THE PROMOTIONAL TRAILER of 7 Khoon Maaf—Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest feature, advertised as the “story of Susanna and her quest for love with seven husbands”—opens with an image of the protagonist in a pair of dark glasses, that time-honoured manifestation of mystery, of an inner life protected from the public gaze. Just what, besides her eyes, is Susanna hiding? What is her secret? A voiceover offers a clue, the notion that every wife, at some point, has thought of freeing herself from her husband. Forever. The insouciant title hints at how Susanna intends to obtain this freedom, seven times over, and towards the close of the clip, she releases a ghoulish cackle over a witch-like pronouncement: “This time, I’m going to drink his blood.” There’s little doubt that Susanna is a femme fatale who keeps gaining freedom from earlier husbands, keeps gaining newer husbands, but the question of interest in the context of the auteur Bhardwaj’s career, a question we’ll have to wait for the film’s late February release to answer, is what she loses. Other than, of course, those husbands.
For loss has been a constant with Bhardwaj’s female characters, those artful amalgams of the traditional preserves of the male and the female, strong and simultaneously manipulative and vulnerable. Chunni, the plucky, pint-sized protagonist of Makdee, loses her sister Munni. Nimmi, the reincarnation of Lady Macbeth in Maqbool, loses her status as the older ganglord’s prized mistress, and, eventually, her sanity. Biniya, the little girl from The Blue Umbrella, loses her blue umbrella. Dolly, the tragic Desdemona stand-in from Omkara, loses her bejewelled cummerbund, a family heirloom entrusted to her by her husband. Keya, the unsuspecting wife from Blood Brothers, loses her husband when he flees home under the misconception that he has AIDS. So too, Sweety, the spunky go-getter from Kaminey, who loses her husband through entirely different circumstances, because she deceived him. In the films with happy endings, these losses are repaired—Chunni regains Munni, Biniya locates her umbrella, and Keya and Sweety are reunited with their spouses. The tragedies, however, take a different tack. Nimmi and Dolly suffer the biggest loss of all—they lose their lives.
But regardless of their fate, these are strong women, often stronger than their men. Makdee opens with a homegrown posse of masculine characters—villagers all; the local priest, dhobi, policeman, butcher—in pursuit of a boy they suspect of thievery. The chase ends abruptly when the boy darts past a gate and into the courtyard of a dilapidated dwelling, rumoured to be the haunt of a witch. The men look on from outside while the boy taunts them. “You come in… Come on, Come on!” But no one will step in, not even the schoolteacher who declares he does not believe in ghosts and witches. Instead, the men begin to beseech the witch to do what they now find themselves too terrified to do. The priest calls out, “I hope the witch turns him into a dog! He pilfered from the temple donation box. Heretic! Sinner!” The dhobi adds, “Madame Witch! Madame Witch! Please turn him into a donkey. He has pinched too many clothes from the riverbank.”
In the midst of these men waiting for a woman to punish the boy they no longer can or will, the policeman cries out, “Is there anyone with the guts to go inside? Is there?” And then, from behind them, the gauntlet is picked up. A tiny voice pipes up. “There is. I shall go in.” It’s Chunni, who brushes past the men and enters the courtyard. Somewhat emboldened by the presence of an unexpected leader, the men follow, cautiously. The scene ends in an amusing anticlimax when a loud noise erupts from inside the house and the motley crew scrambles for the security of the other side of the gate—a frightened Chunni is the leader of this exodus. Her bravery was just bravado, and yet this little girl displayed more steel, more strength than the grown-up men around her, and it is this strength that will help her free Munni from the witch’s clutches. Later, her exasperated father rebukes her, “Just who do you think you are, Amitabh Bachchan?” She is, apparently. By the end, she overcomes the villain and liberates her people from the shroud of superstition. She is celebrated at a public meeting and honoured as, if not a hero like Bachchan, then “the heroine of the village.”
Biniya, the solemnly self-aware little girl of The Blue Umbrella, is something of a heroine too, stronger in many ways than the men around her. When a cobra raises its hood in the proximity of her humble home, her grown-up brother—a champion wrestler, whose mere presence instils fear in people—rushes inside, while Biniya charges at the snake with an extended umbrella and drives it away. The fake moustache that she sports on her person, early on, may only be half in jest—at least in this scene, she’s the man of the house. When her umbrella goes missing, she’s distraught, but instead of sulking and weeping like the little girl she is, she resolves to do something about it. She enlists the support of the police and discovers that Nandkishore, the local shopkeeper, is the thief. It’s no accident that her journey of discovery is intercut with a wrestling tournament—hers is as single-minded a fight as that of the contestants, the retrieved umbrella her glittering trophy.
