The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 19, 2000

Still cast in a mould?
By Aradhika Sekhon

WE have seen women break out of stereotypical roles that confined them to the kitchen. From being teachers and airhostesses, women have effortlessly entered and excelled in jobs that were once the prerogative of men alone. They fly aircraft, head the police, excel in sport, creativity, science and technology, lead in banking and industry. The socio-political scene today promotes empowerment of woman at every level. They are being given representation in panchayats, municipal bodies, bureaucracy and public offices.

Modern attire, traditional attitudeYet popular Hindi cinema, and now TV serials, promote an outdated image of a woman in an archaic setup with an unrealistic set of values. In popular Hindi cinema the celluloid presence of the heroine has always had a different focus from that of a hero. While the hero is the active decision maker, the "doer", the heroine defines what can be done to or for her. This represents a stumbling block for the feminist movement in India, which had started evolving due to social and domestic necessity before being given a direction by committed individuals. Thus Indian cinema transforms itself into a battleground for gender supremacy with women definitely not standing up to be counted!

Film and serial makers like Raman Kumar argue that while women in films were not degraded they were most certainly stereotyped. The exceptions were movies like Mother India, Bandini, Sujata, Arth, Aradhna, Anupama, Mili, Aandhi and Ankur — films that can be counted on the fingers. ‘However’, says he, ‘today’s Hum Dil....’ and Taal present their leading woman as the cornerstone protagonists. In Dil To Pagal Hai.... and Kuch Kuch....two of the largest box office hits in recent times as well as Hum Saath...., the female characters have driven the film and shaped their premises and outcomes.

  However, a closer look at the hits of the last decade reveal that in Dilwale....a London based Indian girl cannot refuse an arranged marriage although she’s crazily in love with the hero. Dil To.... Defined the dream girl as a shy, reticent, veiled Indian beauty. Raja Hindustani portrays a hip city girl who marries a small town cab driver and settles down to sweet domesticity; Kuch Kuch.... Where ‘pal’ Kajol can become the beloved only after she has shed her hoydenish ways and grown her hair. Hum Sath Sath...., a modern Ramayana, has a virtual regiment of beautiful women who simper their way through the movie and only open their mouths to echo what the male has uttered! All these females promote the legend that popular icons are women who have no ambitions or interest beyond dressing up to the nines for their beloveds, or stepping out of their four walls once they’ve ensnared their spouses and who derive joy and pride from serving in-laws, looking after their precocious children and queening over the kitchen a la Biwi No. 1!

The current generation of film-makers, even the young dynamic ones like Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra and Sooraj Barjatya have only re-enforced the stereotypical portraits. The only exception made in the sati-savitri, one-dimensional image of the screen beloved is that instead of being clad in a saree she frolics around in the latest Manish Malhotra creations. Says Raman Kumar, "the new heroine bridges a gap between the cultural past and a progressive future. She has’nt given up one for the other. She’s sacrificer and an achiever". However, no picture in the recent past, except perhaps Tamanna really vindicates this statement. Even in Dushman which was supposed to be a story about a woman’s empowerment, the heroine succeeds only because of male support even though he is a blind soldier. In fact, Karan Johar admits "cinema-wise there has been no progression. The audience wants a modern look with a traditional soul".

One wishes to draw the attention of those who gush about the "brat pack" taking over mainstream cinema to the trio of Raj Kapur, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. Young, dynamic, passionate and literate, they changed the face of cinema, imbibing and imparting diverse influences from lives lived variously. Today the filmwalas stick to conservative themes and roles specially for women because the audience, they say wants its heroine to be on that decorative, dreamlike cloud.

To a large extent the film heroine must take the responsibility of this state of affairs. Sushmita Sen for example said after winning the Miss Universe crown "I’m looking forward to my new life....I want to be looked upon as a role model and a leader". Well, this "roll model" romps around playing second fiddle in run-of-the-mill masala films. This leader happily portrays the home-breaker in Bibi No. 1. And this is the woman who aimed to be a journalist and social activist.

Women like Puja Bhat, tired of playing "a demented teenager with pigtails", could breakout of the mould only by turning producer. "In the film industry" says Bhat, "women are seen and not heard. Here they use the heroine for a rain sequence to tittilate the audience, but they don’t allow her to have an opinion". Nafisa Ali, actress, model and AIDS activist says, "Isn’t it sad that 99.9 per cent Indian women are projected as an added attachment to the hero?" But one doesn’t hear of any female protagonists, however popular, refusing any big banner film. Except for a very few women who have dared to experiment — Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and now Nandita Das, the rest are happy to conform and enjoy the music of the lucre.

Perhaps globalisation results in conservatism as a reaction. That is why the Hindu undivided family is being promoted with a vengeance by film-makers. That this conservatism is coming from a band of young directors who’ve had the benefit of a westernised upbringing is a dichotomy. The other latest theme to take Bollywood’s fancy is the "friends and lovers" situation where the husband is willing to re-unite his wife with her ex-lover. The wife goes along (so, whats new?) till the climax when the mantle of being a Hindu nari penetrates her comatose senses and she returns to her suhag. Says Mahasheweta Devi, fifty years later, we’re at a point of no return. Today India has an extension of a medieval value system".

With satellite TV, the female stereotype did attain new dimensions. However, the typical trend in satellite culture is to constantly re-assert tradition while ostensibly challenging it — Amanant, Aashirwad, Saans, Kora Kagaz to name only a few. The Rajiv Rai serial, Thoda Hai... which tackled a possible social reform — widow re-marriage — loses its whole purpose when the director steps back at the last moment taking a possibly path-breaking serial into regression. The husband makes a re-appearance. So TV serials propagate that wives return to missing husbands and lovers turn their backs on each other.

The immensely popular Amanat, Heena and Kora Kagaz share a similar theme where freshly wedded wives discover that their husbands love another. But instead of walking away, these women prefer to await the return of their errant husbands. Yet another interesting category is of the women who shiver in their shoes before the patriarch who is severe and unbending in conservatism. The serial Basera is an out and out battle in favour of the joint family and the pitfalls of preferring a nuclear one. The message in the medium appears to be that if the woman challenges the existing order, social or familial, she invites tragic consequences.

However, though currently mass culture is witnessing a harmony between TV and cinema, TV is more progressive than films. In the eighties and nineties there were many tradition defying women — Rajni, Udaan, Shanti, Tara and even Hum-Log had women of substance and character. Even when portraying vamp-like women such as Urmila in Andaz and Lola in Daraar, there was an effort to breakout of stereotypes. This trend seems to have run out of steam now.