As with real life, the projection of the ‘Indian woman’ in Indian cinema over the decades has been, at best, ambiguous. As in other parts of Southasia and the world, the women of India remain, by and large, second-class citizens groomed to be obedient wives rather than independent individuals. A good marriage, not a sound education, is supposed to be her ultimate goal. Even in cases where the wife is the major bread-winner, she is seldom the head of the family. Things may be changing in urban India, where women are increasingly conscious of their rights, but the winds of change do not blow strongly enough in the rural areas, nor among lower-income groups. The Indian woman must continue to practice that noble virtue to which she is traditionally so accustomed: patience, as she fulfils her secondary, subsidiary, supporting role.
Cinema necessarily reflects the social environment from which it springs and in which it flourishes. Even as the multimedia apparatus wields a tremendous influence on society, cinema’s populist reach particularly shapes public opinion as does no other medium. Such power begets unique responsibility, requiring periodic reassessments with questions such as: How has Indian cinema treated the Indian woman? Has it been fair and realistic in portraying women? Has it been able to analyse her numerous problems? Has it championed her cause? Has it come up with solutions? On the whole, these answers are in the negative.
For the most part, women have adorned the silver screen in a decorative capacity. Seldom do we see a woman of substance in film – a flesh-and-blood person facing up to challenges and trying to come to terms with her environment. Instead, what we get to see are feminine shadows in the background – wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts and vamps playing second-fiddle to the male protagonists.
Sati and Shakti
Popular Indian cinema began in earnest with D Phalke’s Raja Harischandra in 1913; and the first film dealing with a woman’s dilemma appeared in 1919 with the mythical Ahilya Uddhar (“The Purification of Ahilya”). In the early days of silent film, however, particularly in the 1920s, much of the country’s women-focused cinema revolved around sati films, around the woman who ‘voluntarily’ enters her husband’s funeral pyre. The sati woman had no separate identity of her own – her only purpose in life was to look after the well-being of her lord-and-master husband. Sati films continued to be produced throughout the following decades; even after the 1960s, the decline of traditional sati stories led to modernised versions that focussed on devoted wives. Today’s cinema continues to suffer from the sati syndrome, limiting the portrayal of women to one-dimensional creatures with no personal ambition or drive.
Paradoxically, side-by-side with the sati stereotype, the image of the single woman of tremendous strength of character and physique reigned supreme on the screen from the 1930s until well into the 1950s. She was portrayed by the fearless Nadia, the stunt queen, who believed in action rather than the silent suffering of the virtuous. Nadia’s on-screen acts of daredevilry would have put Tarzan, James Bond and Rambo to shame. In 1934, she made Hunterwali, followed by a series of similar films. After a few lean years, during which time Nadia took hairdressing courses, in 1943 the ‘Queen’ made a grand comeback with The Daughter of Hunterwali. Nadia continued fighting onscreen for the next decade, but there wasn’t another heroine to take on villains single-handedly until Geeta aur Seeta (1972), when dream-girl Hema Malini exploded onto the scene in a double role.
The dual portrayal of the onscreen Indian woman actually has ancient roots. According to traditional beliefs, a woman can be the incarnation of either of two ideals. On the one hand, she can be a gentle, pious and submissive creature – always sacrificing for the sakes of others, particularly the husband. On the other hand, she can be Shakti incarnate, taking after the goddess of vengeance and destruction and exhibiting her bloodthirsty and remorseless side. Here, she is the representation of female brute force, striking terror in the hearts of men. Given such traditionally contradictory manifestations of female-hood, it is not surprising that so many sati films ran side-by-side with Nadia’s stunt movies.
Although women-oriented films have been few considering the number of productions to come out of Bombay over the years, the list does include a number of brave efforts that present female protagonists with empathy. The director Subramaniyan, himself of high caste, made the very bold Balyogini in the 1930s in Tamil and Telugu, exposing the bitter lot of widows. He featured a real Brahmin widow with a shaven head, for which the director was angrily declared an outcaste. Indeed, the subject of widowhood has inspired daring filmmakers over the decades, starting with the 1925 production of a silent film titled Child Widow. In the early-1980s, Prema Karanth’s Phaniamma, in Kannada, depicted a young widow defying tradition by refusing to shave her hair upon her husband’s death.
In 1937, V Shantaram produced a cinematic gem called Duniya Na Mane, about a young woman married off to an elderly widower by a money-minded uncle. Instead of accepting the husband as would a tradition-bound wife, the girl refuses to put the kumkum on her forehead and stays away from the marital bed. Indeed, Duniya Na Mane can be considered India’s first combination of uncompromising social statement and gripping cinema. Achyut Ranade’s Gudia and Swayamsidha in 1941 and 1948 were of the same calibre; both follow the development of timid, traditional girls as they gain the self-confidence needed to assert themselves.
