All about Eve: A History of the Hindi Film Heroineby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri December 1 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 22 mins, 32 secs
All about Eve: A History of the Hindi Film HeroineThe more things change, the more they remain the same when it comes to the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri takes a journey down the ages to see how women in Hindi films have been represented.
Separated by more than a century, it is probably inconceivable to think of Dadasaheb Phalke and Katrina Kaif in the same breath. Yet, between the two of them they give an indication of the distance women have travelled or the way they are represented in Indian cinema. The story of Phalke’s search for a woman to play the queen in Raja Harishchandra (1913) is now part of film folklore. Not only were his friends and relatives aghast at the suggestion that a woman from a respectable family would act in a film, even prostitutes in Bombay’s red-light district, where Phalke went around scouring for his leading lady, considered it beneath their dignity to do so. Eventually, Phalke settled for an effeminate male waiter, Anna Salunke, who had to be paid extra to shave off his moustache! Thus it came to be that Indian cinema’s first heroine was a man.
Over a hundred years later, with women driving the Indian economy and at the forefront of almost every social, professional and business sphere, the year’s biggest box-office hit, Sooryavanshi (2021), casts its leading lady in a decorative role, the high point of which is the drenched-in-rain ‘item’ number Tip tip barsa paani’, a remixed version of a song that was first pictured twenty-seven years ago in the film Mohra (1994). Katrina Kaif’s Dr. Ria here is as authentic and decorative as Raveena Tandon’s journalist Roma in Mohra - it is almost as if as far as the woman in Hindi cinema is concerned time has stood still.
Over the years, leading ladies in Indian films have invariably had their most memorable roles as prostitutes, courtesans and in item numbers. Despite the undeniably progressive change in attitudes to the presence of women in cinema, the story of the representation of women in mainstream Hindi cinema is a sorry one, ridden with clichés and steeped in age-old mindsets.
If anything, things have only regressed since the 1930s - a decade, which saw some of the most daring strides made by women in Indian cinema both on and off-screen. This was the era of Devika Rani, the first goddess of Indian films who scorched the screen with her lip-lock in Karma (1933). An iconic still from the film shows the woman in a rare position of sexual dominance over the man. That Devika Rani was a woman of substance behind the scenes as well is amply demonstrated in the way she took over the reins of Bombay Talkies as producer after the death of her husband Himansu Rai.
In the years since, one is hard-pressed to think of another woman producer who wielded such influence. Then there was Fatma Begum, the first Indian woman to take up direction with Bulbul-e-Paristan (1926), who started out as an actress in Veer Abhimanyu in the early 1920s and went on to direct seven features in all - it would take almost six decades before women like Aparna Sen, Sai Paranjpye and Kalpana Lajmi emerged as filmmakers in the 1980s. This was also when Durga Khote, a high-caste Brahmin, entered films - at a time when cinema was looked upon as a medium of lowly people and charlatans. That she retained her own name, unlike many others who took on screen names, is a key to the mind of the gutsy lady.
A slew of films in the decade addressed relevant social issues through strong female protagonists. These included V. Shantaram’s Amar Jyoti (1936) about a woman who fights the law when she is denied custody of her baby, Mehboob’s Hum Tum Aur Woh (1938) - a love triangle featuring a woman ‘who refuses to feel guilty about her desires’, Sohrab Modi’s Talaq (1938) dealing with divorce laws with a progressiveness startling for its time, V. Shantaram’s classic Duniya Na Mane (1937), which had the feisty character of Nirmala who tricked into marrying an old widower with two grown-up children refuses to consummate her marriage and Master Vinayak’s Brahmachari (1937), an irreverently funny portrayal of aggressive womanhood, whose heroine, in a remarkable display of a woman’s right to decide for herself, relentlessly pursues the man she wants and wins him in the end.
Then there was the immortal ‘Fearless’ Nadia - a feminist long before the term gained currency. Debuting with Hunterwali (1935), she was a heroine unlike any we have had, riding like the devil, chasing the baddies on top of a running train, swinging on chandeliers, beating men and playing with lions. Seen in the light of the overwhelmingly weepy women we are used to in Indian films, who play second fiddle to the men mainly as their amorous interests, and who are largely projected as finding their fulfillment in marriage, it might come as a surprise that in her ten-year stint at the top, Nadia was the main draw of her films and she remained steadfastly single on screen.
