Is it possible that there is a basic underlying similarity between Honey Singh’s definitely misogynist song ‘Break-Up Party’ and the movie ‘Queen’ which is being touted as a progressive-feminist movie. Astonishing as it sounds, this write-up will argue that both in fact represent the same phenomena: middle class home-makers’ utopian impulse to break free of the ennui of their banal existence.
Let’s start with the song; the protagonist has thrown a party to ‘celebrate good riddance’ from his girlfriend (hence the name ‘Break-Up Party’). The video portrays a male chauvinist paradise: girls swoon over Honey Singh and champagne is sprayed around as his male friends egg him on to enjoy his newly found ‘freedom’. The break-up is solely girl’s loss because she does not realize what she has lost; a chance to be the rock star’s girl friend and roam the world ‘free’. The lyrics say, how she is doomed to be a ‘house bibi’, do the dishes every day, do her husband’s dirty laundry and watch doordarshan. She is destined to be ruefully reminded every time she sees her ex on TV that if she had not made this ‘mistake’, her life could have been different. Though definitely misogynist, the song appeals to women as well. It strikes a chord with them as it captures the angst of leading boring and unexciting lives and the longing to break-free.
The movie ‘Queen’ tells the same story, but through the life of a girl who feels trapped. The protagonist Rani is a submissive middle class girl who has never stepped out of line. Always obedient, she delights in the simple pleasures of a middle class woman’s life. However a rude shock shakes up her life. Her foreign returned engineer fiancé breaks up with her as he feels that she is too much of a middle class Delhi girl to suit his status. Rani takes this rejection very badly and goes into depression. Her parents and friends decide that a foreign trip (originally intended to be her honeymoon) might cheer her up. So Rani packs her bags and leaves for France alone. The adventures that follow gradually make Rani realize how cloistered and hidebound her life had been. She finds friends: Vijay Lakshmi, a waitress who doubles up as a sex worker to shore up her finances and three hippies with whom she happens to share (reluctantly in the beginning) her room. They empathize with her and help her ‘realize’ that she is the only one who owns her life and that there is no shame in breaking the norms that bind her. Rani comes back a changed person, willing to lead her life on her own terms. The movie ends with her saying no to her ex-fiancé who is repentant now and wants to get back with her.
If both, Honey Singh’s ‘Break-Up Party’ and ‘Queen’ capture the same phenomena, the sense of being entrapped felt by middle class home-makers, then what differentiates them? What makes one misogynist and the latter feminist? Is it the simple fact that in the latter the same story is told by a woman? Rani’s adventures, alas, must come to an end, and she must return back to India, to her family who do not share her new found love for freedom. She says no to the guy, but what happens next? The movie had to end with this scene because had they tried to depict realistically what happens next, the horror would have begun- the struggle of a semi-literate girl to lead an independent life, numerous failed job interview and may be eventual reconciliation with the life of a homemaker under duress from concerned family and friends. This is not a cynical portrayal. Far from it, it is reality of the lives of a vast majority of middle class homemakers, most of who at some point of time do in fact try to seek a job and some sort of financial independence but are forced to reconcile with what they have.
More disturbing still, in the movie is the apparent valorisation of the travails of sex workers’ lives. Rani, despite her initial aversion, becomes very good friends with them, and more importantly empathizes with them. She realizes that there is much more to a sex workers’ life than her profession and despite the stigma attached to their social existence, they are ordinary humans like all of us. So far so good, of course we cannot treat women involved in sex work as criminals and our approach towards them at all times ought to be gentle and empathetic, but valorisation of sex work is quite another thing. It is amazing how many middle class women, who feel trapped in monogamous relationships, seem to believe that the liberation lies in the life of a sex worker. While it is true that there is no reason why we should consider monogamous sexual relationship that our society sanctions as eternal or natural; ‘human nature’, has been evolving through history and there is no harm in exploring new dimensions to it if they are found to be desirable and feasible. But yours truly doubts that a solution is to be found in the life of a sex worker. In the movie itself, Rani’s two friends are shown to have faced abuse, while Vijay Lakshmi is rejected by a client because he does not like her ‘dimensions’, the other woman works as a stripper who stands semi-naked in a glass cubicle every evening for the pleasure of her male clients. Surprisingly, the movie depicts these aspects of their lives as though they do not matter much, merely as professional hazards that are easily taken into stride, and chooses to concentrate on the independence and courage of these characters. The Pakistani sex worker is in fact a graduate in economics who would have liked to get a ‘respectable’ job but she is forced to work in a strip club because there are no jobs. Without doubt, the movie would have had a very different tenor, if they story had been told through the mouths of these two women; but in this case it is the middle class woman from Delhi who speaks. She learns courage and independence from these women, but would not become a sex worker herself; she returns to Delhi to her ‘respectable’ middle class family’.
If the travails of being a homemaker could be ended merely through a change in attitude, the movie could have taught us a lot. But unfortunately, so is not the case, in the present form such cinema does not help by weaving a deeply felt emotion with a dream like sequence. Like an opiate it is very sweet while the hallucination lasts, but once it wears off, the burden of reality seems doubly oppressive. After all what sort of opportunities does a semi-literate lower middle class homemaker have? Movies like ‘English Vinglish’ and ‘Queen’ try to resolve this dilemma by depicting their characters as becoming successful entrepreneurs by using their culinary skills. One cannot fail to notice how cruel a joke, albeit unintentional, it is. What else could homemakers do except for cooking?! As to how many of them can indeed become entrepreneurs by cooking, I leave it to the judgement of the readers.
One can only wish that the producer makes a sequel for ‘Queen’, in which she turns an activist who organizes women to seek the fulfillment of demands like universal higher education for women, employment for all women, working women’s hostels for the women who prefer to stay single, cheap and efficient crèches for the children of working women etc. But such a movie would become ‘political’, ‘boring’ and earn the tag of alternate cinema that nobody would want to watch. Very few of us want the spell of dreams to break and wake up to reality.
By Pranshu Prakash
Image Source: Queen@Facebook