Bangles slide against her wrist as Malha Sinha stands and brings her hand up to her forehead.
The pleats of her plain white sari lie wrapped around her waist.
It winds its way across her body , hanging off her shoulder.
Her other hand clings to her thigh.
She gathers the folds and lets delicate fabric brush against her skin.
The fabric falls to the ground, black hair flowing loosely down her heaving chest.
She presses her wrist against her forehead while looking into the distance.
Her eyes speak as she clenches her fingers and feels something that is heartfelt.
On the other end of the spectrum, we see Asha Parekh dancing to the tunes of “Parde mein rehne do parda na uthao” (let me remain hidden under my veil, do not let anyone remove it off of my face).
Bangles slip against her wrist as multi colored fabrics lift themselves into the air. The catchy beat and off beat colors makes everything stand out as she continues to lip word the song “ parda jo uth gaya to bhedh khul jayega” (if you lift my veil, the secret will come out) “Allah meri tauba- allah meri tauba ( otherwise God forbid what will happen), she says with a tinge of surprise.
Her playful exterior masks the pain and suffering within.
She allows you to get lost in her world.
. . .
These two contrasting images took over the 1960’s scene. They made their way across cinematic time, leaving imprints in our mind even today.
What you see today , however, is linked to the past.
It’s as though one holds onto a rope that connects everything together and entices you forward.
The journey takes you places.
These images are part of an album of many images that allow one to bridge the gap between what Bollywood was and is today. They stand like photographs, frozen in time.
So let’s begin by going back to 1913.
This is when the first Indian feature film “ Raja Harishchandra” was made. It is interesting to note that in this film the cast was all male.
Based on the famous Mahabharata tale, even the role of queen Taramati was played by a young man. There was a reason for this, even back then.
In Indian culture, women have always been kept inside a glass frame.
Here, they were positioned nicely for everyone to see.
Tears were prohibited , and women did not move beyond their limits.
Women were supposed to be well groomed and maintained.
While adorning themselves with the sola shringaar or 16 traditional ornamentations, one could trace the soft curves that formed a big part of the Indian concept of beauty.
As the bindi glowed on her forehead, she would look at you with kohl lined eyes.
If looks could kill…
Initially there was more sophistication in the art of seduction, the unseen being more tantalizing than the seen.
Swaying hips, and dark, long hair added a certain exoticism to an Indian woman.
But everything was kept inside.
Women bore the burden of representing the family.
Status and respectability was very important.
She could not taint her white image, and covered herself up so that she could fit and live up to the expectations of the social realm around her.
She had to be pure and simple, almost angelic in her approach towards life. Compliance, submission, subordination and modesty were some of the stereotypes she was stuck with.
The first Indian feature film catered to this way of thinking.
No one wanted to challenge the status quo.
Indian cinema did not step out of the bounds of what was considered “decent” or “right”.
Women who were cast in the 1920’s were from mixed British or European and Indian parentage, consisting of Christian or even Jewish backgrounds.
They were Anglo Indians, and therefore did not fit into the mold of what it meant to be truly Indian.
Most of these actresses adopted more Indianized nomenclature, although some kept their real names on screen.
Due to their mixed cultural influences, they were considered to be separate from the norm.
They were not as tied down to social conventions concerning respectability or status.
In fact, the social aspect of Bollywood is one of the features that differentiates it from movies made in Hollywood.
This needs to be addressed in order to understand the portrayal of women in Bollywood.
Emotions in Bollywood do not refer to an individual character’s internal state, but is defined in terms of the character’s relationships with others.
The protagonist is placed in a web of social relations of which kin and family members are the most important.
All conflicts and emotions arise out of this interpersonal context.
This is what differentiates Hollywood from Bollywood.
A woman can not act freely, but must take others into consideration.
How would family and friends react?
The woman is socially bound in her journey.
And as she moves forward, she tries to live her life .
You can almost hear her say to herself:
“A tug of war goes in my mind.
The rope lies hard and twisted in my hand.
As fibers scrape and burn,my fingers grasp to hold.
Skin cracks open, exposing raw flesh.
Red blood trickles across the palm of my hand, dripping onto the floor.
I try to hide them, but the color seeps through.
What do I do?”
In Indian cinema, a woman is depicted in many different ways.
One of these depictions is that of the mother (Maa).
The mother, like the goddess figure, is someone who is all giving, all nurturing. Her love for her family is clearly evident on the screen because she is the key figure by which the whole household runs.
This trend can be traced back to long ago.
It is a continual strand that makes its way into movies such as Khalnayak.
In this 1993 film, Rakhi, the mother, shows her love for Sunjay Dutt.
Sanjay Dutt has very negative shades in his character and plays the role of villain. The image of Rakhi praying for her son must always be kept in mind.
