To all those unsung “heroine’s best friends” of Bollywood. Here’s a look at all those times when female characters in Bollywood were relieved from the pressure of being the “heroine”, and what transpired next.
The “heroines” in Bollywood have a history of being conventionally “perfect”. They’re attractive according to the heteronormative male gaze – tall, fair, slender, the works. They’re the almost disposable amenable foil to the “hero’s” masculine machismo. And more often than not their only character arc is to help the “hero” fulfill his.
Of course there are variations to this. The “heroine” can be the unattractive nerd who realises she was beautiful all along when she takes her glasses off (exhibit A: Kal Ho Na Ho). She can be the “tomboy”, a “not like other girls” cool girl who undergoes a massive transformation to appease her “hero” (exhibit B: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai). Or she can be the ditzy clutz/awkward nerd who has no clue about the effect she has on her “hero” (the entire Fifty Shades series, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and countless others)
Clearly being the “heroine” comes with a lot of baggage to appease and please. But not when you’re the second lead. Or the “heroine’s best friend”. This peripheral character doesn’t always get a lot of attention from practically any character in the film (including the director). She is basically present to make the heroine seem more attractive.
So with all that pressure and limelight off of this character, she’s also positively free to make her own choices.
So here are all those times when the “heroine’s best friend” was more empowered than the “heroine” herself.
Sweetu In Kal Ho Na Ho
As a child this was easily one of my favourite films. As a mildly adulting adult though, all I could think about was how they did Sweetu real dirty.
If this world needs a self-love icon, it’s Sweetu.
The heroine’s best friend and affectionate neighbour, Sweetu is constantly castigated for not just being overweight but also for not caring about it. Naina (her “best friend”) lets her know (on more occasions that one) that she isn’t going to get anywhere in her love life if she doesn’t lose weight. Her own conventionally attractive older sister too seems to have a lot of fun on the body-shaming-Sweetu bandwagon.
But none of that comes in the way of Sweetu’s ambitions and her journey of self-love. She is inspiringly and irrevocably in love with herself. As she lets her detractors know on multiple occasions.
This representation is a characteristic feature of making the “heroine” appear more attractive by employing the device of a lesser appealing “best friend”.
With the pressure of protagonism off of her shoulders however, Sweetu is free to live the way Sweetu likes. She fearlessly chases after what she desires (a mind blowing Frankie Ramdayal). She is courageous enough to find love even after having her heart broken. And most importantly, she never gives up.
Aditi In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
She is loud, she is belligerent, she is beauty, she is grace. And she will definitely punch you in the face.
Right at the moment we’re introduced to her, the film lets us know that she (her “legs” to quote right) isn’t “sexy” enough. Aditi is a rather atypical boys’ gal. The kind that mostly hangs out with the guys because she isn’t “like other girls”.
The beauty of this portrayal however, is that she isn’t even remotely against what is considered typically girly.
While Anjali (the grown up one) in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai took pride in the fact that she isn’t “whiny” or “girly” like the other girls, Aditi is a stark departure from that problematic trope.
In her character arc too, unlike the conventional Naina, Aditi is allowed that space to be vulnerable and to be able to falter in love. She is allowed to make mistakes, fail at love and grow. Looking back, I would rather have Aditi’s practical love story than Naina’s swashbuckling knight in shining armour one.
Aditi learns very early on that life is not always a bed of roses. And as feisty as her teenage self was, she learns to adult and chooses the kind of love she knows is good for her. While the film constantly seems to make fun of her beau, disregarding and undermining him before the “hero”, Aditi knows it’s what’s going to last.
She has a comfortably happy ending and she’s happy with her choice because she knows he’ll realistically be there for her when she needs. As do we.
Payal In Tanu Weds Manu
A case of the typical erratic and irresponsible protagonist backed by her sensible and incredibly reliable best friend helping her navigate out of a series of bad decisions.
