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Maiden Mistress Other

Updated: December 15, 2012 4:10 pm

It has been a celebration of the stereotype in mainstream Indian cinema, except in the last few years when roles have been specially charted out for women, emphasis on sex and nudity notwithstanding. Not that it was not happening in the not-too-distant a past, just it seemed to be an accidental foray governed by elements other than cinematic. The stereotype would include an abandoned single mother—a widow or illegitimate; subservient wife, educated or otherwise; assertive, yet sacrificing variety girlfriend, mistress, the other woman; the greedy streetwalker; the avenging damsel—but generally without a place or identity of her own. One reason for this would, probably, be the existing social norms across different communities and religions in accepting the woman as a rebel. Hasn’t it been said that cinema, however compromising in nature, tends to mirror society? Every man wants a wife who will look after the family duties, and he also wants the same woman to be a mistress in bed.

Successful women-centric mainstream films have generally been flashes in the pan, whether the box office response to The Dirty Picture or Kahani will usher in a new trend, it can at best be hypothetical at the moment. Such attempts had been abundantly successful in the 1940s, or even 50s: the docile but daring ones—Jawani ki Hawa, Achhut Kanya, (Devika Rani), together with Wadia Brothers’ tempestuous Mary Evans (better known as fearless Nadia) in flicks like Miss Frontier Mail, Hunterwali, Diamond Queen and many others. The two extremes were at times merged, or just abandoned for another trend during the next three decades, only to be decimated by the unprecedented rise of Amitabh Bachchan and his kind of cinema where the only two visible faces of women were that of an emotional anchor in the form of a mother who had to be worshipped, and a mistress to be bedded without any commitment, and guilt—a mere plaything.

At a time when it is literally pouring filmy books off seasons, there are many sheep in the garb of a wolf. Obviously, publishers are bending over backwards to title them attractively even if the content is mediocre. The role of women in Indian cinema in general and Hindi cinema in particular has been the subject of much debate and discussion over the years—perhaps, rightfully so with so much emphasis on crime and short-term gain in the Indian social hierarchy. That only five from the forty-two Dadasaheb Phalke Award winners are women is by itself a testimony to the importance given to women in Indian cinema. And that’s also, perhaps, why no good separate studies have ever been undertaken. Whenever that happened the results were not too happy. And if at all there had been any attempt, it had largely been a one-woman show for an academic degree.

But now, interestingly three somewhat enlightened women Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kottari and Supriya Madangarli have put their brains and brawns together to map and measure together the seminal contribution of women to Hindi cinema for the past six decades under the defining heading Mother Maiden Mistress and systematically gone into the analysis of roles and trends in the preceded time or by acceptable archetypes, both positive and negative, drawn from Hindu mythology. And if father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke ultimately managed to save his left leg in finding a woman to play the female lead in Raja Harishchandra, the latter-day actresses came to enjoy unparallel freedom to essay characters their counterparts from other professions and in actual walk of life even failed to emulate. There are a million, or now probably more women who did or are doing better than what Nargis did in Mother India, or what now-in-oblivion writer-director Sagar Sarhadi tried to depict in Bazaar through smuggling of young girls to the Middle East. But public memory is short-lived, and the cinema no school.

Going by decade-wise analysis the trio stumbles upon facts, information, intent that may have otherwise been public knowledge in a limited circle, gets public through this insightful compilation of facts and yet more facts. Three mothers take time off from their routine duties to generate a work that would become a benchmark for future generations of researchers exploring psyche of a sex, exploring, guiding, gilding through the whole gamut of feminine physical, emotional, and even extra sensuory perceptions as articulated by its cinema in course of a turbulent history. While they have succeeded in not only highlighting their issues, they have sought social focus on those aspects, that unlike their reel life counterparts subjected to all sorts of harshness they become icons—from entrepreneurship to people’s representatives in Parliament. If Nargis was the first nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, Rekha surely wouldn’t be the last one. It is, however, a matter of regret that they have failed to do anything but live Barbie dolls, playful things for the illiterate elected public representatives to the upper house.

Let’s now look at the three metaphors earlier set aside for further defining. Who or what constitutes a mistress in Hindi cinema? She is none other than the villain’s mole doubling up as a cabaret dancer in a hotel eventually dying in crossfire. And if she is the heroine her actions are wrong-doings which are governed under duress or she is there to reach the truth. The maiden is the unmarried good-hearted girl who falls in love with the hero at first sight even though be siding the villains. It was with a vampish character with which one of our most accomplished actors began her career: Waheeda Rehman in CID, one of those major heroines of her time, and an in-demand character female actor, is, perhaps, the only one who returned to the screen on her own terms after a six-year hiatus who have spoken from time to time explaining the difference between the heroine then and now.

In her own words: “I was fortunate to have been exposed to the different genres in the very first decade of my career…I hate to be caught on the wrong foot…This puts a lot of pressure on the performer…The irony, however, is that despite all the male domination on screen, behind the scenes it is us women who call the shots….Shoots were more personalised…We never looked upon one another as rivals because each of us had a distinct image and was identified for specific roles.” Unlike today when every leading heroine finds the other one a rival, to be upstaged. So except for the market value, all in the business are competent today, a Kareena Kapoor stepping into Aishwarya Rai’s Heroine.

By Suresh Kohli

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