Women in Indian Film, 1-10
edited by Nasreen Munni Kabir
Zubaan Books, 2009
In the past, publications on women and Hindi cinema have become, more often than not, treatises on the problematic relationship between the two: the lack of female-centric roles; stereotyped casting; and the staple of thrusting hips clad in rain-soaked, body-hugging saris. All this is true. Commercial Hindi films rarely portray realistic and substantial female characters. Literature probing this skewed portrayal – especially what it might mean for Indian and Southasian audiences, given the wide reach of Bollywood – is certainly important. Yet with the focus so largely on the uneasy association, literature on the women themselves – studies on their impact as actors in moulding and challenging the evolution of Indian cinema – has been dishearteningly small.
The editors at Zubaan, the independent feminist publishing house, must have been thinking along the same lines when they put together this new Women in Indian Film package. The series is a set of eye-catching booklets on ten women actors – Nutan, Jaya Bachchan, Aparna Sen, Farah Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aarti Bajaj, Saira Banu, Smita Patil, Mumtaz and Zeenat Aman. With so many influential actors to choose from, these ten women are, in the words of series editor Nasreen Munni Kabir, “an unpredictable selection grown not out of a need to be representative, but rather out of personal interest and choice – and a curiosity to know more.” This is perhaps why the individual writers’ enthusiasm for each subject is palpable, as they explore the convergence between personal lives and careers, keeping in mind the socio-political context in India at the time.
All the same, one hitch in an otherwise excellent package is the overt focus on Bollywood. Regardless of the series title, Bengali director Aparna Sen is the only non-Bollywood woman featured. Most notable is the lack of even a single woman from the vibrant industries in South India – the Telegu, Kannada or Tamil film industries, the latter in recent years having overtaken Bollywood in terms of annual output. Indeed, these monographs are not revolutionary in what they contribute to our understanding of these individual actors, or even of the larger issue of the role of women in Indian cinema. But they are unique in changing the nature of the discourse: of discussing the women in terms of what they have brought to the screen as actors, directors and editors.
Tempering the template
After all, the fairly rigid bounds of the mainstream Indian cinematic tradition have had ramifications that have gone far beyond women actors. Producers, directors, technicians and actors, whether male or female, are all bound by the format. Hence, we today have the ‘standard’ film template, including about a half-dozen songs, a little dhisoom dichaam here and some noble cause there, all ending happily with love requited. Non-believers in the great Indian tamaasha will cite this well-worn formula as ultimate proof that Bollywood is simply not innovative. But in fact, a look at these ‘formulaic’ films from over the decades point to a wealth of issues discussed in immensely individual, creative ways by those involved in the industry, be they directors, cameramen or actors. Many of these (male) greats – Guru Dutt, Dilip Kumar and Vinod Khanna, to name just a few – get their due, with much said about the manner in which they shaped the standards.
Functioning within tighter limits, in smaller, more repetitive roles, often cast as a prop to highlight the greatness of the hero, equally talented women actors are rarely discussed in similar terms. It is not that the women do not have a place in cinematic history: Zeenat Aman is immortalised as a pin-up bombshell after movies such as Heera Panna (1973); Nargis will forever be remembered as the model matriarch after her character in Mother India (1957); and Madhuri Dixit has been always the girl-next-door who really can shake her hips, ever since she joined the industry in the early 1980s. But it is rare to have these, and numerous other, women discussed as well-rounded actors who deliver convincing performances in the less-than desirable roles usually offered to them.
Limitations of character and format certainly exist, but they cannot overshadow powerful performances. Take, for instance, Jaya Bachchan as the widowed Radha in the beloved classic Sholay (1975). In a film that is largely an ode to the swashbuckling masculinity of Amitabh Bachchan (‘Jai’) and Dharmendra (‘Veeru’), Radha is a character with little screen time and almost no lines. Even as the larger-than-life Jai-Veeru duo swagger about finishing off the bad guys, it is Radha who leaves the most lasting impression. A tiny figure draped in white, face usually shaded by a dupatta, her use of space, distance, movement and light to convey sadness, fear and hope is entrancing. More writers on the subject should take note of a potent lesson in the Zubaan series: that appreciating the work of these women is not an acceptance of the pigeonholing of female characters.
