Fair display?
From Mother India to Kahaani, there has been a gender revolution in film posters
Shoma A. Chatterji

Film posters offer readings that sometimes reach beyond the film. They throw up the ‘first look’ before it is released as a teaser to attract the audience. In the male-dominated cinema, most posters are generally plastered with the faces of the hero. Even if the heroine has a stronger role, she is relegated to a marginal position in the poster. But what happens when the woman is almost an exclusive presence in a film where the men are rendered unimportant like Mehboob’s Mother India?

Mehboob had a gender-free agenda for his film posters. For Aan (1952), he introduced Nadira as the leading lady of a film that thematically followed the lines of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Though the hero of the film was the heart-stopping Dilip Kumar, the posters feature a prominent and expressive close-up of Nadira sharing space with her hero. Mother India marks a turning point in the shift in emphasis from hero to the leading lady.

Earlier on, when the leading lady dominated the story, she shared poster space with the hero. Though the title Patita (1953) spells out that the story focuses on the heroine, the poster gives Usha Kiron lesser space than it gives to Dev Anand. The same applies to Pakeezah (1972), named after the character Meena Kumari portrayed. The posters give prominent space to the heroine but also feature a big close-up of hero Raaj Kumar’s face.

In one of the posters of Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Meena Kumari, who played the major role of Chhoti Bahu, finds predominance on the posters. But we also see a close-up of Guru Dutt in the background complemented with two small visages of Rehman and Waheeda Rehman in the backdrop.

The scenario changed dramatically with Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand (1997). The story that revolves around the struggles of three different women against the patriarchal structure of a village where women are used, misused and abused by the men, Jha’s poster was designed to position the three women in close-up towering over a crowd of dwarfed men cowering under their shadow. The main poster of Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (2000) shows one half of the face of the protagonist portrayed by Tabu prominently cutting Sachin Khedekar out of the frame. The half face spells out the significance of the leading lady’s ‘existence’ (astitva) reduced to half her value and potential within a marriage that never was.

The posters of Jism (2003), which claimed to be an erotic thriller, reflected the passion of the woman and the man occupied secondary position. Some posters featured Bipasha Basu alone occupying the entire poster. This would have been unthinkable for any publicity machinery even 10 years ago.

Aitraaz (2004), directed by Abbas-Mastaan, had the posters designed keeping the femme fatale played by Priyanka Chopra who is a mind-blowing seducer and game-planner but who lives and even dies strictly on her own terms. 7 Khoon Maaf (2011) is another classic example.

In the posters of Ishqiyan (2010), Vidya Balan plays the mysterious Krishna. She believes she is a widow but that does not stop her from seducing the two men primarily to fulfil her sexual needs and partly to grind some self-serving axe. The posters of Vidya’s films are a strong reflection of this powerful aura of a woman.

Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture (2011) is loosely adapted from the tragic story of the southern actress Silk Smitha. Silk made celluloid sleaze and her real life romping with several men a fashion statement. Vidya, portraying Silk on screen, sets the screen on fire without appearing vulgar, cleavage on prominent display. Most of the posters focus on her deep cleavage acquired exclusively for her role and show her surrounded by the greedy men in her life.

Kahaani (2012) turns the ideological principle of Mother India on its head. The poster sheds light on a 21st century ‘Durga’. It shows her with 10 hands and a pregnant bump but without the third eye. It reflects that Durga, the Mother Goddess who destroyed Mahishasura in the myth, has changed in the 21st century. She is a computer engineer, trained in killing her enemy with diabolic planning and in cold blood, is neither pregnant nor a mother and will never be a mother in her entire life. Who said change is the only thing that remains constant?