Women in cinema

Missing angle

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Hema Malini and Amjad Khan in a tense moment in "Sholay" (1975), which was soon to be resolved through the heroine's rescue by the hero's friend. Photo: def gjhfgh dfgrf

A poster of the 1935 movie "Hunterwali" featuring the "fearless Nadia". The movie was stunning in the way it produced an image of a woman that could not be seen even in Western films.

The Hunterwali moment is resurrected again in Shekhar Kapoor's "Bandit Queen", with Seema Goswami in the lead role.

A scene from Aparna Sen's "Parama", with Rakhee in the lead role, which addresses the many shackles that bind women.

From Ray's "Devi", which illustrates the process by which the mythologisation of women is fuelled by male desire. In this still, Sharmila Tagore with Soumitra Chatterjee.

The 1973 "Bobby" signalled a new age focussed on personal autonomy. Dimple Kapadia with Rishi Kapoor.

"Guide" (1965) was able to present a complex female character. Dev Anand with Waheeda Rehman. Photo: sdsd sadsd

"Aradhana" (1969) signals the danger for women following their desires. Here, Sharmila Tagore with Rajesh Khanna.

A poster of "Mother India" showing Nargis. The 1957 movie, for all its apparent celebration of womanhood, uses women to shore up tradition, not to move them forward. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

From Shyam Benegal's "Nishant". Benegal's films successfully liberated the public from the glittery "filmy" idea of beauty. Here, Shabana Azami with Girish Karnad. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In "Kahaani" (2013), the woman is the quester, played by Vidya Balan.

A greater range of women’s experiences and lives needs to be covered in depth before the daughters of India can see themselves as full human beings on screen.
100 years of Indian Cinema

WHEN Dadasaheb Phalke saw Life of Christ for the second time, he asked himself, “Could this really happen? Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?” Phalke was riveted by the moment when cinema had catapulted segments of the West into modernity, and sought the same thrill for Indians. Interestingly, the viewer is male, finding himself on screen, marking the first crisis in the portrayal of Indian women. The woman viewer is outside the theatre of modernity, even as the sons feast their eyes on screen versions galore of women. The new art did offer images of women, unknown in literary and artistic forms, but the pull of the narrative line to situate women within culturally comfortable guises conflicted with the modern challenge posed by the images. Film was made for the sons of India, sometimes about the mothers of India, but seldom for the daughters of India.

Hunterwali (1935) is stunning in producing an image of a woman that could not be seen even in Western films. D.W. Griffith’s female stars were waifs, and young girls, shot using halo lighting, to elicit pathos. In contrast, Nadia plays a fearless woman who by night roams around bringing predatory males to justice, using the symbolically loaded whip, taking the space of the male. Full shots of her emphasise her power and her screen presence. The electrifying impact of what is extraordinary caught the very essence of the “cinema of attractions”, inviting the audience to participate in peril and risk. These qualities usually reserved for males are probably best seen in Douglas Fairbanks’ exploits as the fearless Zorro (1920) or in the earlier The Great Train Robbery (1903). The plot of Hunterwali is predicated on routine, if awe-inspiring, notions of nationalism and female honour that enable stable definitions of womanhood to prevail. In “primitive cinema”, inter-titles notwithstanding, the story is second to the visual effects of the stunts in an essentially action-adventure movie. The Hunterwali moment is resurrected again in Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen (1994), where the visual exploitation of the narrative line invites a brazen consumption of the female figure. Hunterwali is disturbing in putting the woman out of real space and time, out of her presumed daily existence, before she is able to accrue authority or step into the modern. The woman is hidden, the hunter thrown into high relief. As woman, she cannot achieve what she has, as mother, she is forgiven for taking over masculine, public space. The man, then, is “visible”, the screened woman, hidden.

Male quest

Years later, the hit Sholay (1975) drives women out of the messy business of the modern using the entrenched storyline of the male as quester. Unlike the parallel formula in Hollywood films where boy conquers enemy, saves girl, and gets the girl, the reward in these Hindi male quest films is male friendship. Rich symbols draw out the theme, subtly contrasting the urban with the rural. The first glimpse of a female occurs when the two male heroes, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachhan, are in motion, speeding through the countryside on a dashing motorcycle, singing a carefree song of dosti. A long shot reveals a village girl, complete in bright coloured traditional clothes, with a pot of water on her head. The would-be-heroes disport themselves particularly foolishly; yet the boys are on a powerful modern machine, dressed in denim jackets and jeans, friendship extending to tossing a coin to decide who should try his “chances” with the village belle. Visually, the scene sets up the men as primary actors, the women as the sideshow.

