From Anna Delvey of ‘Inventing Anna’ to Krishna Verma from ‘Ishqiya’, it’s time for us to accept ‘unlikable’ female characters.
When I first read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, I was obsessed. The stellar writing aside, I hadn’t come across a character as ruthless as Amy Dunne. But despite the lengths Amy went to get revenge, I found myself justifying her actions. She isn’t perfect, I thought, but I get it.
When Inventing Anna graced our screens last month, a familiar feeling arose. Anna ‘Delvey’ Sorokin’s entire trial was based on the jury sympathising with her need for money – growing up poor and obsessed with the glitz and glamour of American high society, it was understandable why Anna conned the people she did. But her own rejection of this justification makes her character interesting – she doesn’t care about being liked or understood.
We’re living through the age of the anti-hero – who, unlike a hero, isn’t always nice and doesn’t always subscribe to positive behaviours.
But as much as we love our Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos, and Walter Whites, we’re also witnessing the rise of the anti-heroine – a woman who steers away from the traditional norms of femininity and is packed with complexities and layers.
So, why do we find ourselves rooting for this anti-heroine, despite the fact that she can border on unlikeable?
The anti-heroine: a thin line between complexity and stereotyping
Time and again, Bollywood has shown us that its female characters can be treated better.
Often, we see uni-dimensional female characters who serve as tools to further the male character’s agenda. Heroines in Bollywood films often switch between the ‘good girl’ and the ‘vamp’, where they are either entirely good, or entirely evil. This dichotomy does not leave any room for complexity, nor does it allow the female character any growth and development.
Enter, the anti-heroine.
Unlike the heroine, the anti-heroine is morally ambiguous. For every Nisha in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, who is willing to sacrifice her love to mother her sister’s child, we have Krishna in Ishqiya, who manipulates men to get to the root of her husband’s disappearance.
The quintessential Bollywood heroine is self-sacrificing; the anti-heroine is a little selfish.
But what is it that makes the anti-heroine interesting to watch? Simply speaking, she is realistic. She does not follow the norm of what women are supposed to be like – dainty, helpless, sacrificing, and demure. And even if the anti-heroine does possess any of these qualities, she takes it within her stride and uses it as a tool to get what she wants.
The anti-heroine is different from the overused and sexualised archetype of the femme fatale. The femme fatale (Nimmi from Maqbool, for example) charms, seduces, and lures men into heavily compromising situations for her own benefit.
The anti-heroine, on the other hand, does not always use her sexuality as a tool. She is more than a sexually forward, mysterious vixen in search of her next victim.
Why we like to root for the anti-heroine
The era of the anti-hero is popular for its realistic portrayal of masculinity. Steering away from the traditional ‘good guy’ hero, the anti-hero falters, loses, and learns from his mistakes (or sometimes not). Our sympathy for the anti-hero is also a reflection of how little it takes for society to give men a second chance. Why not extend this courtesy to women?
The popularity of Inventing Anna isn’t surprising. Talking about the show to a friend, she said, “I find it so interesting that she conned so many people. You need guts to do such a thing.” Regardless of what she does in the story, what makes the anti-heroine stick is the fact that she often goes against patriarchal practices to get what she wants.
It doesn't even matter whether she gets it; what matters is that she is fighting against the patriarchy in the process.
Whether it’s the uber-creepy Pushpavalli (played marvellously by Sumukhi Suresh), the confused Rumi in Manmarziyaan (played by Taapsee Pannu), or Aarya in Aarya (played fittingly by Sushmita Sen), the anti-heroine is the antidote to the ‘good girl’ we have seen on screen, who is often completely unrelatable.
The anti-heroine is the representation women have needed to feel less sidelined, as their experiences are now easier to capture and showcase to the world.
With the popularity of Inventing Anna and many other critically-acclaimed TV shows and films, it seems that the anti-heroine is here to stay. The anti-heroine does not need to be likeable to stick in the minds of its female audience. She just has to show them that she can exist without the burden of the patriarchy on her head, and provide a little bit of inspiration in the process.
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