Queen: feminist humour or a mirror that shows us the India we don’t like to see?

In terms of timing, Vikas Bahl’s new film, Queen, strikes it sweeter than a Wawrinka backhand.  With rape and sexual abuse becoming a nationwide menace (or finally being highlighted in the media as such) and sexist comments routinely being passed by people in power but out of touch, a film about a young woman confidently asserting her independence was bound to be received sympathetically.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it’s a pretty well-made film.  The audience has also been waiting for the right moment to fall in love with Kangana Ranaut, a talented actress searching for some truly iconic roles, and in all likelihood this film could spark a Kangana-wave, much like the Vidya Balan-wave of 2011.  Oh, and it was released on International Women’s Day.  As I said, couldn’t have timed it better.

But is that all there is to it?  Is the film only about treating women ‘properly’ and respecting their rights?  If that is the case, why does Vijay (played by Rajkumar Rao) look so, well, normal?  It is hard to shake off the feeling that he is very much like somebody you probably know and for the most part a nice enough guy to be friends with.  Can his views on what his Rani is allowed or not allowed to do (yes, note the word ‘allowed’) be ascribed simplistically to male ego alone?  Or do we, perhaps, need to dig deeper?  The director helpfully drops a hint to prod us in the latter direction.  In the last passage of the film, Vijay’s mother tells Rani how happy she is to get company in the kitchen and expresses the notion that kitty parties are exciting.  In other words, the thought of Rani taking up a job of her own is inconceivable even to another woman from her point of view as a mother in law.

Consider also the nature of things that Rani finds out she is ‘allowed’ to do when she lands up in the more liberal pastures of Paris and Amsterdam.  She finds out there is nothing wrong with kissing each other on the lips, nothing wrong with enjoying oneself in a pub or a rock show with abandon and without worry of what people might say, nothing wrong with consuming alcohol (apart from what it could do to one’s health, that is), nothing wrong with sharing a room with members of the opposite sex and even striking a friendship with them that doesn’t involve sexual overtures, and nothing wrong, finally, with just daring to dream and daring to live the dream.

The above do not necessarily attack only women-centric taboos in India.  Many of these things are considered a no-no for men too. What you wear, what you eat can be the basis of numerous personal judgments about you made by observers who probably don’t really know you very well at all.  If you are male and wear long hair, you are irresponsible.  If you would like to utilise your personal leave quota to travel outstation to watch your favourite rock band perform, you are irresponsible.  Related to that, if you would like to utilise your personal leave quota to travel outstation to attend the wedding of your cousin’s cousin’s cousin’s in-law whom you haven’t met in a decade or so, you are NOT irresponsible.  Au contraire, you ought to attend if your schedule and bank balance permit.  If you burn money on stylish apparel or a sporty bike, you are irresponsible.  But if you burn that on any quantity of gold, you are a wise man.

But my point is not to rant about Indians and their priorities. Rather, I wonder whether we fully acknowledge that  this is the India we have created.  We have this fanciful image in our head of India being a bindaas, chilled out nation where anything goes, where life is simpler than the sophisticated West.  But is that really the case?  Do we fully appreciate the enormous strain we exert on each other by obsessively judging the other person’s choices?   The point, after all, is not whether you as an individual would like to own a sporty bike or find use for it.  The point is whether it’s any of your business if somebody else would like to.  There’s a word for it: privacy.  When we seek to advice, out of our eternal compulsion to show how caring and well intentioned we are, we intrude the privacy of the other person.

And the reason to start respecting each other’s boundaries is not because it is done in the West and we need to ape them.  It is because our compulsion to judge others’ choices hampers our collective ability to make decisions.  There is a poignant scene in Queen where a chef invites Rani to participate in a culinary competition where she will get to sell her products to visitors and keep a part of the profits if she wins.  Seeing that she is hesitant and apprehensive, he asks her if she has the guts to step out and try (or something to that effect, cannot recall the exact words now).

Right now, the nation does need some political equivalent of that chef to exhort us to step out of our cocoons and dare to try.  When Indians make a decision, they do not only focus on the cold financials or their instinct and passion or both.  They also worry about what other interest groups would have to say about it. And since Indians already have a low appetite for pushing change, they shelve many initiatives that could help improve productivity and effectiveness in a small or big way in the organisation.  Yes, shelved not because it wouldn’t benefit the organisation in the foreseeable future but shelved because the manager might have something to say or the head of some other department would not like it and he/she might rant to somebody else who is in top management and so on.  We are gifted with  great analytical ability, which we use brilliantly to work out the myriad reasons why some long overdue change is not worth seeing through. We are so concerned with pleasing everyone that we would much prefer to inflict a median level of misery on all to be happily endured.

There is a price to be paid for living with inefficiency (and even giving it the name of jugad and celebrating it as an uniquely Indian trait).  It’s called inflation, mehengai. The govt alone cannot be blamed for allowing inflation to spiral out of control.  The govt is only a microcosm of India and its lethargic pace of implementation is not particularly far removed from how Indians, in general, work. When we are told what to do, we attack work with the ferocity of tigers.  But when it’s decision time, we tiptoe back into the cage.  It’s no coincidence that Rani had to run off to Europe to find herself for she probably couldn’t have managed it within India, hounded constantly by relatives and well wishers all too keen to part with unsolicited advice and judgments.

It’s time to make decisions, changes have got to be made.  It is time to truly live up to the ideal of unity in diversity…by respecting the other person’s rights, his/her choices, preferences and values.  It’s time to stand back and let people make their mistakes and applaud them for being brave enough to take the chance instead of laughing at their expense because they were not intelligent vegetables like you.  It’s time to stop clinging onto a set of values the source of which nobody is perfectly sure of and to let the idea of India evolve, through the free will of individuals bold enough to own their choices.

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