In Mrinal Sen’s Interview (1971), Ranjith’s character roams the streets of Calcutta and boards a local tram in a shot that captures his determined, relaxed grace. Cigarette in hand, at ease with his surroundings, part of a crowd that envelopes him without overshadowing him. The French poet and art critic Charles Baudelair first referred to the imagery of the flâneur in the mid-nineteenth century, describing a modernist sensibility particular to Paris, which later took on transnational evocations.
Described as a “connoisseur of the street”, “a passionate spectator” of urbanity; the cinematic flaneur is similarly painted as a man of the world. He is comfortable in his own skin, and the world, with all its clamour, is his to partake in. Historically, it has been hard to locate women characters in surroundings like these - where city landscapes offer them a space to unwind. The idea that space isn’t neutral was first introduced by French sociologist Lefebvre, albeit without expanding on the very apparent nature of gendered rights within urban spaces. Feminist introspection rooted in film culture can give us a space to explore this dynamic.
There are numerous songs and picturizations where we glimpse the nomad-like ability of cinematic heroes to coast along city streets without being subject to a collective gaze that sexualizes them. From Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awaara Hoon’ to Ranbir in ‘Ilaahi’ - men have wandered aimlessly for decades. Do female characters get this opportunity? Movies that feature roadtrips have also heavily featured male friendships, from Dil Chahta Hai (2001) to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), with female co-travelers only coming into focus as love interests. Several movies have attempted to show women in lead characters as equally capable of autonomy in the public space, but they seem to place these protagonists in special positions - an impulsive vacation abroad after a canceled wedding (Queen; 2013), a revenge thriller involving a private investigative quest (Kahaani; 2012), a female inspector upending the networks of a child-trafficking cartel (Mardaani; 2014). But we are not all spies, solo-travelers, and IPS officers; there is a vacuum of documentation of the quotidian simplicity of mundane realities. The cost of an unlit road, an unsafe highway route, an unwarranted sexual advance in a closed space - this everyday reality severely limits the ability of women to experience life in its vast expanse.
In NH10 (2015), Meera (Anushka Sharma) is a Gurgaon-based corporate professional who is seen traveling back to her office after ditching a late-night party for a critical product launch. On her way back alone, when she gets attacked by thugs, she somehow manages to not let the shock take over and hits the gas pedal with everything she has - miraculously escaping a situation few women would be able to. Here we witness the meaninglessness of her ‘equal’ place in affluent society. The cops tell her husband, Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam), that he should have been accompanying her. He lowers his eyes in response, as the cop advises the couple to apply for a gun license. “This is a city learning to stretch its limbs - growing pains are inevitable”, he says, referring to the ‘naturalness’ of unsafe roads and the stupidity of women who choose to lay claim to them. When Arjun asks her if she is open to carrying, she responds in steely sarcasm.
“Ab Gurgaon badhta baccha hai, toh gun toh mujhe leni padegi na.” Naturally, she says, since the city is maturing, it’s her who needs to carry a lethal weapon.
This scene is incremental in detailing a painful reality of modern life and women’s place in it: no matter the height of your achievements or the class-protected bubbles you inhabit, your city is not your own. Not completely.
Ranjani Mazumdar, in her book ‘Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City’ documents how early postcolonial cinema unfairly focused on the one-dimensionality of female characters. On one hand, we have ‘vamps’ - showcased as the prostitute, the gold-digger, the wench, the adultress, the wanton woman who facilitates the ‘degeneration of the cities’. The second picture sanitized and flattened female personas to create a sculpted image of the ‘traditional Indian woman’ who was sacrificial, forgiving, doting as a wife, and readily possessed maternal instincts. These trends were particularly sharp in the 1960s and 70s, with movies like Mere Jeevan Sathi (1972), Sachcha Jhutha (1970), Anamika (1973) and Zanjeer (1973). Making the woman the conduit through which a nation assesses its purity made female representation on screen restrictive and caricaturish; the gendered occupation of public spaces was now seen through this lens of judgement. Women’s relation to the city spaces then, can be seen as part reality, part abetment through formulaic tropes that determined who is a respectable inhabitant, and who defies an imposed morality of conduct. There were, however, refreshing examples of movies that did not stick to this mould, and explored the working woman’s relation with the outside world. Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) is a breathtakingly realistic account of a middle-class homemaker in Calcutta who lands a job as a saleswoman to share the burden of financial responsibility along with her husband, in the fraught economic conditions of post-independence India. We see this doe-eyed, timid, stay-at-home wife’s confidence and authority blossom, as she transverses city-life and escapes her insecurities to become a formidable employee at the company. Progressive as this was, especially for its time, Satyajit Ray wasn’t batting for the woman to move about the city as a flaneur, as a canvasser of human experience.
The roots of this freedom were borne out of circumstance; her husband losing his job, and the family not being well off.
Examples of cinematic works that capture the natural curiosity of the female streetwalker have been few and far in between. Ayan Mukherjee’s Wake Up Sid (2009) is one such needle in the haystack. Ayesha (Konkana Sen Sharma) takes her time to find her place in the city, and the film has a wanderlust aesthetic that stems from female agency with a desire to explore whimsically; it helps that she is a writer by profession and lands a job at the local magazine, Mumbai Beat.
The romantic plot is an afterthought, it is Ayesha and her relationship with the city that counts for the movie’s charm. For Walter Benjamin, the flâneur was a “panoramically situated” spectator who absorbed the urban spectacle through a random selection of visual impressions. A keen-eyed chronicler of life, set apart from the passive observant of the quotidian. Although cinema has long bypassed the vamp-heroine distinction and their relation to street life; urban sensibilities are not free of their own restrictions. The collective push to bring women to the streets as equal inhabitants of their cities is currently missing. To excavate new stories, to maximize the spatiality women occupy, is to give them a space apart from functional life roles to be played on screen. It is to say that you have the right to have a sense of idleness, to exist in incognito, to be an invisible force in the city, and to walk in a space like you own it.
Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.
Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.