Iconic filmy dialogues pepper the mundane minutiae of our everyday lives with some much-needed punch and melodrama. What would Bollywood be without these dialogues, timed so perfectly that the audience cannot help but have a visceral reaction? Before the multiplex turned the Indian middle-classes into decorum-maintaining-overpriced-popcorn-buying “polite” moviegoers, audiences across the mass-class divide would routinely show up for repeat viewing to dialogue-along with the stars on screen.
(Click on a movie quote to enlarge.)
Deewar’s most memorable sequence is two brothers reuniting on the same footpath where they grew up in abject poverty and grief. Hearing Shashi Kapoor puff up his chest and say “Mere paas maa hai” (I have our mother) still retains the power to move the staunchest Bollywood snob.
To state the painfully obvious — not only does the entire repertoire of iconic dialogues belong to male actors, they were also spoken by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Amrish Puri, Dharmendra, Prithviraj Kapoor and Shahrukh Khan. In this excessive repertoire of men and their words for decades, what have the women said? I know what you’re thinking: “Mere Karan Arjun aayenge” (My Karan Arjun will arrive/show up).
“What would Bollywood be without these dialogues, timed so perfectly that the audience cannot help but have a visceral reaction?”
But before we delve into the world of dialogues spoken by women, let us consider what makes a dialogue iconic, cult, and most of all memorable.
It has to achieve a level of synthesis across the visions of the scriptwriter, the actor, the director, and the cinematographer, along with the overall screenplay and editing. Amitabh Bachchan infused life into Salim-Javed’s “angry young man” and so congruous was this blend that it is impossible to attribute the cult status of this character to one factor over another.
There is also the matter of timing: the dialogue must be delivered at the right moment, not a second before or after. The actor must also be able to intelligently draw upon the myths of their own image for the dialogue to really etch itself in the minds of the audiences. The angry young man cannot be a stuttering stalker and the psychotic hero-villain cannot be sabka “baap”.
In the notoriously nepotistic and disorganized world of Bollywood, the divisions between director, scriptwriter, and dialogue-writer are not so neat. There is hardly ever a copyrighted bound script to begin with. All manner of people from the producer to the lead actors’ mothers are known to interfere with writing, editing, and cinematography. Directors often prefer to write the dialogues themselves.
Dialogues have also overwhelming been written by men. No woman has won a Filmfare award for writing dialogue till date. There are however, a handful of women who work with script and dialogue: among others, there is Juhi Chaturvedi, who has won the IFFA Award, Star Guild Award, Zee Cine Award and the National Film Award for her dialogues for Vicky Donor and Piku, Honey Irani (known more for story and screenplay for films like Aaina and Lamhe) Anvita Dutt Guptan (notably she wrote dialogues for Queen) and Rekha Nigam (Parineeta).
Things are a tad better in the world of screenwriting: Bhavani Iyer (Black and co-credits for Lootera and Guzarish), Shibani Bathija (Fanaa, Khabhi Alvida Naa Kehna), Shagufta Rafique (Woh Lamhe) and of course, recently, Kangana Ranaut, have been making some controversy-laden inroads into the world of screenwriting and dialogue. Besides the obviously skewed gender ratio, it is also infamously difficult to get a “break” or get the powers that be to notice your script unless you have some combination of luck and personal connections.
“Let us delve into some of the memorable dialogues spoken by women on screen.”
Keeping these factors in mind, let us delve into some of the memorable dialogues spoken by women on screen. I would like to bracket my choice of dialogues with a few disclaimers:
First, it is often the case that the female actor suddenly says something somewhat digressive in an otherwise conservative and cringe-worthy narrative. This small space of negotiation is important.
Second, as it goes without saying, women can write excellent dialogues for male characters and vice-versa.
Third, I have not watched ALL the films and do not know every dialogue. Readers are welcome to add to this list.
Most of my picks are from recent films, with the exception of one magnum opus, because I’m a huge Madhubala fan. After all, gender is not biological, it is only a performance, and so we turn to Bollywood to turn up the drama and really put the filmy in film. In no particular order:
“Main apni favourite hoon” (I am my favorite.)
