Pink review: Amitabh Bachchan’s a feminist in one of 2016’s best films

Yes, there’s a fair bit of mansplaining, but we’ll forgive it (sort of)

ByDeepanjana Pal
Pink review: Amitabh Bachchan’s a feminist in one of 2016’s best films
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Director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury makes a point right at the very start of Pink with the credit titles. The first names that appear are of Tapasee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang – three actresses who range from little-known to unknown. After them appears the film’s best known actor: Amitabh Bachchan. The message delivered is plain and bold. The women are central to Pink, not the men, regardless of their professional stature.

Except as the film unfolds, this doesn’t prove to be entirely accurate. While it is a film about women, the one poweringPink is a man.

While it’s unclear just why the film is titled Pink, there’s no confusion as far as its objective. It is appalling that India in the 21st century needs to be taught that a woman has the right to say no to a man and that there are no circumstances in which a man is entitled to force himself upon her. However, three cheers to creative producer Shoojit Sircar, Roy Chowdhury and writer Ritesh Shah for making a film on consent that is both entertaining and idealistic.

Pink is actually two films. Until intermission, it’s a brilliant, taut drama about how vulnerable single women are in urban India and the misogyny that persists even in seemingly progressive places, like a south Delhi neighbourhood. Minal (Pannu), Falak (Kulhari) and Andrea (Tariang) are friends and flatmates who find themselves in a dangerous snarl when drinks with an acquaintance and his friends lands all three women in court, fighting accusations of being sex workers. Minal is also charged with attempt to murder because she’d hit Rajvir (Angad Bedi), a politician’s nephew with a bottle, injuring him seriously. It’s an alarmingly credible scenario. Oh, and ABP News’s Dibang, the self-proclaimed understander of Indian women, appears as an inspector who is more concerned with pleasing higher-ups than preventing crimes against women.

As the city reveals its fangs, everyone from neighbours to lovers and law enforcement turn against the women. Only two people stand by Minal, Falak and Andrea. One is their landlord, who is the kind of landlord that appears in single women’s dreams – he refuses to believe the allegations of sex work and doesn’t give in to the pressure to turf them out of his house. The other is Deepak Sehgal (Bachchan), a retired lawyer who initially seems like a voyeuristic creep, but ends up being the women’s champion. When no one will represent Minal, Sehgal steps up and returns to court to defend not just her, but effectively all Indian women who don’t conform to the sanskari ideal of femininity.

There’s not a single self-indulgent moment in Pink in this pre-intermission section. With brisk efficiency, the film digs its heels into the reality of living as an independent single woman in south Delhi. Nothing feels fictional and watching Minal and Falak hold their own against abusive and judgmental men, you can’t help but root for them, irrespective of gender.

Then comes the intermission and in the second half, Pink becomes a courtroom drama that is more skillful than the average Bollywood fare, but is nonetheless weighed down by cliché and artifice. Discordant notes pop up. Piyush Mishra delivers an almost comical turn as the prosecuting lawyer who is predictably and irredeemably evil and theatrical. Pannu’s Minal undergoes a drastic transformation. She is reduced to a disappointing patchwork of blank stares, quivering lips and inarticulate mumbles – a stereotypical victim.

The reason she’s been silenced is not the trauma she’s suffered, but that Bachchan’s Sehgal – who, ironically, was the one mumbling before intermission and whose speech dramatically clears up when he’s in court – needs to enter the spotlight. Sehgal’s defence of Minal and her friends holds Pink together in the second half. It’s mansplaining, yes, but done with such elegance that you almost don’t notice how much has been taken out of Minal in order to give Sehgal a voice. There’s also that fact that an intensely traumatic episode – one that ostensibly renders Minal near-mute – is effectively dismissed from the film’s memory. The focus, instead, is upon Rajvir and his lawyer’s narrative, laid out in the charges that they slap on the women.

Bachchan delivers a virtuoso performance as the ageing lawyer. His Sehgal is such a joy to watch that you desperately wish he had a more equal combatant than Mishra. (Imagine a Supriya Pathak or Rekha – if you’re dreaming, dream big – as the prosecution.) In scenes like the one in which he clinically destroys Station House Officer Sarla’s (brilliantly played by Mamta Malik) testimony, Bachchan is fabulous. It’s almost reason enough to forgive Shah’s script for not trusting the women in the film to speak for themselves.

Along with Bachchan, the other star of Pink is Kulhari, who plays Minal’s friend Falak. Initially, she seems to be the supporting cast, but even as the focus stays on Minal, Falak reveals herself to be a wonderfully dynamic and strong female character. She has two magnificent outbursts that save Pink from becoming yet another film in which a man saves the women’s day. She’s the one who makes the critical point that every woman – even a sex worker – has the right to consent; that paying for a service cannot rob the service provider of her individual will.

Still, the real glory is reserved for Bachchan’s Sehgal, who delivers a powerful closing speech that lays down in no uncertain terms a woman’s right to say no. It’s no surprise that audiences have broken out in spontaneous applause once he’s done. Bachchan delivers that monologue perfectly, just as he does the poem that accompanies the closing credits.

Pink is undoubtedly one of the best films we’ll see in 2016 and a lot of the credit goes to Shah’s script and Bodhaditya Banerjee’s editing. The pace doesn’t slacken at any point and neither does the film let any character or sub-plot shift the focus from the trial that’s at the heart of the film. In terms of storytelling, there’s no doubt Pink could have been far more nuanced and a little less polemical, but perhaps we as a society need to mature a little more before we expect greater complexity from commercial cinema. Pink is timely, relevant and not just a lecture. It’s an accomplished piece of filmmaking.

The only niggle of dissatisfaction nestles in the fact that the film seems to think young women need a wake-up call from – of all people – older men. What else are we to glean from this poetic instruction from Bachchan:

Chunar uda ke dhwaj bana
Gagan bhi kapkapayega,
Agar teri chunar giri
Toh ek bhukamp aayega.
Tu khud ki khoj mein nikal
Tu kyon hataash hai
Tu chal teri wajood ki
Samay ko bhi talaash hai

 (Turn your scarf into a flag, and even the skies will tremble. Should your scarf drop, then the earth will quake. Go out and find yourself. Why do you despair?

Go, for these times need you to find yourself.)

It’s worth noting that it didn’t strike anyone in Pink’s team to record a version of this glorious poem by any of the women in the cast. The point is not that men can’t be part of the feminist struggle. They’re more than welcome to join. However, as the conversations that we’re hearing around us make patently clear, women don’t really need to be told to find themselves (and certainly not by men). The women are already doing it unprompted. So while we appreciate the support, perhaps men like Sehgal would be better off giving lessons to the likes of Rajvir, who despite all the exposure in the world, remain blinkered by misogyny? As Falak in particular makes quite clear, the women are not the ones in need of either guidance or instruction.


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