Between Rebellion and Submission

It is a tricky, intricately structured dance that the Indian woman does on the screen—one fluid step forward and two lurching steps backward—and one that has remained the same even if the demure dance of yore has convulsed into the brazen pelvic thrusts of an MTV-ised choreography. From courtly kathak chakkars to the seductive Salsa gyrations, it may look like a long journey. But the fact is the Kajol/Karishma Kapoor generation has not really gone far from the traditions enshrined by the Nargis/Meena Kumari era. The more things apparently change, the more they remain rooted in the same patriarchal matrix of internalised submission and futile gestures of rebellion.

The Hindi film heroine reflects the confusions and contradictions, compromises and complexities, anxieties and fantasies of a schizophrenic society which wants to live simultaneously in its 5000-year-old past and the satellite TV present. Can one guess at the embryonic tomorrow, which will only exacerbate this chaos? That is why Hindi cinema can continue to mean all things to all people and satisfy the atavistic need to entertain and moralise, titillate and elevate, threaten and reassure our collective psyche.

That is also why at the threshold of the new millennium, the Kajol of Hum Apke Dil Mein Rahte Hai is not really different from the Nargis of Andaaz 50 years ago. In fact, Nargis was a far more complex character reeking of internalised guilt who punished herself because the other man loved her, a married woman, and she was unable to do anything about it except shoot him—and kill off her own unacknowledged feelings for him. Mehboob Khan suggested intriguing layers in Andaaz—modernity in a woman is dangerous because the signals she gives off threaten not only her hearth and home but society itself; her freely expressed, strictly platonic friendship is misinterpreted by the wrong man; and she is to blame for inspiring unsuitable passion because her own innocent seductiveness is so alluring.

Compare this to the plastic revolt of an inherently conformist Kajol in Hum Apke Dil Mein Rahte Hain, a regressive remake of a successful Telugu film where the mangalsutra's sanctity is reiterated for the thousandth time. Kajol is supposed to be a self-respecting, middle-class working girl who enters a contract marriage with eyes wide open for strictly pragmatic reasons and yet, gets bloodied knees from climbing temple steps abjectly on her knees so that her ungrateful husband can get well. The only novelty is that she plays hard to get when the repentant husband realises that nobody else can make a cuppa as wifey did and further, isn't she pregnant with his baby? Unlike the recent crop of belly-button revealing houris, in this film Kajol wears sindur, salwars and saris, with matching glass bangles and the all-important mangalsutra.

The mini-skirted, bare-midriffed brigade has reduced us all to a navel-gazing society but all this contemplation has not made us anything more than avid voyeurs with prudish souls. Sartorially, you can congratulate the new generation: you have come a long way, baahby! At one time in film history, the silken shringar of Meena Kumari's Chhoti Bahu as she beckoned and cajoled her straying husband in a wine-drenched voice in Sahib, Bibi Aur Gulam was the acme of eroticism. The screen bimbette now knows that she is a sex object-cum-fashion model and sometimes, her mascara-ed eyes glint with the knowledge of her power and she sashays even more provocatively.

But does this acknowledgement of her sexual power make her aware of her own sexuality? At her raunchiest, she teases us to guess what is beneath her choli—definitely not her heart as the camera plays its own game of reducing Madhuri Dixit to a sum of her fractured body parts, while Sanjay Dutt's eye patch underlines the male gaze. At her worst, she prances like Karishma Kapoor to the capers of a vulgar song, going at the mating game with a gusto to match the indefatigable calisthenics of Govinda.

At her most pretentious, Aishwarya Rai strikes languorous yogic poses in picture post-card scenery to A.R. Rahman's Sufi-inspired music in Taal, all this strained aestheticism adding up to derivative kitsch. This demure yogini of the hills is as quickly transformed into the glitzy, belly-button-baring MTV diva who becomes an international star but whose heart still pines for her first and only love. But unless the powerful men who control her fate—her father and the music industry tycoon who is her fiance—propel her physically and metaphorically, she can't even go to the man she wants to marry. A high flyer with clipped wings is normally her fate if the film is bold enough to make her into a successful career woman.