— Kareena Kapoor as Geet, Jab We Met, (Dialogue by: Imtiaz Ali)
“Agar baghwan ko dekhne ke bajai sab mujhe ghoor ke dekh rahein the, toh it’s not my problem” (If everyone [at the Mandir] was staring at me, instead of at God, then it’s not my problem)
— Kareena Kapoor as Poo, Khabhi Khushi Khabhi Ghum, (Dialogue by: Karan Johar)
There is a lot to admire about Kareena Kapoor’s sense of self-worth and much of it spilled into some of her most memorable characters: Geet and Poo. Though Geet and Aditya effortlessly passed the manic-pixie (or should we say, Punjabi Pixie) baton back and forth through the film, the character of Geet was most of all defined by a flurry of words to fill up the all the space on screen. Rarely have female characters in Bollywood been given this much volume in dialogue. Geet had an opinion on everything, and we loved her for that.
As for Poo, she was the best thing in that drab moralistic family saga about obedience and loving your parents, mostly because she’s so atypical in a movie filled with characters trying to out-self-sacrifice each other. Poo is way too busy for all this rona-dhona. She has many fun things to do instead of pander to the whims of some elitist patriarch: for instance, rate men based on her three important categories (good looks x 3) and turn up at prom slaying in red leather bellbottoms looking, as usual, extremely PHAT. [Unsurprisingly, Poo’s dialogues from K3G also happen to be some of the popular among women and girls on video messaging app Dubsmash.]
These characters are entirely suffused with Kareena Kapoor’s persona and her endless diva gestures. From the moment she stepped into the world of Bollywood, she proudly owned her entitlement and displayed her clout at every possible occasion. She was branded as brash and arrogant with her worried father asking her not to speak as though she was Shahrukh Khan. Why not? She retorted, and went ahead and demanded the same pay as SRK for Kal Ho Na Ho. She was immediately dropped from the project.
Undaunted and unapologetic about being an out and out commercial actress, she also remained unfazed by box office flops. She is one of the very few female actors who has not bothered to mince words about her relationship status — and most of all — admitted to being in a live-in relationship. She has been fearless all the way — from her bizarre blonde hair phase, to the size zero madness and the proud pregnancy photo-shoots.
As film critic Raja Sen once wrote, “Her films may tank in theatres, may be savaged by critics, but Kareena isn’t out to prove herself, or her stardom: she walks away from the debris with her memorable chin held up, her head high, her hips sashaying invincibly past the doomed rubble of a ruinous Friday. And when the films do click, she smiles like she knew they had to.” All we can ask her is this: “tum apne aap ko bahut pasand karti ho na?” (You like yourself A LOT, don’t you?)
“Kya Sharma ji, hum thode bewafa kya hue, aap toh badchalan ho gaye” (What is this Sharma Ji, just because I became a little unfaithful, you crossed the line into immorality?)
— Kangana Ranaut as Tanuja Trivedi in Tanu Weds Manu 2
“Darte toh hum kisi ke baap se bhi nahin hai” (I am not scared of anybody or their dad)
— Kangana Ranaut as Tanuja Trivedi in Tanu Weds Manu 1 (Dialogue for both by: Himanshu Sharma)
Tanu Weds Manu (1 & 2) are both replete with memorable dialogues. Besides that, these films also gave us some of the spunkiest female characters we have seen in recent times: Tanuja Trivedi from Kanpur, Datto from Delhi University and definitely not the least, Tanu’s best friend Payal (who quietly gets an artificial insemination and dryly observes: “mardangi bhi yeh log sperm count se naapte hai” (They measure their masculinity through their sperm counts).
What I love about the dialogues here is really the use of the word “badchalan” (immoral). Rarely has that word been associated with men — all we have ever heard of is the caricature: “badchalan aurat” (immoral woman). Tanu declares that betrayal is a trivial thing compared to immorality, wonderfully blurring the boundaries of what exactly can be filed under each category.
If a female actor in the industry today has even fewer fucks to give than Kareena Kapoor, it has to be Kangana Ranaut. She has time and again proven that she is really not scared of anybody’s baap — not her own, and definitely not the current reigning daddy of Bollywood.
