Feminist Bollywood: Queen

Queen is the kind of movie I want to see more of from Bollywood, from Hollywood, from everyone. Through the power of friendship, a young woman learns that she is enough.

Queen (2014) is still in theaters, but I desperately hope it is out on DVD, Netflix, YouTube, etc, soon. Even if you’ve never seen a Bollywood movie before (I assume you have, if you’re reading this, but if not. . . ), watch this movie as soon as you can. Watch it with your friends, your children, your parents, and your significant others.

A movie poster showing an Indian woman in a yellow salwar kameez.
Queen, starring Kangana Ranaut as Rani. “Rani” means “queen” in Hindi and Sanskrit. Image from Wikipedia

I will tell you up front the three things I did not like about Queen:

  1. The main character, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) is attacked in an alleyway by a man trying to steal her purse. He doesn’t succeed, and I think the scene is ultimately meant to be funny. The audience laughed, anyway. But given how “real” the movie feels, that scene really freaked me out.
  2. The movie uses the “uptight character has a drink and then gets totally drunk and finally loosens up a bit” trope, common in both Bollywood and Hollywood films. I just didn’t like it because it’s cliché and overused. My husband worried it meant the character was losing control. (She did not.)
  3. Rani has awesome curly/frizzy hair (like mine!), but at the end of the movie she straightens it and everyone says how much prettier she looks. Another trope I hate. (Looking at you, Princess Diaries.)

But I think one legit scary attack scene and two overused tropes is pretty good, no? I loved everything else.

Rani is a young woman just a day or two away from getting married; her family is busy decorating the house. Her fiancé, Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), asks to meet in private. He’s calling off the wedding. She speaks softly, she stammers, she cries, and she asks why. She promises to change. She suggests they get married and then figure it out. He says no, they are too different now.

After a few days locked in her room, Rani emerges to tell her family she’d still like to go on her honeymoon since it’s already booked and paid for. If that’s okay. Her parents agree to let her travel alone to Paris and then Amsterdam.

In Paris, Rani meets a woman named Vijay, short for Vijayalakshmi (played by Lisa Haydon). Female Vijay is part-Indian, part-European. She only speaks a little Hindi, and Rani speaks no French, so they communicate in halting English. Vijay is glamorous, gorgeous, and promiscuous. She is a single mother and likes to party. But she and Rani hit it off. Vijay takes Rani around town, to clubs and parties, takes her shopping, and comforts her.

Two Indian women sit on a picnic table. One is crying.
Vijay (Lisa Haydon) comforts Rani. Image from wallbeam.com

And while Rani does come out of her shell a bit, she doesn’t turn into Vijay. When they part, she even asks Vijay to please cut down on the drinking. The movie isn’t interested in suggesting Rani is wrong and Vijay is right (or vice versa), only that the two compliment each other and we could all do well to find some moderation: to some days be introverted and other days be extroverted.

I enjoyed their friendship, but I had a catch in my throat. I kept waiting. Surely Vijay would betray Rani in some way. That’s just how movies work. You can’t have two women, especially such opposites, be friends. Two women supporting each other? What will people think.

But it never happened. They were friends. Later we see they became Facebook friends. Maybe the friendship tapered off, as they often do when distance gets in the way. But in the time we saw them onscreen, they were friends.

After a few days, Rani leaves for the second part of her honeymoon: Amsterdam. Vijay cancels her hotel and instead sets her up at a hostel. (This is with Rani’s knowledge, by the way.) Vijay also asks Rani to take a package to her friend, Rukhsar.

Two women hug at a train station. One wears a large blue backpack.
Rani and Vijay say goodbye at the train station. Image from wallbeam.com

To her horror, Rani discovers that the hostel is not only co-ed, but that she must share a room with three men. She tries to leave, but cannot find another room or hotel. She grabs a pillow and blanket to sleep in the hallway. Her roommates, Tim (Joseph Guitobh), Taka (Jeffrey Ho), and Oleksander (Mish Boyko), instead decide to sleep in the hallway, leaving the whole room to her. But soon she and the men are friends, too, and sharing the room is no big deal.

She learns that the French Tim, Japanese Taka, and Russian Oleksander travel together. Taka lost his parents during the tsunami, and Tim and Oleksander try to help him forget.

“So he has no one?” Rani asks, thinking of the mother, father, brother, grandmother, cousins, aunts, and uncles back in Delhi.

“No, he has us,” Oleksander replies.