Dorothee Wenner writes in her warm biography of the star, Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen, Nadia consistently ‘escaped being straitjacketed in the rigid role models for female characters on screen and created a new one for herself… with her sacrosanct autonomy since on the screen she either never married or simply doubled up with laughter when suggestions of this nature were made.’
It is thus with more than a little regret that one looks at the downhill journey ever since. But even as these films portrayed women with refreshing originality, there were others like Dr. Madhurika (1935), which became the prototype for how women would be projected in Hindi films in the decades to come. Written by K.M. Munshi, this is the story of a ‘modern’ woman, a doctor, who advocates birth control and gets married only on condition that she will have no children and that her husband will not interfere with her profession and choice of friends. But soon enough the filmmaker’s agenda is clear when her ‘modern’ outlook is shown as responsible for her domestic unhappiness. Only when she gives up her job and attends to her husband fully does she attain domestic bliss and fulfillment as a woman. The thinking hasn’t changed much you realize when you watch Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006), which ever so subtly hints that the reason one of the couples has marital problems is because the wife is a successful career woman.
With the end of the studio era, the ideological moorings of the 1930s fell by the wayside as profiteers and black marketers entered the industry, lured by the prospects of wartime profits in the 1940s. As the economics of filmmaking changed, so did its social relevance. The decade after 1947, with all the idealism of a newly independent nation and a host of socially committed filmmakers (Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt) at the helm, saw the last of the truly emancipated women on screen. The spirited woman of Mehboob’s Andaz (1949) has no qualms about friendship with men, the lawyer in Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) and the schoolteacher in Shri 420 (1955), the actress who prioritizes her career over relationship in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), the iconic mother in Mother India (1957) tills the land to provide for her children, the defiant Anarkali of Mughal-e-Azam (1960) dares an emperor for the sake of her love, all attained cult status. But barring odd exceptions, the picture has been dismal since then. And the malaise runs deeper than the simple fact than women being straitjacketed in ‘mother–lover–vamp’ stereotypes.
Raj Kapoor, who as early as the 1950s created the working women of Awara and Shri 420, jettisoned the idealism of these films for an increasingly voyeuristic take, beginning with Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), which had Padmini frolicking in the pond, through Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1977), about which Kapoor memorably declared, ‘Sure, people will come to look at Zeenat’s tits…’ to Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) where he seems to be obsessed with placing his heroine under the waterfall.
At the same time, while Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam are justifiably celebrated as classics, they have an interesting subtext: these films promoted the cult of the woman as the eternal sufferer. Mainstream Hindi cinema has consistently advocated the image of a ‘good’ woman as one who sacrifices everything for her man and her family. A look at some of the female roles, which have attained cult status, will prove the point. Meena Kumari (Pakeezah, 1971), Nirupa Roy (Deewar, 1975), Rakhee (Tapasya, 1976) and Rekha (Umrao Jaan, 1981) are all women who find their fulfillment only in forfeiting their selves and their happiness for the men around whom their lives revolve.
These ultimately perpetuated a male perspective of the woman and her place in the family, society and nation. Referring to the ‘virtuous female stereotypes’, Shyam Benegal, one of the few Indian filmmakers who has created strong, individualistic women in his films, says in Sangeeta Dutta’s book Shyam Benegal, ‘Her virtue is in being the good mother, wife, sister - a set of essential roles a woman has to play- which is a terrible kind of oppression; a glorification not allowing the woman any choice’.
The 1960s reduced the woman to a glamour doll, decked up only for the male gaze. The women in the films of Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar, represented by Asha Parekh and others of the time, existed it seemed only to be romantically wooed. Despite the sexual awakening represented by songs like ‘Aaja aaja main hoon pyar tera’ (Teesri Manzil, 1966), the women in the films of this era were largely the Indian equivalent of the dumb blonde. For those who decry the films of the 1990s for their objectification of women as a ‘mast cheez’, it is quite an eye-opener to realize that it all began and gained respectability with the films of Shammi Kapoor. Are ‘Lal chhadi maidan khadi’ (Jaanwar, 1965) and ‘Badan pe sitare lapete hue’ (Prince, 1969) any less derogatory to women than ‘Tu cheez badi hai mast, mast’ (Mohra, 1994) and ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ (Khalnayak, 1994)?
