Identity of Women in Contemporary Indian Popular Cinema

Identity of Women in Contemporary Indian Popular Cinema

The Coexistence of the Indian Nari, Item Number, and Individualism
Society influences cinema and cinema in turn influences society.
The filmmaker is inevitably always juggling the demands between the art, craft and commerce of filmmaking. What I will attempt to do is to understand this very interesting interplay between society and cinema which the director sets into motion with the making of his film.

I will limit my observations to four contemporary films and would like to begin with the film “Vivah” (2006) directed by Sooraj Barjotya.
Before I talk about the film I would like to share with you some audience responses of the film (rediff.com website)
“Hats off to Rajshri production..they are the true embodiments of our rich and cultural heritage”
“I AM WRITING THIS MAIL FROM IRELAND.
I WATCH THIS MOVIE ATLEAST ONCE A DAY. TILL TODAY ITS 276 TIMES !!!
ITS A WONDERFUL, MUST WATCH MOVIE.

For we people who are NRI’s and want to pass on Indian culture and values to our children, movies of this kind need to be produced or else our young generation will always follow the western culture tracks which is absolutely heartbreaking.
We understand the importance of our Indian culture only when we come and live in this western world and see their culture with no family values.”
Critics sometimes run down a film and call it regressive and pass judgment on the film but lets remember that filmmaking is an industry and the filmmaker is also interested in getting his returns and looks to the audience for that and therefore it is the audience that counts.
Sooraj Barjatya in an interview in Mumbai Mirror a few years ago mentions
“The Rajshri film audience is the 35 year old middle class woman, who goes to watch the film with her extended family”.
So if the filmmaker is giving the audience what they want, what is the problem? Does he have to have a social responsibility? And is he going against that by making a film which upholds supposed traditional Indian cultural values and speaks of an ideal world which incorporates the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Vivah is ‘Marriage – an institution that binds two individuals into a bond that is sacred, pure and eternal – a commitment for life….”Vivah” is a heartwarming tale of unconditional love. (Quoted from the synopsis of the film from the official Rajshree website)
Right from the first Indian feature film “Raja Harishchandra” the Indian filmmaker has used the Indian epics with their ideals to structure the plot or infuse strong moral values which make up the characters in the film. It does present the woman as coy, docile, conservative, selfless, sacrificing but is that not a reflection of what the society wants her to be, however right or wrong or regressive critics might consider it to be. Some filmmakers thrive on this identification and some filmmakers question some aspects of it trying to remain in the confines of the boundaries of the status quo in society. That both can coexist is an interesting phenomenon in Indian popular cinema.
Karan Johar, made his directorial debut at the age of 25 with the film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998. Subsequently after the release of his film “Kabhi Albida Na Kehna” (2006) speaking as a panelist of NDTV’s ‘We the People’ he had something very interesting to share which reveals his inspiration for his films and I quote
“When I made “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” I was right out of college and I felt these bookish feelings of first love and heartbreak and then I felt great reverence for my parents and great regard and respect for everything that they had given me after I had met with success and I made “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum”. “Kal Ho Na Ho” was my fear of death, I feared losing a member of my family, which I eventually did and that was a reflection of my state of mind then. Then I was on my own for two years and spent a lot of time with people, traveled a lot and suddenly I found myself only listening to people and I am fortunately one of those men who have female friends and male friends, so I have had the opportunity to listening to both sides of the story. And all I did was listen to their marriage woes, their problems, their loveless existence, their passionless marriage”
What are very apparent here are two things, that is – a filmmaker however commercial many times makes a film which reflects his state of being at that point in time and also reflects his experience and observations of society and events. Thus society was the inspiration that triggered Karan to make his film “Kabhi Albida Na Kehna”.

