Although it wasn’t on purpose, I can’t help thinking that it’s appropriate I spent March 8, International Women’s Day, watching two women-centric Bollywood movies – Queen and Gulaab Gang. That being said, Queen was by far the best of the two, although Gulaab Gang is not without its merits. Regardless, it’s so great to have more women-centric movies coming out of Bollywood, and I hope there will be many more to come.
Queen (directed by Vikas Bahl) is the story of Rani (Kangana Ranaut) who decides to go on her honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam by herself after her fiancé calls off their wedding. It’s absolutely hilarious and a joy to watch. Queen is essentially a coming-of-age story, a genre that Bollywood has been very fond of of late, and it was so refreshing and exciting to finally watch one centered around a young woman. And at the center of this one is Kangana Ranaut, giving an unsurprisingly great performance as Rani. She is supported by equally good performances from Rajkummar Rao as fiancé Vijay and Lisa Haydon as the half-Indian Vijayalakshmi who Rani befriends in Paris. I especially liked that the movie showed not only female friendship, but male-female friendship as well (and a delightfully multicultural one at that), and also that it didn’t take the obvious route of having a romance between Rani and her cute young Russian roommate, but had her develop a crush on the handsome older Italian restaurateur instead. My only complaint is that the movie started to feel a bit long in the second half. I have no problem with two-and-a-half hour running times when it’s a true masala movie with a lot going on, but movies like Queen, with a more straightforward story line, really shouldn’t be any longer than two hours.
Gulaab Gang (directed by Soumik Sen) is inspired by Uttar Pradesh’s real-life “gulabi gang” of women activists and vigilantes. In the movie the gang is headed by Rajjo (Madhuri Dixit) who comes up against unscrupulous local politician Sumitra (Juhi Chawla). It was hard to watch Gulaab Gang immediately after the liveliness of Queen. I never thought I’d have to say this about an Indian movie, but it needed less songs and more plot. I know, it’s Madhuri, and we all want to see her dance. But one dancing song and one montage song per half should have been the limit for this movie. Also, this movie earned my ire by engaging in one of my biggest film making pet peeves – scenes meant to take place at night but which were clearly filmed during the day with a dark blue filter. Ugh, why do they do that? However, Gulaab Gang does have quite a few things going for it. Just like it was refreshing and exciting to see a coming-of-age story centered on a young woman in Queen, it was equally refreshing and exciting to see the women in Gulaab Gang engage in behaviour that is usually reserved for men in Indian movies. Madhuri and her gang participate in some ridonkulous fight scenes, complete with South Indian hero-worthy punch dialogues for Madhuri. Juhi visibly enjoys herself as the devious politician, who may have killed her husband to take his place in the party, and likes to humiliate the men on her payroll to punish them for their perceived transgressions. Also – I’ve noted before that women-centric Indian movies have often focused unduly on rape, as if a woman’s biggest concern should be sexual gatekeeping, so I was very pleased that in Gulaab Gang Madhuri’s gang turned vigilante not just against “women’s issues” like rapists and dowry abusers, but also more general villains like corrupt officials withholding electricity, and bandits stealing a shipment of grain.