While on the subject of appreciation, it is an unavoidable fact in cinema anywhere that everybody who is not an actor toils in relative anonymity. But while academic theses, gossip channels and Page 3 tabloids may not cover them, women are making unprecedented inroads into Bollywood as technicians. One of the strengths of the Women in Film series is its acknowledgement of this reality through a booklet on Aarti Bajaj. A film editor, she has edited a broad range of movies, such as the controversial Black Friday (2004), the blockbuster romantic comedy Jab We Met (2007), the issue-oriented Aamir (2008) and most recently the rocking Dev D (2009). These credits clearly speak of a career on the rise. And Bajaj is only the best known of a growing list of women professionals, including audiographer Fawzia Fatima, cinematographer Pooja Sharma and production designer Meenal Agrawal. While no comprehensive figures on the number and position of women in technical jobs exist, it is unlikely that they have achieved critical mass. Women are still very much an anomaly in what was until recently a wholly male stronghold. Nonetheless, though the floodgates have not quite opened, quite a few prominent cracks are visible.
Yet for all the encouraging news on the technical front, the story of women in the more high-profile roles of directors and producers boasts far less to cheer about. Women directors are no aliens to Indian film. All the way from Fatima Begum (who, sick of the unimpressive roles she was offered, turned director to ensure a meaty character for herself with the silent film Bulbul-e-Paristan, in 1926), to the likes of Sai Paranjpye and Kalpana Lajmi, independent women directors have made their voices heard over the years. However, their work has, in general, been neither seen nor talked about by the mass audience, usually acclaimed critically as ‘parallel’ or ‘women-oriented’ cinema – only to be rather promptly forgotten. Moreover, finding producers and male actors to make these so-called Feminist (apparently a shudder-inducing classification avoided like the plague by the filmi fraternity) storylines is in itself an uphill task. Speaking about casting the male character for her first film, Filhaal (2002), around the delicate issue of surrogacy, director Meghna Gulzar said “every leading actor presumed I was making a feminist film”, and thus turned down the role.
Issues-based films with convincing and often central female characters are in fact a proud part of the Indian cinematic tradition. Iconic directors such as Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Hrishikesh Mukherjee exclusively made such films through the 1960s and 1970s, a genre widely hailed as the ‘Indian New Wave’ or parallel cinema. (Nandini Ramnath’s booklet on Smita Patil, the talented darling of these films, is excellent.) In the decades since, the tradition of such ‘art’ cinema has been shorn of much of its roots in India. Today, many of the directors making parallel films are women such as Deepa Mehta and Aparna Sen (on whom Himal contributing editor Rajashri Dasgupta has written an outstanding monograph) at the fore.
Box-office success and the associated money continues to elude these directors. Yet their films, such as Mehta’s controversial Fire (1996), about a lesbian relationship behind the façade of a happy middle-class family, or Sen’s Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), the tale of a Muslim man and a Brahmin woman who strike up a friendship on a bus as communal riots rage outside, are no less than the revered classics of Ray or Benegal. But Sen is set to stray for her art-house roots soon, making her first Hindi film, Gulel, starring commercial heavyweights such as Ranbir Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar and, reportedly, Bipasha Basu and Kareena Kapoor.
Still, over in the bustling maidan of commercial Bollywood, women directors are rare creatures, making occasional minor splashes before vanishing back into the shadows. The most notable exception is, of course, Farah Khan, whose second directorial effort, Om Shanti Om (2007), can only be described as a tsunami. The highest grossing film of the year, and one of the greatest blockbusters in the history of Hindi cinema, Om Shanti Om was pure Bollywood masala. A lavish production with all the ingredients – love, tragedy, reincarnation, revenge, ghosts and Shahrukh Khan’s then-newly unveiled six-pack abs – the film was expertly mixed. Om Shanti Om’s roaring success made clear that audiences do not care who is behind the bullhorn yelling ‘cut’. More importantly, it made this fact known, in a big way, to the old-boys’ club of Bollywood directors.
Another woman director to make news recently has been Zoya Akhtar, with her directorial debut Luck by Chance (2009). The tale of a girl struggling to achieve her big Bollywood dreams, one of the main characters (a woman!), Sona Mishra, gets stuck with bit parts as the well-connected, filmi-pedigreed girls get all the lead roles. So the story goes with all the twists and turns (and a number of great supporting female characters), song-and-dance sequences of the Bollywood format. But Sona is no Cinderella. She turns down, without any hysterics or melodrama, the successful Prince Charming-type actor who had earlier left her for his leading lady. Nor does she ever make it big as an actor. Instead, the curtain falls as she plods along, living alone in her tiny studio and acting in TV soap operas. But nothing is impossible in Bollywood, where the forces of good – with a little backing, whether human, spirit or divine – can always beat the odds with great panache. Maybe Sona will one day get her big break – a challenging role in a movie written, produced, directed, shot and edited by women just like her.