Karan’s films have been larger than life, star studded and eternal love stories, upholding Indian values and traditions. All these ingredients being at the core of commercial Indian cinema. Thus placing the director in the context of the films he makes I would like to examine his film “Kabhi Albida Na Kehna”.
The audience largely did not like the film and because it dealt with the problems of a sacred institution like marriage. Also as Sharrukh Khan points out more importantly they could not digest the fact that Maya, one of the key protagonists in the film being a woman should be encouraged to break her marriage.
Indian society puts the burden of morality and tradition in the hands of the woman of the house and rather than she being treated as an individual she is representative of the ‘izzat’ of the family. She is supposed to make innumerable sacrifice for the family not break it.
The film does question the existence of a loveless marriage and the yearning to go beyond the sanctity of the institution of marriage for individual happiness. But yet the characters keeping in line with their Indian upbringing want to give their marriage another chance and sacrifice their love. However the events that follow do not allow this to take place and the director has interestingly made his point succeed by dramatic plotting and finally the power of love triumphs. So though it’s not an open rebellion it gets its point home and keeps in the mould of the popular film genre.
We live in a patriarchal society and most Hindi commercial films are hero driven and this film is no exception. The film starts by introducing the key characters in the film and of course Sharrukh’s introduction tells us he is the hero and that the hero is the most powerful influence in the film. The film is mainstream and the male lead Sharrukh Khan is the main active protagonist in the film typically leading the way for his lover Maya, played by Rani Mukherjee to follow.
Karan has tried not to be gender biased in many ways and has attempted to liberate the female protagonist. There is an interesting scene in the film where the father-in-law played by Amitabh Bachchan encourages his daughter-in-law to walk out of the marriage if she does not love his son as she is denying herself and her husband the love of somebody else. The filmmaker wants to convey by this scene the message that marriage should not be a mere compromise with no joy and if it is so, it should be ended. But with most sections of our society they did not accept this stand and thus rejected the film, in spite of this the film was quite a commercial success which tells us that many also were sympathetic to the proposition. The film however was a super hit in the US markets.
In terms of characterization for the two lead female characters, Karan has succeeded at times and at times played into the stereotypical image. It is also interesting to note the image of the actresses who play the character in the film. Preity Zinta in quite a few of her films plays this independent woman who fights for her rights and is not bullied by men. The character of Rhea played by Preity is that of a career woman. Interestingly she is introduced in a tight short sexy dress and with an emphasis to her butt showing as she walks for a job interview in a fashion magazine. She is shown not having time for her husband and son as she has to work long hours as a career woman and is neglecting her family. Then she is made to sacrifice her promotion in her job since it requires her to shift to another place, but she puts the family first, this however is not appreciated by her husband. Karan here directorially breaks the stereotype of a cold bitch career woman but consider would a wife even be asked if the husband would be getting a promotion and they had to relocate, no – it would just be accepted and life would move on,. We live in a patriarchal society and the man calls the shots. Of course in this film Rhea is the breadwinner and thus due to her financial independence has power in the equation and in fact it is she who asks Dev (Sharrukh Khan) to leave the house and breaks the marriage as he is the one who has been unfaithful and doe not love her.
Above all the film is a love story and the appeal is in the escapist genre of romance – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl and it promises an ideal of love which maybe does not exist in life itself.

The film “Guzaarish” (2010) directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali starts with Sophia played by Aishwarya Rai opening the curtains and the morning light fills the dark room. We are then introduced through the activities of Sophia to the hero of the film Ethan, who is a quadriplegic and she is tending to him, cleaning him, feeding him with the professionalism of a nurse yet the warmth of a friend. Here Sophia literally introduces the audience to the hero of the film and we enter the film through her character. In cinematic feminist theory Laura Mulvey raised an important point about the portrayal of women in cinema by speaking about how women can be subjected to the male gaze as most of popular cinema (she was referring to Hollywood cinema) worked by introducing the hero first which the audience then therefore indentifies with and so the female is viewed through his gaze and thus the woman was objectified. Laura was interested in looking at the traditional language of cinema itself which made the audience a voyeur and attempted to break that mould and questions it. This reveals an important point of the language of cinema and certain choices that can portray the woman in a certain light.
A lot of Hindi cinema does not give a lot of importance to create a specific identity in terms of plot and look for the female lead, however in rare cases when that is done it shows respect for the female protagonist and helps create a memorable character that is as important as the hero.
The character of Sophia comes to life with her physical appearance which includes, red lipstick, a black and red palette for her clothes and so much attention is paid to every small detail like the accessory she wears to convey a kind of person. In this specific treatment there is respect to character and an urge from the point of view of the director to create an equally powerful female lead. The look of Sophia is not just at the surface but has a symbolic significance to her character
About Sofia’s costumes, Bhansali said that “It’s an expression of her grief. She’s a woman who has dedicated her entire life to this suffering man. And she wears that red lipstick so that when he faces her, he sees life in all its colour.” Aishwarya Rai’s character Sophia D’Souza goes through a bad marriage. The costume designer said that according to him
” ..her internal suffering has manifested itself into an over-dressing syndrome. People who are depressed tend to either over-eat or overdress! Aishwarya wears the strangest of clothes. She has such a morbid life that she almost derives comfort from her clothes”.
The costume most of the time does include a low sexy neckline, is that exploiting the female form at one level or a necessary part of the characterization and does not compromise the integrity of the woman is a question I leave you to answer.
The film gives a lot of importance to the value of the character of Sophia and makes it a point to give her center stage and dwell into her selfless love for the hero. The scene which best displays this is when the judge visits Ethan’s house for a special hearing for his petition for mercy killing and the prosecutor lawyer accuses Sophia of being only interested in Ethan’s property and wealth and would be the sole beneficiary of his death. What follows is a beautifully conceived and executed scene where we intercut from Devyani her defense lawyer defending Sophia to closups of Sophia slowly raising her eyes which are filled with emotion.
“ Agar koi ek insaan hai jiska Mr. Mascarenhas pe hak hai, khud Ethan se bhi zyada to woh hai Sophia. She has been more than a nurse to him, more than a friend, a lover, even a wife, that is the truth your honour”.
Bhansali specially creates a scene for this character where her spirit shines though. She lets herself free in a bar and she breaks into a dance but it’s not an item number but reveals character and is filled with emotions which connect Ethan and Sophia and Ethan discovers Sophia in a new light.
The film ends with Ethan having a farewell party with his close friends celebrating his last moments. It is here that towards the last part of the film we see Sophia and Ethan kissing for the first and last time as they have now accepted each other as husband and wife. The filmmaker keeping with Indian tradition does not allow any physical intimacy between the two characters and maintains their purity. It is only after Ethan proposes marriage and Sophia acceptance that they are allowed to come close and have their first kiss. Of course it is more powerful as drama at this point in the film since it’s the first and the last kiss but would it be relevant in another culture is the question. Is this an important aspect that reflects Indian culture in a film which the filmmaker plays with to appeal to the Indian audience in a popular mould and or keeping maybe with his own Indian upbringing? If we probe the character of Sophia, she too is presented as a sacrificing selfless lover and that keeps in line with the sacrificing tradition of the Indian woman in Indian culture and Indian cinema.


