Kahaani’s Vidya Bagchi: New Woman, Goddess and Avenging Mother
By Priyam Sinha
Bollywood cinema in the twenty-first century establishes itself as a unique space of communication, negotiation, and perception generation. Using Kahaani (2012), directed by Sujoy Ghosh as a case point, this article argues that Bollywood has been producing, reproducing, and refashioning women-centric cinema by putting forth motherhood as a source of inner strength. Earmarking a significant departure from the hegemonic constructions of Indian motherhood displayed in Mother India (1957) and Deewar (1971), Kahaani created a public forum for dialogue on the conceptualisation of the “new woman.” The woman who partakes in national security questions, eulogises the sentiments of the Goddess Durga and creates a platform for debating tradition and modernity in India. So, is the Indian woman only empowered through her agony of not being a mother? How does Sujoy Ghosh’s conceptualisation of Vidya Bagchi create an imagery of the “new woman”?
India’s hegemonic narrative encashes on the maternal-feminine, a central figure all along, establishing political theology, melodrama, and divine justice. Bollywood’s popularisation of Indian culture by viewing women as potential mothers confined within domestic spaces and eroticised spectacle of gaze leaves it with clear binaries of roles played by women in cinema. Bollywood has been lately putting forth an ambiguous effort to replace the hero dominating the screenplay with the modern woman who was once a figure of the nationalist discourse. Now a subject of discursive study that captures the true essence of the Indian imagination and not the monolithic discourse. The “angry man” of the 1970s was replaced by the avenging woman post-2010. She was not subservient and naïve; instead, she questioned India’s conservative patriarchal ideals apotheosising motherhood.
Mapping the characterization and description of cinematic trends also foregrounds a dialogue on the means and modes through which film narratives are popularized, especially through women. Kaplan (1997) and Mulvey (2006) reiterate that women have been subdued by power imbalances and hegemonic discourse that permeates into what is made available in the cinemas through the exhibitionist roles played by them on screen. Thus, the appearance, stylization and character display within the film narrative induces the feeling of “to be looked at.” Maithili Rao (1995) and Lalita Gopalan (1997) built upon Mulvey’s assertion and argued that Indian cinema is driven by scopophilia and phallocentrism from the dominant masculine perspective. Further, leading to the heroine only fitting dominant ideologies that mandate them to enact roles as chaste wives, sacrificial mothers, the avenging demon who eulogizes the Goddess Durga/ Kali or the seductress vamp who performed item numbers that catered to the male gaze (Gopalan 1997; Virdi 2003).
A close reading of Kahaani demonstrates resistance against a normative culture and female subjugated identities. She is symbolic of collective consciousness and social awakening about smashing patriarchal structures oppressing women. The emergent “new woman” has refashioned motherhood and the strength she possesses. Although the initial characterization and positionality of Vidya Bagchi situates her as “harmless” and “in need of help”, it eventually eloquently displays dynamism in redefining women-centric cinema, especially in urban and diasporic spaces, by emphasising a paradigm shift from the chastised wife and villainous vamp portrayal that dominated cinema until the 1990s. Bagchi was therefore conceptualised as the “new woman” who stood uninhibited by social norms and was not bowed down by domesticity. Instead, the narrative portrayed how Bagchi’s exposure to the public world strengthened her to deal with its vagaries and offered a welcome respite from the pitiful woman-victim sagas. Finally, through Kahaani, Bollywood earmarked the celebration of an autonomous and free-spirited woman. At the same time, it was a family film of a different kind, leaving people with many afterthoughts for it put forth a mother-child relationship that was emotionally charged yet staged very differently from the typical motherhood narratives. It still put across an affective discourse about the sacred and profane where the mother settled her vendetta in the name of national security.
I investigate the multiple layers of Indian womanhood portrayed in Kahaani as her foundation still rests on establishing a culture distinct from westernised ideals. The charismatic portrayal of Bagchi staged an integral dialogue on Indian culture, tradition, identity, and motherhood projected as empowering in the 21st century. A “new woman” aspires to be progressive, modern, assertive, flamboyant, and no more the gullible, naïve and overly emotional. The invisibility of the mother who cried helplessly had been replaced with a working mom who battles shame, stigma, and society’s judgments independently. This brings me to a discussion about Partha Chatterjee’s (1989) conceptualisation of the nationalist resolution and woman’s question in the late 19th century. The arguments he put forth revolved around how we are selective in appropriating westernised ideals and navigate our way into redefining woman-centric cinema primarily through stylisation/ western clothing, sensuous geographies of body space movement frameworks and looks down upon being confined within domestic spaces. Kahaani debunks such myths and focuses on the characterisation of Bagchi as an independent yet modern woman disillusioned by the cityscapes and questions pertinent to Bengali femininity, although being appreciative of its culture all along. Thus, her character also aptly captured the true Indian essence, uniqueness of culture and tradition, yet vehemently advocated independence, confidence, and gendered dissent.
