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The make-up hid the bags under her eyes, but it couldn’t hide her lack of enthusiasm. She was tired of pretending that the work she was doing wasn’t affecting her.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Paint The Sky, Make It Yours”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The fourth winner of our September 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
“Ruko! Yeh shaadi nahi ho sakti!” screeched the woman, drowning under her garish saree and kilotons of bling. Thunderclaps sounded. The groom and assorted guests looked suitably shocked as the camera panned over their faces. The bride dissolved into a puddle of tears, even as her make-up remained on point.
“Cut!” called out the director. “Nishaji, your crying is fine, but in the next shot can you give an expression of betrayal before you start crying. It will be the perfect place to insert the background song of “dushman na kare, dost ne wo kaam kiya hai.”
“Okay, Madanji. Will do. Can we have a break now? I’m very tired.”
“Sure. 10 minutes. We have to shoot a lot more of the wedding special episode, so we can’t afford a longer break.”
Even ten minutes away from the brilliant, hot lights would be a relief. Nisha sat down in her chair near the portable fan and reached out for a bottle of mineral water.
“I can’t believe that it took 100 episodes for Raaghav and Bhoomii to finally get together on a wedding pandal, and the writers have introduced a new vamp even before the wedding has been solemnized!” exclaimed her co-actor, Neeti.
“Hahaha! Neeti! Even our sanskaari audiences don’t want to watch the perfect bahus all the time. They need a vamp so that they can feel superior and good about themselves. It is the Komolikas who help our stuff sell.”
“How negative, Nisha! I just hope there is no press around. What would people say if they heard that this is what their favourite character actually thinks? Already there are so many negative articles about how our daily soaps are regressive. At least we who work in these shows need to speak positively about them. See, even today there was an article.”
Nisha reached out for the smartphone that Neeti had pulled up the article on. “The Specter of the Daily Soap,” it was titled, and it had interviews with many young women who narrated how they didn’t relate to the prefect bahus in daily saas-bahu soaps, which they felt had led to unrealistic expectations they were asked to live up to. The popular serial in which she starred, Bhoomii: Sahen Shakti Ki Ek Misaal, was mentioned many times. It was evident that the silently suffering, ever-adjusting and stoic, Bhoomii, played by herself, was popular among the conservative demographic, much to the annoyance of many “modern” women who were interviewed. She handed the mobile back to Neeti without a word.
“So…what do you think? Isn’t this wrong? Didn’t we have an episode last week in which Bhoomii encouraged her grandmother to go to college and study again? So progressive that is! How can they say all these mean things?”
“Neeti, I honestly don’t care. This is just a job for me. Until I can get into Bollywood and get better roles, I need money. That is all. I can’t afford to have convictions either way.”
“Hmph,” snorted Neeti, obviously miffed, as she touched up her make-up. Break time was over. With ease, Nisha became Bhoomii again.
“Good evening viewers! Welcome to Shalini ke Saath-Saath and I am your host, Shalini! Today we are going to chat to your favourite bahu, Bhoomii. In the studio is Nisha Sehgal who plays Bhoomii and we are going to talk to her about how she feels being part of such a popular tele serial.”
Nisha smiled widely and waved to the adoring audience.
“Hi, Nisha! Welcome to the show.”
“Thank you, Shalini! It feels lovely to be here!”
“So, Bhoomii is now 150 episodes old, and already it is very popular. How does it feel to be a fan favourite?”
“Accha lagta hai. It feels really good. People recognize me wherever I go and they tell me how much they love my work. Just yesterday there was this old aunty at the mall who gave me aashirvad and told me how much she loves Bhoomii. I feel blessed!”
“But there are also people who feel that Bhoomii as a show is regressive and that when so many women are fighting for equal rights, it promotes the idea that women have to be submissive.”
“But Bhoomii is hardly submissive. It has become the fashion nowadays to criticize Indian culture in the name of feminism and liberalism. In India, we traditionally live in joint families, and it is the women who hold the family together through their sacrifices. This has always been in our culture. Women are given the position of Goddesses. And Bhoomii celebrates this.”
The audience erupted in applause. Nisha smiled, but this time, the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“What is next for Bhoomii on the show?”
“No spoilers! But I can say with confidence that Bhoomii will always be a flagbearer for our culture and traditions.”
Applause again. The anchor thanked her, and with the appropriate gestures, Nisha took her leave. Backstage, she felt bitterness in her mouth, the way she always did when she told a lie.
“So Nishaji, next week we will be shooting for our 210th episode. So this is the episode where Bhoomii’s mother-in-law throws her out of the house because she finds out that Bhoomii has been raped.”
