She belongs to the city
Kahaani, the Vidya Balan-starring thriller which released just over a week ago, may or may not be full of unforgivable plot holes, but is being applauded pretty much across the board for having brought to the screen an Indian city that looks and feels real. Partly, of course, this is simply to do with the fact that the city in question is Kolkata, a place where so much living takes place in public that it cannot but be cinematic.
The visual pleasures of Calcutta (as it was then) were once afforded us not just by Bangla cinema, but by many Hindi films, too: think of Guru Dutt's Pyaasa, Shakti Samanta's Chinatown, Sombhu Mitra's Jaagte Raho or the immensely enjoyable 1959 noir Howrah Bridge (with that terrific song, "Kahin Mukherjee kahin Banerjee, kahin Ghosh kahin Datta hai, Suno ji yeh Kalkatta hai"). These days, though, the few filmmakers for whom the texture of the urban experience is important Ram Gopal Varma, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Raj Kumar Gupta, Habib Faisal, Maneesh Sharma focus on Bombay/ Mumbai, the uncrowned First City of Hindi cinema, and increasingly, Delhi.
But more than its loving, detailed embrace of all that makes Kolkata distinctive, from musty government offices to the old-world charm of Park Street restaurants, what makes Kahaani truly remarkable (and it is surprising that so few people have remarked on it, even when going on about Vidya Balan a heroine! carrying the film on her shoulders), is that this is a city film with a woman at its centre. For the female Hindi film viewer, there is much joy to be derived simply from watching a woman walking the streets of an Indian city, often alone and doing so with pleasure.
To be sure, Vidya Bagchi's wanderings are not quite the pleasurably aimless saunterings of a flaneur that attractive Baudelairian-Benjaminian creature, the gentleman stroller of 19th century Paris whose only reason to walk the city is to experience it, has remained to this day irredeemably male. Kahaani's heroine, like almost every woman in an Indian city, has a good reason to be out and about. Her reason is so elemental, in fact searching for her missing husband, the father of her unborn child that her journey might have been shot as a mission. Yet, remarkably, Sujoy Ghosh's film manages to keep alive a sense of the city as a space that isn't just something that a woman must negotiate, circumvent, battle with but might actually savour.
This is so rare an achievement as to be spectacular. To set it in context: any wandering through cities by women in contemporary Hindi movies is one of two types. The first is in foreign locales, where such wanderings are deemed safe, and good upper middle class Indian girls can thus liberate unhappy boys: refer to Katrina Kaif's carpe diem diving instructor in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, teaching Hrithik Roshan's uptight banker how to truly live (through holidays in Spain), or Kareena Kapoor in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, speeding through Los Angeles (and life) on a pink electric scooty in a happy haze that couldn't be more different from Imran Khan's unhappy plodding. The second type of girl-in-the-city scenario is a spree that takes place before arranged marriage to a suitable boy. Here the safety of the wild-child heroine is ensured by her being in the company of a man (usually the boy-we-know-she's-actually-falling-in-love-with) think Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar, giggling through a "morning show" with her Jatboy BFF Ranbir Kapoor, or Katrina in Mere Brother ki Dulhan knocking back beers with Imran the night before she marries his brother.
Of course, there are exceptions to this typology No One Killed Jessica (Vidya Balan again, criss-crossing Delhi to get justice for her murdered sister), The Girl in Yellow Boots (Kalki Koechlin traversing seedy city underbelly, but she's British and psychologically damaged) and Delhi Belly where Poorna Jagannathan plays a journalist caught up in a crazy urban adventure.
But rarely, if ever, have we had a protagonist like Vidya Bagchi, a woman who travels alone to a new city and takes it as her right that she should be able to stay as long as she likes, alone and unharassed, in a cheap hotel. Whether she is drinking tea at a street stall, or haunting a particular police station until they respond to her request for help, she is neither setting out to be radical, nor on some temporary joyride. She is simply doing what all women, everywhere, ought to be able to do but so rarely feel confident enough to. In a country in which a spate of rapes only spurs the administration to suggest curfews for women, a film like Kahaani feels like a collective dream the unvoiced dream all women have, in which the city might belong to us as much as it does to men.
Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and anthropologist