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Why are all strong female characters ‘The Shrew’ that has to be ‘tamed’?

. 8 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Why are all strong female characters ‘The Shrew’ that has to be ‘tamed’?

Let’s take a detour from the classic good representation vs bad and the good vs the bad girl archetype and look at the greys. The in-betweens: the more realistic yet aspirational, the more relatable ones and how our hate-to-love relationship with Bollywood transpires in this respect. 

Shakespeare’s play Taming Of The Shrew was written in 1592. The plot of the play goes something like this:

A headstrong and obdurate Katherina is deemed unfit to be a wife because of her stubbornness. Petruchio is called on to pretend to fall in love with her, so he can make her his wife and then tame her into becoming the desirable, shy and submissive woman that she should have been right from the beginning. Sound familiar?

It’s been almost 500 years since the play first came out, and the Petruchios of the pop culture universe are still trying to tame the Katherinas into the more likeable mould. 

When Lakshman was drawing that line for Sita, he didn’t realise that it would transpire into a metaphorical line for all of womankind – or maybe he did. The line may be bent out of shape now centuries later, but it sure is still visible. 

Here’s a list of all our favourite Katherinas and their version of Petruchios that they have had to tackle.

Veronica In ‘Cocktail’

Not even getting into how problematic the film in itself was, but let’s look at Deepika Padukone’s character in the film, Veronica; strong, self-sufficient, ambitious, fun-loving, caring and way too giving. 

Enter Petruchio, aka Gautam and Veronica, grows into a self-doubting, weak, confused, sanskari dressing and physically injured “why doesn’t he like me” girl. But what strikes me the most about this transition is that Gautam did not himself overtly impose these prerequisites on to Veronica. By some magical turn of events, he realises that he has fallen for the more sanskari friend. 

It was in this act of choosing the more conventionally desirable woman that manifests in Veronica’s need to transform into one herself.

So it isn’t always Petruchio doling out the taming. There have been numerous Petruchios out there that it has ceased to be a single person but rather grown on to become an entire culture. 

The taming stems from this cultural conditioning. The conditioning that demands every woman to be Sita (or Meera in this case) and prevents her from being the Katherina (Veronica) that she is.

Aaliya In ‘Break Ke Baad’

A classic case of opposites attract, the initial first half of the film portrays Aaliya’s ambition and the zeal to create something for herself. 

This, coupled with the Abhay’s confusion as to what is it that he exactly wishes to pursue in life and his challenges in coping with living under the shadow of his successful father, makes for a relationship that is bound to doom sooner and later. 

The breaking point occurs when Aaliya finally puts her foot down and decides to channel her ambitions to make it big as an actress and take the leap to Australia for further studies. Abhay – who has made Aaliya the sole purpose of his life is shattered and does not know how to deal with this rebellion. The result? Petruchio behaviour. 

“Tumhari life kharab nahi honi chahiye aur meri life bhaad mein jaaye”

– Aaliya on expressing her need to make a life for herself to Abhay.

He ‘lets’ her go to Australia with the precondition that their relationship will suffer no hindrance. This need to control the object of your affection and have her behave in a manner that does not impede anything related to how you would like things to be is the essence of Petruchio behaviour.

But the film does take a rather surprising course of action and depicts what might be if the Petruchios were taught to have a life of their own instead of control the Katherinas. Abhay goes on to discover his own interest in the form of cooking, figure out what is it exactly that he wants to do in life and actually starts working towards pursuing it. And once he is in that zone of self-sufficiency –letting go of Aaliya doesn’t feel so bad anymore. 

The pivotal climax scene where Abhay and Aaliya are shown bickering on Aaliya’s film set as Abhay does his catering beautifully showed that happy endings do not imply a happy couple – but a happy individual career too.  

Naina In ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’

A relic from the institution that Dharma is, Kal Ho Na Ho is one of those films that did well back in the early 2000s but certainly hasn’t aged well in 2019. 

