Ten years ago, Ekta Kapoor backed Dibakar Banerjee's anthology Love, Sex Aur Dhokha in the capacity of a producer. Her association with the film was probed widely only because she carried the baggage of showing the way for 'saas-bahu' soap-operas on television for over 15 years. But here she was, supporting Banerjee's vision of an India far removed from the conniving, regressive politics of an upper middle-class household.
Once the ardent fans managed to go beyond the three-letter word in the film's title, they were even more taken aback by how Kapoor did not pull her punches on patriarchy in it. The narrative defiantly shows how a woman named Rashmi (Neha Chauhan), who is a supermarket employee, is led on by her supervisor Adarsh (Rajkummar Rao), who films their sex in order to sell the tape to the media in exchange for a large sum of money. Rashmi is consequently fired from her job and shunned by family.
Many of the films Ekta put her might behind in the subsequent years revolved around a woman's relationship with her sexuality; women are seen discovering, using, celebrating or getting penalised for acknowledging their sexuality. While a few prevail over their circumstances, some are forced to function within their socio-cultural confines. Also, the struggle with expressing sexuality is not the only demon the woman has to fight. It extends to other trappings of her being, ranging across class, caste, and gender, of course.
'Intersectional feminism' is a term often thrown around in prevailing public discourse, but Kapoor seems to have championed it, perhaps without even realising. Her perception as a soap-opera queen often precedes her efforts towards painting a more feminist world.
After an image transformation with Love, Sex Aur Dhokha in 2010, she diversified into film genres through Balaji Motion Pictures. Yes, there were the Kya Kool Hain Hum and Ragini MMS franchises, sex comedies and horrex movies respectively, that failed to transcend the limitations of their genres, but there were also stories of women, narrated by conscientious filmmakers with an evolved feminine gaze, beginning with Milan Luthria's biographical drama The Dirty Picture (2011).
Vidya Balan in a still from The Dirty Picture
A biopic of late South Indian actress Silk Smitha, the National Award-winning film had Vidya Balan play a lower-class woman who uses her sexuality on screen to pull men into theatres. After she discovers that it is her 'item songs' that brought in more people than anything else in her films, Smitha smugly declares that she is a front-row darling. Disowned by her own mother, she leverages her sexuality to get into the good books of ace male star, Suryakanth (Naseeruddin Shah). Once he gives her the cold shoulder, she returns the favour by kissing and wooing his younger brother Ramakanth (Tusshar Kapoor).
Sexuality becomes her weapon of choice, her identity, her claim to fame. But she thrives only till she does not pay much heed to the defamatory media coverage. A minor dip in confidence leads to a downward spiral, and Smitha ends up killing herself. The Dirty Picture chronicled how the celebration of one's sexuality, particularly that of a woman who is an outsider in a field, often gets derailed and slandered by constant scrutiny; how the embracing of one's sexuality is inextricably linked with the 'what will people say' syndrome. However, a dialogue by Rajat Arora in the film also ensures that a mirror is held to the prying eyes of society: "Jab sharafat ke kapde utarte hain, tab sabse zyada mazza shareefon ko hi aata hai."
Ekta Kapoor has often invoked these words while having to regularly defend her choice to 'exhibit' sex scenes and admire 'flawed' women. With The Dirty Picture, Kapoor also paid tribute to voluptuous women, a body type often undermined in Indian cinema. She explored body shaming through another lens in Saket Chaudhary's 2014 romantic drama Shaadi Ke Side Effects, also starring Vidya Balan.
Farhan Akhtar and Vidya Balan in a still from Shaadi Ke Side Effects
Sid (Farhan Akhtar), a young father hesitant on giving up his bachelor's life, in the spur of the moment, complains that his wife Trisha (Balan) cannot fit into her old clothes anymore because she has put on weight post delivery. Trisha takes the blame for Sid's lack of investment in the marriage, like an ordinary vulnerable Indian woman. She blames her weight for failing to sexually excite a husband determined on shirking his parental responsibilities. Trisha, however, gives it back to him later, as the film progresses. She channels her sexuality to invite Sid to bed. But the motive is not to atone for guilt, but to tempt her husband into becoming parents again.