In general, however, the poor treatment of wives and daughters-in-law in Indian cinema has become a cinematic narrative trope, as has the woman’s response. In 1933, Devki Bose made an allegorical, highly stylised film called Apna Ghar, which depicted colonial India as the tormented wife and the British state as the tyrannical husband.
Filmmakers have long been enthralled by one particular group of women – those who, by dint of birth or circumstance, are forced to take on the world’s oldest profession. The father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, weighed in on the subject with Kanya Vikray in 1924. Despite considerable subsequent contributions to the genre, however, Indian filmmakers have done little to delve into the problems or social implications of prostitution. Rather, it has been the romance of the high-class courtesan or dancing girls that has fired the imaginations of many directors.
There have been many popular and well-made films on the glamorous but ill-fated lives of the court entertainer, the classic being K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Recently colourised, the film is a tragedy based on the love story of the historic Prince Salim (Jahangir) and the commoner-dancer Anarkali. Both Pakeezah (1972) and Umrao Jaan (1981) evoked a bygone era when the beauty of a courtesan could purportedly change the course of history.
Over the years, a few exceptions have taken more realistic looks at the sex worker. Chetna (1970) , directed by B R Ishara, brought a prostitute’s story to the screen in a bold manner. Bazaar (1982) was a low-budget film by Sagar Sarhadi that dealt with the sale of young girls to the Gulf countries. Mandi, a film by Shyam Benegal made in the early-1980s, was a black comedy that not only depicted the lives of prostitutes in a graphic and unromanticised manner, but deigned to accept them as a part of social life. Many inconsequential, sensational films have also been made on the titillating aspects of ladies of the night. Midnight Girl, Society Butterfly, Vamp and Gutturna Gulab were some early productions on the subject. These days, many such works are produced in Kerala, with names like Hot Nights, Night Girls and so on.
Away from the travails of the courtesan and prostitute, it was important for cinema to begin dealing with the dilemmas confronting the modern working woman in the hostile urban environment. With socio-economic circumstance compelling more and more women to share and shoulder the burden of supporting the family, the film world could hardly neglect this aspect. Curiously, however, few directors took up the issue as their theme. Though films like Typist Girl, Telephone Girls and Educated Wife were made in the 1920s, the following decades have not yielded a crop to keep pace. College Girl and Indira M A in 1934, Nurse and Lady Doctor in the mid-1940s, and Dr. Vidya in 1964 attempted to depict educated and working women, but they are generally seen as lukewarm efforts.
Only a few sterling films about working girls spring to mind. One was certainly 11,000 Girls, written and directed by K Abbas in 1962, about the ordeals of Bombay’s working women. Satyajit Ray’s lyrical Mahanagar, made a year later, is of the same calibre. Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin (1979) poignantly described a typical middle-class situation in which a daughter is allowed to earn for her family, but inspires a family crisis when she comes home late. Despite the efforts of Abbas, Ray, Sen and a few others, Indian cinema has largely failed to keep up with the experiences of the country’s working women.
There have been some subtle films that have dealt successfully with complex nuances of the feminine psyche. Charulata, made by Satyajit Ray in 1964, describes the unspoken platonic love a woman feels for her brother-in-law; a subject that could have resulted in a crude film in lesser hands was turned into a sublime masterpiece by Ray. A more recent film with great strength and character is 36 Chowringhee Lane made by Aparna Sen in 1981, in which Jennifer Kapoor plays an ageing, lonely Anglo-Indian teacher, in one of the best performances ever brought to the Indian screen. Finally, no discussion of female depictions in Indian cinema would be complete without paying homage to the great director Bimal Roy. Parineets, Biraj Bahu and Madhumati in the 1950s and Bandini in 1963 will be remembered for the grace and charm of their women protagonists, as well as for the masterful unravelling of their stories.
While all of these outstanding films have served the cause of Indian women in one way or another, as a whole they remain in the minority. The woman of today’s commercial Indian cinema is a one-dimensional creature. She is either self-sacrificing to a fault or a painted trollop out to ruin every man and marriage she finds. What has been a necessity in the past remains so today: we need realistic, credible depictions of women, portrayed so even in the simplest of films. Modern characters need to be neither pure white nor midnight black – but full, real and in technicolour. There is an audience out there, a large proportion of it female, to appreciate such output.