King Uncle is a silly silly not very good movie. Did I mention silly? But it is notable for building an entire film around a female child character. Children based movies are rare enough in Indian film, but female child based films are even rarer.
This is one of those movies where you can go “oo, let’s study the changing cultural mores based on how a story is adapted!” In this case, the story of Little Orphan Annie. Which is already an interest adaptation idea, from comic strip to original film to stage play (or stage play to film? I’m not sure).
You will be completely unsurprised to learn that I went through a bit of a classic-comic-strip phase in my youth. Li’l Abner (up until the 60s when it got weird), Terry and the Pirates, and lots and lots of classic Chester Gould Dick Tracy. For me, the golden age of American comics were the 30s through 50s, when the Tribune syndicate and old Colonel Potter ruled everything. Colonel Potter had strict rules about he found acceptable and unacceptable in comic strips. Insane vigilante violence in Dick Tracy=totally fine! But Brenda Starr portraying a single working woman and written by a single working woman=unacceptable, and not to be syndicated until after his death.
(I love Brenda Starr. Broke my heart when the strip ended while I was in college)
I want to give that background, because it’s important to understand where the original Little Orphan Annie was coming from, and how she changed through her various variations. And what that says about how young women are usually portrayed in public culture.
Little Orphan Annie, in the original stories, was an adventurer. Yes, Daddy Warbucks was there. But he was the “boring” part of the stories. Annie traveled on her own, with her dog Sandy and her allies and enemies. And then Daddy Warbucks entered the story and officially “adopted” her, but she was constantly being kidnapped or otherwise separated from her home, so she could go off and have more adventures.
This was a young female character who was the hero of her own story. She wasn’t there to “support” some one else, or just sit around waiting to be rescued. She was out there rescuing herself, and others. And she never sat around.
The comics at the time were read by young people, young people of all classes and ages, 6 to 26. Annie spoke to them, as a model for a female hero who didn’t need a man, either as a father or as a lover. And as a model for a new America, one that was in the throws of the Depression, where nothing seemed secure, not even your new adoption into a millionaire’s household.
And let’s see what they did to her in the 80s! Suddenly, it was all about finding a “home”. And being “rescued”. And being “protected”. And, most of all, about “teaching people lessons”. Annie existed primarily to make other people learn things, whether it was millionaire Daddy Warbucks or President Roosevelt.
It’s this 80s version that hopped across the ocean and landed in India with King Uncle. But there were some further twists to it here. In some ways, it brought back Annie’s “specialness”.
Daddy Warbucks never had a chance for a family, Annie is a wonderful little girl, but it is possible that he would have reacted in a similar way to any child who entered his life. But in King Uncle, Jackie Shroff already has a family (because who in Indian film doesn’t? And if he didn’t, that would have been a whole story on it’s own!). Part of Pooja Ruperal’s “job” in the film, in fact the biggest part of it, is to teach Jackie how to be better to the family he already has. And only her extra specialness can help her do that.
(Yes, Pooja Ruperal from DDLJ)
In some ways, this is a very progressive film. Pooja is the central character, and her relationship with Jackie is the most important in the film. Shahrukh’s little love story plays out in the prologue and epilogue and otherwise doesn’t seem to much matter. Even Jackie’s love story is mostly played for laughs. But Pooja, a pre-adolescent female with no love track at all, is the “hero” of the film, the one who guides all the others. And she is allowed to do this while still being fairly selfish and “naughty”, not a saintly little angel.
All of that’s great! I love it that we start out thinking this will be a standard romance with family problems, with Shahrukh arriving home from school and professing his love for poor girl Nagma only to be thrown out by his mean big brother Jackie who only cares about money.
I love that we stop watching this story line almost immediately, and instead see Jackie interacting with Pooja. I really love the twist to the Annie story, with Pooja getting her own self away from the orphanage, by hiding in Jackie’s car, and then blackmailing him to let her stay with him.
I could do without Pooja being forced into a feminine mold, having to wear fancy dresses and braids instead of her orphanage unisex outfits. I could also do with out the kind of creepily sexual romance between Jackie Shroff and Anu Aggarwal (speaking of creepily sexual, check out her FilmFare interview about her life post-fame). But I don’t want to do with out Nivedita Joshi Saraf’s storyline.
On the surface, this is another helpless woman story. But in this case she really is helpless. And the onus is, properly, placed on the people who got her into this situation to get her out of it. She is Jackie’s little sister, the middle child in their family, overlooked and forgotten and taken for granted. Not just by Jackie who uses her as a housekeeper and marries her off for dowry without a second thought. But even by Shahrukh, the “good” brother, who runs off and marries for love and starts his own life without a glance back to the sister who raised him.
After Jackie is properly trained and improved by Pooja, he tracks down Shahrukh. And, finally, Nivedita gets her due. Because Shahrukh refuses to make up with Jackie until he rescues there sister from her unhappy marriage. Both brothers together go to rescue her, as is right, the patriarchy taking responsibility for their sins. And both brothers then give her away in marriage to the man she loved all along. That’s nice!
So, what does all this have to do with Dear Zindagi? Well, a couple of things! First, Shahrukh once again playing second or third or 4th lead in a film. Like he did way back at the beginning of his career, when he was just the cute guy hired to play Jackie’s little brother.
Second, more importantly, what kind of a young female character are we going to have leading this film? Is she going to be an unattached adventurer? Or is she going to be there to teach a lesson to others? Is she going to need to be civilized and feminized as part of her character journey? Is she special, somehow able to reach those who were otherwise unreachable?
(These dress scene makes me nervous. Her switching to dresses from jeans better not be a symbol of her increasing mental health!)
Or, I hope, is this all going to flip on its head? Is the young woman, for once, going to be the flawed one, the one who has to grow and learn in ways unrelated to physical appearance? And is the older man going to be the one whose only purpose is to support the journey of our main character?