The screen is to the people's collective imagination what the courtyard is to a household. This is intimate space where she is worshipped as the sacred tulsi; a sacrosanct area into which the threatening, non-conformist modern woman may not enter until she is prepared to sacrifice her individuality; at whose enclosed warmth the reviled tawaif (prostitute) looks longingly, to protect herself from the slings and arrows of a censorious world. A woman crosses the threshold that takes her out of the courtyard of safe custom and comforting tradition at her own peril. So this creature is banished to the art cinema ghetto where she can exist with the courage of her contradictions.

Rape and revenge
Mainstream cinema can at best recognise current social trends, read the headlines of papers with selective interest and intuitively understand the underlying anxieties of the ordinary Indian. This explains the profusion of the female avenger sub-genre in the post-Amitabh Bachchan vacuum of the 80s before the Khan trio of Amir, Salman and Shah Rukh established its supremacy at the box office. Indian feminism was shown to be articulate and seeking to make changes in law, specially those pertaining to rape so that the victim was not victimised all over once again by the process of law.

So it was in the 80s that Hindi cinema made the radical discovery—angels of death in variations of the rape and revenge formula. You saw front-ranking stars clamouring to play the dacoit queen taking to a gun or a female vigilante sworn to vengeance after the trauma of rape. Whatever the setting and whoever the star, this sub-genre immediately dictated its dress code to fit a new formula. Either the heroine or someone close to her is raped by a marauding dacoit or a gang of city goons. She discards overnight her coy village belle tricks, along with constricting lehangas and girlish braids embellished with tinsel tassels. She quickly finds a male mentor who could be surrogate father or well-meaning lover for initial guidance. Her seductive form is poured into skin tight black leather jeans, high boots and even a whip to chastise the villain. Is that a coy recognition of sado-masochism lurking under all the patriarchal bombast of Indian society? Of course, all the heroines must have names that invoke Kali, Durga and any other form of Shakti. This easy invocation of ready-made mythology is accompanied by the same bombastic rhetoric declaimed by the hero preliminary to destroying the villain-in-chief.

The paradigmatic film of this sub-genre is Zakhmee Aurat, in which Dimple Kapadia plays a cop who has to be punished with gang rape for daring to take on male accoutrements of authoritarianism and has the gall to ride a bike—phallic symbol for cinema the world over. More than the usual titillation to which the audience is inured, what is disturbing is the punishment aspect of the rape.

The other film is Pratighat, re-made shot for shot from a Telugu original. The protagonist is the spirited housewife next-door, who takes on the gangster politico with the help of lower-caste activists and a chorus-like madman. She has been publicly disrobed but has her revenge by beheading her tormentor in public with an axe. She must sacrifice motherhood—by which she defines her own femininity—in order to act like the hero.

Raj Kumar Santoshi's Damini is an idealised conscience-rouser of the middle-class out of its congenital apathy to injustice. The eponymous heroine is uncomfortably committed to speaking the truth even when this endangers the reputation of her rich in-laws. Damini has seen her loutish brother-in-law and his friends gangrape the maid during the Holi festival. Her middle-class values subdue her conscience for a while as she gives in to the combined persuasions of her uppity in-laws and the dilemma that her husband, a really decent man, is caught in.

Following the unwritten law that puts women with a conscience through the mill of sadistic punishment, Damini is incarcerated in a mental hospital where she is terrorised and certified insane. Tapping into the ready availability of mythological reference, the drums of Durga puja send Damini into a frenzied tandav dance and this shocks her out of a near-lobotomised lethargy. The real heart of the conflict—a traditionally brought up Indian woman's dilemma when her principles clash with family loyalty—does touch a responsive chord.

It is this theme that rings true for ours is a society in a state of flux where old certitudes no longer exist and individuals have to find their own scale of values. Damini empowers a woman and celebrates her integrity even though the narrative is enveloped in the usual safety net of conventional morality.

Bollywood Lollopops
Then came the 90s—a special decade caught in a historical bind. It is a decade burdened by the accumulated history of past decades even as it waits breathlessly on the beckoning threshold of a bright new century. The triumphalist return of traditional family values is inevitable in a society responding to the push-pull forces of globalisation. These values are encoded in phenomenally successful films like Hum Apke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Raja Hindustani and Pardes. The answer to a straying globalised audience is to retreat into a fundamentalist past, accompanied by a celebration of ethnicity.

