Geeli Pucchi, the third short in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, is a film that will stay with you for a long time. The plot description itself is revolutionary in Bollywood terms: Bharti Mondal (Konkona Sen Sharma), a Dalit woman working as a factory labourer, develops a romantic attachment with her Brahmin co-worker Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari). Though it is produced by Karan Johar’s production house Dharmatic, it doesn’t subscribe to the usual Dharma aesthetics. There are no lavish South Delhi mansion sets, no Manish Malhotra costumes and no candyfloss romantic interludes in snowy locales. The closest the film comes to scenic display is showing the women by the banks of a generic small-town lake but even then, the camera is focused mainly on their faces.
Critics have already praised the film’s groundbreaking portrayal of casteism, workplace discrimination and the challenges faced by queer women. However, Geeli Pucchi also offers another crucial contribution: changing the mainstream Bollywood discourse around female friendships.
Bollywood has long since churned out formulaic male friendship dramas about a duo/gang of best friends coming of age or exploring their mid-life crises together, with a customary female lead (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), 3 Idiots, Student of the Year). In contrast, commercial Hindi cinema has usually limited a woman’s best friend to two roles: first, being a passive shoulder for the female lead to cry on, with no independent character arc. The second is to play the feared sautan, or the ‘Modern Slut’ to the ‘Sanskaari Madonna’. This was exemplified most in the infamous love triangle between Deepika, Diana and Saif in Cocktail.
However, the rise of the feminist movement in digital media, and its co-option by market forces, has put pressure on production houses to cater to the “women consumer demographic”. Hence contemporary pop culture is now built around selling an idealised picture of female friendship and “empowerment” to women. Prominent examples of this phenomenon include Veere Di Wedding and the OTT show 4 More Shots Please! Like their Hollywood counterparts, these movies/shows are mostly Sex and the City rip-offs revolving around upper-caste, affluent, girlboss feminists in tier-1 cities. Since these protagonists hail from the same background, their struggles are similar and there is rarely any interpersonal conflict between them beyond skin deep disagreements.
Instead, we see airbrushed narratives of women allying to fight philandering boyfriends or sexist bosses together. Even features like Bombay Begums, which include token “diverse” characters, focus more on the external conflicts and romantic entanglements of the female leads than the clashes resulting from their identity differences. Additionally, I find it laughable how the women in today’s movies/shows magically find time to do vodka shots every Friday evening or take off on impromptu foreign vacations.
Earlier, the criticism was that women were not represented. Now, the problem is that the women who are being represented aren’t representative enough. Admittedly, such demands for relatability and inclusivity aren’t made of stories starring male ensemble casts – for all the social media adoration it receives, ZNMD was a pretty first world movie). However, that does not take away from the legitimacy of the issue.
This is where Geeli Pucchi changes things. Firstly, it reveals that female friendships are not always the sugarcoated fantasies/consumerism ads as promoted in modern cinema. There are no farcical montages of the characters bonding over shopping or partying at privileged locations. Instead, it shows how domestic responsibilities limit adult women’s potential for socialising. It can be argued that even cis-men tend to lose touch with their friends for various reasons. However, women face a separate expectation to disassociate from their “earlier life” after getting married. Through the course of the film, Priya is chastised twice – first by her college best friend Kavita, and later by Bharti – for wanting to roam on a scooter with pompoms instead of devoting her attention to her child and family. This is a harsh reality which is rarely addressed in other features starring women protagonists.
Secondly, the film shows the fallout of ignoring intersectionality in “women-oriented” stories. The climax initially made me very uncomfortable, because it seemed to contribute to the notion that women are each other’s worst enemies. Isn’t that the reason why contemporary narratives put so much emphasis on female “solidarity” – to bust this stereotype – no matter how contrived the so-called solidarity might appear?
However, Geeli Pucchi exposes the ugly truth that the stories of female solidarity we celebrate on our screens are limited to a certain category of women. Even when marginalised women are included, they are expected to stay on the sidelines. Priya’s character exemplifies this mentality. Though Priya subscribes to the same casteist notions as Bharti’s employer, her performative allyship and the patriarchal oppression she faces within her household allow her to develop an illusion of shared “victimhood” with Bharti. If this film had been written and directed from the savarna gaze, it may have ended with Bharti sacrificing her love and career prospects for Priya’s happiness. Alternatively, it may have ended with Priya acting as the savarna saviour and nobly relinquishing her job to Bharti. Instead, Bharti chooses to take over the reins and reclaims her rightful spot as the person who is more qualified for Priya’s job.
In that sense, Bharti is not the stereotypical victim whom we are used to seeing in mainstream storylines. Though the implications of showing her in such a manipulative light may be debatable, the climax drives home that a solidarity which comes at the expense of maintaining status quo is a false solidarity, and is bound to fall apart. This is something Bollywood will have to address if it truly wishes to show progressive “women bonding” narratives.
Featured image credit: Netflix