A WORLD WITHOUT WOMEN
Kai Po Che wouldn't be the first Hindi film to fail the Bechdel Test for Women in Movies. Spectacularly too. Nor would it be the last. Male-bonding and undying love between the boys is one of our most enduring themes. But Kai Po Che is a good place to start applying the Bechdel to our cinema. The test involves asking three basic questions––1) Are there at least two women characters in the film with distinctive names (which means they are identifiable as individuals and not just as Ma, Behna, Bitiya etc.), 2) Do these women talk to each other (if they share screen time it means they are relevant enough to the screenplay as individuals, as is their relationship with each other) 3) Do they talk to each other about anything except the men in their lives (to gauge if their existence has any importance beyond their relationships with men)?
The Bechdel Test isn't a measure for evaluating the quality of a film. It merely assesses the actual, physical presence of women on screen and their relative value to the narrative. Why is this important? Firstly because women constitute one half of the human race and men can't exist without them (and vice versa). Secondly, regardless of protestations to the contrary, popular culture does play a role in shaping people's minds and attitudes (to whatever degree it may) and women's presence on screen and the manner of their depiction may affect the way men perceive and respond to them in the real world. (To put things in perspective, try doing a reverse Bechdel on what you consider the most women-centric of films––say, Mirch Masala or Mandi or Bhumika or Lajja––and see how many men are in them and in what capacity).
As it happens, Kai Po Che nearly obliterates women from the screen, when in reality, considering the film's backdrop, it's unlikely that the protagonists live in a world devoid of women, or that they have absolutely no meaningful connections with them. And if that is the case, then it is indeed a scary scenario. At the centre of the narrative is the enduring friendship between three boys––Govind, Ishaan and Omi (Raj Kumar Yadav, Sushant Singh Rajput and Amit Sadh) who live in a middle class neighbourhood of Ahmedabad circa 2000. They decide to start a little business––a sports shop and coaching centre––till two calamities, one natural, the other man-made, drive a wedge through their relationship.
The focus of the screenplay is obviously on the dynamics of this relationship. Yet several characters surround them and of these, only one is a woman with an identity, Ishaan's sister Vidya (Amrita Puri) who gradually falls in love with Govind. Every single one of Vidya's scenes is either with her boyfriend or her brother (or both). But at least we learn that she is weak at math and capable of speaking her mind.
Ishaan's father (his mother is no more) features prominently in at least two scenes when he feels humiliated by his son's belligerence and chastises him vociferously; Omi's father too gets adequate space to express his reservations about his son's chosen path, while his mother is a silent bystander. Govind's mother makes a fleeting, inconsequential appearance in one scene (contrasting the two fathers' involvement with their sons). Omi's uncle (Manav Kaul) the leader of a right wing Hindu outfit exudes quiet menace and aggression, eventually becoming the obvious antagonist of the piece. His rival (Asif Basra), the leader of a Muslim group, has a talented son whom Ishaan decides to groom as a cricketer. There is just one other woman with a minuscule speaking part, the principal of a school who accidentally visits their shop and makes them a business offer.
Which gives us to believe that here are three young men living in modern India with little or nothing to do with women. They don't share confidences with their mothers or sisters, have no women friends (barring Vidya) and their understanding of the female of the species is woefully under-developed (aptly portrayed in Govind's awkwardness with Vidya, who must necessarily propel the relationship because he can't).
This, even conceding that the three protagonists must remain at the centre of the narrative and everyone else is there only to service their story, is disturbing. Especially considering references to two actual events––the earthquake of 2001 and the riots of 2002––both of which, admittedly, aren't tackled with any seriousness in the film. Still, particularly in the riot scenes, the overwhelming presence of men fighting an old-fashioned war with swords and petrol bombs, as opposed to a human tragedy in which women and children were raped and murdered, isn't just inaccurate, but naive and reductionist.
At some point in the future, these boys (and millions like them) may have girlfriends, wives, daughters, female colleagues, neighbours, maids etc they will have to deal with, and while the script gives them all the time and space to find their place in the world, make mistakes and learn from them, pursue their dreams and grow up to the realities of life while sharing brotherly love and loyalty, it doesn't care at all to prepare them to engage meaningfully with the opposite sex.
Strangely, while watching Kai Po Che, I was reminded of a scene from Nandita Das’ Firaaq, a film entirely focussed on the post-Godhra riots and examining the situation and responses of characters from different religious and socio-economic strata to the horrific incidents. Firaaq was a serious critique of the inhuman brutality unleashed in Gujarat, while this is a feel-good buddy movie and hence there can't be a general comparison between the two films.
Still, one of the stories involves a family that may not have been very different from the ones show in Kai Po Che, in which Paresh Rawal plays an aggressive Gujarati man of dubious values who relentlessly humiliates his wife (Deepti Naval) with the tacit approval of his father, brother and son, none of whom stands up to speak for her. In one scene, when the mother asks her pre-teen son an innocuous question out of genuine concern, he snaps back in a dismissive tone imitating his father’s. It’s what a lone woman is reduced to in a patriarchal world of misplaced machismo.
And suddenly one wondered, how different was that boy’s insensitive retort from the flashes of unrestrained rage displayed by at least two of the boys in Kai Po Che at various points in the film? Firaaq condemns such behaviour. Kai Po Che asks us to accept it as an aspect of their coming-of-age (and indeed of our social make-up) and expects us to forgive its protagonists their transgresses, embracing them as heroes.
Who knows? Perhaps in a world without women, such would be the heroes…