Recently, a friend asked me what I thought of Katrina Kaif’s character in the just released Dhoom-3 (The Blast-3, 2013). Even at the risk of offending some of you, I confess I found it full of chutzpah and oomph but, alas, hollow otherwise. From this perspective, the script of Dhoom-2 perhaps etched the characters played by Aishwarya Rai and Bipasha Basu in somewhat greater detail.
This led me to think of the kaleidoscope of movies churned out by Bollywood and the wide spectrum of roles written for and played by women. It is also interesting to see how their roles have evolved over the past few decades, much in tune with two inter-related trends in the Indian society – a deeply patriotic fervor giving way to the rise of consumerism, and the outlook changing from a society-centric one to an individual-centric one. The first one has to do with growing incomes, and the second one to the gradual decay of the joint family system.
If there is a similarity in women’s portrayal across various films, there is also a stark contrast. In some, they are put on a pedestal and venerated. In others, they are subject to humiliation and objectification. Yet, they end up forgiving their tormentors, eventually running into their arms. Some films portray them as epitomes of virtue where they are depicted as silent sufferers, always putting their families first. Some show them as temptresses who manipulate, destroy and seduce while unleashing their charms. In some, they are victims of betrayal. In others, they turn out to be ruthless avengers.
They portray motherhood in myriad hues. They might be nagging housewives within the confines of the house, but would protect their soul-mates and family members against external harm much like tigresses out to protect their cubs. They turn up as great doctors. They also play fashionable patients who are often undaunted by their ailments. They portray meek and submissive daughters. They also turn out to be rebellious bold ones, breaking the rigid barriers of convention and overcoming societal stigma.
Of late, they have even managed to turn the tables on the sterner sex and started objectifying men. A welcome development indeed!
The portrayal of women in films getting churned out by Bollywood has undergone a sea change over the past few decades. The earlier notion of the perfect woman — tradition-bound, a lot of glory in sacrifice, her duty to accept what comes to her, etc – has now metamorphosed into an unabashed display of physical assets and a liberal attitude towards sexuality.
Way back in the 1960s, touching of hands used to be the outer limit of physical contact between the hero and the heroine. Kissing was a taboo and could only be hinted at indirectly, often by the camera capturing two blooming flowers swaying next to each other in a gentle breeze. Actresses would roll down a snow-covered slope with the hero, or go under a waterfall in their sari, but they would not kiss. A gruesome rape scene would be fine, but not any kind of sexual overtures.
If a woman was a prostitute, she had to be rescued before she lost her virginity. A woman could neither have an affair nor sex. If she did, the poor thing had to die in the end.
One factor has remained unchanged, though. In many movies, women are not human beings. They are just pretty dolls, mostly there to support the hero, incidental to the plot and exploited for their sex appeal.
A Masculine Outlook
Showing women in a helpless mode somehow appeals to the male audience. The image of stalking and hurting a woman excites this segment of the audience. Women in the audience perhaps identify with those on the screen and grin and bear the feudal treatment.
As a society, women are second-class citizens from birth, and cannot openly express any anger about that situation. Typically, a man is being cared for by his mother, by his sisters, by his wife and also by his daughter. So, he fantasizes about a woman who is passive and open to subjugation.
When a wronged heroine turns an avenger, the man claps in the theatre. However, at home, the way he treats the females around him shows a reality which is quite different.
Love and Lust
Even as late as in Veer-Zaara (2004), we had a romantic relationship which retained its innocence and celebrated the deep commitment between the hero and the heroine. Contrast this with Love Aaj Kal (Love Nowadays, 2009), Anjaana Anjaani (Strangers, 2010), and Ek Main aur Ekk Tu (One Me and One You, 2012), where the couples showed a different attitude towards the bliss of togetherness. In Ram Leela (2013), we get to see a Leela in Deepika Padukone who thinks nothing of unabashedly wooing a Ram in Ranveer Singh.
A hug is no longer much to write home about. Intimate scenes are the new buzzword, even from the stable of Yash Raj Films (Jab Tak Hai Jaan – As Long as I am Alive, 2012) and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – Run Milkha, Run, 2013) who have otherwise given us romantic and socially relevant themes devoid of any obscenity in the past. These are subtle hints that lust is increasingly getting portrayed as love these days.
