One of the most striking scenes in the film Mission Mangal is when Vidya Balan’s Tara Shinde is accused of not paying enough attention to her kids by her husband. And her response to his series of frantic phone calls is to simply shrug both him and the call off as she chooses to attend to her own work at hand.
The ease and the comfort with which those homely maternal responsibilities are postponed, essays the reason why Vidya Balan’s portrayal of Tara Shinde is a step in the right direction.
While the other female characters of the film are reduced to mere checkboxes –Kirti Kulhari’s Neha Siddique battling social prejudices, Nithya Menon’s Varsha working through her self-esteem issues and maternal challenges and Sonakshi Sinha’s Eka Gandhi complying with her failing aspirations; it is Tara Shinde that is allowed that ray of being radical, just radical enough that she can manage to be her own person and manage to comply to societal pressures in ways that she chooses for herself and in ways that she would wish to.
Although the film makes its flaws visible on several occasions –parading as a progressive piece of art while priding itself on its intermittent sexist jokes, wasting four major female characters and their story arcs under the shadow of a dominating male lead; Vidya Balan’s portrayal of Tara Shinde stands strong in the face of misogyny.
Characterised under the trope of the modern independent woman who is portrayed to both proudly and efficiently have the work-life balance down – giving adequate attention to both; Tara Shinde adheres to all the expectations that the modern society imposes on its modern women.
The reason why this character is a step in the right direction therefore, lies not in the fact that she is cut out from the fabric that checks all the boxes of societal expectations and that her arc is conventionally progressive enough; but rather how Tara Shinde manages to be just radical enough while managing to tick all those boxes.
This subtlety in her character stems from this very contrast, of being progressive within the conventions of the status quo; of being radical while appearing to be at the level of conservatism that is socially acceptable.
And the way in which this innate ambivalence is achieved, is through Tara Shinde rejecting the characteristic guilt that is so inherently and almost unconsciously imposed on women who work.
The urban middle and upper-middle class today mostly comprise of two-income households where the economic load is openly borne by both the genders. But the social roles of delivering the ideal ‘upbringing’ are very conveniently shifted on to the female counterpart of this partnership.
Obstacles of any form in this process more often than not translates into inefficiency of the mother figure.
The film addresses this notion into the character of Tara Shinde’s conventional patriarch husband Sunil Shinde. When his stereotypically rebellious teenage lot of kids starts acting up in ways he deems uncontrollable, his first and foremost response is to blame and guilt trip his wife for focusing on her work more than her own children.
While someone like a Sulu (incidentally enough portrayed by the same actress) from ‘Tumhari Sulu’ when put in the same position, succumbs to the guilt and has no resistance in accepting her child’s transgressions as her own singlehanded fault; Tara Shinde vehemently strips herself off of this guilt, and chooses to address the issue as in when a. the time calls for it and b. when her work permits it.
It is in this shrugging off of the blame that Tara Shinde regains her agency as a woman when it was being challenged as a mother.
She caters to the needs of her children not because she is expected to or because her husband asks her to, but because she herself wants to –and is affectionate and understanding enough to do it the right way, and more efficiently than her husband.
She is a formidable and motivating boss not because it is expected of her to inspire her employees or because her senior wants her to do it but because she as her own person believes in her mission and wishes for her juniors to believe in it too.
As a nation almost on the threshold of a feminist revolution, we’re still acclimating. We have tacitly accepted the notion of women having their own agency while we still grapple with the profundity of what qualifies for a #metoo statement.
Considering this ambivalence and the precariousness of the situation we’re standing in, the character of Tara Shinde from Mission Mangal is certainly a step in the right direction.
The reason why this is only mildly radical however is because through the film Tara does indeed tend to what is expected of her –the needs of her children in a more unconventional and conversational approach than the didactic one that her husband assumes. The patient manner with which she manages to attain peace and discipline in the house is a significant element of her character –one that bleeds into her work persona too.
Tara brings the same desire of stability in a much more formidable manner at work, as can be seen in one rather Bollywood-y scene where she singlehandedly manages to motivate an entire team of people under her so they can not only understand her drive towards her vision but also emulate it to share the same goal.
The commonality here in both the workspace and the home life is the expectation that is imposed on to the gender.
Just as the mother figure is confounded with the infringement of her child, a female boss too, is expected to be the sole driving force behind the motivations of her team –and to do it maternally while at it.
Not surprisingly enough, the dominant male lead who has shadowed a major chunk of the achievements in the film remains conveniently absent through the times whenever any actual work is shown to take place.
This is another reason why the character is only radical enough that it can be digested by the masses; because Tara performs in accordance to all that societal pressure and her degree of rebellion to these impositions lies only in the attitude that she possesses – her defiance to those expectations.
The reason why the character cannot be completely disregarded and why it is a step in the right direction is because of the stripping away of this very expectation – Tara fulfils all that is expected of her as a woman, a mother and a female boss not because she is expected to do it; but because she as her own person wants to.
Maybe in the future we can have female characters who are able to be their own person without having to factor in these societal pressures altogether, but considering where we are right now, a character that is at least beginning to demand to be her own person, in her own way, is certainly a very small but sure step in the right direction.