By Ila Ananya
I have a friend who once decided to run away from home when she was 11. She left on her cycle, and didn’t take clothes with her and took sandwiches instead. Then she sat in a park, from where she could see if her parents were looking for her. They didn’t come searching, and at night, she went back home for dinner. I’ve always wanted stories like that to tell, but I was a boring, nervous child. I’m still boring, nervous and unadventurous, so I intently watch movies in which women run away — for too long I’ve very badly wanted to be the crazy, uncaring, independent woman with wild hair and loud laughter. And so I went to watch Happy Bhag Jayegi with this friend who once ran away from home.
Together, we watched Happy (Diana Penty) run from her impending marriage — I love watching women run away from marriage — to Bagga (Jimmy Shergill) by jumping out of her window into a fruit truck. The truck ends up in Lahore, in the house of Pakistani diplomat Javed Ahmed (Javed Sheikh) and his son Bilal (Abhay Deol), who spend the rest of the movie trying to unite Happy with Guddu, the man she loves. Happy is loudmouthed, talkative, and always certain of what she wants, even if she is sometimes unsure of how to get it.
I’ve noticed more women like her in Bollywood of late. I’ll never forget Jab We Met, and those two months in 2007 when I lived for two months with Geet’s incessant chatter in my head, and her very earnest, sweeping, I-will-live-my-life-my-way-and-if-anything-goes-wrong-I-can-only-blame-myself attitude. I was 12 then, and I secretly wanted to be her. Not for the men (I very happily ignored the fact that she was running to a man), but just for the way she jumped off her balcony with her hair tied up, wearing running shoes and carrying a backpack (why, oh why couldn’t they show me what was in her backpack). These are the best scenes: so full of tension because of course someone from the family is going to see her and attempt to chase her. In Happy Bhag Jayegi, the whole movie involves a chase in which her relatives and Bagga try to bring Happy back to Amritsar and make her marry him. The thrill lies in watching them escape these families they are running from in the first place.
This is not to say that these movies can’t be irritating sometimes. In Happy Bhag Jayegi, Happy isn’t even in half the movie, even though it’s her life they’re all running around to fix (Happy seems more than capable of fixing things herself). And like in many movies, all these incredibly unadventurous and boring men also suddenly seem to see the light when they meet these women. We saw this in Jab We Met, where Aditya has his life changed by Geet, and we see this in Happy Bhag Jayegi with Bilal, who always wanted to be a cricketer, but meekly follows everything his father says instead. In both these movies, the women push these boring men to do everything that they have always wanted, and then completely frustratingly, the men become the centre of the story instead (Manic Pixie Dream Girlification: complete).
I love these women, maybe more because I’m nothing like them. I also love how, even though they are sure of what they want, or in some cases, not so sure, but are making decisions for themselves anyway. A friend of mine loves how Meeta from Hasee Toh Phasee steals money from home, runs away abroad to do her PhD, and then comes back to steal more money. Sometimes it’s also a decision they haven’t thought through — like Happy (Diana Penty) in Happy Bhag Jayegi, when she runs away from Bilal’s (Abhay Deol) house in Lahore and tells a Pakistani auto driver to ‘adjust’ with her paying him in Indian currency — but that is because they are all so good atjugaad. There is also something about these women saying everything that they want to, like Tanu does in Tanu Weds Manu, when she tells Manu she doesn’t mind living with anybody her parents disapprove of. Other times it’s just watching women discover new things, and seeing them in situations that they are unfamiliar with — I can’t even begin to talk about how much I love Queen for everything, like Rani (Kangana Ranaut) and Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) burping, and Rani’s shock at having to share a hostel room with men in Amsterdam.
It’s particularly annoying that most films that create these colourful, crazy women neatly slip them back into boring old roles by making men their saviours or turning them demure at the end. Queen and Tanu Weds Manu are the only ones I’ve seen that don’t do this. But I watch these movies anyway, like I watch Happy, for those moments of escape, where women are being their loud, demanding selves.
Co-published with Firstpost.