This movie has its own place in the photographic kaleidoscope of Indian Cinema.
The social aspect also ties into the epic quality of Indian movies.
Good stories in India involve multiple generations, family relationships, consequences of past actions, moral conflicts and sacrifice.
This gives a heightened sense of drama and grandeur to the audience, keeping them breathless for more.
One is, once again, reminded of the “Mahabharata” which is actually what the first Indian feature film was based on.
Epics have a vast number of characters, with interweaving plots.
This makes them not only complex, but hard to follow.
There is an absence of a straight forward linear narrative, making Bollywood cinema once again unique in it’s approach.
Unlike Hollywood, how did something get to this point, or why did he/she do that?…these are the questions that are asked in this style of filmmaking.
The “what” or “ when” of something is not as important.
The role of an Indian woman is defined by those around her.
As we hold the rope and are lured further in time, one can get deeper insight as to how all of this evolved.
We now come to the 1950’s.
The post war period triggered an interest in the dark side of the human personality, and this was evident as the “Film Noir” in Hollywood.
Similarly, after independence left its toll and the grim reality of the partition came to the forefront, India also began to explore similar themes.
Human beings are not black or white, and it is the gray areas that were now going to be acknowledged.
These imperfections, part of every human being, became the center of attention, around which all characters were created.
The birth of the “Indian Film Noir” led to movies such as Mother India.
In this movie, the character Radha, played by Nargis, fought to keep her virtue and dignity intact.
Despite her poverty and struggles as a woman who tried to fit into the mold of tradition, she raised her two kids on her own and fought hard.
Although the lecherous moneylender does everything he can to take advantage of Radha, there is an internal conflict that plagues her right till the end.
The movie ends with Radha killing her son, despite social condemnation and stereotyping.
Another snapshot in time.
Interestingly enough, this sharp delineation of what is good and bad, and the predominance of moral conflicts over psychological ones goes back to the epics.
One is reminded of the battle scene in the Mahabharata, where Krishna rides the chariot and Arjuna is confronted with his own dilemma.
He can’t do it.
Arjuna puts his sword down in despair …
“How can I kill my own blood ?”, he asks Krishna.
The tug of war continues…
Which way do I turn?
We can take this moral conflict further and apply it to the context of the role of women in Indian cinema.
Amidst the emerging patriarchal or male dominated industry, women were given a chance to take center stage in some women oriented movies in the 60’s.
These movies did exalt women, putting her at the center of things.
Paradoxically, however, they dealt largely with the glorification of suffering. These women were portrayed as martyrs: Meena Kumari , Nutan and Mala sinha being the main protagonists of this genre.
“Hai isi mein pyar ki aabroo who jafaa kare main wafa karoon” ( this is the way love is: he can play around while I remain loyal to him ) is the lyric of a Malha Sinha song from one of her hit movies Anpadh.
The title of a Meena Kumari hit “ main chup rahungi”( I will remain silent) also captured the essence of what it meant to be an Indian woman.
This was reflected on screen.
In Saraswatichandra, Nutan played the role of Kalyani.
Her character was true to life. She appeared still and calm amidst all the turmoil that was going on around her internally and externally.
Kalyani remained dutiful to her parents and quenched her own desires to do what was considered right according to those around her.
She kept quiet, but was burning inside.
The build up to and execution of the scene where she reaches for the bottle of hospital poison to kill herself was poignant in its effect.
If we look back at our footprints, we will notice that the 60’s started this trend of demure suffering.
If we continue to hold the rope , we can trace this trend all the way forward to the 1993 movie Rudaali.
Here, Dimple Kapadia beats her fists against her breasts and learns to mourn for others, unable to express her own grief.
From then till now, the struggle continues.
These movies portrayed the plight of women realistically, and successfully.
This was in sharp contrast to the general trend of escapism that predominated the Bollywood scene of the 60’s.
From where did this trend start?
With two wars in succession, the 1962 conflict against China and the 1965 war against Pakistan it was as though something snapped.
The audience, amidst the journey could not deal with the pain.
They barely held onto the rope and started to look at cinema as candy for the mind. The denial of reality was a way of coping with everything that was going on.
Thus, these movies catered to the mindset of the audience, giving them something sweet to taste as opposed to something bitter, or sour.
Now the heroines of the 60’s no longer came from the stage and did not experience the financial struggles that previous actresses did.
They were therefore able to succumb to the aspirations of a large population of India who wanted to be part of the middle class or affluent elite.
Actresses such as Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore and Hema Malini were able to use their privileged backgrounds to their advantage, since they had the perkiness that was part and parcel of the light romantic comedies that dominated the decade.
The movies of the 60’s were high on surface gloss but low on subtext.
Escapism was the theme.
The movies of this time exploited the desires of the audience, while distancing themselves from the reality around them.
