Mortal Women, Immortal Films
Not that they were not brilliant actors otherwise, and displayed their talent in a one-off film, but if one were to scan the filmography of some of the mainstream Bollywood heroines, they will be found at their best in their portrayals of the suppressed, exploited and violated woman, thus declassifying the mythical to the ordinary. While delving upon the portrayal of women in Indian cinema, Shoma A Chatterji observed: “Myth in Indian cinema, in the mainstream and often, in its parallel counterpart … has not been able to perform the idealistic cinematic function of the myth … it has been used as the basis of cinema’s female characters, and thereby, has been sought to be used successfully in displacing realism with various degrees of the abstract, the absurd and the fantastic. In so doing, Hindi cinema has served to reinforce mythical stereotypes in modern clothing. …” Thereby lies the dichotomy, and the anomaly.
Searching for the stereotypes, both in traditional and “modern clothing” brings about its own truths. Cinema has a certain role to perform but it cannot perform that role in a vacuum, without support, without patronage and without wide participation because it involves huge finances. And that, perhaps, is the reason why experimental and non-mainstream cinema has had limited success across the globe. And instead of getting into this greasy area let’s recall some of Hindi cinema’s exceptional performances, and performers.
Nargis in Mother India is a kind of celebration of Indian womanhood, both as a wife and mother. It is also a celebration of human values in the sense that she refuses to succumb to social pressures. She is a doting mother but assumes the form of Durga and does not hesitate to shoot her son to prevent a wrong being done to another woman. That’s perhaps why it became Nargis’s most celebrated role, though she excelled in many other roles as well. Nirupa Roy’s portrayal of the mother in Deewar too had been exceptional but recounting such portrayals would be a distraction as the role falls in the category of character artistes.
Meena Kumari in Pakeezah, on the other hand, presents a contrasting picture of Indian womanhood. An embodiment of the suffering tragedienne Indian woman, her personal life being the textbook she excelled in film after film, notably Sharda, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Dil ek Mandir, Dil Apna aur Preet Parai, Bahu Begum and several others. There was certain naturalness in her performances. Nutan in Seema, Sujata, Bandini, etc., brought another dimension to her characters, which was a shade different from that of others.
Suchitra Sen in Aandhi dealt not only with the theme of incompatibility but also ambition and career for the female protagonist, even if the choice between duty and freedom. She also excelled in the double role of mother-daughter in Mamta. Sharmila Tagore never really got a challenging role in the sense that her peers and contemporaries had in the Gulzar-directed Mausam, Jaya Bhaduri gave a brilliant performance of ambitionless wife egged on by a celebrity husband into a career option in which she outshines him in the same business, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan.
Waheeda Rahman in Chaudhvin ka Chand and even to a certain extent in, Guide, Rekha in Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan and even in Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha, Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam, Dimple Kapadia in Rudali, Madhuri Dixit leading the women’s rebellion in Mrityudand (somewhat like Smita Patil in the climatic scene in Mirch Masala), Tabu in Astitva, Deepa Sahi in Maya Memsaab (the role of the most liberated woman Bollywood has ever witnessed), Meenakshi Sheshadri crusading for a gang-rape victim in Damini.
In one’s reckoning Smita Patil was, perhaps, the most accomplished actress of Hindi cinema. Her oeuvre is outstanding, investing almost every portrayal with powerhouse realistic performance. Look at the range of her performances from art house cinema to mainstream: Subah, Bhumika, Mirch Masala, Ardh Satya, Giddh, Chakra, Bazaar, Shakti and even in Arth, where she had a secondary role compared to bête noire Shabana Azmi—another fine actress who invariably lost her way traversing the thin dividing line between the parallel and the unparallel posts so perfectly stationed in Bollywood.
By and large the mainstream Hindi cinema has thrived on by literally making its female actors doormats. They are the supporting factors, whether as friends, wives, sisters, mothers or playthings. It has also thrived on presenting the heroine both as the willing or unwilling victim of sexual gratification. The male actor has hardly played second fiddle to his female counterpart even in the so-called women-centric cinema. She is seldom the avenging angel herself, and it is quite often either her paramour or husband who comes to her rescue either by bringing the perpetuator to book or making him pay for the violation of the female form. At times she is raped twice: first by an outlaw and then by the custodians of law in a courtroom: Damini, Zakhmi Aurat, for instance.
It has apologetically been said by Chatterji elsewhere that “the absence of a coherent body of film theory on Indian cinema, let alone a feminist critique, any attempt to explore and analyse the portrayal of women in Indian cinema is fraught with problems. Not the least of which is the tendency to rely on Western constructs of feminist film criticism.” True, in the highly competitive world of mainstream cinema across the globe, women have managed limited options to correct the perspective. But unfortunately, while the focus in western cinema is again been on the physical, even while pretending to explore relationship from female perspective, in the mainstream Hindi cinema almost all women filmmakers (with the possible exception of Aparna Sen to a certain degree) have failed their own gender: from the likes of Sai Paranjpe to the present young crop, including Meghana Gulzar.
By Suresh Kohli