Mainstream Hindi films have always shied from picking subjects that show women in positions of power outside the home. The female corporate honcho or politician is such a rare species in films as to be almost nonexistent.
It is as if the Hindi filmmaker believes that power is exclusively a male domain, and that women can only serve a decorative purpose. If they do wrest power, they become, as Shabana Azmi once put it, Little Rambolinas, or are taught a lesson in good Indian 'femaleness' by the hero.
That is why Satta, with its very 'today' kind of young woman as its protagonist, rouses some interest. Though Anuradha Saigal in this Madhur Bhandarkar movie is not without her flaws and irritants, her fearless and guiltfree attitude makes her one of a kind.
How does she compare with female politician protagonists in some other films?
Gulzar's Aandhi was a thinly disguised portrait of the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi; Suchitra Sen played a politician with a white streak in her hair and brisk walk. Gulzar wrote a character who inherits the political mantle from her father and discards her husband (a suitably docile Sanjeev Kumar) in pursuit of political power. She later regrets the decision, but it is too late to turn back the clock.
Two fairly recent films have tackled the character of the woman politician with some seriousness. Hu Tu Tu by Gulzar and Godmother by Vinay Shukla. Gulzar portrayed Malti Barve (played with dour sternness by Suhasini Mulay) with unconcealed hostility. Shukla's Rambhiben (Shabana Azmi giving it several shades) was a more complex figure who commanded pity, fear and admiration.
Both these filmmakers and Bhandarkar, however, show women politicians taking on negative male characteristics. They are all ruthless and manipulative. Only Anuradha Saigal has no personal ambition.
Malti Barve allows herself to be sexually exploited by her male mentor to get ahead. Rambhiben uses native cunning to overcome this hurdle -- she also uses her sex appeal to get what she wants, but without compromising her self-respect. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Anuradha also goes to bed with her mentor (Atul Kulkarni) -- but because she is attracted to him, and she makes no attempt to conceal the fact.
Malti Barve's husband silently watches her ascent, her corruption and her political machinations, into which she inducts her son (by her mentor). Her daughter by her husband grows up to be an aggressive, foul-mouthed tomboy (Tabu), who rebukes her mother for the choices she has made and mocks her father for allowing her to go astray.
What remains unsaid in so many words is that a wife ought to confine herself to family duties and that the husband should be firm about keeping his wife's lust for power in check.
Godmother and Satta got out of the husband problem by making the women widows. Rambhiben's husband is killed by rivals and she courageously takes his place as the community leader. Satta's Anuradha is already estranged from her wicked husband and shows no remorse either at the murder of her husband or that of her lover.
Even though Bhandarkar's heroine is very one-dimensional, in a strange way she is the most 'heroic' of the lot. Women in the audience would get a vicarious thrill to see her stand up to her autocratic in-laws, or knee her husband in the groin when he hits her.
She is forced to stand for elections, but once she wins, she does not become a puppet in the hands of the people in power. She has a mind of her own and the vocabulary to express it. She does have to compromise on her principles a little, but unlike Malti and Rambhi, she does not become a criminal or ally with criminals to hold on to her 'chair'.
The film may have bombed -- it was far too simplistic -- but Satta gave commercial Hindi films a really strong and identifiable (at least to a section of the urban populace) heroine, who is unapologetic about her own strength or about holding the reins of power.
That such a character should be played not by an unglamorous 'art film' actress but by one who is resolutely mainstream (Mast Mast, Shaher ki ladki, Ankhiyon se goli mare come to mind) is a very noteworthy point.
It may just be possible for filmmakers to create powerful female characters who are not just men in saris (or doormats in trousers), if actresses bravely play 'unpopular', non-Sati Savitri parts, and audiences start accepting that the definition of the 'ladies' picture' may have changed. Some years ago, there used to be special women-only shows held for Maherchi Saadi (in its several other regional language versions), a ten-hanky weepie about a suffering woman, now they have ladies' shows for Satta.
Does that say something?