Image of Women in Indian Cinema

Image of Women in Indian Cinema

Mainstream Indian cinema, to be very particular, the Mumbai (Bombay) made Hindi cinema, popularly known as “Bollywood Cinema” pretends to establish the autonomy of women through its narrative, but the image it depicts is far from the reality. The model of the Goddess in Indian mythology always remains present very subtly to create this image. The celluloid imposition of the Mother Goddess and her counterparts must have the qualities of female chastity and suffering of humiliation. The Mother Goddess “Durga” and her counterparts “Radha”, “Sita” and ”Meera” are the most popular icons from the Indian (Hindu) mythology to construct the image of woman in Hindi cinema. Though the Hindu Goddesses do not necessarily serve as paradigms for present social values, they do demonstrate certain suppositions about female behaviors, powers, desires and characters. But if the Goddesses are so evered, why are women so oppressed? Basically the women are the powerless pawns of the patriarchy even the power-women are nothing but its tools. “Shakti” (means ‘power’) - the spirit of the Mother Goddess is in fact the strength and power of the male Gods; originated, developed and totally controlled by the patriarchy. Whatever may be the icon “Durga”, “Sita” or “Radha”, each and every one is also the object of sexual pleasure. The details of their physical charm and their sexual encounter depicted in the mythology prove that these power-women are there to please the sexual desire of patriarchy. Image of women in Indian cinema is also constructed in this frame. Any deviation from this construction is also to complement the same structure from a different direction. The male icon could transfer itself from ‘Devdas’ (1955) to ‘Deewar’ [The Wall] (1973) to adjust with contemporary social and political perspective but the female characters are never spared. In ‘Awara’ [The Tramp] (1951), Raj Kapoor portrays the typical urban dream-woman of the Nehru-era as a traditional motif. Nargis, the heroine, steps out of the house as a professional but essentially as a pure mother. In the form of a beloved “Radha” and “Sita” combined, she excites and inspires at the same time. Nargis’s role in ‘Mother India’ (1957) celebrates the traditional motif of womanhood in a different context. Here the name of the protagonist played by Nargis is also “Radha”, though it’s a misnomer as the image she builds through the character is more attuned to “Sita”. As the narrative expands, she metamorphoses into a strange blend of Mother Goddess “Durga”.


Love affairs of “Radha” and “Krishna” provided by the Hindu mythology have got a wide mass support. “Radha” is the illegitimate beloved of ”Lord Krishna”. She is passionate, intense, possessive, emotional, physical and sensuous. Their love affairs, though child-like playful on the surface level, but in depth it’s the story of erotic passion. On the contrary, “Meera” the other icon in love with “Lord Krishna” is based on a real life story from the Royal family of Rajasthan, who was devoted to “Krishna” with spiritual love. “Radha-Krishna” love story has been depicted in hundreds of films, in some of which even the characters are also named as “Radha” and “Krishna”. The “Meera” image is also there in many of those some times with a little bit deconstructed form as ‘other woman’. In Prakash Mehra’s ‘Mukaddar ka Sikandar’ [The King of the Fate] (1978), Rekha’s unrequited love with Amitabh Bachchan is a good example of 2 “Meera”-image. The most exploited image of womanhood in Hindi cinema is based on the mythological icon “Sita” from the great Hindu epic the “Ramayana”. ”Sita” is the eternal favourite to the Indian mass because of her sheer power of tolerance and acceptance of all types of humiliation from the patriarchy. How the Indian cinema from its early time is influenced by Sita-syndrome could be understood from an interesting example. In 1930-31, Himangshu Rai selected Raine Smith, an Anglo-Indian girl as the heroine for his Indo-German-British joint production ‘A Throw of Dice’ but he announced the name of her heroine as “Sita Devi” (The Goddess Sita) just to get a preconditioned moral accepatance from the common mass. Hindi film industry from its very beginning has exploited the image of “Sita” to the fullest satisfaction of the Indian audience constructing the icon’s image as an ideal wife, a woman who is always ready to sacrifice everything tosustain the honour of her husband “Rama” and his family. “Sita”, the neglected wife of “Rama” is the inspiration for building the perfect image of womanhood of Indian cinema from its very beginning. An important example of exploiting the basic essence of the “Ramayana” is the all time super-hit Hindi cinema ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun” [Who am I of Yours] (1994). Hindu woman’s socially accepted role as “Kamini” (who seduces), “Bharya” (who is fed and maintained by husband), “Ramani” (the sex partner) and “Jaya” (who gives birth to the children) are all constructed and supported by the Hindu mythology and the epics like ”Ramayana” and “Mahabhrata”. These are the role models for building the image of woman in Indian cinema.

