Women have always been an integral part of the Hindi film industry. On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2014,we bring to you journey of Women in the Indian Cinema.
From Mother India in which a strong woman character was portrayed by Nargis Dutt to fight the shackles of her social milieu, to the bloody thirsty Priyanka Chopra in 7 Khoon Maaf, to the bold performance of Vidya Balan in Kahaani – the sea-change has been seen in the portrayal of women in the Indian cinema since its inception 100 years ago. From the black and white films to colour movies, Indian cinema has evolved in a big way and so the woman character. Indian cinema caters to masses and the way society has seen change in the woman character, cinema has also moved along. Audiences today not only mosey up to multiplex with popcorn and cola in a tow, but they review the movie intensely. Therefore, the rules of entertainment are altering rapidly and filmmakers are tweaking their scripts.
From the very first film, Raja Harishchandra – which had no female actors – to the modern day, it has not been an easy ride. And one reason for this can be the ‘beauty’ which has evolved over time in Indian cinema. Actresses like Madhuabala, Wahida Rehman and Vaijayantimala were considered the queens of the Indian cinema during their reign. Then the era came when the southern beauties like Hema Malini and Rekha ruled the Bollywood. In 1994, the beauty queen Aishwarya Rai, after crowned the beauty pageant, entered the film fraternity and won millions of Indians fell in love with her.
For so long, Indian cinema has been male dominated. Themes used to be explored from the male audience’s viewpoint and actress was considered secondary to the actor. Her role used to move around male character that was central to the story line– be it hero, villain, father, boss or an elderly male figure. She was devoid of any independent existence. The straight-jacketed limits diminished the women’s role to provide glamour, relief, respite and entertainment. These patriarchal values were institutionalized in films like Dahej (1950), Gauri (1968), Devi (1970), Biwi ho to Aisi (1988), Pati Parmeshwar (1988) depicted women as passive, submissive wives as perfect figures and martyrs for their own families.
Larger than life roles
Women used to portray larger than life characters. They rather than being depicted as normal human beings were elevated to a higher position of being ideal who can commit no wrong. Their grievances, desires, ambitions, feelings, perspectives were completely missing from the scene. They were shown as not belonging to the real world. Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan starrer Abhimaan (1973) began with premise of the wife (Jaya) being more talented than the husband (Amitabh). This in itself is a defiance of the stereotype. However, the film crumbled from then on when the wife gave up her thriving musical career for satisfying the husband’s ego, culminating to a conventional end that demands adherence to traditional values of marriage and motherhood.
In decorative capacity
The other face which was criticised as the woman character in the silver screen is the decorative capacity. We have usually seen feminine shadows in the background – wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts and vamps playing second-fiddle to the male protagonists. Film scholar and author Shoma Chatterji, said, “Women in Hindi cinema have been decorative objects with rarely any sense of agency being imparted to them. Each phase of Hindi cinema had its own representation of women, but they were confined largely to the traditional, patriarchal framework of the Indian society. The ordinary woman has hardly been visible in Hindi cinema.”
It has commonly seen in the action-packed movies of Akshay Kumar, Sunny Deol and Sunil Shetty; the actress was placed in the romantic track as a distraction for the viewer from monotonous bouts of violence. So, the moot question is how real were the women characters in the movies?
Whenever a woman is shown, she is shown satisfying man’s desires and is portrayed as raw material for producing and rearing children. The women characters, even after getting Master’s Degree in Science, succumb to observance of the rituals like ‘Karava Chauth’, the fasting for longer life of husband. The girls, who are shown in the barest possible outfits until they are married, are denied to have ‘say’ while choosing their life partners. Their parents do that job for them. After getting married, women are loaded with the weight of jewellery and conventional clothes. Such a turnaround, while artistically displayed on screen, thins the morale of the woman who wants to be the captain of her own boat.
