The PPCC likes empowered, intelligent women who get shit done. We can do it!
Check this out: a masala with a giddy, wholesale reversal of gender roles. All those great masala tropes, switched around so that all the heroes and heroines' usual gestures are reversed. Just to show you how much this film was crazily, bizarrely, extremely feminist, we found ourselves even worrying about the male character's empowerment. In the last scene, we found ourselves exclaiming, "OMG, no, Anil! You don't have to go back to her! You can live your life independent of women! Respect yourself!"
We absolutely loved this one. Everything about it - except for Anupam Kher - was perfect, beyond perfect. It did things we dared not to even dream of seeing in a Hindi film. It even made Chak De! India - a film which methodically established all the feminist issues and tackled them, one by one - look stodgy and even a little backward (it is, after all, a man who emancipates the women in Chak De...). Beta seems to say: why beat around the bush and make grand proclamations when you can have much more fun just switching all the genders around in your standard masala epic?
Indeed! (We even thought it might be fun to switch all the gendered pronouns around, in keeping with the film, but then we thought that would just be confusing.)
The film starts predictably enough. Cue prologue: once upon a time there was a little boy, Raju. Raju, whose mother died in childbirth, had only one wish: to have a mother again. One day, he got his wish - his father married a seemingly OK lady, Lakshmi Devi (Aruna Irani). However, as in all fairy tales, she was an evil stepmother. Intending to strip Raju and his father of their wealth, she brings all her evil relatives along - her evil son, stepbrother Ramesh (Ajitesh Kumar Irani), and her evil brother, Totaram (an awful Anupam Kher), and his wife - and proceeds onto Operation Gold Digger. Her two main methods of assuring future success are: (1) instill in Raju a case of mammismo so acute that he worships her in a most unhealthy way and is absolutely incapable of doubting her and, (2) never send him to school, just in case he should get any bright ideas there. Honestly, the scene when Evil Stepmother tells the silly, little Raju that "educated people just serve... to rule, you must work in the fields!" and sends him out onto the mud patch with a sickle was... absolutely outrageous and hilarious.
Raju grows up into a bouyant Anil Kapoor. Operation GD is working like a charm: he almost kills a man who dares criticize his beloved stepmother, and he can't read. One day, Raju and Evil Stepmom go to a wedding in town - there, Raju's hit by a bolt of lightning called Saraswati (an incredibly awesome Madhuri Dixit). This scene - when Saraswati's dupatta flies off the balcony and accidentally gets draped all over Raju - is symbolic, we think, of the complete transfer of power. The dupatta has strong connotations about the virginity, purity and modesty of women. Many Hindi films feature coy heroines peeking shyly from below their dupatta. The fact that this scene instead features the innocent, guileless Raju peeking up to become enamoured with his savior is incredibly fun and thought-provoking. Basically from this point on, Raju is no longer the hero - Saraswati is, and Raju henceforward plays the role of heroine and damsel-in-distress.
A pure and virginal Raju finds his hero.
This is what happens when people say bad things about his ma. Can you guess what he's screaming? MAAAAAAAAAAA!!!
Indeed, while Raju flies off into never-never lands of love and cuddles, the wiser, bad-ass Saraswati shrugs off his advances. (An aside: there is a magic moment which merits commenting, when Raju follows Saraswati to a fair and, by a series of baroque and funny coincidences, ends up rolling down a hill on a rice trolley with her while a mob runs after them. Saraswati demands, "So you've finally caught me. What the hell do you want?" And a bewildered and giddy Raju says, "Well, gosh, I feel shy now." It was the cutest, most romantic scene ever.) After Raju helps Saraswati fight off some rapist goondas (though, again, she was doing pretty well by herself and kicking tons of ass), he offers to accompany her home. On the way, it rains and they take refuge in a barn. When, the next morning, they return to Saraswati's village, they are confronted by a mob of loud, stupid, angry men who make the usual proclamations of lost honor, lost purity and other such rubbish. Saraswati's father (Satyendra Kapoor!) wails in despair: "Who will marry you now?!" Saraswati and Raju insist on their innocence, but things degenerate - Raju picks a fight with Saraswati's ex-fiancee, the man-mob attacks Raju and then Saraswati saves Raju's ass, beats up the man-mob and asks him to marry her!