“Jo karna tha, woh karna tha” (What had to be done, had to be done)
— Anushka Sharma as Meera in NH10 (Dialogue by: Sudip Sharma)
NH10 is a terrifying film — and marks Bollywood’s entry into the slasher genre. Anushka Sharma produced the film herself. We see everything from casual sexism at the workplace, a car followed and attacked on a foggy winter night, a brutal honor killing, abusive messages for women scrawled on walls, and finally a clueless rich Gurgaon girl running desperately through the badlands of Haryana trying to save herself and her impetuous husband who dragged her into this mess.
What is most chilling about this film is how close to home it hits: two starkly different worlds are caught up in an uneasy co-existence and there is no way of knowing when one can crash into the other. The consequences are horrific. It is also a revenge fantasy film: in the end (after taking care of the three honor killers who have been chasing her through the film) Meera lights a cigarette, gathers the remaining dregs of her sanity, and picks up her weapon — a steel rod. It screeches painfully along the pavement as the sun finally rises on that endless night: “Jo karna tha, woh karna tha.”
“Kaneez Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar ho apna khoon maaf karti hai” (This servant forgives Emperor Jalauddin Mohammad Akbar for murdering her)
— Madhubala as Anarkali in Mughal-E-Azam (Dialogue by: Wajahat Mirza).
Mughal-E-Azam is possibly the most quoted film in the sub-continent and an epic on such proportions that I don’t have anything more to say except the usual platitudes. Mughal-E-Azam is also a film written by poets. The word used to describe the extent of the wounds on Prince Salim’s body after a battle is beshumaar. This is probably why Nasreen Munni Kabir found it quite necessary to write a book entirely on the dialogue of this film.
Anarkali’s metamorphosis from a trembling timid kaneez who simply faints at the appearance of the mighty Emperor Zil-e-Illahi Sheshenshah Alampana Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar to a to woman declaring her bekauf mohabbat in open court is indeed breathtaking. Years later, Anarkali’s song of defiance also became the anthem for the emerging LGBTQ movement in the country. No words could possibly be more fitting: Parda nahin jab koi khuda se/baandon se parda karna kya (When there is nothing to hide from God/Why should we hide from men?).
“Baba said potty was like mango pulp” and “Who needs hot water to wash their pacha (ass)?”
— Deepika Padukone as Piku in Piku (Dialogue by: Juhi Chaturvedi).
I can’t remember another Hindi film heroine whose dialogues revolved around potty and constipation for almost the entire duration of the film. Padukone delivers them like she’s never known another life: dissecting timing, color, consistency, remedies.
This is hardly out of the ordinary in the average Bengali household, we’re hypochondriacs obsessed with digestion. NBD. All this scatological talk is everyday life — but never seen before in a Bollywood film.
Also, rarely found: a leading lady who’s impatient, somewhat unreasonable, relentlessly dry, cantankerous, and has no qualms discussing graphic details of her father’s shit over meals or dates. This film is really the one about loving your parents — matter of fact, frustrating, unreasonable, and challenging. In other words: life.
“Main Delhi ki nahin, India ki “The Best” wedding planner banungi” (Not just Delhi, I’m going to be best wedding planner in all of India)
— Anushka Sharma as Shruti Kakkar in Band Bajaa Baraat (Dialogue by: Habib Faisal)
BBB is one of the few films where we see the lead pair’s relationship happen through actual conversation (as opposed to stalking, or say immediate janam janam ka (forever) love after exchange of minor pleasantries). It vies with Tanu Weds Manu for a film strewn with quotable quotes, bread pakode ki kasam.
Shruti Kakkar from Janakpuri, New Delhi, is one of my favorite characters from our new multiplex cinema. Her ambitions and meticulous plans for career progression do not mysteriously disappear the moment romance and heartbreak enter the narrative. She quietly picks up the pieces, swallows her embarrassment, accepts what she cannot control and keeps a logical head on her shoulders. She finds herself a potential groom who is into the idea of a Shaadi Mubarak Dubai Branch. You go girlfriend.
“Permissan leni chahiye” (You should ask for consent)
— Huma Qureshi as Mohsina in Gangs of Wasseypur (Dialogue by: Anurag Kashyap)
Permissan leni chahiye. Read that sentence again. End.
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Tupur Chatterjee is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Radio-TV-Film at The University of Texas at Austin. She works on gender, space, architecture, and popular culture in India. Find Tupur on Twitter at @tupurc5.