Real woman is evolving
Gone are the days when the real-self of Indian women hardly matches with the script. Today, hardly anyone say that Indian cinema has been essentially male-centric, leaving little space for the female counterparts to evolve and grow as versatile performers. As now we have been seeing increasing numbers of movies creating bold and beautiful of Bollywood. However, in the past also, we’ve had few actresses portraying strong characters who fight the shackles of their social milieu and the very first film is Mother India released in 1957. Considered as one of the finest classics of Indian cinema, the movie looks at the struggle of a rural woman in India, who fights all odds to raise her two sons. The portrayal of the late actress Nargis Dutt is of a loving and brave mother, who struggles to raise her family alone and in the end, saying true to her cause, she kills her evil son to save a woman’s honour.
Women in Indian cinema are born with certain assumptions ranging from cult movies to celluloid blockbusters like Sholay to more recent Fashion that employ themselves as in severe gender issues. They are portrayed either as damsels in distress or demented feminists or simple belly-shaking glam dolls whose sole ambition is to attract the attention of the male gender. In many Indian films it is a common trend to insert ‘item numbers’ which bear no rational connection to the film in anyway. However, sometime one song ends up making a mark for the film, such as ‘Munni’ from Dabangg 1, ‘Chikni Chameli’ of Agneepath or ‘Fevicol’ of Dabangg 2. In order to present the modernity among women, Indian filmmakers have parachuted on an idea that the display of dancing girls in ‘minimum’ clothes is real expression of freedom. On a lighter note, our elder generation, earlier exposed to the “sensuous” Helen, is now face-to-face with the more “fatal” Bipasha Basu. Many say that the change is ‘delicious for their ‘filmy’ palate!
Gone are the days when stories were written about the shy village girls or the ethical beauty, these are the times for rebellious lovers and sexy and confident business women who rule the roost. The stereotypical portrayal of women, which ruled Indian films till a very recent time, has been witnessing a remarkable change – be it the blood thirsty Priyanka from 7 Khoon Maaf, or Parineeti Chopra as the rebellious lover from Ishaqzaade, each of their characters stood apart from the conventional women and none of them had qualms about it. For that matter Fashion, although the movie depicts the inside of the fashion industry, it primly revolves around the life of Meghan Mathur who is dejected by the society, yet she comes back with new élan and enthusiasm. Besides Fashion, the female characters in Madhur Bhandarkar’s films are usually shown as bold and empowered women who lead life on their own terms, take their own decisions, are ‘rebels’ who don’t conform to social norms and excel in their respective professions like Chandni Bar (2001), Page 3 (2005), and the latest one Kareena Kapoor starrer Heroine.
Actresses like Vidya Balan in Paa, Dirty Picture, Kahani, Ishqiya and Konkona Sen Sharma in Page 3, Wake Up Sid, Life in a Metro have led this change of direction, who have appeared in strong and independent roles which for the time being shifted the camera’s focus from the women’s body to her identity as an individual.
What recently has happened is in the light of recent incident of gangrape that shook the entire nation, Bollywood as a part of popular culture, has come under the scanner for commodification of women. In a freewheeling chat at the set of CNN IBN, the cast (Arjun Rampal and Chitrangada Singh) and director (Sudhir Mishra) of movie Inkaar which deals with a very sensitive issue of sexual harassment at work places, were present to talk about the social responsibility of cinema and the portrayal of women in Bollywood. The director said that it’s not necessary that what Bollywood preaches, the nation follows. In fact, at times, the film industry reflects what is happening in society for real. Chitrangada said that micro blogging sites like Twitter are still abuzz with how item songs in films often objectify women. Dance and songs are very important part of Indian cinema and are mostly added only for entertainment value. If a particular song-dance sequence shows a woman being stalked and wooed by a bunch of men in a playful and romantic manner and she is enjoying the attention that she is getting then it in no way sends out a wrong signal.
The characters have become close to reality, if not the reality itself. The veteran filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt said on the occasion of the International Women’s Day, “In India, we can’t make sweeping statements claiming that the portrayal of women in Bollywood has progressed or regressed. As a director, I have always made films giving the women center stage. Conservatives and vested groups have often claimed that the women in my recent films have been scantily clad or are overtly sexual. However, they can’t deny that the women in my films have been in charge of their own destiny. Now women can live life with dignity, without relying on a man for support. At the same time, it made Shabana a national icon. Another person who embodies the new Indian woman is Vidya Balan.”