Fantasy dance and song sequences, a prerequisite for every mainstream commercial film, added to the dreamy, frothy feel of the movies of the 60’s.
Whip cream on top of hot chocolate.
The advent of color also redefined what it meant to be chic and fashionable.
Glamour was now in the forefront, and even senior heroines were forced into changing their appearance.
Clothing became very important and black and white images were replaced by colorful scenes that graced the photo album of time.
One could not mask the sewing and stitching abilities of tailored outfits such as skin tight salwar kameezes and zip on saris.
Foot high bouffants,out there eye liner and multi hued lipsticks also captured hearts, as women tried to replicate what they saw on screen.
Escapist themes reached a peak in the 70’s, when the Vietnam War and Cold War added further turmoil.
As color led to the trivialization of themes that would be investigated on screen, the distinction between bad and good became more blurred.
There was rebellion against status quo, and people were disillusioned by what they saw around them.
Independence was supposed to bring about positive change, but that was not what was happening.
The depiction of violence and sex was not only cathartic, but in tune with how India felt.
Chaos was everywhere, and that is what the cinemas of the 70’s would now capture.
The trend was to loosen things up, to break free from the orthodoxy of the 60’s. Protesting against Indira Ghandi’s continued presence in office, the 1975 state of emergency proclaimed by the Indian president also contributed to this change, shaking the very foundation of Indian social and political life.
Other forces would shape the journey that Bollywood Cinema would take, and these strands would tie everything together.
People were dissatisfied.
Sex and violence was seen as a way of going against the conservatism of the past.
Actresses such as Zeenat Aman starred in movies such as Hare Rama Hare Krishna , where the song “Dum Maro dum…mitjayay gm bholay subha sham Hare Krishna hare Rama” ( let us sit and smoke pot to forget our pain… day and night let us chant God’s name) became a super hit .
With her big, round glasses, long loose hair and mini skirts Zeenat Aman personified a hippyish approach towards life.
Her character Janice captured the imagination of thousands of adolescents, instilling them with her way of thinking : “ Hmko na roke zamanaa, jo chahenge hm karenge” ( The world can not stop me . I will do whatever I want).
This was in sharp contrast to the “ main chup rahungi” ( I will remain silent) phase of the previous decade.
Times were changing.
From the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s women became marginalized and were shown minimally, mainly in song/ dance sequences.
Sex objects,such as Zeenat Aman and Parveen Bhabhi started this trend of the “trophy” heroine: a trophy being all for show.
This way of thinking brought glamour and fashion to new heights, and further revolutionized what it meant to be chic.
Since it is hard to imagine a woman as being violent,forceful and driven to revenge it was natural for stereotypes to be solidified at this time where violence was a thrill to watch.
A woman was someone to be relished,an escapist figure in itself.
This continued until more snapshots got added to the album that constitutes Bollywood cinema.
Actresses such as Sri Devi and Madhuri Dixit then came onto the scene.
Movies such as Rekha’s “Khoon Bhari Mang” and Madhuri’s “Anjaam” redefined what it meant to be a woman and helped break open a new way of thought.
As we hold onto the rope and see the all the elements that make up Bollywood cinema, we can look back at the movie “Hunterwali” (1935) where Nadia,part Greek and Part Welsch became the hindi film’s first and only female action star.
Nadia pre-dated the feminist movement and was an independent woman who stood out from others in her fearlessness and strength.
This was how woman were now going to be portrayed.
Women could stand equal to men.
They could also make a difference and have impact on their surroundings.
So the 60’s were part of a transition.
This era was part of a continuum in time and inspired many a soul.
The images from this decade still haunt the minds of youth even today.
Malha Sinha strikes a pose.
Sunlight filters across the delicate white fabric that wraps around the curves of her body.
It seeps through, letting out a subtle glow that lies soaked in its transparency, like her expressive face.
Trembling lips come together,as a movement of the eyebrow communicates something within.
Everything splatters, splashing behind her kohl lined eyes that fill with fluid.
The inner storm betrays her calm exterior.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sadhana flutters her eyelashes to the beat of the music while Babita perfects the moue and the limp wristed rebuff to the hero. Accentuated movements and impeccable style were epitomized by Helen’s cabaret items that rocked the nation.
In this scenario, reality lies hidden,as Asha Parekh lightens up words that would otherwise have had a deeper significance:
Husn jb benaqb hota hai (when all of a sudden beauty is unveiled)
Who sama lajwab hota hai (that moment is full of astonishment)
Khudko khudki khbr nahi rehati ( one forgets oneself )
Hoshwallah bhi hosh khota hai ( and even the most sober person becomes drunk with love)
Parde may rehne do (let me remain under my veil)
Parda na uthao! (do not lift it)
Copyright @ 2004 Sherry Duggal.