05 Nov 2016 17:45 IST

Cinderella girl

What’s she got that makes her live forever?

The other day, on television, they showed the newest version of Cinderella, starring Lily James. Who doesn’t know that story? Poor orphan girl mistreated by a cruel stepmother and stepsisters, meets and marries a good prince. And there’s that bit about the glass slipper as well.

It’s a trope that’s as old as humankind, yet it’s never grown too old. Actually, trope’s the wrong word. In the case of Cinderalla, the story itself is told over and over again, generation after generation. Yet, every time it’s told, we listen, we read, we watch, riveted. The way it’s told may be different, it may be modernised, it may be set in another dimension, but in the plot itself there are no surprises, no twists and turns. In fact, the night we watched, it showed late-ish. It was well past my mum’s bedtime; less than halfway through, she retired to her room, reluctantly, saying she had to sleep. But then she was back saying, “I want to watch.”

Some stories are like that, timeless. No matter how often they’re told, you can go back to them one more time, and another, and another.

The many versions

It seems there are about 345 versions of Cinderella all over the world. The Greeks have a slave girl called Rhodopis, who has beautiful feet. One day, a falcon picks up one of her shoes and drops it in the Pharoah’s court. He is intrigued, orders his men to find the woman to whom the shoe belongs, and, of course, he marries her.

In China, the girl is called Ye Xian. She has golden slippers and a fish for a fairy godmother. Some people consider Shakuntala the Indian Cinderella – and, true to character, claim that she’s the oldest Cinderella – with her rishi and her ring. Abandoned in a forest, she is brought up by birds and a hermit. She grows up and, one day, King Dushyanta sees her and falls instantly in love with her. He marries her. Then, due to a curse, he forgets her until, much later, he sees a ring that he remembers giving her. Only then do they live happily ever after. Of course, this is a truncated version of the story but, given how popular Amar Chitra Katha is, most people would know it already.

Chemistry… and stereotypes

I confess I watched the latest Cinderella film with deep interest. It was grand in a live action-cum-stage action manner. What makes the tale so fascinating? Especially since this whole madly-in-love-thing-at-first-sight-and-forever-after is pretty soppy, think about it. Not that the fairytale spends too many words describing the love; it’s the very notion that invites questions. A man looks at a woman and falls hopelessly for her. Yes, they do talk about love at first sight, and it’s been known to happen, even endure. Chemistry, and possibly physics, are the explanation, given the activity of pheromones and sharp electrical impulses.

But mostly it’s externalities, looks. After all, what else would you see at first glance. Anybody in their right mind knows how far that goes.

Then there’s the business of a woman and her perfect man. In the Cinderella story, it’s the prince. Who, in fact, could well have been a rotter, but never is. So, when I stop watching and start thinking, I see Cinderella as a stereotype, the stereotype of what a male-dominated society suitably supported by family matriarchs and others, wants its women to be: hardworking, uncomplaining, unattached, unhindered by real family, hiding her beauty from all except the ‘chosen’ one and, once identified by the ‘chosen’ one, the embodiment of perfection, a ravishing creature of utmost purity with no thoughts in her mind except for and about her prince.

Dreams of perfection

How does this story with such powerful undertones affect the understanding of children, generation after generation? Because affected they certainly are, one way or the other. Many little girls wait for their prince; only some of them grow up to start asking uncomfortable questions. Too many boys proudly see themselves in the role of the prince. Which leads to a more fundamental question: Was Cinderella meant to be a story for children? Or was it a fantasy tale to help the tired and weary forget their menial affairs and engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief” so they could be transported to a better frame of mind-time when they re-entered the doors of their daily lives?

The same kind of thing that happens to you when you go to the theatre and watch a well-made masala movie that takes your emotions on a roller-coaster ride, wrings out all your pain and sorrow, realises all your hopes and wishes, and leaves you on a happy high at the end of two or three hours.

So, no, I don’t want to take Cinderella away from children, that would be cruel. Besides, we need all the stories we can get. We need stories that are hooked to dreams of perfection. We need stories that make us want to be better than we are. But we need to take these stories further, we need to ask what happened then. What happened to Cinderella and her prince after they married? That they lived happily ever after is no answer, because even children know that can’t be true, even if they believe the story of Cinderella to be, well, almost true.

By the way, do you remember the name of the prince who got Cinderella?

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