The introduction of the female hero, Hema Malini, as a tonga wali is more nuanced, using an understated medium shot to show her in the driver’s seat in the tonga. The tongawali’s costuming is traditional, the function is not. The image reveals the double pull in many films; the actual modernity of women is irrelevant to the plot; indeed it is largely absent in this film. Hema Malini’s dance number, a precursor of the “item”, exudes a surplus sexuality. Ringed by men around her, shot from an extremely high angle to show her helplessness in the centre of the circle, the scene underlines her sensuality while the lyrics claim her purity. Measured cuts of the male dacoit, the female dancer, the bound lover prolong this central tension in many films between the expression of female sexuality and the desexualised dharma patni culture. That the male audience gazes at the dancer through the male dacoits’ looks is to be expected, the frisson of the sexual pleasure exudes from the discomfiture of the male hero who despite himself and his facial grimacing is aroused; equally disconcerting is the dancer’s own charged response to her lover, tied and hanging upright. The woman’s virtue is upheld despite her embodiment as pure desire. She is however relatively inconsequential when the intimate friend crops up to release the prey from the hunters, he being one of them, shot from an extremely low angle that betrays his “sighting” of her. Once the dishum-dishum begins, the narrative, congealed for the dance number, proceeds.

The film does include another moment of radical investment in suggesting women’s roles in a changing society. Jay (Amitabh Bachhan) seeks to give the widowed Radha (Jaya Bhaduri) another chance in life because, as he so passionately advocates, even dacoits are getting another chance. The ready approval of the father-in-law comes as a shock until he persuades Radha’s father of the practical benefits of such a marriage; the gap in social class is overlooked because of Radha’s widowhood. But just as the welcome change is awaited, Jay dies, leaving Radha twice-widowed, an image touchingly caught by her closing the windows of her house and shutting herself in, a studied contrast to her earlier colourful junketings in the open space. The message is clear, the woman is to stay inside, almost as though to make up for the spirited role played by the tongawali. These roles, more so than the overemphasised stilted contrast between the female hero and vamp, throw light on the productive tension in many mainstream films that seek to be progressive in delineating women’s options while limiting their scope. It is an exaggeration to say that women are appendages to men; rather, they do not figure in the homosocial bond between man and man but can eventually work their way up to becoming an appendage. The love interest in such films is for a bit of maza between friends; developing a mature relationship with a woman is out of the question as Sangam (1964) had shown when Rajendra Kumar sacrifices his love, Vyjayantimala, for the returned nationalist hero, Raj Kapoor. Clearly, women’s desires do not need to be expressed but sublimated for the national cause.

Women in melodrama

Women’s desires are ostensibly more central to the melodrama genre, which dominates the Hindi, the Tamil, and many other regional film industries. Melodrama often expands women’s roles through eliciting a strong emotional response from viewers. However, in many cases the resolution of the film reinstates the status quo. Alam-Ara (1931), inaugurating the talkies, did boast of a huge and heroic role for a female. AchutKanya (1936) challenges caste constraints, introducing the idea of individual desire. The film features the love of a Dalit woman, played by Devika Rani, for a Brahmin, Ashok Kumar. While the romance remains unfulfilled, the film established the narrative, if not visual presence, of the Dalit woman. This highly literary film did not affect relationships between castes in any meaningful way; however, caste issues are foregrounded through the figure of the female. Other films like Duniya na Mane (1937) continued to put the focus on social issues that were relevant to women.

Mother India (1957), celebrated as the triumph of womanhood by the industry, is perhaps less advanced in its thinking of women than might be assumed. The film’s presentation of the radical anti-feudal hero Braj (Sunil Dutt) is severely compromised by his abduction of the feudal landlord’s daughter. When his mother, Nargis, shoots him, the honour of all Indian women is salvaged. The film pits Braj’s post-colonial hero status against women, suggesting that anti-feudalism results in barbaric behaviour against women. It follows then that when Mother India shoots Braj, she stands for tradition; thus one of the most radical of acts, one woman defending another woman from sexual assault, is reprised to send women back into the dharmic order, or in other words, the feudal. The blurb on the 2000 DVD version tells the viewers how to interpret the film: “From India, the cradle of the gods, comes this epic drama of an Indian mother, the nucleus round which revolves the tradition and culture of the ages in this ancient land. In India, every woman is an integral part of a man…. A woman’s marriage thus an eternal spiritual bond and in her absolute dedication to her husband, her single prayer is to die in the presence of her husband and be carried out by him even as a bride in death. To this eternal Indian woman, the home is her temple, the husband her god, the children his blessings and the land her great mother.” The mother’s stalwart stand against her violent and bullying son seems to be beside the point, the pathos dominating over any kind of moral or feminist stand taken. For all its iconic imagery, the film uses women to shore up tradition, not to move them forward.

