It’s 4 am in the morning and I am typing this down in between intermittent sob attacks. I have the self-confidence to own up to this unabashed outpouring of emotions only because of one person, Sridevi, and one iconic character she played, Manju in Chaalbaaz.
I don’t remember the first time I watched the film. A Garware video cassette, with Chaalbaaz embossed on it in gold, was a living room essential for most of the 1990s. It was played whenever things got a little difficult, whenever someone fell sick, whenever the Kolkata monsoon got to us. In other words, it was the film equivalent of gelusil in our household.
But what I remember distinctly is the exact tune that plays every time Manju lights up the screen. I can still hum it down to the last “duwee di du tuwaa”. I still hum it when I need to get into my badass mode.
For Manju, most 1990s kids will attest, was not just a Bollywood character, she was a way of life.
Pankaj Parashar’s Chaalbaaz released in 1989. But Manju could very well have time-travelled from the India of 2049. Actually, make that 3049, considering the retrograde mode that we are on.
In her introduction scene, Manju, the long-lost twin of the meek, drug-subdued, terrorised Anju, saunters up to a bunch of goons and beats the living daylights out of them. But when things get heated up a bit too much, she goads her “bro” Jaggu (Rajnikanth), to take over. Long before millennials made listicles of being the only girl in a “boy’s gang”, Manju laid the ground rules of the game. Treat your male friends like you would treat any other friend.
Be woke women!
A con artist whose mother is in the mental asylum, Manju has a bit of an alcohol problem. The first time she meets her love interest, Suraj (Sunny Deol), she is trying to convince the bartender to let her drink some more on her tab. When Suraj offers to buy her a drink, she refuses. “Main beer apne paise se peeti hoon!” she says. Her resolve, however, is weak. After Suraj insists a few more times, she relents. “Agar aap itna keh reh hain toh…”
Her interactions with Suraj are characterised with a delightful mix of sexual candour and wit that Bollywood is still struggling to recreate. When Suraj tries to cuddle her, she playfully says, “Choro na!”. As soon as he releases her from his embrace, she says “Arre! chor diya?”.
In her disregard for the conventions of polite society and her sexual adventurousness, Manju is something of a predecessor to Veronica from Cocktail or Tanu from Tanu Weds Manu. But she is much more.
She is way more self-aware and ironic than them.
As she plots her revenge on Tribhuvan (Anupam Kher) and his scheming mistress, Amba (Rohini Hattangadi), Manju unleashes her inner fabulous. Amba is shown her place through an elaborate Raj Kumar-meets-Rekha makeup sequence (which is an obvious hat tip to Khooni Bhari Maang‘s make up scenes). Tribhuvan is whipped into submission when she is in a pink dominatrix avatar. As she emasculates the serial-molester, Batkunath, by thrashing him, she coos “Balllmaaa” into his ears. She is a camp fantasy come true.
With her neon-hued wardrobe and elaborate eye makeup, Sridevi defined campiness in the most subversive manner. Manju was a wake-up call for Bollywood in many respects, least of it because of her sartorial choices. As a character, Manju was campy, attention-seeking and a hoot but Sridevi also ensured that we see her vulnerabilities. She keeps reminding us, like in the iconic bar scene, that -“Main to sirf ek aurat hoon jo mardon ki banayi is duniya main apne shart se jeena chahati hoon”.
Truer words were never spoken.