Our jaw dropped so low it hit the basement.
Madhuri saving Anil from the man-mob.
And it gets better! A coy, bewildered Raju (OK, Anil spends a lot of time in this film being coy and bewildered) giddily (...and giddy...) accepts. Yet when they return home in triumph, Evil Stepmom takes one look at Saraswati and recognizes a worthy adversary. (And a wonderful touch: when Stepmom asks Raju where he was last night, and he tells her about the barn escapade, she just shrugs with an, "Oh, OK.") After some quick thinking, Evil Stepmom decides to try to poison the marriage from the get-go. She tells Saraswati that, according to some esoteric astrology, there can be no love-making EVER (as otherwise Raju will basically die in childbirth... yes, really). So much for suhaag raat... or any other raat, for that matter. Except Saraswati figures it out pretty quickly, and decides to make amends... by seducing Raju the next day in some other barn! So much for "the husband's right" - this film has completely moved everything over to Saraswati! (And it even features a triumphant, post-coital song by all the women!)
The woman takes charge in the bedroom (well, shed) too!
Saraswati (Madhuri) and Evil Stepmom (Aruna Irani).
And indeed, the rest of the film concerns how Saraswati basically duels with the Evil Stepmom, saving Raju's ass again and again. In the end, it threatens to become a bit farcical - as the house o' melodrama is divided along clear battle lines (Good Dad, servants, Madz on one side; Evil Step-people on the other; illiterate Raju in the middle) and their warfare degenerates into bizarre and extreme practical jokes (including drinking a bottle of urine!). However the final dishoom-dishoom was so magnificent that we forgave the previous thirty minutes of silliness.
Well, we just could not get over the gender relations in this film. They were frickin' AWESOME. Saraswati kicks ass. She hammers things into walls. She figures things out. She gets her man out of jams and, when desired, out of his dhoti. She is completely and totally in control. And her villain - another woman! Indeed, the entire narrative structure hangs on the decisions and conflict between two women. Raju - disappears for long stretches, just like a heroine! has basically little understanding and no say in the serious matters of the household, just like a heroine! is used as a pawn by the hero and villain, just like a heroine! It was crazy!
If movies are supposed to be the place to air our fantasies, the PPCC has always had a bit of trouble with Hindi films. What self-respecting lady honestly fantasizes about being a trophy love-token whose purity is a source of conflict for a bunch of men? Who gets to come onscreen a few times, bat her eyelashes, heave her bosom and then get spirited away as the men beat each other up? Where the best we can hope for is that Shah Rukh Khan will decide he needs a come-back and the best way to do it is by coaching the women's team towards self-confidence and success?!
We, like everyone else, want to be the heroes of our stories! We want to save our beloved from the bad guy, we want to take charge and make decisions and kick ass! Beta is the perfect film for this because it's like action-hero Madhuri... and yet never is her behavior implied to be butch or masculine or anything. She just gets shit done. It was so fabulous!
Saving Raju's ass, yet again. Milk is such a great liquid for slow-motion sprays.
WHY, ANUPAM, WHYYYYY?
The performances, of course, drive the awesomeness (and, in Anupam's case, the terribleness) of this film. Madhuri is charismatic, heroic and fun - indeed she won Filmfare Best Actress for this. She's a wonderful dancer, too, so the songs are a hoot. Anil Kapoor, who also won Filmfare Best Actor, does a great job of making Raju ignorant, but not unintelligent; as well as damsel-in-distress-esque but not effeminate. Also, he wears a dhoti throughout the film and we have a semi-secret love of the dhoti. Aruna Irani plays along most of the stereotypes of the Evil Filmi Ma - see Swayamvar for more of this genre. And Anupam - oh, Anupam. His "comic relief" role was so torturous and awful that he ruined many a scene. This is such a silly shame. Anupam Kher is a great actor - watch him in Lust, Caution or that movie with Sridevi and Sanjay Dutt about cocaine trafficking in Hong Kong - and yet this role, complete with buckteeth and an exaggerated limp, was just awful. Thankfully, the goodness of this film (mostly) outweighed the stupidness of his performance.
(Finally, we're especially interested to hear if other people found this film as feminist as us or if we've just been blinded by the Anil-Madhuri jodi.)