Jyotika Virdi (2003) noted: “Women’s roles, assigned in relation to the hero — his lover, mother, or the “other” woman—maintain the male protagonist’s centrality” (121). But Kahaani was different from the usual gendered tropes displayed on the screen. It established its prominence by constructing a woman’s identity as central in creating the narrative. Set at the backdrop of Calcutta, Kahaani challenges gender stereotypes and confronts them with the avenging woman discourse. No more harmless and benign, Vidya Bagchi debunks gender roles and patriarchal structures in the neoliberal space of Kolkata. She independently seeks revenge for her husband’s death and infant’s loss. Her loss of family became her source of strength, and she felt empowered only when she executed her plans to confront the terrorist responsible for the attack. In the backdrop of Durga Puja, a celebration of the victory of good over evil, a fight for justice and dignity, Kahaani evoked the sentiments of challenging the deep-rooted masculine mistrust. The film was released on International Women’s Day as a marker of women’s strength and agency, defying the stereotypical portrayal of gender roles and family cinema.
Vidya Balan has carved her niche for her choice of offbeat cinema and bold roles addressing the skewed gender economics, violence inflicted on women’s bodies and struggles undertaken by them. Kahaani was one such rendition, a thriller that set a tone for portraying Indian womanhood beyond a fragile display of emotions, helplessness, and victimhood. Calcutta became Bagchi’s space of rebirth and liberation that enabled her to mask the identity as an “abandoned wife”. The film transcended the colonised Calcutta’s urban spaces and Bhadralok culture to show the emergence of a “new woman.” Vidya eulogised these sentiments of Goddess Durga and fought her battle independently by tricking everyone to think of her as helpless, naïve, and abandoned. Violence in her narrative was not evil/spiteful; instead, it addressed a mother’s agony through a straightforward and compelling narrative with which the educated and urban audiences could resonate. It drew attention toward the need for more high content films that move beyond portraying women as passive recipients of gaze, an eroticised spectacle of voyeuristic pleasures but as active agents who could independently lead the narrative without a male counterpart.
Historically Bollywood had encashed on representing an overtly dramatic and emotional mother bowed down by social duties, love for family and kinship desires that suppressed their own individual desires, goals and ambitions. Kahaani put forth a woman who did not succumb to patriarchal pressure or helplessly cry on her loss. Instead, she battled her challenges and was not scrutinised negatively. The post-2010 trend of women-centric cinema has rationalised women’s culture and identity. It goes beyond viewing them as cultural spectacles of gaze, lust, and tradition. Instead, it also envisions them as active agents of social change. Bagchi challenged the pathos imagery of a childless mother and transitioned into showcasing a technologically adept, bold, and mindful mother who outsmarts police officers to get her way through. Kolkata, the City of Joy, became a space of discovering the newfound self who unhesitatingly traversed in its dangerous paths despite numerous warnings.
The movie unfolds with Vidya’s entry to Kolkata, searching for her husband. While seeing her belly and disillusionment with her recalling why her husband visited Kolkata, the police officers instantly inferred that it was another story of a man who abandoned his wife after getting pregnant. Only one of the inexperienced police officers stepped up to assist her in the search, who also kept warning her about how the city is a dangerous space for women who are often fooled to believe that it is safe for them. While she was waiting for the metro at the Kalighat station, a strange man walked up to Vidya Bagchi and warned her: “Madam, Kolkata is a dangerous city. Anything can happen here at any time. Go back, Madam, go back. Very dangerous city, Kolkata.” While she was frightened and disturbed listening to all the warnings, Bagchi continued with her search with the help of Rana Sinha, the relatively inexperienced and young police officer who assisted her to all places around the city.
Mapping the city and the film’s narrative also holds symbolic value for Bagchi’s journey as she was a 21st-century woman who strategized revenge for having lost her family. The emergent new woman who might have appeared as helpless and gullible was, in fact, well educated, assertive and most importantly, a professional hacker. Her profession as a software engineer who could easily access confidential government records and files held relevance in the framing and characterisation of her womanhood. It is still a largely male-dominated skill and profession in India. Her diasporic identity and disillusionment on coming from London helped her gain sympathy in the eyes of the police officers, which worked as per her plan.
Unlike the feminine, glamorous, and petite woman catering to the fetishes and voyeuristic pleasures of its predominantly male audience, Bagchi dressed in loose and comfortable clothing, walked around in sturdy boots and sneakers and carried a backpack and water bottle with her everywhere. The absence of grandiosity in settings, a relatively simplistic living in a small hotel room and travelling via yellow taxis that honked and hustled in the busy city lanes made it relatable for middle-class audiences. She skilfully managed to conceal her reasons for staying in Kolkata under the imagery of being a helpless and abandoned pregnant woman. Unlike the grandiosity of the setting, melodramatic overtone, stylistic and humorous elements through the infusion of song and dance, Kahaani put forth an empowering and realistic story from the diary of a modern woman who struggled to find her way through the city.
