‘Madam Chief Minister’ on Netflix is a story about the rise of a Dalit woman as a prominent political figure in Uttar Pradesh.
The world, at large, perceives women leaders in one of two ways. They either lack the ability to perform as well as men, or have a superhuman ability to outperform men without a single mistake. Both these perceptions are sexist in their own capacity – while the former presumes that women are incapable of being leaders, the latter presumes that women are naturally sincere and cannot be deceitful and shrewd.
Neither leaves room for women to be flawed, greedy, or power-hungry; Madam Chief Minister attempts to give women the space to do so.
Directed by Subhash Kapoor (Phas Gaye Re Obama, Jolly LLB), this political thriller follows Tara Roopram (played by Richa Chadha), a feisty, fiery, confident young woman who grows to power with the help of her mentor and is forced to deal with power-hungry men along the way. The film is loosely based on Mayawati, the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and the national head of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
‘Madam Chief Minister’ Explores Power From A Woman’s Perspective
Tara belongs to a Dalit family that does not value the girl child. With her father’s death – rooted in a caste-related hate crime, Tara grows up with masculine-presenting traits. She rides a motorbike, sports a short hairdo, and does not exhibit any traditionally feminine qualities. Tara is also raised to protect herself, which she does well – even when she gets attacked for creating a scene in her upper-caste ex-lover Indramnani’s home.
What makes the film interesting is watching Tara rise to power with the help of her mentor, Master Surajbhan. Tara, who wanted to prove to Indramani that she was capable of becoming a leader, approaches Masterji. Taking note of her misguided motivations, he asks her to come back to him only if she wanted to join his party with the intention of helping the community. But through it all, Tara’s desire to hold on to power grows stronger.
Tara breaks age-old customs and develops the state well, but she also ruffles feathers through her fiery speeches and sensational actions (such as shaving her ex-lover’s head in office to assert her power). Throughout the film, she fights to stay in power and proves how far she can go to get it.
Even in the finest political dramas produced in Bollywood, there’s been an acute dearth of good representation of women politicians. Women in these films are no better than side-pieces, acting either as support systems or hurdles for men. Madam Chief Minister is different in that it focuses on the woman alone, attempting to give her character a grey shade.
Tara Uses Her Femininity To Fight For Her Place In Politics
Tara, a masculine-presenting woman, does not shy away from taking advantage of her feminine qualities to get the crowds roaring. Tara’s commanding nature and her quintessential opening line, “Kaisi lag rahi hoon? Patakha?” subvert how the crowds would see her.
Tara’s strategy to stay relevant is to address her vote bank as her family. With all the violence and resistance she endures from her upper-caste coalition party MLAs, she makes her case stronger by positioning herself as the victim. A victimised woman who serves her family day and night would be a favourite among her vote bank, after all.
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‘Madam Chief Minister’ Has A Big Caste And Gender Problem
Madam Chief Minister was controversial from the beginning. The film poster was criticised for showing Chadha holding a broom in her hand, indicating that she belonged to a lower-caste community. The makers were also criticised for appropriating the lived experiences of the Dalit community. For all this hullabaloo, the film does absolutely no justice to caste. It is missing from the narrative almost entirely, with only a handful of instances meant to instigate the viewer. Given that caste is at the root of all our social, political, and economic interactions, the story was in need of more nuance regarding caste and how it affects the sense of self, especially in the public space.
It may as well be a film about any other woman; making Tara a Dalit woman had no impact on the film. It was also a disservice to the inspiration of the film – Mayawati – who has faced several hurdles to get to where she is.
Tara Roopram’s deepest motivation to enter politics was the fact that her upper-caste, student president lover rejected her for being Dalit. Her actions throughout the film were a form of revenge towards him, which drove the story forward. For all its efforts to bring a woman politician into the spotlight, it struggled to get rid of the sexist trope of a ‘scorned’ woman and her wrath. The feminism it tried to portray fell flat.
Madam Chief Minister attempted to give a layer of complexity to a woman politician’s character. It succeeded in some ways; it failed in others. Regardless, watching a less-than-perfect woman on screen is always a breath of fresh air.
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