Woman in mainstream Indian cinema has undergone so many changes in respect of dress code, body language, moral values, style in song and dance sequences, romantic scenes, but all are in surface level. The inherent characteristics of the basic role of “Kamini - Bharya -Ramani - Jaya” have not at all been changed. Whatever may be the development at the outer sphere as could be seen in the contemporary films, she has to submit herself to the patriarchy. Even she is not allowed to think or take any decision independently. ‘Marriage’ is the most sacred institution, which channels the women’s power for the sustenance and promotion of the patriarchal values. The most popular model-wife is that, she should be young, beautiful, sexy and fertile. Before marriage she could expose her body and seduce with sensual body language, but after marriage she is preferred to wrap herself in costly and colorful ‘sari’ (typical dress of Indian women). She must be a fabulous cook and extra ordinary housekeeper. Even if she has to go out for work, she must maintain her family with flawless perfection. Her entire life should revolve around her husband, children, in-laws and home. And the best, if she could sacrifice herself, for the cause of the patriarchy. Mainstream Indian cinema reflects all these and much more. So ‘marriage’ as an institution stands as the focal point of many super-hit films like ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ [Who am I of Yours] (1994), ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ [The Hero will take away the Bride] (1995) and many others. The ideal wife as played by the famous actress Nutan in the films ‘Gauri’ (1968); ’Devi’ (1970) and ‘Karma’ [The Work] (1968) are still popular. This could be noted that “Gauri” is the other name of the Mother Goddess ”Durga” and “Devi” means the Goddess. Song in the lips of Nutan “tum hi meri mandir, tum hi meri puja, tum hi devta ho, tum hi devta..” (my husband, you are my temple, you are my worship, you are my God, only you are my God …) is still very popular amongst the mass audience. And so as the husband is the God, marriage is the perfect institution particularly patriarchy should stand for. And on behalf of the 3 patriarchy, the Indian cinema works on this mission in a very ritualistic manner. Forget about 50s or 60s, in Basu Bhattacharya’s ’Griha Pravesh’ [House Warming] (1979) the hero Sanjeev Kumar after a lyrical love affair with his office assistant Sarika goes back to his wife Sharmila tagore to prove the strength the bond of marriage. Even if in the recent super hit ‘Salaam namaste’ [Salute, welcome] (2005) by the Gen.X director Siddharth Anand, the heroine Preity Zinta is to wait on the hospital bed to give birth to her baby till her boy friend, the hero of the film, Saif ali Khan comes forward with the wedding ring to give their live-to relationship a legalised status under the institution called ‘marriage’. According to the Hindu mythology, wife is the tool for production of male heir. Popular Indian cinema always promotes and patronises this philosophy through its creation of woman-image and as a result it also openly supports bigamy. David Dhawan’s popular films ‘Sajan Chale Sasural’ [The Bride goes to the House of the In-laws] (1994) and more popular ‘Gharwali Baharwali’ [The Wife and the Other Woman] (1998), which means ‘one wife inside the house and other one at outside’, easily solves the problem of infertility of the first wife by arranging a second one to the same hero with complete social support. Here also the image of “Radha” and “Meera” is used. The women themselves stand by the patriarchy to proclaim the idea that whatever might be the case it is not adultery.

And ‘adultery’ has got a very vital role in Indian cinema where also the image of woman has been exploited to support male dominance. Mahesh Bhatt’s famous film ‘Arth’ [The Meaning] (1982) deals with the issue of adultery though keeping the conclusive part unresolved to allow plenty of scopes for the patriarchal values. Yash Chopra super-hit ‘Silsila’ [The Occurance] (1981) dealt with adultery through a very poetic presentation. But finally it too had to surrender to the so-called structural pattern of the patriarchy. Adultery by men is quite permissible in Indian society as well as in indian cinema, but for ideal woman it is a strongly formidable zone. In general, the popular Indian cinema does not grant any license to the total freedom of woman. Sometimes there are some deviations in some offbeat films like Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ [The Seeds] (1973) to Ketan Mehta’s ‘Maya Memsaab’ [Maya Madam] (1993), but these are nothing but some impulsive exceptions, which could never create any impact on the outlook and philosophy of the Hindi film industry. Exceptions are there in the mainstream too, like Aruna Raje’s ‘Rihaee’ [The Escape] (1988) and Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ (1996) with big commercial casting, which deal with the sexual politics very crudely, but still having no impact on the mechanism of making the image of woman in mainstream cinema. Interestingly in Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Fire’ (1996) the two heroines Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das having lesbian relationship between themselves have the screen name “Radha” and “Sita””. Unfortunately, under fundamentalist pressure, Deepa Mehta had to change the name of the second heroine from “Sita” to “Nita” (!).

