Kool Kanya brings to you The Female Gaze, a recurring series on the most iconic female characters in Bollywood and how they raised a generation of ambitious, driven young women.
If we remember Main Hoon Na for anything, it’s this scene.
As punishment for a dare he lost, Ram’s (Shah Rukh Khan) friends demand that he get on his knees in public and sing a song for the “first woman who walks in through the gate”. Having no knowledge of singing, songs, or women, Ram anxiously waits to get over with the dare. You wouldn’t think that he’d be able to do it, until he does: Ram falls head over heels ﹘ literally ﹘ when an ethereal, gorgeous woman walks past him. Much to his own surprise (and everyone else’s), he belts out a melodious, romantic number, causing her to stop and turn in shock.
This woman ﹘ we come to know as Ram continues to embarrass himself ﹘ is none other than their new Chemistry teacher, Miss Chandni (Sushmita Sen).
With that scene, a majority of us too fell head over heels for Miss Chandni, who would go on to make the rest of Main Hoon Na a joyful ride.
But what makes Miss Chandni an empowered character in a male-centric plot? Her fierce, unrelenting femininity; one that is much in tune with Sushmita Sen’s real-life persona.
Miss Chandni, The Feminine Antidote To Ram’s Masculine Mission
Besides the fact that they rarely fall under the ‘dramedy’ genre, in films that unpack the subject of patriotism like Main Hoon Na (Border, Lakshya, Shershah, Bhuj: The Pride of India), female characters either pose as a distraction to the male protagonist’s mission, or play the ever-believing, ever-so-patient love interest that keeps him up at night. As is with most male-centric plots, women are introduced to advance the male protagonist’s character, mostly at the cost of their own journeys.
While there’s no denying that Main Hoon Na is focussed on Ram, Chandni’s introduction has little to do with advancing his character. In fact, her presence often stands to question Ram’s authority, both as a student and as a man.
When he thinks he can get away with standing on his knees as punishment, Chandni refuses to make an exception as she humours him. Even as Sanjana raves about Ram as a friend and points out that he’s older than Chandni, she says, “I know, but he’s still my student.”
A man holding the rank of a Major is literally on his knees for a woman who isn’t afraid to reprimand him when he behaves out of line.
The question is: does it make him any less of a man? From the success of his mission, it seems like it doesn’t.
Ram is quintessentially masculine, mature, and focussed. But Chandni’s presence brings out his vulnerable side ﹘ violins start playing in the background every time she walks by; a soft breeze blows every time she smiles at him; the room is filled with colour and light when she does literally anything.
Ram’s personal mission ﹘ revealing to his friend, Lucky (Zayed Khan) that they were actually step-brothers and that their father had passed away ﹘ would have been a lot harder to achieve had he not had Chandni by his side, addressing his fears and hesitation.
It took the likes of Miss Chandni to remind us that a man doesn’t have to perpetuate toxic masculinity in order to fight for his country.
While Shah Rukh Khan’s portrayal of Ram challenges the idea of a quintessential patriotic army man ﹘ given his persona as the king of romance ﹘ no other actress would measure up to him as well as Sushmita Sen, a woman with a domineering presence in both reel and real life.
Chandni’s introduction in Ram’s life is a deliberate attempt to splash some colour on a serious subject. Chandni is the fierce, feminine alpha that the film needs in order for the audience to understand a sensitive subject.
Reclaiming The ‘Sexy Teacher’ Trope
In the establishing shot, we see that Chandni is dazzling and impeccably dressed. She is also somewhat of a fantastical creature in Ram’s eyes, with the Bollywood-esque chiffon sarees and designer blouses only she would dare to wear in the biting Darjeeling cold.
But as much as she is portrayed as sexual, she is also shown to be graceful and sincere, which lends more to her character than looks.
In Bollywood, where the representation of teachers is questionable at best, there’s often a dichotomy between female teachers ﹘ the sexy professor, who is less about education and more about distracting young boys (Swara Bhasker in Rasbhari), and the older, strict masterni, who is desexualised and scary to be around. Neither of these character tropes are competent, unlike their male counterparts who make it their life’s mission to make an impact on their students (Aamir Khan, Taare Zameen Par).
While Chandni’s character falls in the first category when taken on face value, the treatment of her character subverts this trope and allows her to embrace her sexuality without compromise.
It’s no secret that she’s attractive. Her students think she has an impeccable dressing sense (as Mini, played by Rakhi Sawant, says, “Wow, what a lovely saree!”), and her peers look twice as she floats past them in the staff room. But her appearance hasn’t impaired their impression of her. Chandni is simply a confident woman who loves dressing up to work.
She’s still a good teacher; she doesn’t give Ram preferential treatment just because he’s older and commands the respect of her students.
Even though Sanjana’s transformation scene is problematic (I’m looking at you, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), there’s a reparative quality to it. Sanjana reaches out to Chandni because it’s no secret that she carries herself well, and Chandni delivers according to Sanjana’s wishes. But Sanjana confronts Lucky for feeling attracted to her only after she alters her appearance, giving her complete control over the narrative.
Chandni presents herself as a mentor and friend to Sanjana, making up for the lack of women in her friend group.
After prom night celebrations come to an end, professor Raghav (Suneil Shetty) cajoles and almost insists that Chandni be dropped back to her home. Quite curtly, Chandni responds: “I’m a big girl, I have my own car and I can drive myself back.”
Taking the focus away from her appearance and placing it on her confidence makes Chandni an incredibly empowering character.
Main Hoon Na isn’t a perfect film. But its characters are full of depth and nuance, which makes it a film worth coming back to. After all, who wouldn’t want to come back for Miss Chandni?
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