Sheila Ki Jawani (from the film Tees mar Khan – 2010 ) one of the recent biggest hit songs which children from all over India have on their lips, this made Katrina Kaif more popular and maybe more well-known that Maya in “ Kabhi Albida Na Kehna” or Sophia in “Guzaarish”. The USP of the film was this song. The film did not have a heart or soul and the body was not in shape either. The character of the female lead Anya played by Katrina Kaif is a one dimensional cardboard character of a stereotype – a dumb, pretty, sexy heroine in Indian cinema who does not know to act and has no brains. She has no role to play in the film besides being a pretty doll and asked to show off her sexy body in all the songs of the film. She has no part to play in major plot events but is used as a prop.
The hero Tabriz played by Akhsay Khanna is always running behind his lady love, Anya (Katrina Kaif) this wanna actress who is constantly flaunting her sexuality, to save her modesty. There is a significant scene in the film when the two protagonists are waiting to receive the big film star Aatish Kapoor (Akshay Khan) from his approaching helicopter. We see in Marylyn Monroe style Anya’s dress flies high above her thighs and our hero desperately holds on to her flying dress to save her modesty. She is the Indian nari who is best covered. Since it’s a comedy at one level it is a spoof on all these aspects of Hindi cinema but the audience who will watch such a film will probably not get the point, but rather it will emphasize the stereotype and thinking of a particular kind.
The film is directed by a woman director, Farah Khan and does not speak well of the sensitivity of women director. She could at least have given the character of Anya a more significant role to play in the unfolding of the plot and maybe made her a more active than a passive protagonist. But having said that is the director responsible for the image of the Indian women, why can’t we take it lightly and laugh it off. Does the audience just watch the film and forget about it or does the film reinforce a perception of women in society with each passing film.
The film presents a personality of a famous male film star and acting for him is in the emotional drama but for Anya who is represented as a wannabe female actress her preoccupation is in looking good and dancing around in a sexy outfit. This could be a satire on the present condition of female actors or is this playing in the hands of a stereotype which is regressive and maybe not true only for the female.
However a special mention should be made about the picturization of the item song Sheila Ki Jawani, it is not vulgar in the way it is shot. The song gives close-ups of Katrina’s face and does not have separate shots of her body parts as some previous item songs use to ogle on the woman’s anatomy literally as objects to be devoured not seeing her in her full form. Also the personality of Katrina itself helps make the song less vulgar.
But Katrina Kaif unfortunately remains an item number and nothing more as an identity in the film. This film is representative of the role of a lot of actresses in particular types of commercial films inIndiaand which do very well at the box office. This is not a new phenomenon, where the woman is portrayed as a mere doll and has no real role to play in the unfolding of the plot. This is something that persists and is part of the commerce of filmmaking and the Indian public loves it. Many a times an item number is a kind of a stepping stone to success for an actress today is not surprising. In our country the music & promos for a film are released before the movie and continues to live on after the film, the dynamics of this have an important role to play in Indian cinema by films like these. .
Indian popular cinema works on a kind of formulae to keep its commercial risks to the minimum. Many of these formulas like sex and violence, song and dance, the romantic genre, happy endings, simplicity in plot and characterization, larger than life melodrama, the use of Indian tradition and culture are maintained in contemporary cinema today but at the same time there is a desire by a few directors to try and smuggle in a consciousness of the winds of change and the contemporary social soul into cinema.
The Identity of the woman in Indian cinema will be determined by the two forces – ‘Collectivism’ which is a part of Indian traditional culture and the effect of growing ‘Individualism’ from the impact of Globalization. The challenge for the filmmaker will be to portray the woman characters with an individual identity still maintaining cultural values but staying away from practices that are regressive. The filmmaker is critical in the decisions he makes and can shape the perceptions of a society he reflects and portrays.

--Oorvazi Irani

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