In the search for the Ultimate Woman
DISCLAIMER: It is difficult to write female characters in today’s world.
There, I said it. I won’t be going into feminism, or its offshoots, femi-nazism and meninism, but one can’t create a single damn female character before a million people write a billion demeaning things about the writer and the character on the internet. Social justice for fictional characters, unfortunately, has become institutionalized (#Gamergate, ladies and gentlemen) which necessitates this sort of disclaimer.
Before I start off my argument, I’m going to define two terms you’ll probably all have come across in some form or the other. You might not know the names, but a small description should be enough to make you snap your fingers and shout, “Yes, of course I’ve seen that!”
Everybody’s Dream Girl:
Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a definite phenomenon. She is a female character who exists solely to make the hero realize that life is infinitely adventurous and mysterious. This short, bubbly, pink-haired girl in all her awesomeness will come into the depressing life of the brooding hero and draw rainbows in it. Pretty much, Jab We Met’s Kareena Kapoor.
Some people like calling everyone a manic pixie dream girl, while others like calling no one an MPDG. Some say the term has become too famous for it to still have a specific meaning, while others say that it has become an umbrella term for ‘badly written female character’. But there is no debate that it has definitely become a thing, and an unsettling thing at that: the person who coined the term himself went on record to say he regrets having come up with it.
India’s Dream Girl:
The second, Traditional With Modern Outlook (TWMO), is again a term that is let down a little by how popular it has gotten, but the TWMO woman follows you everywhere. Even if you’re in the most hip bar in your city, there is a girl out there who is wearing a sandal-coloured kurti over light blue jeans. That’s your TWMO. She’ll sit in the bar, but she’ll drink cranberry juice. She has come here, not of her own accord, but with her arranged marriage fiance. She is too modern to outright marry him after she’s just met him, but she’s too traditional to disobey her father’s wish for her to have an arranged marriage.
My hypothesis is that it is the greatest fantasy of every average Indian man (and therefore the perfect character who will sell books and movies) to find the ideal mix of MPDG and TWMO in a woman. And thus, Indian pop culture is full of the Traditional MPDG with modern outlook.
Take, for example, every character that Genelia used to play in the 2000s. The shallowness of the MPDG Haasini (a name that literally means ‘laughter’) from Bommarillu (Santosh Subramaniam in Tamil) is renowned, and surpassed only by the shallowness of Aditi from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, whose greatest accomplishment is canceling the greatest educational opportunity of her life, to make the hero’s life a more colourful place.
I’m not even going to talk about the train wreck that is Kareena Kapoor’s choice of romantic characters in certain movies: Jab We Met for one, and 3 Idiots for another.
Examples are abound in the popular literature of 2000s India (Chetan Bhagat, in other words): all you need to look at is the shining star of ‘What Young India Wants’. Five point someone features a half-’n-half: one part TWMO, another part MPDG. One Night at the Call Centre is such a bad book that I am not even going to take the effort to criticize its characters. The “ridiculously fair Tam Brahm” Ananya Swaminathan is again, surprise surprise, a fifty-fifty. And the half-girlfriend from, err, Half-Girlfriend, is an entirely different story of screwed-up symbolic misogynistic female characters that it would merit an article of its own.
There’s a new girl in town:
But enough examples. We’ve all seen Bollywood movies, and we can all think of places where the idea is blindly followed. What merits more praise are the places where this particular trope has been subverted. Take, for instance, the character Zoya (Joya) from Ishaqzaade. Whatever male fantasy she may represent, two things she isn’t are MPDG and TWMO. She’s traditional and strongly sticks to her ideals until the very end, and she has an agenda of her own, independent of the hero’s. Another place where this is subverted is the movie Wake Up Sid, where the character starts off as someone whose sole purpose seems to be to make Sid realize what real life is all about, but ends up being a beautifully written (and beautifully acted out) character who has a mind of her own.
The other extreme of this subversion would be Menaka from Delhi Belly, who remains steadfastly ‘modern’ even as the average Indian viewer hopes against hope for a thread of traditional ideology to appear in the character.
So, there we have it, ladies and gentlemen: the Ultimate Male Indian fantasy, and its manifestation in the popular culture of India.