A man and woman smiling and talking.
Oleksander and Rani talk. Image from wallbeam.com

The men travel with her to deliver the package to Rukhsar, who lives in a brothel. Rukhsar, it turns out, works as a prostitute named Roxette. The package is full of food her mother has sent from India. Rukhsar explains to Rani that her mother doesn’t know about her job or have her address, she just has Vijay’s.

Rani, a middle-class, college-educated woman, asks, “Why don’t you get another job?”

Rukhsar laughs a little, then kindly explains, “The economy is still not very good. This job provides benefits. Thanks to this job, I can send two of my sisters to college and help a third get married.”

Before Rani left, Vijay had called Rukhsar a “good girl.” And seeing that she’s a prostitute, we might laugh. But she is a good girl. Her father had died, she explained, and so she stepped up to help her family. That is a good girl.

Throughout the film, we see flashbacks to Rani and (male) Vijay’s relationship. It is a relationship of small aggressions, small problems, and we begin to realize that she’s much better off without him. In one scene, she asks about taking a job (in accounting, I think? I don’t quite remember, but it was something respectable and white collar), but Vijay says no. Why should she work? He’ll be working. Does she think he’ll starve her? Because of her class, she can turn down such a job. Compare this situation to Rukhsar, who must take something to help her family.

On top of that, (male) Vijay doesn’t say, “What do you want?” He doesn’t even say, “Here’s what I think/want.” He starts by asking Rani, “What does your father say?” She explains that her father said she should do what Vijay says. No one takes into account what Rani wants.

And so she is lost when presented with a business opportunity. On her first day in Amsterdam, Rani had inadvertently offended an Italian man, Marcello (Marco Canadea), by asking for more spices in her food at his restaurant. A few days later, he passes by on the street, calmer and with a proposition: The next day, he is heading to a boating festival. She can cook her (Indian) food. If people buy it, he’ll relent and forgive her for trying to change his food.

Rani looks to her friends, not sure what to do. No one steps in to say “Yes” or “No.” Only Taka says anything, “Go for it!” And so she does.

She prepares Gol Gappa in Marcello’s kitchen. She grows discouraged when no one buys her food. But soon she has a long line of customers. Marcello makes a ton of money and pays her half.

In the kitchen, cleaning up, he tells her, “You know, Italians aren’t only number one at food. They’re number one at kissing.” Rani instantly shoots back, “No, Indians are best at everything!”

At the start of the film, Rani had mentioned being both worried and excited about her wedding night. If it went well, she’d go on a pilgrimage! We never see her and (male) Vijay kiss, so the audience can assume she has no experience with kissing and other such activities.

Indeed, kissing remains controversial in Bollywood movies. Main characters might kiss on the hand or shoulder, but few ever kissed on the mouth. Modern movies are more likely to show couples kissing, but sometimes the kiss feels like an afterthought or shock value.

While Rani had been shocked at (female) Vijay and Rukhsar’s sexuality, she also remained intrigued. She was certainly excited for her wedding night and her new sexual life with her husband. She also held up the traditions and expectations of her family/culture.

So, in this kitchen in Amsterdam, she practices pursing her lips, and then kisses Marcello herself. He had indicated he was interested (and earlier she had admitted to her friends she thought he was attractive), but she was the one to do it. I think I might have clapped. I felt sweet butterflies in a way I rarely do when watching movie romances anymore.

During her last days in Amsterdam, she meets up with (male) Vijay. He misses her and wants her back. He insults her friends and grabs her arm. She agrees to meet with him, but doing so means missing out on time with Tim, Taka, and Oleksander before they leave Amsterdam. She tells Vijay they can talk in Delhi, then she rushes off to see her friends one last time.

In Delhi, she meets Vijay at his house. His mother is so happy to see her, explaining that they’ll have so much fun together once she (Rani) moves in as daughter-in-law. But Rani tells Vijay it’s truly over and returns a ring he gave her. He stares in shock as she leaves, smiling.

Over the credits, we see Rani’s Facebook profile and “pictures” from her trip (a cute way to get in outtakes, additional scenes, etc). The camera kept focusing on the part that said “status: single” and I sighed, waiting for it to change. (Besides Marcello, the movie hinted at a possible romance between Rani and Oleksander.) But it never changed.

Rani ends the movie learning more about herself, discovering her strength, awesomeness, and potential. She has learned more about the world and realizes she can have a place in it.

While I never expected her to get back together with (male) Vijay, I was thrilled that she didn’t end the movie in any kind of romantic relationship. There’s so much emphasis on romance and partners, especially in media geared toward people in their early 20s, that we can forget just how important friends are. This movie celebrates not just friendship, but having a variety of friends and learning from the people around you.

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Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

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