By Aneela Z. Babar
Originally published on 6 May 2014.
Earlier this year I had my very own ‘Madhuri Dixit moment’. After five years of being the “Bhabhi ji jinko thoda bahut interior decoration ka shauq hai”, it was time to start discussing potential projects in the world of words and art, defying The Pram In The Hall. In a development that I will hereby declare fortuitous, I received a request in my email inbox to speak on the occasion of Women’s Day to students of a business studies program. Keeping in mind my academic training, the organizers offered me a choice between Conflict and Voice (Gender in Politics) and/or Redefining Feminism in Recent Years. While I was still wrapping my head around these two, I received another request from one of the conference organisers (this was someone who knew me from another life), asking whether I was interested in Women and Bollywood. Social theory, power politics, third wave feminism, positive masculinities! Or having a lot of fun searching for Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham GIFs for my presentation? I later told the group assembled that I had finally experienced my own “Sita/Gita challenge”. They looked kind of young, so I quickly modified it to “my Anju/Manju conundrum”. Some in the audience still looked bewildered so I helpfully added “You know, like Meera and Veronica from Cocktail?” (Oh the look of relief on their faces that I was finally speaking their language.) Hindi cinema has been quite consistent in its portrayal of the South Asian woman ‘s sex aur sanskar ki kashmakash.
Then, I had more than enough confidence in Hindi film discourse as “cultural texts”. Just like our religious discourses, the text is so ‘vast’ and all-pervasive. Yes, the language at times may be ambiguous and the interpretations multiple, but every recorded thought and philosophical question one may have raised in one’s lived history has been tackled in a Hindi film script some time over the past hundred years. All one has to do is search. (Most days, my bio sketch contains the line Everything I Have Learnt In Life is Courtesy Bollywood: Awaara’s Judge Raghunath had unpacked Sharifo ki aulad hamesha shareef hoti hai Aur chor daaku ki aulad chor daaku long before Foucault encouraged me to deliberate on nature/nurture).
I believe Hindi films are a time capsule and form primary research material, not only as an archive of our adventures with celluloid, but also telling a tale of us – of the way we were, what we ate, what we wore, what we watched, who we laughed with and at, who we fell in love with and the language of love, and those whom we could not ever dare love. It remains to be seen whether Hindi cinema has accommodated women’s aspirations, what has and has not changed over the years, and what continues to dictate women’s mobility. It was quite possible to entertain the multi star cast of questions the seminar organizers had posed to me regarding female voice and identity politics by exploring them through the prism of Hindi cinema.
Silsila Hai Pyaar Ka – On Women In Love
Six decades ago, Nehru’s (and the postcolonial) Hero – Dilip Kumar could be an engineer, a tongawallah taking on the Man vs. Machine challenge, a peasant who questions class relations, a megalomaniac who is now a cultural marker; he also took on the Mughal Empire on his off days. Women? Women went to college if they were lucky, however they mostly fetched firewood if they were “working class” or pined in ivory towers waiting to be rescued if they were above the basic poverty line. Their only rebellion – to fall in love, following which men (and their mothers) very promptly incorporated them in the patriarchal project. For a considerable portion of our cinematic history their confession of love was marked by a dupatta floating in the air settling down on their heads; where no dupatta was available, there was a shower of flowers. Temple bells. Prospective mothers-in-law giving their stamp of approval by covering the ‘heroine’s’ head with an odhni, clamping down the handcuffs of the khandani kangan. One day I am going to compile video clips of these Modern Misses in quite the avant-garde wardrobe being wooed by Romeos, and how once these women have succumbed to love’s missive and matched their dance steps with Lover Boy, their sari pallu then covers their head and shoulders as they promptly go into pairi pauna mode ready to Meet The Parents.
I am very fond of borrowing from Amar Akbar Anthony – a cinematic ode to a vision of India we once had; secular and anti smuggled goods, good overcoming bad, and the Indian family and class structure intact as the Good Lord(s Three) wanted it to be. When it comes to dressing the Ideal Indian Woman we have as Bhatia explains for the three female protagonists:
Neetu Singh as Salma is conservatively dressed as good Muslims are, but sports her trademark big hoop earrings; Shabana Azmi is seen in smart flares as long as she is a working girl who cheats innocent men, but switches to cotton saris the moment she moves into the respectable confines of Amar’s home…and discovers love and domesticity. Parveen Babi’s foreign-returned Jenny flaunts colourful dresses, glorious wide-brimmed hats and the occasional skirt with a long slit that shows her legs (Bhatia, 2013:120).
