What angers me most about Heroine, like Fashion before it, is that Madhur Bhandarkar expects us to buy into the idea of these almost manically ambitious women who will sacrifice all aspects of their well-being for success in their career yet they behave as though they know absolutely nothing about their chosen industries. If you pay any attention even to stereotypes about the Bombay film industry at all, you already know far more about it via gossip blogs and Filmfare interviews than the lead of this film seems to. I just cannot believe that someone who's been in enough films to be getting non-newcomer awards, as Mahi does, or to have spent some time as a top heroine, which Mahi is implied to be, would be surprised by the situations she finds herself in. "Journalists" are only interested in the gossip about you, not in your actual work? NO. The "edgy," "arty," award-winning Bengali filmmaker's project doesn't get released? GASP. Your hero co-star demands you be all but cut from the film when you refuse his advances? UNFATHOMABLE. Your hero boyfriend sometimes has to do racy scenes with another actress? HOW CAN THIS BE. His actual wife is rude to you in public and doesn't want you hanging around her child? UNREASONABLE B*TCH.
Why won't Bhandarkar write women who are both driven and intelligent—or at least not oblivious? It may be true that if characters in fictional stories only made good choices, and they were surrounded and influenced by people who only made good choices, then we'd hardly have any drama at all, but Bhandarkar seems to be out to try to prove that only bad or ignorant decisions are worthy of showing. There are situations in which Mahi knows precisely what's going on beneath the surface yet willfully submits to the long-term negative consequences for short-term gain, mostly when it comes to actor boyfriend Aryan, whom she lets play her repeatedly. [Editor Self: Hey, if Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife is immune to "G. SUS. H. CHRIST girl, you know better than to let this horror story back into your life!", then what hope is there for someone like Mahi?] Some of her bad decisions are then rewarded, like letting her boyfriend film them having sex or sending federal authorities after a top rival who has as much, if not more, power in the industry than she does. And then the writers turn around and punish Mahi for one of the few wise choices she makes, allowing herself to open up professionally and personally with a female colleague who then immediately abandons her.
Even if I could put all this aside for a moment and just let Bhandarkar do his "I am so hard-hitting and clever showing you how uniformly, one-dimensionally baaaaad the film industry is!"thing, it's all a colossal yawn. Selfish, petty, and scheming are one thing, but boring is quite another, and Heroine is terribly dull. There's very little heat in any of the sex* and no pleasure in the debauchery**, the dialogue is cheesy as can be, and most of the people delivering it are godawful. With the exception of Kareena Kapoor in the lead, Arjun Rampal (as her sometimes boyfriend), Ranvir Shorey, and Shahana Goswami (as the director and special appearance in the art film, respectively [of course the woman isn't the director, silly!]), the acting from everyone else is meh at best and usually much worse. I mean, somehow even Helen is not very good! How did this happen? On paper it's great to have a film filled with lots of little roles, almost a distributed Greek chorus of commentators, but somehow all of them are terrible. Like this lady. I love that she happens to be doing crazy claw hands as she's talking about Mahi being a loon. Top fake television journalism, this.
I've liked Divya Dutta just fine in other things, but she too seems to have been given, and spiritedly followed, the "hammity ham ham!" directive.
And this guy. Let alone what his role actually involves, which is of the "everyone knows non-heterosexuals are stone cold sluts" variety, he can't even deliver his fewer than ten lines in a way that didn't make me want to cover my ears.
In another case of being given nothing to work with, Mahi's sassy gay friend isn't even any fun. Just a flat, useless stereotype.
As it should, this film absolutely belongs to Kareena. All comparisons to anyone else in the film are in her favor, to be sure, but I genuinely think she did a great job. Kareena's expression of Mahi's thoughts and feelings is very watchable. If all I saw in the film was Kareena's face, which has more depth and nuance than all the other aspects of the film put together, Mahi would be oodles more sympathetic ("empathetic" was never on the table with a story like this). It's not flawless, but it's convincing, which is faaaaaaaar more than Priyanka managed in Fashion.
Unfortunately, what Kareena is never given is any kind of motivation with meat on its bones. Why does Mahi want to stay in this industry after all she's been through? Why is being a heroine important to her? Why does she never consider pursuing "success" in some other aspect of films (let alone another industry) even though we've never heard a peep about her desire to act? Mahi occasionally worries that she isn't a good actress, but that's the closest we get to any kind of thought or care about her work. She signs the art and small indie films when she's desperate, not because she freely chooses to strike out on a different path. Bhandarkar apparently does not care to tell us about that, just like he didn't really give any rationale for the lead in Fashion. That might be the most significant problem with his writing: he gives himself opportunities to write dimensional, powerful, complicated women, and then he doesn't follow through. It's all such a disappointment.
What the script does do, much to my surprise, is give two very strong moments, made all the better by Kareena's performance, of true emotional connection with other female characters, both of whom are also actors. That Mahi has real, substantial relationships with people who can understand her yet aren't exactly her peers (one, played by Helen, was in the industry long ago, and the other is in Bengali art films instead of Hindi masala) indicates to me that perhaps she needs to have a long, hard think about the world she's choosing to be a part of. I've heard people talking about how Mahi's sexual encounter with another woman is this film's equivalent of Fashion's assignment of the Indian woman sleeping with a black man as absolute rock bottom, but I don't think that's the case at all. Mahi and Promita actually share a very deliberate, relevant relationship. "I've been working with this woman for weeks, we're in similar careers, opening up is part of our jobs, and we also have a lot of fun together" is not the same as "one night I was so stoned out of my mind I slept with ZOMG a black man!" I was honestly sad when Promita got awkward and bailed; Mahi desperately needs a friend who respects her and has very little to gain from her celebrity, regardless of that person's gender or their romantic/sexual involvement.
Similarly, the final scene involving Helen's character is very moving (I won't say what it is so as not to spoil it, particularly because it's so effective), and I think Kareena is to be praised for giving Mahi's breakdown so much emotional impact without histrionics. Why wasn't the Bhandarkar who wrote and directed those moments involved in the rest of the film?
But hey, at least Heroine shows us Helen.
It also echoes back to the greatest dialogue in Fashion, if not in fact the whole of Hindi cinema ever. [Editor Self: HAHAHAHA! KIDDING!] Early in the film, a rival is trying to beat out Mahi for a jewelry endorsement, and the name of that jeweler is, to my extreme glee, Panache.
* I'm told if you're happy to see Kareena's boobs, this is a much better movie.
** True for both characters, which is understandable since they're just drinking to mute their pain yadda yadda, but also true for us in the audience, because it is so cliché and is without any interesting or meaningful consequence.