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August 14, 2015

Juhi Chaturvedi’s Emotional Quotient

Much of Indian cinema is driven by the power of emotions depicted on screen, especially by its female protagonists. Award-winning writer Juhi Chaturvedi recalls some emotionally high-pitched performances that left an impact

My childhood evenings were spent watering some 200 odd plants. There were these most wonderful varieties of flowers that bloomed in our big lawn, which was no less than a botanical garden. From a temple tree to harshringar to lilies to roses to mangoes…name them, and they were all there. I never knew what getting bored was. There was always a beehive to be scared of…monkeys to be shooed away, a mango to be plucked and a garland to be made.

But then there was also another side that I was witnessing. Not this pretty. As the evenings would set in, especially in winters, my mother would feel very low. She would weep inconsolably. In the absence of my father, I was aware that in such situations, I needed to call my mother’s friend who stayed in the bungalow next to ours. All I had to say was, “Aunty, mummy is feeling that depression again, can you come?” and she would be there in no time. I was in standard two or three. When I would ask my father why my mother used to cry, he would explain that she was an emotional person. And that she found it difficult to control her emotions. So for many years, I grew up thinking that being emotional was a weakness. That it meant crying. That it meant not having control over yourself. By the time I was in standard six, I felt no need to call my neighbour. I could handle my mother’s emotions myself.

Joy, displeasure, love, affection, fear, anger, fantasy…or whatever they may be…feelings need expression. And, that is emotion. I experienced this expression or emotional liberation when I took up a career in fine arts. My faith in arts, literature and cinema kept growing stronger because it’s only here that a woman could wear fashionable clothes, smoke a cigarette, sing songs while cycling to her college…argue, be heard, express her love or ambition freely…and films like Mother India and Guide added an altogether different dimension to her character. So while in reality, not just my mother, but also almost all women were living under the restrictions of society — and were allowed only a rationed emotional expression — in cinema, the power of their emotions made them the most respected women.

Made in 1965, based on R K Narayan’s book, Vijay Anand’s Guide was about Rosie, a woman in a not so emotionally fulfilling marriage, and Raju, the main protagonist who helps her to find her dreams and gather enough courage to leave her dead loveless marriage behind. It was considered ahead of its time then. In the 1980s, when I saw it, it was still ahead of its time. Though in reality separation and divorce have been taboo in our country, I am yet to meet a person who’ll disapprove of Rosie’s decision to leave her husband Marco. That, to me, is the power of emotion in cinema! The story, the narrative, the characters…everything is crafted with so much honesty, and just the right amount of drama, that no one ever questions the film or its leading lady going against the norms of society. If Marco had come back as a reformed man and Rosie had forgiven him and the cliché of happy endings had persisted, the audiences would have returned home feeling emotionally cheated.

Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar is another film where one can see how the emotions of Aarti, the protagonist, go through a radical change as she herself transforms from being a housewife to being the sole breadwinner of the family. When Aarti’s jobless husband Subrata finds a lipstick in her purse, his insecurity breeds doubt. But the way Aarti, without giving an explanation, picks up the lipstick and throws it outside the window and looks him straight in his eye is a slap enough on his face and on the face of the people who question the morals and integrity of a working woman. Through Aarti, Ray manages to confront his audiences, make them uncomfortable and perhaps leave the thought that no one can judge a woman. Had he made Aarti give Subrata a long explanation, and made her convince him about her righteousness, it would have been reduced to being a regular husband-wife squabble and diluted the strength of the character. The film also showed that a person’s status often decides the expression of his emotion. In Aarti’s case, as a housewife, she might have had to take support of many words to explain herself, but as a financially independent wife, just a glare was enough to put her point across.

In Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom, Indu and DK’s cheerful world comes crumbling down when DK owns up to his infidelity — and a son who then comes to stay with them. Indu is cold, irritable, devastated and rude. The film puts Indu in a very challenging role. Her pain, her anger, her silences beautifully depict the turmoil she is going through. Eventually, she accepts the infidelity. Not because a wife is desperate to save her marriage but because a mother’s heart has melted. Her emotion as a mother struggles with her emotion as a wife, and ultimately a mother manages to keep the family united. The emotional quotient of the film and the character were so high that almost every married couple who saw this film secretly asked themselves that if they were in Indu and DK’s position, what would have they done?

In recent times, films like Monsoon Wedding, No One Killed Jessica, Kahaani and Highway have brought on screen powerful emotions that have managed to shake our beliefs and made us question the norm. Not all films need to be about raising a moralistic point of view, but every time the film-maker has carefully calibrated the emotions in his film without making a deliberate attempt to juice up the subject or overtly manipulate the emotions of the audience, especially in the context of women, the outcome has been poignant.

Truthfully written characters will never give birth to frivolous emotions, or vice versa, be it Rosie, Aarti, Indu, Ashima or Beeji in Vicky Donor.

And as for my mother, well…surviving a haemorrhage followed by kidney failure, living on a transplanted kidney for 18 years, two cancers, I am certain it was only the power of her emotions that kept her alive for that many years, and not medical science.

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