A film on a smaller scale, but very successful, was Guide (1965), which feels more “modern” in its outlook and its character presentation. The film’s signal achievement is to have been able to present a complex female character, Rosie (Waheeda Rehman), who makes several choices based on rational criteria. She leaves her husband, rebelling against the double standard, to move in with an itinerant guide and to pursue a career. The very idea of having a career in dance, and making a lucrative living from it, adds to the boldness of her association with the guide, Raju (Dev Anand). The dance sequences that might otherwise have been arbitrarily brought in are more organic, and deflect the cannibalistic gaze by including the tutelary one. That she actually thrives after following her own individual desire and is not cast aside for her daring is astonishing, as is her later rejection of Raju. Indeed, even in later world cinema, and through its history, punishing the woman for social transgressions ranks high; consider Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, even the much later Thelma and Louise (1991).

Popular Hindi films made later punish the woman for so much as looking at a man while drawing out the long song-and-dance number, redolent of eroticism. The blockbuster hit Aradhana (1969) is a case in point on how Hindi films signal the danger for women in following their desires. The female hero (Sharmila Tagore) goes through a gandharva ceremony legitimising her sexual relationship with the male hero (Rajesh Khanna), pictured suggestively through the number “Roop Tera Mastana”. The dripping wet female hero, beloved visual staple of Hindi cinema; the dark room is shot in bright reds. The sounds of thunder and glimpses of lightning complete the scene. The opening shows a medium full shot of the man and then cuts to the woman, who is seated. The rest is a tour de force of their circling around, the expressions on their faces alternately tense and rapt, with the man at one point going down on his knees. The female hero pays dearly for this one night and spends the rest of her life as widow and mother.

Realist renditions of women

The Bombay film industry’s presentation of women would continue to be inflected by visual motifs that are extremely contemporaneous in terms of clothes, accessories and set design, but the only really modern staple that had come to stay was the “romance story” and the familiarisation of the general public with love marriage. Bobby (1973), for instance, signalled the surety of footing of a newer, post-independence generation, focussing on personal autonomy. The class issues the film raises are treated with buoyancy, the teenagers are brash and confident, and the props are vibrant. The realistic depiction of women was still not apparent despite developments in other film industries, such as the earlier Italian neo-realists, and the later French New Wave. Parallel cinema was to accomplish this task of presenting women’s realities and introducing themes and topics that had received glossy coverage earlier. This cinema in general would appear to be that of intelligent adults addressing others in a similar way, assuming that the audience actually participates in social reality and would like to see this brought into focus.

Female stardom with a difference

These films of the 1970s, particularly the Shyam Benegal oeuvre, starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in many, were greeted with delight. Ankur(1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Mandi (1983). The impact of casteism, class hierarchy, poverty and sexual exploitation on women is outlined in delicate, subtle and intimate ways that anchor the woman viewer and demand her identification and sympathy. Equally moving is the way the female heroes are framed: among people, in a community, in medium shots, almost never through the male gaze. The introduction of the female hero in Ankur locates the woman in her reality with no reference whatsoever to the male while establishing the male/female hierarchy in the village through extremely long overhead shots. Deeply satisfying films, they offered the public a range of issues to debate and very successfully liberated the public from the glittery “filmy” idea of female beauty. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were definitely female actors that women could identify with. Their achievement was to make a different kind of female stardom possible.

The weight of social issues imposed on the female character however render her on occasion the bearer, rather than the maker, of meaning. The visual style of the parallel cinema, its long shots, and relatively slow-paced editing contrived paradoxically to make some of the female characters less energetic and more passive, particularly as this visual style depended on symbols and imagery rather than dialogue to get its message across. This is not to detract from their powerful onslaught against stagnant ideas but to suggest that realism has its limitations in envisioning a different future for women.

The “art” cinema of Bengal, particularly Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre, with its more select audience, also thematised the dilemma of women in modernity. Ray is particularly adept at developing the psychology of his female characters, almost entirely through his mise-en-scènes, pauses in the dialogue, gestural movement, and pace of narrative momentum. The film Devi (1960) illustrates the process by which the mythologisation of women is fuelled by male desire and deeply destructive to the community at large.