Set at the backdrop of women playing sindoor khela, ulu, dhaak and dhunuchi naach, Vidya’s character challenged the “damsel in distress” eulogy and advocated the narrative of a woman who championed the power to fight demons. Calcutta’s much-awaited festival of Durga Puja holds symbolic value, especially in its last few scenes. Dressed in a traditional red-bordered white sari, Vidya made her way through the congested streets where people gathered for the Puja procession. On confronting the terrorist (Milan Damji) alone, she gained inner strength, valour, and confidence not to shed a tear. Her prosthetic belly was her ruse that protected her from being attacked. She flung it on Damji’s face when he kicked her belly to push her away. Bagchi’s display of motherhood all along was shown as an amalgamation of loss, pain and agony of not being able to experience the journey of motherhood. In India, women’s identity is intrinsically linked to maternity and Bagchi’s loss was reflected in the strength she derived from killing Damji. Draping a sari for the first time she portrayed an avatar of the Goddess Durga on the last day of Durga Puja festivities. Her revenge was personal and displayed the agony of a mother who lost her child and husband, and only after she succeeded in attaining justice could she mourn their death.
The movie ends with the note of Amitabh Bachchan reciting Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem:
“Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe,
Tobhe ekla cholo re, ekla cholo, ekla cholo,
Ekla cholo re.”
In other words, “if no one answers your call, then walk alone”, suggesting how mourning mothers might be left alone, but the loss of a child can give birth to a newfound strength and zest to fight for justice. Kahaani may not have been a stereotypical portrayal of motherhood in India. Still, it eulogised the sentiments of a mother who fights for justice and takes up the mission as an intelligence officer who confronts her husband’s murderer. She might be held technically guilty by law and therefore a villain, but Bagchi was portrayed in the divine light for being a goddess. While in usual circumstances, a sari is held as a symbol of Indian traditions, sanctity, and chastity, Vidya’s portrayal in Kahaani also showcased the “new woman” who made the sari more than tradition and beauty. Her sari could be viewed as the source of empowerment and reincarnation of Goddess Durga, who fought the demon Mahishasura. Additionally, she portrayed that a symbol of tradition is not necessarily an abhla naari (helpless woman) but one who exhibits rationality and pragmatism in confronting unforeseen problems.
The climax revealed Vidya’s identity of being the widow of Arup Basu, an IB officer who lost his life in a tragic gas attack in Calcutta. On receiving the news, she had a miscarriage, tears for which rolled down her eyes only when she could kill the terrorist responsible for the blast. Unlike the usual depiction of mother-child relationships and family metanarratives, Kahaani represented the flashback of her guilt for coaxing her husband to take up the project. At the same time, he was reluctant to leave her alone in the last few months of pregnancy. Although she breaks down remembering the tragic loss of her husband and child, Bagchi resorted to seeking revenge by not banking on the judiciary anymore for justice. She was fully cognizant of her decision, and despite breaching the law, Bagchi was not demonised. Instead, Bagchi had been placed on a pedestal for having successfully transgressed from the stereotypical motherhood performances in Bollywood in the yesteryears by exercising sovereign powers. She continues to uphold the virtues of patriarchy and embodies Goddess Durga for the communal good in her quest for justice.
A feminist mapping of Kahaani tells how Bollywood cinema has come a long way in glorifying motherhood and refashioning the “new woman” who is empowered and holds centrality in the narrative. The “new woman’s” coming of age is dependent on the cultural notions of femininity and the changing socio-cultural and political factors. The audience is no longer a passive recipient of cinema; instead, it is actively involved in framing and image production. Kahaani was one such bold attempt to advocate the shifts in power dynamics where the narrative settles unequivocally through the victory of Indian womanhood against the traditional patriarch, staged through Vidya Bagchi’s characterization as the avenging mother in contemporary cinema.
A class identity is typically associated with being a well-educated Bengali.
 It is a Bengali tradition mostly performed on the last day of Durga Puja where married women smear sindoor on each other’s face.
 A word usually chanted by Bengali women on auspicious occasions to shoo away the evil spirits.
 A musical instrument in India
 A ritualised dance of worship mostly performed on auspicious festivals/ celebrations by Bengali women using an incense burner.
Chatterjee, P., Sangari, K., & Vaid, S. (1989). The nationalist resolution of the women’s question.
Gopalan, L. (1997). Avenging women in Indian cinema. Screen, 38(1), 42-59.
Kaplan, E. A. (1997). Looking for the other: Feminism, film, and the imperial gaze. Psychology Press.
Mulvey, L. (2006). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Media and cultural studies: Keyworks, 342-352.
Rao, M. (1995) “To Be a Woman,” in A.Vasudev (ed.) Frames of Mind: Reflections on Indian Cinema, New Delhi: UBSPD.
Virdi, J. (2003). The cinematic imagiNation [sic]: Indian popular films as social history. Rutgers University Press.
Priyam Sinha is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. She holds a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), India and a Bachelor’s in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College (LSR), University of Delhi. Her doctoral thesis foregrounds media portrayal, notions of stardom in contemporary Bollywood, questions pertinent to women’s entry in Indian cinemas, semantics and intersectionality of disability and sexuality in cinematic representations. As a sociologist, she foresees the role of media, culture and politics that shape marginality displayed on the screen and maps them within Media and Culture Studies, Sociology, Film Studies, Disability, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her articles have been published in The Economic and Political Weekly, The Routledge Handbook of Exclusion, Inequality and Stigma in India and The Journal of Indian and Asian Studies.
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