Dil Dhadakne Do has the trademarks of a quintessential Zoya Akhtar film – a dysfunctional dynamic between loved ones, plenty of internal conflict, secrets waiting to be revealed, and one smashing dance number that gets all the characters together, setting their differences aside for a moment.
But what really sticks is Akhtar’s deeply lovable characters. Whether it’s the brooding Kabir in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the zealous Murad in Gully Boy, or his feisty girlfriend Safeena, their journeys make us want to root for them. However, one character that stands out to me from Akhtar’s universe is Ayesha Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do.
Feminist women are often turned into a trope on screen – they are the outcasts, bringing in their edginess and disdain for nice things and breaking rules just for the heck of it. This trope is largely derived from the treatment of such women in our lives – they are considered disruptive, usually measured against the demure ‘good’ girls who suffer in silence. But what about the demure girls who want to break free?
Enter Ayesha Mehra – an underdog who marks a fine portrayal of female characters in Bollywood.
Where feminist characters are given a rough, edgy colour, Ayesha’s quiet, reserved nature makes her relatable – a shoutout to all the shy women out there.
Unlearning the elite brand of patriarchy
For those who need a refresher, Dil Dhadakne Do is a story of the uber-rich, highly dysfunctional Mehra family. And their brand of patriarchy is as polished as them.
It is established that Ayesha (played by Priyanka Chopra) feels shunned from her ‘natal’ home since they married her off. In several instances throughout the film, she is othered because of her marital status. But she comes from a rich family – even oppression comes neatly wrapped here – and she is taught to accept her fate with graceful silence.
She is raised to be silent about her problems and grievances, lest it disgrace the family name.
Though there isn’t much we find relatable with the Mehras, patriarchal practices seem to pervade class and leave all women feeling the same way: helpless.
Ayesha’s decision to break away from these shackles and come into her own gives a silent nod to women who don’t readily speak up against injustice, but gradually find a way to do so.
Ayesha, her father’s daughter
It is often presumed that the men will take over familial responsibilities, given that women are expected to leave the nest. But as Dil Dhadakne Do shows us, family is family, regardless of one’s marital status.
Just as Kamal Mehra (played by Anil Kapoor) was a self-made man (which he never failed to remind his son, Kabir, played by Ranveer Singh), Ayesha is a self-made woman. Despite no support from her family, Ayesha started her own business and made it a success. But because patriarchy always beckons, Kabir becomes the focal point and potential saviour of Kamal’s failing business. Still, Ayesha makes her opinions known and shows her prowess as a businesswoman.
It takes a wild confrontation for Kamal to realise that one of the Mehra children has the business acumen to get Ayka industries out of bankruptcy, but he was focussing on the wrong one.
Ayesha truly is her father’s daughter, but she is deeply underestimated.
Standing her ground, but still making nice
Akhtar’s writing brings out a vulnerability in her female characters – they want to make nice and maintain equilibrium while getting their rightful way in the world. Ayesha’s struggles entail just that.
Initially conflicted about coming clean to her parents about her marital problems, Ayesha confronts them upon knowing that they were manipulating Kabir into marriage, just as she was, causing a ruckus. Then comes the emotional blackmail, threats, and terrible advice. But Ayesha is level-headed and calm, almost as if choosing herself had become a non-negotiable part of her existence.
The reality of womens’ lives is such – it can be difficult to choose what makes us happy, as it can come at the cost of disappointing others. We are taught to be self-sacrificing, to gate keep and uphold familial values to prevent our ‘virtue’ from going into the hands of those less deserving (i.e. those not belonging to the same class).
But despite it all, Ayesha stands her ground and approaches the situation with empathy, explaining to her parents how her decision to divorce her husband would be best for everyone involved.
Often, we associate feminist characters with uncaringness, rudeness, or apathy (not arguing that this cannot be justified), but Ayesha reminds her family that getting a divorce does not make her any less of a woman. This courage that shines silently is what many Indian women relate to and serves as a reminder that not all feminists look the same.
In a film that tackles themes such as patriarchy, class inequalities, and politics that govern the elite, Ayesha Mehra is the quiet, reserved daughter who finds her ground without altering who she is. She rids us of the assumption that women like her will not fight for what they want. And that’s a subversion we love to see.
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