Ah, Bollywood and its contentious relationship with women!
There’s a lot that Bollywood films get wrong in their portrayal of female characters—whether it be blatant sexual objectification to mansplaining women’s issues to excluding female narratives altogether—but one particular trope that doesn’t get talked about much is that of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Originally coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005 (while describing Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film ‘Elizabethtown’), the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has become a well-known and much talked about pop culture trope internationally. According to Rabin, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG for short) is a stock female (fictional) character who is supposed to be “stunningly attractive, high on life, full of quirks and idiosyncrasies, and who exists solely for the purpose of the hero’s self-actualization”. Basically, she’s the product of a writer’s heavily idealized wish fulfillment—someone who doesn’t have a backstory or history, who often doesn’t even have complexity in her characterization, but most appallingly, a character who cannot stand on her own when you take the man out of the equation. In Hollywood, this trope has been hotly debated and criticized in the media, but what many have failed to notice is that MPDGs have been populating our screens for decades, even in Indian cinema.
Women who exist in films merely as the love interest of the hero, who exist to advance the hero’s character arc rather than have one of their own; who are so stunning and “perfect” that their characters lack credible flaws or human traits—we’ve seen them all.
Remember Kareena Kapoor in “3 Idiots”? She had truly stood out in a film largely populated by male characters and set in an exclusively male engineering college because of her quirkiness and spunkiness. But once you really stopped to think about how much you actually knew about the character beyond her relationships with men, you would be stumped. Not only did she seem ‘perfect’, but her presence in the film seemed more like a plot device—thrown in to create conflict between the hero (Aamir Khan) and the chief antagonist (here Boman Irani’s character). If one re-evaluates and delves further into many popular female characters (especially from the so-called ‘romantic comedies’ in Bollywood) many such instances will crop up.
Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali is a serial offender when it comes to this trope, and in multiple films of his, the female characters have turned out to be overtly ‘quirky’, ‘idealized’ and exist solely for the self-awareness or coming-of-age of the man. Take Rockstar for example, where the woman exists literally so that the she can break the hero’s heart and then help him realize his potential as an artist. Tamasha, again, follows the similar formula—and the most important function that Deepika Padukone’s character has is to help Ranbir Kapoor realize that he’s ‘special’ and inspire him to get out of his dead-end corporate job. It’s important to note that in both these movies, we are never told anything about the women’s professional lives or careers (Deepika is supposed to be a successful career woman in Tamasha, but what she actually does for a living is never mentioned), but the respective hero’s professional struggle forms the focus. However, the quirkiest female character that Ali has created till date is his most popular one—Geet (Kareena Kapoor) from Jab We Met. Now, Geet is a character that always has me confused. In so many ways, she seems like the desi manic pixie incarnate—quirky, whimsical, beautiful, brings forth the self-actualization of the hero; but she’s got at least some degree of complexity (which his other women characters lack). Of course, even though she is given a history, it is also linked to another man.
All of it may sound very innocuous, and one might think, ‘what’s wrong in having a quirky woman? Or having a woman helping a man out?’; but even though this cliché might not be as brutal or as directly offensive as the ‘item number’ or ‘male-dominated film’, it’s no less sexist. It’s disturbing how frequent this stock character is in our popular culture, and how this often leads to both men and women forming harmful notions of what an ‘ideal’ woman should be like.
Not only does it set a ridiculous and incorrect standard for femininity, the trope also establishes that a man cannot learn to love a woman whose life does not revolve around catalyzing his male transformation.
But even though the clichés that Nathan Rabin had originally pointed out were legitimately harmful, and continue to be harmful, the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ itself has run into trouble in recent times. In 2014, Rabin himself had written a long apology for having coined the term, because he felt that instead of creating awareness of the “lack of independent goals in female characters”, the concept had instead accidentally ended up suggesting that ALL quirky and fun women automatically merited this trope.
It’s not hard for writers (even male writers) to write women who can have their independent contribution to a film’s plot without male influence; and there have been multiple movies made in recent times (like Queen, Piku, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and so on) where that has been made possible. Hence, to have MPDGs populate our screens seems like lazy writing. But you can actually do it, Bollywood – you can actually write love stories between men and women without turning the woman into a walking stereotype.