Bhatia’s (2013) writing on Amar Akbar Anthony reminded me of how Neetu Singh, who plays a doctor and wears a doctor’s coat over her demure salwar kameez at work, will however on stepping out in public and attending a concert adhere to what her father (and community) dictates by wearing a burqa.
Class compliance and/or defiance continues to remain a recurring characteristic of a scriptwriter’s vision, and women in these stories who are to cross the lakshman rekha that is class in their pursuit of Happily Ever Afters will quickly make up for their insolence by being the good bahu in their sasuraal (or, at intermittent instances, lose their lives just as the end credits begin to roll).
Those who draw the ‘lose your personal identity’ card will repeatedly remind audiences of the merits of compliance in how these “bade baap ki beti” (but with such well-meaning golden hearts) will adjust so admirably to their changed circumstances. The Widhwa Maa Andhi Behen mother and sister-in-law perform very ably as the family’s ‘inbuilt censors’ keeping a vigilant eye on new members of the family, passing positive and negative remarks about them to mould them in their ways. Adhering to the patriarchal system becomes a useful aid for women to overcome the unequal ethnic and class distribution they may have inherited or married into, and any trouble that may arise in this domestic paradise is when these women cannot ‘fine-tune’ themselves to their changed circumstances. Take Raja Hindustani and Karisma Kapoor’s character paying penance. Urmila Matondkar in Judaai managed domesticity very well. Bad women of course rip the fabric of society apart, disrupting Happy Indian Family Lives by refusing to adjust. They will wake up late, totter about in high heels in their nightgowns smoking cigarettes and/or order their mothers-in-law to serve tea to their kitty party friends. A particular dreaded breed will the keep the Maa Ka Ladla hostage as the pitiable ghar damaad.
Hindi cinema also introduces us to the tribe of sullen, defiant heroines who have to learn their lesson. Even before Vishal Bharadwaj turned to the Bard and introduced Shakespearean drama to the Hindi film lexicon, generations of filmmakers had been channelling the Bard’s Taming Of The Shrew. The good hero in these tales guides this audacious and impudent woman on her journey of redemption, reminding us that women can also be mentally and morally deficient creatures on whom ‘virtue’ has to be externally imposed. Rare is the autonomous human (female) being capable of being virtuous as an act of choice and not saving Bharati Sanskriti.
Hum Saath Saath Hain – Parivar Politics
Hindi cinema encourages us to think that it is an essential tenet of Bharati Sanskriti that the home will not only be a shelter for the angsty angry young man, but also a spiritual centre that the Hindi film heroine will be expected to guard by means of high standards of virtue and morality (and some watering of the courtyard tulsi). Good women will be those who are either married or on the verge of being discovered by love – these young nubile women who will take up vows promising to take care of their husbands, in-laws and children. And woe upon the one who may hijack this project. “A girl who doesn’t wear salwar kameez, churidar but dons jeans, midis, minis, has bob-cut hair – ghar ka kaam kaaj thodi karegi? Matar thode cheelegi? Badon ki izzat, Hum Umro Se Apna Pan, Chotho se Pyaar,” the treatise for the Quest For the Ideal Daughter-In-Law, reflects in Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyar Kiya
This brings me to the genre of Barjatya movies worth a dissertation of its own – a classic essay that can rival Maulana Ashraf Thanvi’s Bahishti Zevar (Heavenly Ornaments). Some of the biggest hits from the Barjatya production house (one of them – Hum Aapke Hain Kaun – became the highest grossing Hindi film of all time) came during a period when, clichéd as it may sound, a “resurgent” and “more confident” India was coming into its own. It was for cultural theorists a milestone like the one they had witnessed with the Ramanand Sagar Ramayan and the Mahabharat. Our generation witnessed it for the first time in Maine Pyaar Kiya and Hum Aaapke Hai Kaun, by the time Hum Saath Saath Hain was released this project of Ramrajya, of a (Hindu) Undivided Indian Family had been extended to the Great Indian Family abroad.
