Hindi cinema’s long-neglected sister is finally coming into her own

Virtue is no longer her only contribution to the plot.

Never mind the title. The June 2 release Behen Hogi Teri isn’t about one of Hindi cinema’s stock characters. The Rajkummar Rao and Shruti Haasan starrer is about Gattu’s refusal to harbour sisterly feelings for Binny, his neighbour. Binny isn’t the latest iteration of the loving and long-suffering sister, who has the ability to inspire immense feeling in her male sibling.

Sisters can be aggravating (for instance, Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na, 2008, and Dil Dhadakne Do, 2015) and are often shoved aside when a hero falls in love. More often than not, they are paragons of virtue, symbols of family honour, and the ultimate representatives of selfless and selfish love.

In Mehboob Khan’s Behen (1941), Amar (Sheikh Mukhtar) raises his sister Bina (Meena Kumari) after a flood wipes out their family. He avoids the company of other women to devote himself to her. Bina grows up into a confident young woman (Nalini Jaywant) who falls in love with Harish (Rajender). Amar tries to thwart their union because he does not want to be separated from his sister.

Is it incest or brotherly love? The relationship has a cloying sweetness, never plunging into anything dark or a three-hanky melodrama. Bina sings a hilarious paean Nahi Khaate Hai Bhaiya Mere Paan in praise of her sibling. The movie has none of the edginess of Chaahat (1996), in which Ajay (Naseeruddin Shah) harbours an obsessive love for his sister Reshma (Ramya Krishna), making him do batty things to her love interest Roop (Shah Rukh Khan).

The theme of incest is more strongly explored in Raj Khosla’sBombai Ka Babu (1960), in which Babu (Dev Anand) masquerades as Kundan, the son of a wealthy man, and falls in love with his supposed sister (Suchitra Sen).

Chal Ri Sajni from Bombay Ka Babu (1960).

Several family dramas have depicted brothers raising sisters, worrying over marriage and dowry and rescuing them from tyrannical in-laws.

In the black-and-white weepie Chhoti Bahen, a 1959 remake of the Tamil film En Thangai, Meena (Nanda) is looked after by her brothers Rajendra (Balraj Sahni) and Mahesh (Rehman). She sings Bhaiya Mere Rakhi Ke Bandhan Ko Nibhana (My brother, keep your promise of protecting me from misfortune), and they stand by her when her marriage is called off and she loses her eyesight.

A prison inmate yearns to see her brother when she sings Ab Ke Baras Bhej Bhaiya Ko Babul in Bandini (1963), as if his presence alone will reduce her suffering. The soothing tune does calm her frayed nerves in the meantime.

Ab Ke Baras Bhejo from Bandini (1963).

Yet another example of a movie brother acting as a surrogate parent is in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). Prashant (Dev Anand) travels to Nepal in search of his estranged sister Jasbir (Zeenat Aman). He sings Phoolon Ka Taaron Ka Sab Ka Kehna Hai (The flowers and the stars have said it) to remind Jasbir (Zeenat Aman) of their favourite childhood lullaby. Jasbir is a hippie who is addicted to drugs. Prashant sets out to reform her. A generation of young women idolised Aman’s rebellious character for her sartorial tastes and her devil-may-care attitude, but Jasbir paid a price for adopting a Westernised lifestyle over her more austere Indian roots.

The less complicated figure is the pitiable, dependant sister, best embodied by the wheelchair-bound Renu (Farida Jalal) in Majboor (1974). Her brother Ravi (Amitabh Bachchan) sings Dekh Sakta Hoon Main (I can see everything) as he can’t bear to see her in an invalid state. Renu spends all of her screen time weeping and trying to stay put in her wonky wheelchair. Ravi Tandon’s movie doesn’t bother to explore Renu’s feelings, running the narrative from the able brother’s point-of-view.

Dekh Sakta Hoon from Majboor (1974).

Sisters have suffered far worse fates in Hindi films – they have been violently tossed onto haystacks, sexually assaulted, raped and killed. The rape-avenging brother is a common device, especially in the 1980s (such as in Aaj Ki Awaaz, 1984, and Tezaab, 1988), with the sister having little to do after her violation.

Sometimes, the sister is the one on a vendetta spree. In the courtroom drama Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980), which is a copy of the Hollywood movie Lipstick, sexual predator Ramesh (Raj Babbar) rapes the siblings Bharti (Zeenat Aman) and Neeta (Padmini Kolhapure). Without a hero or a brother in sight to save their honour, it is left to the women to seek revenge.

In Tanuja Chandra’s Dushman (1998), an unauthorised remake of Eye for an Eye, Naina (Kajol) shoots the psychotic Gokul (Ashutosh Rana) when he tries to rape her just like he had brutalised and killed her twin sister Sonia.

When not being avenged, sisters are fighting over the same man, such as in Tohfa (1984), starring Jeetendra, Jayaprada and Sridevi. In Aaina (1993), Roma (Amrita Singh) and Reema (Juhi Chawla) fight over a confused Ravi (Jackie Shroff).

Sisters are usually miserable in the movies – but they do light up in the Raksha bandhan song. These fillers offer the screen sister a rare occasion to display emotions of happiness and celebration.

Mere Bhaiyaa Mere Chanda from Kaajal (1965).

Love can bring siblings together but also drive them apart. The Goan twins Max (Shah Rukh Khan) and Shirley (Aishwarya Rai) in Josh (2000), Mansoor Khan’s loose remake of West Side Story, are flawed but engaging characters who drift apart when Shirley falls for the brother of Max’s sworn enemy.

Far more co-operative is Anamika in Onir’s My Brother…Nikhil (2005). Anamika supports Nikhil (Sanjay Suri) after he is diagnosed with HIV. In Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza (2000), the titular character (Karishma Kapoor) sets out on a dangerous mission to find her younger brother Amaan (Hrithik Roshan), who has become a terrorist.

The mother of all sister characters has to be Dalbir (Aishwarya Rai) from Sarbjit (2016). Dalbir moves heaven and earth to secure the release of Sarbjit (Randeep Hooda) after he is thrown into a Pakistani prison.

Dard from Sarbjit (2016).

Hindi movies are nearly always about heterosexual romance, but there are enough movies to show that another kind of love exists between men and women. The most convincing relationship in Zoya Akhtar’s family drama Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) isn’t between Kabir (Ranveer Singh) and Farah (Anushka Sharma), but between Kabir and his elder sister Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), a career woman stuck in a bad marriage. In the end, it’s Kabir who speaks up for Ayesha before his parents, proving that brothers always know best in the Hindi film universe.

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