Sixteen Shades of the Bollywood Eve
A majority of movies have black hats who are wooed and won over by white knights – in some with prior societal or parental approval. In others, a post-facto reconciliation takes place between the young couple and their parents just as the camera fades out and credits start rolling out towards the end.
Despite a relatively modern upbringing, Kajol remains a traditionalist to the core in Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (The Bravehearts will Take Away the Bride, 1995). In the climax, she joins the hero only after receiving her father’s consent.
A spouse or a girl friend is often found leveraging her strength of character to support the hero in distress.
In Hum Dono (Both of Us, 1961), Sadhana did so. In Bandini (The Female Prisoner, 1963), Nutan decided to support her sick but long since separated husband – played by Ashok Kumar – rather than starting a new life with a younger and healthier Dharmendra.
In Maachis (Matchbox, 1996) and Hu Tu Tu (1999), Tabu turned into a terrorist and a human bomb so as to join the cause being championed by her lover. In Aitraaz (Objection, 2004), Kareena Kapur played a lawyer who wins a case for her husband. In Veer-Zaara (2004), Preity Zinta relocated to India from Pakistan so as to serve Shahrukh Khan’s parents who, unknown to her, was languishing in a jail in Pakistan. In Wake Up, Sid (2009), Konkona Sen Sharma became a friend and guide to Ranbir Kapur.
If the woman gets stalked in a majority of Bollywood flicks, she also gets venerated in few. And one is not referring to the mythologicals here.
In Saathi (Companion, 1968), the love shown between husband Rajendra Kumar and wife Vyjantimala bordered on the reverential. In Purab aur Paschim (East and West, 1970), Manoj Kumar handled a heroine brought up in a western country with due regard to the diferences in their cultural upbringing. In Khushboo (Aroma, 1975), a sober Jeetendra was made to realize his folly by his wife who takes him to task for dithering in inviting her to join him in his home.
At a time when harassment of women in all walks of life appears to be on the rise, Vivah (Marriage, 2006) came as a fresh whiff of air, projecting a male character who was considerate, caring and compassionate. The hero’s decision to marry the heroine who was from an economically weaker strata was praiseworthy. No dowry was demanded. Above all, the marriage got solemnized despite the heroine having received severe burns in a fire.
A vamp is inevitably an insider to the affairs of the lead pair, whereas women portrayed in this category tend to be on the fringes of the narrative.
Gangster’s molls, sex objects and item dancers are all there to appeal to our baser instincts. Smoking, drinking and making seductive overtures comes habitually to them. Right from Cuckoo and Nadira to Helen and Bindu, we just love to hate them. While the gangsters are busy unfolding their Machiavellian plots to torment the lead cast and their near and dear ones, the molls provide the perfect foil to soothe the frayed nerves of the audience.
When it comes to seductive dances, Helen’s belly dance in Inteqam (Revenge, 1969) and Padma Khanna’s cabaret in Johny Mera Naam (My Name is Johny, 1970) immediately spring to one’s mind.
Over the years, the presentation of ‘item numbers’ has got increasingly refined. There are several crude ones which have kept a part of the male audience glued to their seats, their eyeballs popping out of their sockets with each gyration and pelvic thrust of a lissome dancer. Increasingly, this space has been taken over by the leading ladies themselves, relegating the poor side heroine to the background.
Aruna Irani did prance around a young Rishi Kapur in Bobby (1973). But it was Aishwarya Rai who wooed us with her ‘Kajra re…’ in Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli, 2005). Rekha gyrated to songs old and new in Parineeta (The Married Woman, 2005) and Yatra (Journey, 2006). Katrina Kaif scorched the floors in Tees Maar Khan (2010) and Dhoom-3 (The Blast-3, 2013).
Sushmita Sen played a teacher in Main Hoon Na (I Am Here to Support You, 2004), but that did not restrain her from having a sensuous duet with her student, Shahrukh Khan.
The woman with malicious intentions towards either the lead couple or the whole family. She is sexy and could be shown either smoking or drinking. She wears high heels, garish makeup and could be caught doing a cabaret at least once in the movie.