The flag-bearer of creating women with unrealistic standards of beauty and desirability, Karan Johar’s treatment of Preity Zinta’s Naina was nothing short of classic Petruchio behaviour.

Naina, in the initial first half of the film is clearly dealing with a lot – her father’s ambiguous suicide, her mother’s failing finances, her grandmother’s endless taunts for her choice of the single life and the general air of disagreement between the two that constantly seems to prevail at home for her. 

For someone who has a lot on her plate, they should have just let her be. She is allowed to feel like crap and she is allowed to behave in the manner she pleases. But no! There goes Aman with his “1, 2, 3… eeeh!” training. 

Not only does he teach her how to smile but is hell-bent on making her fall in love with her friend because finding sacha pyaar is the only way to ultimate happiness. So he helps alter her personality to fit into the mould that a man would find desirable. He then manipulates her into falling for a man she once called her closest friend – effectively almost ruining that relationship, and basically makes all her decisions and life choices for her. 

All she wanted was to be left alone and study for her MBA classes. So thanks a lot for that Aman! 

This brings me to question yet another overly used trope in our films –why does whenever a woman have a strong exterior, or an unwelcoming behaviour is that taken like a wall that has to be broken down to get to the good part.

Why the assumption that this strength and impertinence is just a façade and there’s that much-coveted gooey soft mush right inside it, just waiting to be discovered?

Why can’t she be unresponsive because that’s just who she is? Maybe she gives off the vibe that she doesn’t want to talk to you because she actually does not want to talk to you. What a wild thought!

Zoya In ‘Ishaqzaade’

Yet another instance where the “hey back off!” vibe was misunderstood as the “oh there’s so much more to this come and get it” signal. This film very tactfully manages to validate its inherent sexism by setting it somewhere in the interior tier-II cities of North India. 

Zoya Qureshi – played by a brilliant Parineeti Chopra is the youngest and the only daughter of his Muslim-minority-celebrating politician father. The film is a political gangster take on Romeo Juliet, and Zoya’s Romeo is the belligerent and barbaric Parma – played by Arjun Kapoor. 

This film depicts how love and sex are nothing but tools for the Petruchios to regulate and exert control over the Katherinas.

Zoya is confident, has the desire of making it big as a politician someday, fearless, ferocious and a tad spoilt being the youngest in her family. Constantly shown to be at loggerheads with Parma, he decides to extract his revenge for her stubbornness and disrespect by pretending to fall for her, marrying her and luring her into physical intimacy with him. All because she slapped him for forcing himself into the ladies’ restroom and causing a ruckus. 

But because Zoya suffers from the terminal disease of being written by men, she somehow magically falls for Parma and willingly submits her fate into the hands of a man who manipulated her into falling for him. How romantic!

Anjali In ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’

A patient of not Petruchio the person, but Petruchio the culture – Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai too suffers from a fate similar to that of Veronica’s. 

An institutional classic in its own right for which the phrase “hasn’t aged well” would perhaps be an understatement – Karan Johar had multiple women wondering what playing basketball in a saree would feel like. Or not. Just wondering why?

Anjali has a similar trajectory of the transformation but a far more drastic one than Veronica’s. She transforms from being the object of the whole college’s ridicule to the protagonist of every sanskari man’s wet dream. 

And the reason for this transformation you ask?

Because how will the story move forward if Petruchio aka Rahul does not fall in love with Katherina aka Anjali? And how can he if she continues being her ‘manly’ and abrasive self? 

And so the writers deconstruct Anjali to making her a lot more demure, a lot more socially acceptable and the perfect marriage material for every man out there. 

The sad part is, more often than not, there is almost always that soft mush hidden deep inside the unwelcoming exterior – the prize that Petruchio gets for deconstructing Katherina because it is the men that almost always write these female characters.

All of these pop-culture Katherinas become Sita because they suffer from the classic illness of being written by men. And for every Petruchio out there, it’s only a journey of one play or one script to be travelled to reach the destination where he has successfully extracted the Sita out of the Katherina.

Wonder how he does this so easily? Because he has put the Sita there himself!  

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