Rosie of Guide (1965), who leaves her tyrannical husband for a career as a dancer and enters into a relationship outside marriage, and the spirited Kalyani of Bandini (1963) are but honorable exceptions in a decade, which was all about style over substance, and which reduced a woman’s modernity to a function of her wardrobe.
The glamorous senselessness continued in the next decade. And with the rise of Amitabh Bachchan the heroine became increasingly peripheral to the narrative. But two different streams emerged in cinema, which provided a welcome break. While filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani inaugurated the Indian New Wave, which gave Indian films memorable women protagonists in Ankur (1974), Bhumika (1977) and Mandi (1983) among others, directors such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar and Basu Chatterjee carved a niche with their sensible ‘middle of the road’ cinema where women characters could be relate to and identified with.
Beginning with Anuradha and Anupama in the 1960s, Mukherjee directed some fine women-centric films in the 1970s, including Guddi (1971), Mili (1975) and that brilliant critique of male chauvinism, Abhimaan (1973). However, even he placed his women firmly inside the home, and in that sense his main contribution to representing women on screen can be said to lie in the fact that he was never derogatory towards them.
Basu Chatterjee’s Rajanigandha (1974) and Chhoti Si Baat (1975) had that rarity: a leading lady is shown to work. Gulzar gave Hindi films two of its most remarkable protagonists in Aandhi and Mausam, both releasing in 1975. In the former, the woman - interestingly, the only woman character in the narrative - chooses her career over family, despite falling out with her husband who in the end has the sensitivity to acknowledge that her loss can never mean victory for him. Mausam fetched Sharmila Tagore a National Award for her forceful portrayal of a prostitute who is not apologetic about her profession.
Which brings us to the 1980s - the decade horribilis. By the end of the 1970s, the new wave was running out of steam, thanks to a lack of official patronage and certain self-indulgence on the part of filmmakers themselves - the middle-of the-road directors too were relegated to the margins. Certain social changes like large-scale migration of rural workers to urban centers changed the profile of the viewing public in cities, which had its impact on the films of the decade. As middle-class viewers, who patronized the new wave and the films of Gulzar and Mukherjee in the 1970s, curled up on their sofas in front of TVs and VCRs, the last vestige of tastefulness in depicting women went out of the theatre.
Fittingly, the decade began with B.R. Chopra’s Insaf Ka Tarazu (1980). Ostensibly addressing the social scourge of rape, the voyeurism inherent in the way the rape scenes were pictured left no one in doubt about the ‘commercial’ motivations of the filmmaker. While furthering the regressive attitudes that have always been part of Hindi cinema - the victim mouthing inanities like ‘being a broken mirror in which nothing good can be reflected’ - Insaf Ka Tarazu heralded an epidemic of on-screen violence on women with rape becoming a fixation of films of the decade. If Insaniyat Ke Dushman (1987) had its ‘heroes’ raping each other’s sisters as means of revenge and Paap Ki Aandhi (1986) had the incredible sight of a woman accepting her rapist as her husband because ‘a good woman will allow only one man to touch her body’, things got so sickening with films like Zakhmi Aurat (1988) - an exploitative flick advocating castration as punishment for rapists, that one longed for the inconsequential frivolity of the 1960s. What do you say about a decade when even Yash Chopra - who had given us the defining characters of the unwed mother in Dhool Ka Phool (1959), the adulteress–murderer in Ittefaq (1969) and the gangster’s moll in Deewar (1975) - was reduced to parading his heroine in a skimpy bikini (Vijay, 1988) as a pretext for the obligatory ‘attempt to rape’ sequence?
Along with these ‘sexploitative’ portrayals, another genre of films that flourished in the 1980s, the ‘social family dramas’, propagated an equally revolting image of women. Titles like Daasi (1981), Sadaa Suhagan (1986) and Pati Parmeshwar (1989) are dead giveaways of this school of women, who find fulfillment in hugging their husbands’ shoes, drinking the water after washing his feet as charanamrit (Humse Badhkar Kaun), whose sole criterion of being fortunate lies in dying a ‘suhagan’ or who live by the credo ‘husband is God’. Pati Parmeshwar, in fact, was banned by the censor for ‘depicting women in ignoble servility to man and glorifying it’. R.K. Nayyar, the producer, went to court against the censor’s decision, insisting that he was ‘upholding traditional Indian values, which I positively believe in’!