The realist cinema of India as outlined above is far more sensitive to issues surrounding the representation of women than either the French, German, or American New Waves barring of course the efforts of a few film-makers across all these groups. The comparison reminds us that when we discuss the “images” of women in Indian film, the dilemmas confronting us are problematic in comparable ways in other contemporary film industries.

Feminist directions

Women film-makers, alive to both issues of how women are represented, and their difficulties in the modern world, have tackled the central question of what a woman’s identity is. Aparna Sen’s Parama(1987) stands out as a film that addresses the problem of the many shackles that bind the woman (family, tradition, society, motherhood) and her representation (domesticated, suppressed, visually glamorous). The film follows the female hero’s growing awareness of her very limited independence, authority and autonomy. About a traditional housewife, Parama (Rakhee), in a joint family, the story traces the changes she undergoes when she is coerced into modelling the “Indian housewife” for a male photographer (family connection) with whom she has an extramarital love affair. Aparna Sen’s film reveals how insignificant Parama is outside her roles. The family is visibly relieved that she may die and spare them the shame she has brought on them by her affair. She is now expendable. Parama does however accrue authority by the end of the film, in part, by rejecting both the traditional role assigned to her and the to-be-looked at role given her by the photographer. She seeks now to be the seer, and takes the humble first step of getting a job.

Aparna Sen’s Sati (1989) exposes the male hypocrisy entailed in the nominal deification of women. Raped by the schoolteacher, the mute Umi (Shabana Azmi) is forced to undergo a particularly inhuman form of sati. Umi is discarded by the women of the family, who collude in keeping silent about the abuse she suffers. The film serves as an example of how feminist consciousness can be raised without projecting a strong female. Sati claims humanity for a woman expelled from the human community.

Prema Karanth’s Phaniyamma (1983) too looks at how roles become identities for women, particularly that of widows. A child widow, Phani (Dasharathi Dixit), is compelled to observe “madi” and all the rituals of Brahmin purification until she finds out that Brahmin men routinely have sex with Dalit women. In a quietly defiant moment, Phani insists on helping a young Dalit woman with the birth of her child, despite the taboo against it, and then again supports a younger widow in her decision not to get her hair cut. The film is a wonderful comment on how women can support other women to contest irrational, if traditional, prescriptions.

Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s Dhogi (1995) tells the story of a young woman forced into prostitution because of a series of mishaps: her would-be-husband’s death, her father’s illness, the loss of the crop. Shunned by the superstitious village, she goes to Bombay and becomes the main provider of the family. When a young progressive man is willing to make a match with her sister, the younger girl tests his liberatedness by asking him to marry her sister to effect radical change. These and many others characterise women in complex ways and represent them as participating in the modern world.

Global women

The diverse formats that are included in Bombay films feature fearless females: the documentary film-maker (Anushka Sharma) in Jab Tak Hai Jan(2012) is an example; yet she succumbs to romance all too readily. Happily, she continues with her career in a London media company but is wounded irreparably by the romance which now seems to carry more meaning than the other areas of her life. The other female hero (Katrina Kaif) and the male hero’s love interest remains shrouded in layers of “Indian womanhood” despite her London address and the new millennium. Film-makers can change the woman’s occupation in keeping with the times, but this is a far cry from exploring women’s roles or lives seriously. Kahaani (2013), an entertaining thriller with twists and turns, features an undercover Vidya Balan playing a pregnant woman in search of her missing husband. This film does give the woman authority as she is the quester, and she fulfils the quest successfully. A bonus for the female viewer is that she manipulates the intelligence agents quite adeptly. The sanctimonious attempt to reel her persona back into the devi role through the offices of the Durga puja is so obviously tagged on that it does not diminish her tremendous triumph in competing against a whole range of men, both well-meaning and malevolent.

Contemporary films that explore the abrupt transformation of certain segments of society as a consequence of globalisation have been able to thematise women more broadly than ever before. A greater range of women’s experiences and lives needs to be covered in depth before the daughters of India can see themselves as full human beings on screen.

Geetha Ramanathan is Professor ofComparative Literature and Women’s Studies at West Chester University. Her work on film includes Feminis Auteurs (Wallflower andColumbiaUniversityPress, 2006).Her latest book isLocating Gender in Modernism: The Outsider Woman (Routledge, 2012).

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