The sexual power politics always indulges ‘rape’ as the essential element of the mainstream Indian cinema. From the very beginning till date, rape played a very vital role in Indian cinema. From Mehboob’s ’Mother India’ (1957) to Gulzar’s ‘Mausam’ [The Season] (1975) to Sekhar Kapoor’s ‘The Bandit Queen’ (1994) - ‘rape’ is the most important factor which converts the victim either to a rebel or to a prostitute or to a bandit, but all at the end to serve the very purpose of the patriarchy. There are hundreds of films, which focused rape as one of the major elements. Bimal Roy’s ‘Biraj Bahu’ [The Wife named Biraj] (1954), B R Chopra’s ‘Insaaf Ka Tarazu’ [The Balance of the 4 Judgement] (1980), Govind Nihalni’s ‘Aakrosh’ [The Anger] (1980), Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘Damini’ (1993) and many others are there in the list. But interestingly in most of the films rape is used to satisfy the male-lust and to prove that this patriarchal system could be the only ‘protector’ of the woman in real sense. In mainstream Indian Cinema, ‘rape’ serves the purpose of male viewers in both ways. On one hand, it gives visual pleasure to satisfy sadistic desire on the otherhand it upholds the male domination in power politics. In most of the cases the rape sequences are built up in titillating manner with minute details to seduce male desire. In his film Bandit Queen” (1994) sekhar Kapoor has constructed several rape sequences in so many styles and narratives that it could be a perfect example how camera itself could rape women in Indian cinema. However, even if rape is not there, the fear psychosis still persists and this is again only the ‘man’ who could ‘protect’ the woman. In most of the films the rape victims either commit suicide or are murdered, keeping her brother or husband or son to take revenge or she turns to be a prostitute.
Right from Dada Saheb Phalke’s silent film ‘Devdasi’ [The Dancing Girl of the Temple] (1925), V Shantaram’s ‘Aadmi’ [The Man] (1941), P C Barua’s ‘Devdas’ (1955), Guru Dutta’s ‘Pyasaa’ [The Thirsty] (1957), Basu Bhattacharya’s ‘Teesri Kasam’ [Three Promises] (1966), Kaamal Amrohi’s ‘Pakeezah’ [The Pure] (1971), Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’ [The Market] (1983), Meera Naiar’s ‘Saalam Bombay’ [Salute to Mumbai] (1987) to Basu Bhattacharya’s ‘Aastha’ [In Prison of Spring ] (1996) - prostitutes play a very vital role in the Indian cinema. Here also, despite some rare exceptions, most of the popular films exploit prostitution as the major factor of rising the commercial value of the films. Politics behind the prostitution is never dealt with, on the contrary, consciously avoided. Prostitution is glamorized keeping behind its reality of sub-human exploitation. In popular cinema prostitutes perform to satisfy the visual pleasure of the male desire and then either die or go away to prove that the monogamous heroine serving only her husband and his family either as “Durga” or “Radha” or “Sita” are the real woman who could survive with honour in this society.

Rape victims and prostitutes are generally destined to commit suicide or are killed in the popular cinema. In ‘Adalat’ [The Court] (1976), Amitabh Bachchan dramatically changed when his sister commits suicide following a rape. In ‘Aaj ki Awaj’ [Call of the Day] (1984), Raj Babbar is tied up by the criminals to witness the gang rape of his sister who after the incident commits suicide turning her brother to be a revenger. Popular cinema generally does not allow the rape victims and prostitutes to survive to a decent life. Even if they some time take revenge such as Supriya Pathak in ‘Aurat ka Intequam’ [The Revenge of the Woman] (1984) or Rama Vij in ‘Jakhmi Aurat’ [The Wounded Woman] (1983) but they also prefer to commit suicide. In B R Ishara’s ‘Chetna’ [The Sense] (1970), the heroine, a prostitute, paradoxically named as “Radha” played by Rehana Sultan commits suicide pushing the film to a great success in the box office. Another box office super-hit, Prakash Mehra’s ‘Mukaddar ka Sikandar’ [The King of the Fate] (1978) starring all time Indian super-star Amitabh Bachchan with two famous heroines Rakhee and Rekha. Here Rekha is a courtesan and in love with Bachchan. But the hero is in love with Rakhee who is a decent girl as per patriarchal values. This is the same triangular love story ruling popular Indian cinema through the decades. Even to the latest version of Bansali’s ‘Devdas’ (2003) the hero Shah Rukh Khan is in love with his child time playmate Aiswarya Rai and the other heroine, of course a prostitute Madhuri 5 Dixit who is in love with the hero. In both the films, like many others, the prostitute turned real lover gives up the profession for the sake of her beloved. And in some case, like ‘Mukaddar ka Sikandar’ [The King of the Fate], she kills herself to keep her sanctity and newly earned chastity, the most demanding factor of the patriarchal society. In another all time super-hit film Vijay Anand’s ‘Guide’ (1965) the prima donna Wahida Rehman attempts to commit suicide but subsequently is rescued, as she is the heroine, not the other woman or prostitute. In another super-hit film ‘Pakeezah’ [The Pure] (1972) by Kamal Amrohi, the heroine Meena Kumari, though a “Tawaif”- a prostitute, but very pure by heart as morality is concerned and she does belong to only one man.

The image of woman in Indian popular cinema could be resolved: 1. The most important and valuable asset of a woman is her physical charm; 2. Best woman is the traditional housewife who is religious, submissive, dependent and tolerant; 3. Woman’s energy, intellect, seductive power should be used only to find the right man and to keep him; 4. Woman should never dominate her man and if she does so she must be punished in the climax; 5. Woman in all her roles of sweetheart, wife, sister, mother, friend, vamp should be evolved and referred to the context of male character, particularly the hero and his family members; and 6. Women should be defined not only in relation to the man but also as dependent on the man and must be subordinate to the man.

--Premendra Mazumder

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