Only two films, both releasing in 1982, stand out in memory for their strong female roles in that dim decade: Mahesh Bhatt’s trenchant take on infidelity and marital discord, Arth, and Raman Kumar’s Saath Saath, a wistful look at love and a marriage falling apart in the struggle between idealism and the instinct for survival. While Arth had mesmerizing performances by Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil as the jilted wife and the other woman respectively (though again it is possible to argue that the other woman is conveniently shown to be neurotic, thus pandering to traditional mindsets), the latter had Deepti Naval essay with great dignity the role of a woman who not only holds on to her idealism even when she sees her once-idealistic husband compromising his integrity for the sake of getting ahead in life, but is also willing to leave the man she loves for the sake of her ideals.
Rape and retribution having run its course, the 1990s ushered in a softer cinema, riding on the success of romantic musicals like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya at the fag end of the 1980s. But any hopes that like their real-life counterparts, women in cinema, would get a makeover were soon dashed.
Women in India may have made extraordinary strides with the opening of the economy in 1992, at the forefront in our politics, business and at the workplace but looking at the Sumans, Nishas and Simrans of our screen worlds, one would never know that. Women in each of the films that defined the decade - Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), Hum Aapke Hai Koun (1994), Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995) - have characteristics in common: they are happily homebound, they depend on the men in their families to take all the crucial decisions on their behalf and are content to wait for their princes charming to come and carry them off to the la-la land of marital bliss.
Even as large parts of urban India saw the effects of globalization and modernization, with more liberal attitudes towards relationships, mainstream cinema went conservative with a vengeance. Consider, for example, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). As long as Kajol’s character is tomboyish, sports short hair and no makeup, and indulges in male pastimes like basketball, she does not stand a chance against the decidedly more feminine Rani. Only when she returns in the second half of the film, suitably ‘womanized’, clad in sari, long hair, does she become worthy of the hero’s interests. In an era when more and more women ventured out of their homes to make a career, none of these films have working women. These characters unabashedly endorse a traditional male view of women. And it does not look like it will get any better. As film critic Maithili Rao has observed, ‘The triumphalist return of traditional family values is inevitable in a society responding to the push-pull forces of globalization. The answer to a straying globalized audience is to retreat into a fundamentalist past, accompanied by a celebration of ethnicity.’
In many ways, the image of women in films of the 1990s is more disturbing than the one in the preceding decade. It is possible to dismiss the films of the 1980s as vulgar and indecent, made by fly-by-night operators who had no cinematic credentials. But the ones in the last decade of the twentieth century were the works of filmmakers with a certain standing and influence. The regressive attitudes of their films came couched in gloss and style, which made the conservatism appear not only palatable but also worthy of praise and emulation.
Filmmakers like Aditya and Yash Chopra, Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar are no less guilty of showing women in a poor light than their nameless counterparts of the 1980s. It is a telling comment on our filmmakers that Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, the leading actors of the 1990s, and two of the most popular female stars ever, have few really gutsy performances worth the name between the two of them and that they owe their stardom more to their item’ numbers - ‘Hawa Hawaii’ (Mr India, 1987), ‘Ek do teen’ (Tezaab, 1988) and ‘Dhak dhak karne laga’ (Beta, 1992), which again boils down to one thing: a celebration of the male gaze.
It is possible to argue that films have only reflected the conditions subsisting in society. The silently suffering woman lives only for her family, the mute acquiescence to violence on women, the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, are all part of our social construct. But does that condone filmmakers glorifying moth-eaten values in the name of upholding tradition? For decades our society has been male-dominated and the film industry is no exception. The belief that it is the male audience that decides a film’s success is omnipresent and is the primary reason why our films reinforce male perspectives. An overwhelming large number of our filmmakers have been male, and coming as they do from patriarchal set-ups, have little sympathy for the female perspective. There have been exceptions, of course. Regional cinema, particularly in Bengal and Assam, has a refreshingly progressive take on women, possibly because these societies have been inherently forward-looking.
The women in Satyajit Ray’s films - whether in period pieces like Charulata (1964) and Ghare Baire (1980) or contemporary dramas like Kanchenjungha (1962), Mahanagar (1963) and Nayak (1966) -are exceptional in the way they articulate their emotional, sexual and intellectual longings. While the protagonist in Mahanagar stands up to her husband and his family, refusing to give up her job simply because the fact that she is a working woman hurts the husband’s ego (when she does resign from her job, it is to protest against the wrongful dismissal of a colleague and in solidarity with her), Nayak’s Aditi is one of the few believable journalists we have had on screen.
