Pink (2016) addresses one of the most pressing yet often disregarded challenges facing our society — gender inequality, misogyny and the violence that emanates from them. The story takes place in Delhi, which has become the go-to setting for filmmakers telling tales of toxic masculinity and gender-based violence, and understandably so for its capacity to repeatedly make headlines for such incidents. Although, this could have been as appropriately set in any other state for incidents of similar nature routinely reported across the country on any given day.
The film tells the story of three young, independent, working women – Minal Arora (Taapsee Pannu), Falak Ali (Kirti Kulhari) and Andrea Tariang (played by her namesake, Andrea Tariang). On the fateful night which sets the narrative in motion, they come across Rajveer Singh (Angad Bedi), scion of a politically influential family, and his friends during a rock concert. While socializing after the concert, Rajveer forces himself on Minal who, in her self-defense, accidentally causes grievous injury to him. She is implicated in a case of assault and a courtroom drama subsequently ensues.
The makers (directors Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Shoojit Sircar and writer Ritesh Shah) take a detour from the expected narrative structure of an issue-driven film and set up the premise initially in the garb of a thriller. Right at the start of the film, in the dead of the night, we see the three women in a speeding cab visibly distressed, their expressions akin to those of perpetrators fleeing a crime scene. We see a man holding a cloth soiled in blood and pressed against his eye, two others alongside him hurriedly trying to get him to a hospital.
We’re aware that something dreadful has happened and are immediately taken in. It’s a clever move to draw the viewer quickly into the story before the courtroom drama commences which lays out the primary concern of the narrative.
The makers in their attempt to talk about misogyny, though, resort to a traditional trope of mainstream Hindi cinema which ironically is a symbol of its deeply embedded patriarchy. They choose to articulate and resolve the film’s conflict through the medium of the archetypal male savior, the ‘hero’, instead of a woman taking a lead role in voicing it. Nonetheless, this doesn’t diminish the intent of the film, and effectively conveys the ‘message’ across. The medium it deploys is the most potent and familiar voice from the industry, the most formidable exponent of ‘anger’ from its pantheon.
Amitabh Bachchan gave expression to the angst of the oppressed and deprived of this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was the most resounding voice for justice and fairness. The makers, aiming for maximum impact, rightfully appoint him as the voice that informs us of the oppression one half of our population are continually subjected to. The megastar hits a home run. He plays Deepak Sehgal, a veteran lawyer, who comes out of retirement, to represent Pannu in the assault case. He is seething yet sharp in his portrayal and seamlessly combines both the functions of playing a seasoned legal professional constructing winning arguments and a didact telling us how feudal, patriarchal mindsets have reduced women of this country to second-class citizens.
The courtroom has been the cinema’s stage for morality plays since ages. From the silent masterpiece Passion of Joan of Arc, Lumet’s 12 Angry Men to Sorkin’s Few Good Men and the recent Trial of the Chicago 7, the courtroom has allowed for sermons on right and wrong, good and evil to be imparted through emphatic and crowd-pleasing monologues. Recent mainstream Hindi cinema has its own famous illustrations of the same in its rabble-rousing plea for wronged women in Damini, in its call for cross-border goodwill in Veer Zara and in its pertinent appeal for communal harmony in Mulk.
In the heydays of his stardom during the 80s, the courtroom has been a recurring stage for Bachchan to showcase his histrionics. With his baritone and crisp pronunciation, he has time and again emphatically implored for morality to prevail in films like Main Azaad Hoon, Aakhri Raasta and Adalat. Pink is one more addition to that oeuvre with Bachchan playing the angry young man this time around in his 70s, with a fury no less forceful.
Having established the ideal premise for Bachchan, the screenplay falters in its efforts to add layers to his character beyond just making him the spokesperson for the film’s central message. He is seen to be suffering from a mental health condition and is at the same time a doting caregiver to his ill, bedridden wife. This is perhaps meant to be a measure of Deepak Sehgal, the person who practices the gender equality that he’s preaching. He is as dedicated in taking care of his ill wife as women have traditionally been for their husbands. Beyond that though, we are never able to know what led to both his mental condition or his wife’s illness.
Any connection, if at all, of their conditions with gender violence and with his voluntary and impassioned defense of the wrongly accused Minal Arora is never inferred from the screenplay either. The attempt, therefore, to hint at a backstory in order to humanize and add more dimensions to Bachchan’s character is feeble. He is the speaker for the film’s message and he is only that, albeit a powerful one.
Taapsee Pannu and Kirti Kulhari play two important functions in the narrative as victims of misogyny. Pannu’s character, the primary accused in the case, is the most uninhibited and unconventional amongst the three women. A dancer by profession, she chooses to live alone despite her parents living nearby, while fiercely and courageously defending her independence, forcing her to use violence as her defense when she feels violated. In the aforementioned scene in a speeding cab right at the start of the film, Minal Arora is shown to be completely within her wits even after a harrowing incident when she asks the driver, who has just narrowly escaped colliding with a truck, if he is drowsy and whether she should guide him ahead. She then goes on to show us, through the trauma she goes through, that a patriarchal society will go after the most liberated woman, in all its bestiality, to put her down to ‘her place’ without remorse. It is a difficult character and Pannu, who we now have come to frequently associate with similar such strong female characters. But she portrays Minal with sparkling fearlessness and vulnerability.
Falak Ali, played by Kulhari, is the most subdued of the three. She makes every effort to contain the situation and return their lives to normalcy following the horrific incident. In a crucial scene, Kulhari tries to reason it out with Bedi that they all should move on but is pushed to a point of meltdown when Bedi dismisses all her efforts to make amends and claims that all he wants is to shrink Pannu down to her size. Her’s is an assured, mature performance. It’s a pity we’ve seen so less of her since Pink.
Tariang plays a woman from the North-East but her character is not given the requisite space in the screenplay to depict anything more than just being that. So much so that it feels like she is forced to almost spell out her function in the narrative when during her interrogation in the courtroom she says,’ I think I am being harassed more than an average girl on the street because I am from the North-East’.
Piyush Mishra, as the prosecuting lawyer Prashant Mehra, is adept as the sparring partner to Bachchan’s Sehgal, hurling all the predictable accusations at the three women with the ferocity you would normally come to associate with someone anointed to restore status quo in a patriarchal society. Mishra does it with the right amount of intensity, never going overboard.
But it’s the chilling casualness with which Vijay Varma as the henchman Ankit portrays male toxicity and the accompanying penchant for violating women which adds a dreadful urgency to the message.
The characters and the screenplay make it imperative for the viewer to discuss the deplorable circumstances women in this country still find themselves in, 75 years after its independence. With incidents of discrimination and violence against them flashing across news channels and newspapers on a daily basis, the need grows acutely stronger by the day.
Years ago, Satyajit Ray had said, ‘Films don’t change society, they never have’. For all their prowess in captivating millions, they might not. But films can trigger conversations about society and the condition of women. There have been intermittent attempts towards that in Indian cinema over the decades.
Ray’s own Mahanagar and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala are better crafted and without resorting to speeches and diatribes, compellingly explore the inequality and unfairness meted out to women. But we need more of such attempts on a consistent basis to underline that they’re nowhere close to the equal footing in our society that they were promised of.
Pink will be a notable addition to these attempts. Revisiting it more than half a decade after its release and amidst the profusion of streaming platforms with all the great regional and international content, the film does come across as stagey and may not have particularly aged well. But its enduring legacy will be its core message on women, their consent and their independence, conveyed in Bachchan’s signature baritone, ‘No means No. And when someone says so, you stop.’