Payal (played by a brilliant Swara Bhaskar) is that 3am friend you call for life advice. She is the person you go running to whenever you mess up beyond repair. She is strong, self-aware, reliable and is not afraid to say things as they are. Regardless of how messy they might be.
The “heroine”, Tanu, in the film is vibrant, petulant and appeasingly wild throughout the film’s run. Her mistakes aren’t consequences but rather just by-products of her attractive recklessness. This firebrand, in theory, is nothing more than a figment of the male gaze fantasy. A version of the “cool girl” archetype.
Payal on the other hand however, is an extremely nuanced personality. Being secondary to the central plot and the “heroine’s best friend” at that, she is the foil to Tanu’s cockiness.
We’re introduced to her as someone who is about to step into a rather traditional life path. A major part of the film is a build up to her marriage to somebody she met and fell in love with in college. She’s fairly aware of what life has in store for her in the future. And she is fairly comfortable with that.
What strikes me the most about her, is how all of this is a result of her active choosing. She has independently chosen this life for herself. More so, she’s extremely level-headed to map out her goals and ambitions. And strong enough to pursue them as she pleases.
The poster child for no-nonsense, Payal is that evolved character who doesn’t have to fit into the tropes of archaic moulds for female characters.
Natasha In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
Alright, maybe not the heroine’s best friend in this case, but definitely the “second lead” in the film. Personally, the spectrum of ambivalent representations between the “heroine” Laila and her foil Natasha is something that strikes me the most in the film.
Laila is a classic manic pixie dream girl. Her unilateral character arc is only extant to serve her “hero” fulfill his own. She is extremely likeable, appeasing, vibrant and mostly but a figment of the male gaze imagination.
But not Natasha.
Right from the moment we’re introduced to her, the film lets us know that she’s controlling, dominating and likes things a certain way. On more occasions than one, she’s highlighted as an unlikeable female character who doesn’t let her voice get muffled amidst the male protagonists of the film. Not to mention the countless times they create a very machismo sense of humour all at her expense.
We’re quick to favour the “heroine’s” mitigated personality and even quicker to dismiss the one that doesn’t easily fit into the male dominated heteronormative narrative. This cultural behaviour continues to foster the lack of meaningful and wholesome representations for female characters.
Which is perhaps why, I find Natasha as one truly breakthrough character. She adds an element of discomfort in the seemingly uncomplicated lives of the male protagonists. She manages to challenge them. And more importantly, she doesn’t back down and demands to be heard, valued and respected.
Think about the character of Emily in ‘Friends’, Ross’s wife for a while in Season 5. Does your grown up mind still hate her as much as you did back when you first watched it? (If the answer’s yes then it’s time for some wokeness-check for you).
Nadia In Break Ke Baad
Even for a film that was quite ahead of its time, the “heroine’s” major journey is still the one where she has to find “true love” to complete herself.
While the film’s protagonist Alia is all about finding herself first and then finding the love of her life, her friend Nadia (essayed by a simply amazing Shahana Goswami) is that independent badass that Bollywood failed to recognise as a possible female character for a rather long time.
One of my personal favourite female representations of all time, Nadia is a self-made entrepreneur with a business mind designed to earn profits wherever she sets it to.
She isn’t the conventionally attractive kind and she’s not someone you’d like instinctively either. But the beauty in her portrayal is that she doesn’t care. She isn’t here to please, she’s here to live.
She doesn’t spend any time evaluating the impression she leaves on the other person. She’s strong, independent, resilient and is the literal embodiment of “she needs no man”. And with the pressure of the “heroine” off her shoulders, she’s free to play the responsible belligerent as she pleases.
The character of Nadia makes me question why Bollywood has constantly refrained from making someone like her the heroine. We’ve seen so many Nainas and Anjalis in the movies that it’s difficult to imagine a Nadia, an Aditi or even a Natasha as a central character.
Regardless, I’d rather have a Sweetu by my side than a Naina any day.
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