But the real reserves of Biniya’s strength aren’t glimpsed until she unmasks the culprit and exposes him as a thief, a fraud, which causes the villagers to ostracise him. Desperate to rejoin the community, when Nandkishore attempts to slip into a wedding procession, he is insulted and ridiculed. He slumps on the road, crestfallen, and as the procession forges ahead, a tiny stationary figure is revealed at its tail. It would appear that Biniya will choose this moment to absolve her sinner, but she turns away. Not for her public displays of grandiloquent emotion. Instead, this girl, wise beyond her years, turns up at Nandkishore’s shop, now frequented by nobody. Without fuss, as if nothing had ever happened, she makes a small purchase. She points out to Nandkishore that the water in his kettle is about to boil over. He turns to attend to it, and when he looks for her, she’s gone, leaving behind her precious umbrella. It takes a minute for him to register this most grown-up of gestures, and then, umbrella in hand, he sprints after her in the snow. When he catches up, she smiles and says, simply, “This isn’t mine.”
Keya, from Blood Brothers, wears her strength equally lightly, equally disdainful of exhibition. At first, she appears as a no-nonsense career woman like any other. When her husband stops their car and steps out to make a business call, she gives voice to her impatience. “AJ, should I call a cab? I really don’t want to be late for work.” But at home, Keya transforms into a uniquely self-possessed wife. If she’s hurt and angry about being abandoned by her cheating husband—he receives news that he has AIDS and he runs away; the medical report is actually someone else’s, who shares the same name—she does not express hurt or anger or displeasure when he returns. It’s hard to see what she feels about him anymore—just that she wants him to tell his namesake as soon as possible. Like Lady Macbeth’s good-hearted doppelganger, she incessantly urges her man to carry out an unpleasant task. First, she’s nice: “You owe him the truth.” Then necessarily nasty: “It’s your duty, dammit. Tumhe karna hi hoga. You can’t afford to be like a coward, AJ. Not again.”
Nimmi, on the other hand, is all Lady Macbeth. She not only urges her man in Maqbool, but aids and abets him by inebriating and thus incapacitating the loyal bodyguard of Abbaji, her much older lover. The servant can no longer guard his master, and the coast is cleared for the dithering Maqbool to carry out his unpleasant task. And later, during the restaging of the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, it’s Nimmi’s strength that sustains Maqbool. He falls in fear, and she takes control—like Sweety in Kaminey, the firebrand who grabs a literal firebrand to ward off the gangsters walloping her husband, the stuttering Guddu, on their wedding day. She then kick-starts her scooter and drives away, Guddu cowering behind her. It’s subsequently revealed that she drew him out of his shell and enrolled him in speech therapy and eventually initiated a sexual encounter. (Her reckless words to him while he rummages for a condom: “I don’t want anything between us.”) If Guddu overcame his crippling self-consciousness, it’s because of Sweety’s strength.
Dolly, from Omkara, is a like-minded conspirator in engineering her romantic destiny. Left to his own devices, Omi, the gangster not as surefooted with girls as with guns, might have sublimated his desire with the shyest of glances, but she forces him out of his shell and forces him to take responsibility for his love. Pressured by family, she puts herself through an engagement ceremony with someone else, but later, when preparing tea for a visiting Omi, she drops her engagement ring in his teacup—a dreg of her feelings in the dregs. Then, deciding to give up her life (or merely pretending to decide to give up her life), she writes him a note, asking him to add her name to the list of his victims. But once he whisks her away, Dolly becomes docile—as if she’d expended all her energies in obtaining him, and had none left to hold on to him—and Indu, the wife of Langda Tyagi, this film’s Iago, steps up to suggest strength. Disgusted by Omi’s revelation that he suspects Dolly, Indu doesn’t lash out—quietly, very quietly, she says it’s not his fault but the fate of women to be thus humiliated. She tells him that if he has in him an iota of doubt, he should not marry Dolly—she’ll take care of the rest. By the film’s end, she morphs into its avenging angel. Even Omi cannot bring himself to kill the deceiving Langda—so consumed by shame and guilt is he that he blows a bullet hole through his heart, and it’s left to Indu to do the hero’s work of vanquishing the villain.
