The Lady and the Vamp
Defiant or demure, the roles of women in popular Hindi cinema over the years have not transcended gender stereotypes.
Shobha V Ghosh
A feminist analysis of culture takes as its starting point certain assumptions. First, that femaleness, far from being an essence, is “made” and the ideological strands of these constructions are woven into and. must be teased out of the seemingly homogeneous fabric of dominant discourses, be they patriarchy, capitalism or religious fundamenta- lism. Further, though these discourses offer up their constructions as universal and “natural,” woman is continually being reconstituted under the terms of specific social and historical imperatives.
During the protracted struggle for independence, for instance, the contra discourses of imperialism and nationalism recast the Indian woman, the former imaging her as the perpetual victim of primitive native practices, and the latter moulding her into the repository of timeless. Indian (read “Hindu”) values. In the historical moment we ourselves are situated in, the formations of normative femaleness are defined by a patriarchy inflected by specific socio- political correlates: high capitalism with its control of patterns of consumption; the vocabularies of “modernity” and “progress;” “westernisation,” especially in its presence as neo-cultural-colonialism; and an increasingly strident religious orthodoxy that fixes the parameters of the “traditional.”
Finally, the feminist cultural analyst works from the standpoint that we women experience, at least at moments, very real discrepancies between the material realities of our lives and the images! roles! models we are coerced into inhabiting. This “coercion” does not always take the form of identifiable strategies of violence. More often than not, it functions as a subtle pressure on our subjectivities and self representations. This engendered subjectivity, which is also an engendered subjection, is a real effect in that it determines one’s alignments and loyalties, one’s acceptance of what is desirable and not, and even one’s tangible practices of buying, consuming, talking or dressing.
But, can one speak of cultural analysis without being pulled up short at the term “culture”? The customary suturing, in the Indian context, of culture and tradition in phrases like “cultured mind” and “cultured family” — no longer satisfies. What, then, is culture? Any attempt to define it seems fated to reductiveness. Perhaps, like the editors of Interrogating Modernity, we can only seek to highlight the inclusiveness of culture by recognising it “as comprising a variety of signifying practices” and “an astonishing proliferation of seemingly disparate phenomena.”1
Thus, the “commercial” film, the “parallel” cinema, and the Hollywood movie scramble for space in a patently unequal battle. Press images of peasant or burqa-clad women agitating against arrack traders or TADA seem to testify to the continuing vitality of women’s resistance. Alongside, a front-page picture of Bal Thackeray presiding over the inauguration of a women’s organisation headed by his daughter-in-law reaffirms patriachal control. Shobha De’s putrid fictions light up the market and almost make their way into academia, while the truly remarkable work of Mahashweta Devi has only just entered the Bombay University Literature curriculum. Angst-ridden “expat” writers explain India to Indians. Femina manufactures “the woman of substance.” Ila Arun straddles the worlds of Krishi Darshan and Channel V with an ethnicity packaged for elite consumption. Draupadi (Roopa Ganguly) in the revived series Mahabharat holds on to her virtue and yellow Binny’s silk, while Madhu Sapre sheds her clothes, drawing
fire from both the right and the left.
This melange of phenomena comes refracted through the discourses of class, caste, religion and gender. These discourses resist facile classification into parallel essentialist categories like Modern/Traditional, Indian/Western, Spiritual/Material. They collide, intersect, collude. And nowhere is the collusion more apparent than in the attitudes towards women. A vast gap may separate the agendas of capitalism and fundamentalism, but the former’s commodification process and the latter’s methodology of mythical iconisation have one common effect the continued devaluation of women. The rest of this article attempts a brief examination of the relationship of women to one of the signifying systems of our culture, namely the commercial Hindi film.
Something interesting happened to the mainstream Hindi cinema in the seventies. The screen “Vamp” began to recede as an autonomous presence. Nadira in the fifties film Shri 420 is perhaps the perfect example of this figure who endured, in progressively weakening form, for almost three decades after Independence. In the blatantly sexist terrain of the popular film, the casting of women in antithetical roles is inevitable. The smoking, drinking, knowing seductress of the fifties, “modern” in manner, dress and morality and set in dramatic opposition to the “Heroine”, became the second term in the binary Traditional/Modern.
Encoding and decoding practices, as we know, do not occur in a vacuum. The euphoria of colonial overthrow and the imperatives of a newly-born nation-state inevitably overcoded the ‘Vamp’ as anti-tradition, anti-Indian, Western and, finally, as corrupting. In film after film, the exorcism of colonialism and the containment of female sexuality are reenacted in the ritual “defeat” of the Vamp, that signifier of Western immortality and of self-aware, ergo dangerous, sexuality. The operations of male desire and of nationalist wish fulfillment trope the Vamp into both Enemy and Battlefield, at once the Other (as Woman) and the site wherein the Other (as Colonialist) is neutralised.