Women have always been made the custodians and carriers of values enshrined by feudal patriarchy. The 90s celebrate and perpetuate traditional virtues of obedience, voluntary sacrifice of individual happiness at the altar of family duty. True, family values are the new mantra for neo-conservatives the world over in the wake of communism's collapse and Fukuyama's theory of the End of History.

If in the West, there is a discernible resurgence of conservative values in a post-feminist and post-structuralist world, in India, reassertion of traditions can be attributed to a whole complex of reasons in the wake of many complementary and contradictory trends. These films capitalise on the felicitous combination of two historical factors—first, a nation's collective yearning for the simple, comforting pleasures of family bonds (more so when the nation, the larger family, is threatened by violent movements for autonomy on ethnic and religious grounds); second, the perceived threat to such familial bonding by the lures of rampant individualism as a result of unchecked westernisation.

The political resurgence of Hindutva and the culturally xenophobic and un-apologetically patriarchal ideology of a triumphalist Hindu right-wing is the context and subtext of these films. Hum Apke Hain Kaun marks a watershed in popular culture because all the subterranean anxieties of a threatened society are allayed with persuasive charm and the viewer goes home comforted by simplistic solutions offered for uncritical mass consumption.

The possibility of an educated young woman asserting her individuality is a threat to the feel-good euphoria created by commercial cinema. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge cleverly subverts this possibility after duly acknowledging this very individuality. First, via Kajol's incipient rebellion and later, its poignancy underlined by Farida Jalal's recollection of how her own impulse for education was suppressed for the sake of her brothers. Director Aditya Chopra is young and savvy enough to dramatise Kajol's spirited rebellion but his ploy, again based on the Punjab folk tradition of the boy working to win the girl's family, reiterates the fact that a girl must be passed on from father to husband.

Raja Hindustani is an unreal fairy-tale reversal of the hackneyed outsider-city slicker falling in love with the innocent village belle. Dharmesh Darshan asks us to believe that a foreign-educated rich young woman can fall in love with a charmingly loutish, totally uneducated taxi driver with the most obsolete ideas of manliness. He crowns the regressive message by showing the discarded wife faithfully performing the ubiquitous Karwa Chauth that surfaces in so many films.

Pardes capitalises on the love-hate relationship afflicting the Indian diaspora. This is a love-hate relationship which has layers within layers: of native Indians for their rich cousins abroad, compounded with envy and condemnation. Then there is the much-maligned and much-courted NRI who wants to enjoy the best of the materialistic West and keep intact the purity and spirituality of his mythologised India.

Amrish Puri is the visiting NRI tycoon who returns to his village and selects Ganga, daughter of his childhood friend, as the chosen bride of his wayward, totally Americanised son. "We need daughters like Ganga to purify the boys who have been sullied by an American upbringing," he pontificates with gratifying pomposity! Ganga is the flow of continuum which will redeem the Americanised Indian with her core of tradition under the veneer of girlish high spirits.

Patriarchy continues to reign supreme even in a tasteful lollypop wrapped in designer wear. At the heart to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the bubble-gum entertainer par excellence, both Kajol and Rani Mukherjee enshrine Indian womanly virtues—Kajol as she grows up from tom boy to chiffon-clad desirability and Rani, breaking out into the devotional Jai Jagadeesh Hare in spite of her mini skirts and Oxford education. Hum Dil Dechuke Sanam's self-conscious ethnicity allows Aishwarya Rai to rediscover the sanctity of her marriage when the nobly self-sacrificing, pucca desi husband seeks to reunite her with her first love who is an insouciant, half-Italian Romeo.

You can take the modern Indian woman to the trough of tantalising independence but to make her drink its liberating water is impossible. The heroines, with the exception of strikingly individual Kajol, roll off the assembly line wearing the same pout, Manish Malhotra dresses, flaunting designer tresses, pirouetting their aerobicised bodies to the MTV beat, like so many Indianised Barbie dolls. At the other end of the spectrum is the lyrical celebration of Madhuri as the timeless Apsara by none other than M.F. Hussain, India's most high-profile painter. Between plastic kitsch and hyped high art, where is the space for the Indian woman just to be, a person in her own right? In a mirage?

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