rags-to-riches story, jumping class and wealth barriers, however, is all about appearances. Would Prince Charming (the blueprint for the steely-jawed, impossibly rich heartthrob) have fallen for Cinderella had she been dressed shabbily, with soot on her face and dishevelled hair covering it? What would have happened had she not had her princess-like ‘appearance’ conjured up by the good fairy with a wave of her magic wand?

I doubt it.

Beauty here, and in countless Hindi films, is skin deep. We only have to scan our ads, especially the ones promising instant fairness and humanly impossible, computer-generated hair that flies in the face of gravity and much else. The growing popularity of cosmetic surgeons and body shapers as well as the self-appointed fashion police is testament to the fact that looks have never been as important. It is supposed to get you there, to where you want to be – from bagging the man or woman of your dreams, to getting promotions and jobs (for both men and women), to ascending social ladders. And the ultimate goal: a secure place (at least for a while) on Page 3, surrounded by belles and beaux with plastered smiles and of-the-moment branded clothes and accessories.

The Frenchman’s story has led us astray for centuries, brainwashing us into becoming unthinking adherents of what a wise person once said: your face is your fortune. That’s why a film like Queen – and others like it – is a bit of a turning point, albeit possibly temporary. The protagonist Rani discovers her inner queen. There is no dramatic make-over to the way she looks or speaks. Nor is there evidence of a borrowed accent in English. She does not transform into a glamorous diva, although Kangna Ranaut is more like a chameleon than any other actress, losing one face and stance on screen or in magazines to a totally new one.

Reality check
The new Rani/Queen is perfectly happy to return and live in Rajouri Garden: city lights don’t beckon. Reality check: she is not off to Bollywood; she is returning to her sweetmeat shop and will perhaps start her own restaurant in Rajouri Gardens. The real change is within. That comes with being in tune with herself – after finding the tune that works for her that is. Her walk, a brisk stride now, as well as her clothes and hair (non 360 degree turn), reflect her and her newly-gained confidence. Her walk in the last scene reminded me of the final scene in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance. Konkona Sen’s character Sona walks down a street in Mumbai, hails a cab – a small smile directed at the self, electing to be happy with what fate has dealt her even though the fairytale ending is missing from her life’s script. It’s that confident walk and composure that one sees in Sridevi’s sari-draped character, Shashi Godbole who is mocked by her family for her not being able to speak English, in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish. Here again, it is the inner wear (by which I don’t mean lingerie but the persona within) that matters more than the clothes she wears or hairstyle she sports. A sense of achievement and the skill in making ladoos is what adds self-worth to both Rani and Shashi.

So, it’s important to be the change, not wear it.

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