In Hum Saath Saath Hain an NRI father at a family party unpacks his anxiety about raising his daughter in unfamiliar – read non-Indian – surroundings on his own (his wife has passed away so he expresses his double anxiety). His unease reminds film audiences how important the inside/outside, ghar/bahar private/public division has been for Indian families over generations. For men, being a successful member of the Indian diaspora (and a very prosperous Indian diaspora at that, if all the Yash Chopra and Familia Johar movies are to be believed), it is to learn the language and ways of the colonizer (the Other in case of the NRI) and for women to maintain traditions, markers of faith, language and deportment – whether it is in wearing chiffon saris in the Swiss vales, packing gobi ke parathe for an office lunch in London, or making sure the next generation recites Mere Des Ki Mitti at the breakfast table.
As Bhattacharjee (1977) writes, for the South Asian men abroad, these men will align themselves with learning Western technology and participating successfully in the economic field (as will many of their former compatriots in communities at home in India), striving to become successful representatives of their community, while at the same time protecting the cultural and spiritual essence of the East. In Hum Saath Saath Hain, the NRI father at the party dispels his audience’s anxiety by declaring that his fears were unfounded as he watched his daughter grow up and into Indian values so effortlessly, with words to the effect that “jaise jaise badi hotegai khud ba khud hamari values” were imbibed. A chirpy Karisma playing the sister-in-law sums it up with a confident declaration: “We Indians will be Indians everywhere” (biological determinism “for the world”). It is as if Sooraj Barjatya had memorised his Partha Chatterjee, where the ways of the world of the colonizer had to be acquired in order to compete on equal terms in the public sphere. But in the private sphere, one’s superiority lay in the fact that the colonizer’s impure and tainted ideology could not reach the home where women protected and preserved cultural traditions to protect the beleaguered self.
A decade later when the Barjatyas came out with their latest production Vivaah they seemed ready to make some concession to the women’s movement with an indulgent father-in-law declaring that his daughter-in-law should, until she become pregnant (but of course), attend office. He does emphasise that she would come in to work to help the family business, for “women make the best managers”.
There is no angst amongst Barjatya’s women. I find amongst fans of Barjatya’s films a kind of wistfulness for a golden age, where men embraced their masculinity, and women revelled in their femininity – He Gauri Shankar. From shades of what we read growing up on Islam and women, I can suggest that Hindi cinema’s worldview regarding creative and procreative harmony of the Universe is one that enjoins a strict separation of the masculine and the feminine principles. Borrowing from Boudhiba, who argues that in Islam the unity of a bipolar world can be achieved only in the harmony of the sexes realized with full knowledge: “The best way of realizing the harmony intended by God is for the man to assume his masculinity and for the woman to assume her full femininity” (Boudhiba, 1985:156).
As the details of daily behaviour are indicators of deeper and less obvious prejudices, it is not surprising that chief amongst those who incur the anger of God are “men who dress up themselves as women and women who dress themselves as men” (Boudhiba, 1985). Nothing that most of 90s Hindi cinema hasn’t already articulated for us.
I have to confess that I do share a secret passion for most of Barjatya’s films. Consider this my 50 Shades of Grey, with the caveat that consuming Sooraj Barjatya’s filmography is the equivalent of intellectual porn. It seems appealing to fantasise about being a Barjatya heroine, especially as their lives seem easy and charming, where no one questions gender and power politics. But again just as with very good porn, though one may fantasise about entertaining certain life choices, in our every day lives we steer clear of emulating half of what we have seen on screen.
But then this is just me.
Aneela Z Babar divides her time writing on gender, religion, militarism, popular culture and telling people her boy is toilet trained, sleeping through the night. She is in Delhi for the year with her husband and a boy who is toilet trained, sleeping through the night.
This is a two-part primer on Women in Hindi films. Now that you have read Part 1, go ahead and read Part 2, where the writer talks about the real reel life worlds of women, the myriad faces of Bharat Mata and the New Indian Woman in Hindi cinema.