I started this post just after getting back from an India trip, always very challenging because of memories that haunt me not only through their high negative recall value, but also in that I often find myself reverting to the diffident, fearful person I used to be while living there. In fact, palpitation is the first to greet me at Bombay airport even now after nearly seventeen years of being an expat. But with every trip, I also find myself evolving as a person, as a woman. And of course, it is always fun to meet up with family and old friends, all of whom I hold very dear. But the highlight of this trip was Queen.
Queen is a Bollywood movie unlike any other I’ve seen. As mentioned in a previous post, B-wood cinema if you can call it that, is made mostly of predictable, formulaic themes centering on impossible flights of fancy, not-so-subtle patriarchy, and gendered stereotypes. The good news is that in recent years, film makers have been trying to push boundaries in their own small ways, no doubt a laudable attempt in an industry where success still depends on mass consumption; box office success over critical acclaim. Queen, however, stands out in its portrayal of the protagonist Rani Mehra, a middle class young lady from Delhi (“rani” is “queen” in Hindi). Even more remarkable is that it portrays Rani’s female friends – “scantily” dressed women and prostitutes – without judgment, as human beings who are far from detrimental to Rani or the plot.
Rather than discuss the entire movie, I would like to focus on a particular song which I feel captures its essence. “Hungama ho gaya” is about Rani coming into her own; this is when Rani – and the movie goer herself – experiences that moment of truth. Right before the song, a drunken Rani, solo in Paris on her “honeymoon” embarks on a monologue about how her life is over, she has no-one; she had always been a good girl who “never lied, never drank, never wore short skirts, never talked to boys, and always listened to her parents, elders, teachers, fiancé. Everyone.” Only to find herself alone, on her honeymoon, mind you. Maybe she should have loosened up a long time ago, she wonders. As “Hungama ho gaya” begins playing in the nightclub she is visiting with her new-found friend, Vijayalakshmi, Vijay for short (Vijay also happens to be her fiancé’s name), Rani joins in the fun, at one point even getting up on stage with the lead dancers.
The highlight occurs right there in the middle of all the “hungama” when she reminisces to the time she had danced at a wedding back in India. Her fiancé Vijay explodes, exclaiming how everyone was staring at her. Just what was she thinking? She should have thought of his izzat; izzat or honour is the inextricable bond between South Asian women and the default social expectations that keep them “on track.” Ironically, the only way for a woman to protect her own honour is by protecting everybody else’s, particularly that of fragile, familial male egos. Vijay’s words kam se kam meri izzat ka khayal to karo – “at the very least think of my image” – convey the fact that Rani was dishonouring him by enjoying herself at the wedding. Immediately after the flashback, Rani seems to assess the current situation against this past, and soon proceeds to untie the braid that has her curly hair firmly under control while continuing to dance with a fiery defiance. The symbolism is impossible to miss: not only is she loosening up, but her hair recklessly flying about her face brings to mind that other out-of-control woman, Kali, who defies norms in a bid to resume control of a male-dominated universe.
That “Hungama ho gaya” is a remix from a 1973 Bollywood movie, Anhonee (“Impossible”) is in itself interesting. The 1973 song portrays a drunken, and therefore wanton woman, the usual “vamp” of Hindi movies. Such women eventually find redemption in the form of “self-realization” manifested as sari-clad conformity, or rescuing by a male, or the safest, death. In a reversal of sorts, the 2014 Queen song has a drunken Rani coming into her own, with a bit of help from Vijay, the woman she just met in Paris. In bringing together the conservative Rani and the unapologetic Parisian, the theme of sisterhood becomes even more pronounced in its juxtaposition of the two Vijays in Rani’s life – her fiancé, Vijay, who stifled her personality “for your own good,” and this Vijay who helps unlock the individual in her, who helps bring her to life.
Many years ago, I came to America not of my own volition but “for your own good.” When my “probationary period” was over, I decided to stay on, rather than go back to my old life, in the process becoming a woman who had gotten terribly out of control. I persisted, despite finding myself alone (except for support from my “traditional” mum; but I’ll leave that for another time). It took much more than just a song, however, to come to the realization that this was indeed the best thing that ever happened to me. I too had always tried to be the good girl, had always tried to prove that I was “Indian” despite my Western childhood, but somehow never managed to do anything right. Movies, of course, are often abbreviated narratives about altered lives. My life, seventeen years on, is still in the process of unfolding, exploring, and it will hopefully remain in a state of flux and growth till the day I die. So, like Rani, I want to say “thank you” to the person who helped me reclaim – rather, is helping me reclaim – my soul, albeit, like Vijay, her fiancé, it had not been in the way he had hoped either.
 “Hungama” in Hindi-Urdu refers to “commotion, disorder, pandemonium.” Thus, the song implies that “things went crazy” or got out of hand.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.