And the quiet revolution wrought by the daughter and the mother in Kanchenjungha, where they emerge out of years of being dominated by the family patriarch to stand up for their own desires, is without doubt one of the most stirring on-screen statements, more powerful because it is understated, on the overthrow of the deadwood of tradition.
Ray’s legacy was carried forward admirably by filmmakers like Aparna Sen and Rituparno Sengupta. Sen’s films include 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), the unforgettable ode to the loneliness of an aging Anglo-Indian spinster, and Paroma (1985), which created quite a controversy with its portrayal of a middle-aged woman who has an extra-marital affair with a younger man. Sengupta has shown a rare understanding of the feminine psyche, notably in his films Unishe April (1994) and Dahan (1997). While the former deals with the uneasy relationship between a widowed mother, who takes to dance to fill the void in her life, and her daughter who interprets this as a lack of feeling on her mother’s part towards her late father, Dahan is the story of a schoolteacher who intervenes on behalf of a young housewife being molested by four young men when no one else does. Though she is initially hailed a hero, it is soon clear that a predominantly male society, including her family members, will allow her to go only so far in her quest for justice.
Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua’s oeuvre too is full of strong women, like the one in Aparoopa (1982) who elopes with her lover to find happiness or the young widow in Firingoti (1992) who takes up the cause of her school threatened by a powerful lobby. But these, and the films of the new wave have had a limited reach though they have done remarkably well in their respective states. For good or bad, Bollywood films with their moth-eaten conventions, continue to be representative of cinema in the country, reflecting and influencing social and cultural mores.
In the new millennium, a few women filmmakers - Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar - have broken through the largely male bastion but it still remains to be seen whether they can bring their distinct sensibilities to the films they make. At the same time it is foolish to think that only women filmmakers can bring about any discernible change. If anything, it has been male directors like Benegal and Gulzar who have consistently made women-centric films, while Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na (2004) can hardly be described as doing the image of women much good. A new crop of filmmakers - Nagesh Kukunoor, Madhur Bhandarkar, Anurag Basu, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha and Shoojit Sircar -have brought some cheer with the way they have portrayed women. Bhardwaj’s films like Maqbool (2003), Haider (2014) and the criminally underrated Pataakha (2018) have boasted strong women that manipulate the strongest and best of men. Kukunoor’s Dor (2006) is an exceptional study of two diverse women in a predominantly male landscape. Bhandarkar’s films may be flawed and may not quite be the exposés he intends them to be, but no one can deny that his films are peopled with women characters one can relate to - the bar dancer in Chandni Bar (2001), the rookie journalist (Page 3, 2005) and the corporate high-flyer who knows how to get her way in a man’s world (Corporate, 2006). Basu, in films like Gangster (2006) and Life in a Metro (2007), gave us exciting women who have a mind of their own and are not afraid of exercising their choices. Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009) had two exceptional women, turning on the head the conventional portrayals for Paro and Chandramukhi, while Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad (2020) was a stinging slap in the face of all those who went by accepted norms of what did and did not work at the box office.
The changes in portrayal of women have also benefited from the emergence of actors like Tapsee Pannu who in her still-fledgling career has portrayed some powerful flesh-and-blood characters in films like Pink (2016), Badla (2018), Mulk (2018) and the aforementioned Thappad.
Alia Bhatt is another actor who has in films like Raazi (2018) and Udta Panjab (2016) shown the ability to break the glass ceiling both in terms of a heroine’s clout at the turnstiles and her ability to put across diverse characters. For a moment it seemed like Kangana Ranaut with films like Queen (2013) and Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and its 2015 sequel was on the verge of becoming a game-changer when it came to the heroine’s prowess at the box office, until her distasteful wrong turn (or is it the right turn?) as a rabid rabble-rouser made it problematic for anyone to have any objectivity about her films and stature as an actor and influencer.
One hopes these filmmakers and actors, and others like them, while operating within the limitations imposed by the system will find the creative courage to break with established mores and define the contours of women in cinema in the new millennium. The daughter-mother duo of Konkona Sen Sharma and Aparna Sen offer hope in their outings A Death in in the Gunj (2016) and The Rapist (2021), are examples of the young and the experienced pushing the envelope.
But for every progressive step taken, there’s always a ‘Tip tip barsa paani’ that rains on the parade of good strong representation of women in Hindi cinema.