Two years later, Ekta's lens moved from metropolises to the wild terrains of Punjab. Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab took on the drug menace in the state, but also underlined that it is not restricted to the 'lions of Punjab.' Alia Bhatt essays Bauria, a Bihari migrant worker who flees to Punjab after her dream of becoming a national-level hockey player is shattered. She ends up as a captive of traders who drug her regularly and use her as a bonded sex worker. She discovers her sexuality in the harshest way possible, and even after she escapes captivity, remains addicted to drugs. The shadow of drug addiction follows her as relentlessly as the trauma of a serial sexual assault victim.
Alia Bhatt in a still from Udta Punjab
2016 was a politically tumultuous year in the producer's career. Udta Punjab was denied certification because it 'defamed Punjab,' and then another production, Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha, also met with the same fate because it was "too lady-oriented." The film narrated the story of four lower middle-class women in Bhopal " Buaji (Ratna Pathak Shah), a woman nearing her 60s who reads erotic novels and is infatuated with her much younger swimming instructor; Leela (Aahana Kumra), a beautician indecisive about the man she loves; Shireen (Konkona Sensharma), a closeted sales-girl who is sexually exploited by her husband (Sushant Singh), and Rehana (Plabita), an aspiring singer, who gets rid of her burkha to live a free life in college.
A still from Lipstick Under My Burkha
Lipstick Under My Burkha broaches various issues that women battle with in their tiny corners, and that often overlap with their social or religious identities. From the imposition of an attire that marks one's religious identity, or the diktat of acting like one's age, to being denied economic independence and getting forced into having sexual intercourse without using contraception, among other discriminatory practices, form the spine of the narrative.
Two years later, Ekta presented another film on four women, but ones who belong to a completely different social class. Shashanka Ghosh's Veere Di Wedding brought forth the story of four wealthy upper-class Delhi women. The film was criticised for its 'posh people pain', but in my opinion, it underlined how certain expectations from women do not alter despite their social or economic standing.
A still from Veere Di Wedding
In the film, Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor Khan), Avni (Sonam Kapoor Ahuja), Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar), and Meera (Shikha Talsania) wage a war against marriage or the social stipulations that tag it " like commitment-phobia, lack of sexual compatibility, and inter-faith matrimony " issues seen as prevalent even in urban 'high-societies'.
With Veere Di Wedding juxtaposed against Lipstick Under My Burkha, Ekta demonstrated how women across classes are blamed for their actions, without taking into account the extremely socio-politically compromised places they come from.
She dwelled more on the same in Prakash Kovelamudi's Judgementall Hai Kya (2019). Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) is a rich young woman in Mumbai battling an undisclosed mental illness. When she suspects her tenant Keshav (Rajkummar Rao) is trying to kill his wife, her claim is dismissed casually by the virtue of her mental illness (read: Mental hai kya?). Here, a parallel can be drawn between how claims of a sexual assault victim are never treated with the sensitivity they demand. Bobby's gender, like her mental illness, is too heavy a burden for the world to look beyond and buy into her grievance.
The most recent trailblazer from Ekta's stable is Shrivastava's Dolly, Kitty Aur Wo Chamakte Sitare. The 'chamakte sitare' (twinkling stars) in the title represent the elusive yet omnipresent stars that both Dolly (Sensharma) and her younger cousin Kaajal aka Kitty (Bhumi Pednekar) aspire to grab and possess. Both women migrate to Greater Noida (we know Kaajal is from Bihar) for a better lifestyle, but once the latter starts adapting to her new surroundings, Dolly objects to her 'falling prey to big-city temptations.'
While Kaajal uses her sexuality to earn a living at a call centre where male fantasies are entertained (a page out of another Ekta Kapoor production, Dream Girl), Dolly tries her best to hold on to her small-town 'values' by struggling through a sexually unsatisfactory marriage, and penalising her son who identifies himself as a non-binary individual. She reveals, towards the end of the film, that she got hymenoplasty done before her marriage because she wanted to deceive prospective suitors that she was a virgin. As a side effect, she had to endure years of pain and discomfort during sex.
Much like the looming Noida skyscrapers being constructed in the backdrop, Dolly and Kitty also remain work-in-progress throughout most of the film. By the end of it, both Dolly and Kitty's personalities rub off on each other. Dolly learns to let her hair down and be more independent, whereas Kitty realises how not to trust a whole new world blindly.
Similarly, if the women of the Ekta Kapoor universe were to be confined in a room, like in the climax of Lipstick Under My Burkha, they sure will learn a thing or two from each other. And if not that, then they will at least share each other's pains, bitch about each other's husbands and exes, and indulge in the communal joy of female coping...while passing on a cigarette or two.
All images from Facebook.