In Bhardwaj’s heroines, these ‘masculine’ reserves of strength are tempered with and balanced by ‘feminine’ ways and wiles. His women are also canny negotiators and manipulators. After lovemaking, when a sated Omi tells Dolly that she can have anything she wishes—an unwavering “Dashrath ka vaada”—she, with Kaikeyi-like slyness, asks him to forgive her friend Kesu, who has been cruelly shut out from Omi’s life. Biniya refuses to return the umbrella (that’s been borne her way by the wind) to its original owners, Japanese tourists, and when they express an interest in her bear-claw locket, she negotiates the umbrella in exchange. A housewife from the village who later covets this umbrella is equally manipulative, starving herself until her hapless husband yields to emotional blackmail and agrees to steal the umbrella. Sweety, similarly, blackmails Guddu into marrying her, dangling her status as a gangster’s sister as both threat and plea. And when the butcher’s adopted son—the comically named Mughal-e-Azam, whose plumpness belies his plight of being frequently deprived of food—begs Chunni for a meal, she demands that, in return, he complete her homework.
But these women and their little wiles pale before Nimmi, who is, beginning to end, a peerless puppeteer. Maqbool is at once formed by her and finished by her. In their first interaction, he steps into the kitchen for some water for Abbaji, who is choking on food. Pitcher in hand, she teases him shamelessly, asking if he isn’t thirsty anymore and if he’ll only approach her to slake his master’s thirst. Later, she instructs him that there are 12 moles on her body and wonders if he wouldn’t like a look. When he won’t respond, she steps on a nail and forces him to respond—like an obedient servant, he bathes and bandages her foot. And when Abbaji begins to shower attention on another coquette, when Nimmi realises her days as mistress are numbered, she garlands herself, like a sacrificial goat, and asks Maqbool to kill her—or kill Abbaji. At times like these, it’s difficult to discern if Nimmi truly loves Maqbool, or if he is, to her, merely a weak-willed instrument of redemption.
And yet, as with all Bhardwaj’s heroines, there is, in Nimmi, a vulnerability that assuages at least a little of the villainy. In her most naked moment, when Abbaji chides her about her incessant prayers, Nimmi replies that none of them get answered. It’s her lot to be little more than a struggling actress, a beautiful woman imprisoned by an old man she cannot bear to see naked. And after participating in his murder, her guilt drives her mad. As the owner of a most beautiful blue umbrella, Biniya is the toast of the village—enraptured children trail her in a noisily cheerful procession. But when she loses the umbrella and when Nandkishore, the new owner, usurps her place as the centre of attention, her face shrivels. It’s the one time her unnaturally grown-up demeanour gives way for a glimpse at a little girl. When Guddu cottons on to Sweety’s lies and doubts that the child she’s carrying is his, she walks away, crushed, defeated. But a few scenes later, she demonstrates her loyalty—and also desperation, for she certainly cannot return to her gangster-brother who wants to marry her off elsewhere, for politically motivated reasons—by barging into the police station where Guddu is being held for questioning and falling at a policeman’s feet. Her plight is pitiable, trapped between the devil and the deep, between cops and criminals.
Omkara’s Billo Chamanbahar is a brazen beauty, but in a vulnerable moment she allows herself to fall for a cad who promises marriage, and when she learns (falsely) that he is cheating on her, she is devastated. As for Dolly, her vulnerability is announced even before we set eyes on her, when a wedding arch bears the inscription—at first sight—“Rajan Weds Olly.” A closer look reveals that it’s an accident, the ‘D’ is dangling—and Dolly’s desires are similarly fractured. Her initial strength in snagging Omi and her rebellious estrangement from a father who wanted to marry her off to the Rajan named on the arch, give way to one-note pensiveness caused by Omi’s increasingly inexplicable coldness and cruelty. As the story approaches its conclusion, she’s a tangle of nerves, terrified out of her wits when a bird of prey drops a dead snake in the midst of preparations for her wedding. It’s only in death that she regains her vigour. Before Omi suffocates her with a cushion, she’s clasping her hands and pleading, still swearing her innocence instead of spitting at him in rage for his uncharitable doubts. But when her life ebbs away and when her hand falls from Omi’s face, there are lines of red on his cheek, where her fingers were. She’s finally discovered her strength and drawn blood.
Baradwaj Rangan is a National Award-winning film critic, currently Deputy Editor at The Hindu. His writings on cinema, music, art, books, travel and humour have been published in various national magazines. His book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, was published by Penguin in 2012.