“But Madanji, Bhoomii has been raped by her brother-in-law. I don’t see why she has to be thrown out of the house.”
“No…no. The mother-in-law doesn’t know yet that it was her younger son who raped Bhoomii no. Bhoomii also doesn’t know. They will get to know that later only. So no problem.”
Nisha rolled her eyes. Was this guy serious?
“But she has been raped. Rape samajhte hain aap? How is it her fault?”
“But wo to kalankit ho gayi na! She is not pure anymore. And it will add to the audience sympathy for her character.”
Nisha’s hand itched with the need to slap him, but she resisted. “This is just a job,” she repeated over and over to herself, like a mantra, till she felt calmer.
The 305thepisode. The revelation that the brother-in-law is the rapist. But by this time Bhoomii’s husband has already remarried, while Bhoomii is still wearing her old mangalsutra, out of her love and devotion to him.
“You rascal, you raped me! Your own bhabhi, who you are supposed to see as your own mother!” she screamed, with disgust and betrayal writ large on her face.
Neeti, playing said brother-in-law’s wife, also emoting with gusto, delivered her lines tearfully, “How could you do this?! If it were some strange woman you had raped, I may have been able to forgive you someday. But you raped our goddess-like Bhoomii Bhabhi. I can never forgive you!”
Nisha suddenly felt nauseated and her knees buckled.
“Cut! Excellent acting, Nishaji!”
Nisha smiled weakly. Only she knew that her disgust was not completely an act.
Nisha felt restless. She hadn’t been sleeping well for a long time. The make-up hid the bags under her eyes, but it couldn’t hide her lack of enthusiasm. She was tired of pretending that the work she was doing wasn’t affecting her. Saying that it was just a job just didn’t cut it anymore. Even though she tried to, she could not deny it anymore that she did have some convictions and that what she was doing went against every belief she held dear. The cognitive dissonance was eating her alive.
Madan was explaining the day’s scene to her, but she didn’t want to listen. She kept zoning out.
“Nishaji…are you listening?”
“Sorry, Madanji. I got distracted. Can you please repeat what you were saying?”
“Hmph…so the scene is that a boy has come to see Bhoomii’s sister for marriage. Now, Bhoomii’s sister, Falak, does not want to get married. She wants to become a pilot. And Bhoomii is explaining to her that marriage is the most important thing in a girl’s life. That any achievement a girl may have, it is incomplete if she does not have a man to share the happiness with. Theek hai?”
“Okay. Lights, Camera, Action!”
“Didi! Please, please tell Ma and Baba that I don’t want to get married. I want to be a pilot. I have even got the admission. A marriage now will ruin my life. It will crush my dreams. Please!”
For Nisha this felt like deja-vu. She hadn’t realized it till now, till she was in the middle of the scene, how familiar this felt. In her mind, her past flashed before her eyes. How she had made a similar appeal to her parents, how they had made her get married anyway, how her husband had turned out to be an abusive drunk, how she had escaped with her life, and how she had made a life for herself from scratch as an actor.
“You don’t want to get married?” she asked. She looked dazed, as if she were not here, but somewhere else.
“Ye…Yes”, replied her co-actor Tanushree, a little confused.
“What is your dream? Tell me.”
The line wasn’t in the script. Maybe Nisha was improvising. Tanushree decided to play along.
“I want to be a pilot. I want to earn a name for myself. I want to taste success. I am afraid that if I get married now, then I will get trapped in a domestic life. I will never be able to achieve my dream.”
“Huh…what?” Tanushree was completely confused now.
“Run. Run before they steal your dream. Run like the wind. I will help you. You are right. If you stay here, everything will go wrong. You deserve happiness. You deserve to have your ambitions. You deserve to have success.”
Nisha looked serious. There was a passion and determination in her speech. She reached out for Tanushree’s hand, as if she would really run away with her.
“What…what is happening?”
“Paint the sky! Make it yours! Come with me, I will help you make your dream a reality.”
“Madanji! What is happening? These are not the lines.”
“Cut! Nishaji? Are you okay?”
Nisha was startled. She felt awake, alert. She felt good, cleansed. As if she had set down a huge burden and that now she could finally rest.
“I’m fine, Madanji,” she said.
“Oh…okay. So shall we shoot the scene again? Your passion was good. I want the same conviction in your speech but this time stick to the lines…theek hai?”
Some things wouldn’t change so easily. But she had.
She picked up her handbag and walked out.
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: YouTube
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