Nadira is remembered for her negative role in Shri 420 (Mr 420, 1955). Shashikala had evil designs in very many films, though B R Chopra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee used her in positive roles in films like Gumraah (Gone Astray, 1963) and Anupama (The Incomparable, 1966). Bindu played the spoilsport in Do Raaste (Two Separate Ways, 1969), Kati Patang (A Free-floating Kite, 1970) and Imtihaan (The Test, 1974); her role opposite Ajit as ‘Mona Darling’ in Zanjeer (The Shackle, 1973) is remembered till today, as is that of someone supporting the lead couple in Abhimaan (Pride, 1973). In Caravan (1971) and in several other movies, Aruna Irani played a negative role.
With changing social mores, vamps and dancing girls have become an endangered species. A courtesan played by Meenoo Mumtaz – in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (The Boss, The Wife and the Servant, 1962), for instance – who used to present a dance based on a classical form while lip-synching soulful lyrics – has become virtually extinct. She has been crowded out by skimpily clad heroines seductively gyrating to item numbers like ‘Beedi jalayi le’, ‘Chikni Chameli’ and ‘Shiela ki jawaani’. In Dhoom-3, Katrina Kaif treats the voyeuristic amongst the male audience to a family friendly striptease.
Greedy relatives, encounters of an unfortunate kind, social stigma and poverty have repeatedly been shown to force women away from following the straight and narrow path of chastity, matrimonial bliss and happiness.
In Sujata (1959), Nutan portrayed the character of an orphan girl facing caste prejudices. In the lavishly mounted Pakeezah (The Pure One, 1972), Meena Kumari got rescued by the hero who faces stiff social resistance, finally overcome by the revelation that his uncle was the real father of the heroine.
Ankur (Seedling, 1973) and Rudaali (The Professional Griever, 1993) effectively captured the oppression of women in a male dominated society. Sharmila Tagore in Satyakam (1969) and Saira Bano in Chaitali (1975) were only two of the several others who have portrayed hapless women being exploited. Bhumika (Role, 1977) captured the pathos of an exploited woman very well. In Umrao Jaan (1981), Rekha’s search for true love proved to be elusive. In an unabashed display of male parochialism, Nikaah (The Betrothal, 1982) and Woh 7 Din (Those 7 Days, 1983) showed two males arguing out the fate of the woman both are in love with, as if she herself need not be consulted.
Lajja (Shame, 2001) raised several feminist issues in a predominantly male chauvinistic world. Pinjar (The Cage, 2003) portrayed the agony of a heroine disowned by her own family after getting kidnapped by a person from another religion.
In Aradhana (Worship, 1969), a widowed mother successfully brought up her son all by herself. In Silsila (Continuity, 1981), a pregnant Jaya Bachhan sought social approval and financial safety by getting married to the younger brother of her beau who had passed away in an air accident. In 1947: Earth (1998), Nandita Das ended up suffering at the hands of her lover. In Banaras (2006), Urmila Matondkar turned into an ascetic after her beau, hailing from a lower caster, was ordered to be murdered by her own mother.
In Pati, Patni aur Woh (The Husband, The Wife and The Other, 1978), the hapless housewife tried her best to restrain the romantic escapades of her husband who suffered from the ‘roving eye syndrome’. In Rang Birangi (Colourful, 1983),a bored wife found that an affair in the office prompted her husband to pay better attention to her at home!
Stalking is often depicted as a birth right of the men. Darr (Fear, 1993), led to tragic consequences. However, in most other movies, the heroine forgives and ends up accepting a romantic relationship with the former stalker. Raanjhanaa (The Beloved, 2013), took the art of stalking to new lows. In R…Rajkumar (Prince, 2013), the heroine eventually ends up falling for the hero, despite his wayward ways to win her over.
In Gori Tere Pyaar Mein (For Your Love, Fair Maiden, 2013), the heroine is a social worker, relentlessly pursued by the self-centered hero. When he points out a strand of white in her hair, she is not on the defensive. Here is an acknowledgement of the woman as being a person who ages like anybody else. Eventually, she ends up coyly in the hero’s arms.
Rape scenes have been an integral part of the Bollywood movies. Roti, Kapada aur Makaan (Food, Clothing and Shelter, 1974), had a particularly graphic rape scene involving Maushumi Chatterji. We have also had sensible depiction of such scenes in some movies – like Satyakam, where a lamp rolling about on the floor was used to depict the traumatic event in the heroine’s life. One of the rare movies which handled the post-rape emotional rehabilitation of the heroine very delicately was Ghar (Home, 1978).
(Next part: https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/women-through-the-bollywood-lens-part-2-of-2)
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