By the sixties, fissures had already begun to develop in the asserted unity of the nation. Post-colonial optimism was mutating into disillusion with the dream of a self-derived, self-sufficient and unified nationhood. Tharu and Lalitha2 lucidly trace the “widespread disaffection” that permeated all areas of national organisation, a process that the state sought to arrest with the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. The first effects of world capitalism in the midseventies and the internationalisation of markets required a conceptual shift in the “imaginary” of the nation. “New forms of Indianness had to be invented, new identities forged for both state and citizen.”3 Television was harnessed by the state in its project of rethinking the nation. The popular cinema, on the other hand, had already begun to deal with problematising the erstwhile oppositional equation of Traditional! Modern in its own inimitable fashion through appropriation and containment.
Already by the sixties, it is not unusual for the ‘Heroine’ (in successes like Junglee and Sangam) to have taken on “ modern accouterments in terms of dress, manner and social behaviour. By the seventies she might even be allowed an occupation. Alongside, the sixties set into motion the trend of infantilising the female lead who is shown as fractious, naughty, coquettish and more and more marginal in an increasingly male-oriented arena. Love and the manwoman relationship, are displaced as the central concern as the ‘Hero’ assumes the mantle of dispensing social justice and wages war on the New Enemies of the state — smugglers, capitalists, lumpens and corrupt officials: In Amar Akbar Anthony, a huge success of the seventies as also one of the first of the “multi starrers”, the three female leads are no more than embarrassing adjuncts to the males on whose dependable shoulders falls the responsibility of the ritual purging of society.
There is an awesome irony in this if one recalls that this was also the decade which saw the resurgence of women’s resistance in a radically new configuration, in which collectives of women wrought significant changes in their lives and status. Or, perhaps, it was because of the threat posed by “real” women that films did what they did to "screen" women. Haimanti Bannerji writes of the seventies, “The more women are assuming responsibilities in both domestic and external spheres, the more the films are drawing the map of a masculine world where grave and eventful decisions are taken without the shadow of a woman present.”4
And what, in all this, is the fate of the Vamp? With the trivialisation of the love relationship, she loses her validity as counterpoise to the Heroine, and the Helens and Bindus degenerate to gangsters’ molls, allowed the mandatory “cabaret dance.” By the eighties, even that function has been appropriated almost completely by Sridevi and her ilk, whose very presence in any film is now justified by their seductive dance numbers.
What can be detected here is a significant redefining of female sexuality by a new patriarchy in a time of consumerism. Capitalism, writes John Berger, achieves its intentions by “imposing a false standard of what is and not desirable.”5 The new, “desirable” heroine is “sexy”, but without the arch self-knowledge of a Nadira. The phenomenal success of Sridevi in the eighties centered around her screen persona as the ‘Innocent Seductress.’ What better way to commodify female sexuality, and yet defuse its perceived threat, than to yoke it to a lack of self—awareness? In an interview, explaining his choice of Sridevi for his hugely successful Mr. India, Shekhar Kapoor asserted that the star represented every Indian male’s dreams because her baby-face seemed not to know what her luscious body was doing. It is this same quality in the more svelte form of Madhuri Dixit that M.F.Hussain now seeks to immortalise on canvas.
How does one deal with the surprising popularity in the eighties of the Avenging Woman genre? Through a contingent deployment of the Shakti myth; films like Khoon Bhari Maang and Zakhmi Aurat purport to depict the resisting, self-empowering woman rising above victim status. But, in every case, the woman on rampage, after having carried our her revenge, and having paid (usually in the form of a prison term) for what is essentially an aberration, is ready to reclaim her place in the pantheon of Indian Womanhood by preparing for a traditional role. Apart from this, the actual working out of the revenge - the magnificent isolation of the Heroine, the essentially individual and personal nature of her vendetta re enacts the terms of the time-honoured male revenge formula. The woman is, thus, no more than surrogate male, the Avenging Heroine, no other than the Avenging Hero in drag. There is not a trace here of a woman’s gendered resistance.
The films of the nineties negotiate the terrains of consumerism and “modernity” on the one hand, and religious revivalism and “tradition” on the other. Hum Apke Hain Kaun, with its gently saffron-hued paternalism, is unequivocal in its allegiance to familial, gender and religious orthodoxy. On the other hand, the Shilpas, Poojas and Mamtas perfect screen personae which seem characterised by a new sexual candour and youthful female rebellion. The Vamp and the Heroine seem to have finally collapsed into one composite figure.
Yet, the parameters of women’s sexuality continue to be drawn. The only sanctioned (and always controlled) spaces for rebellion and expression of sexuality are youth and love. In narrative terms this translates as only up to the ‘interval’ of the film. Anyone familiar with the dramatic analysis of mainstream cinema knows that the ‘interval’ is much more than just a narrative hiatus. It is the signal for every manner of change. Romantic comedy gives way to the thriller genre; the callous youth grows into the responsible man; his dalliance in love makes way for passionate commitment to a cause; and, above all, the rebellious girl attains mature womanhood. The last is most often semiotically represented by replacing the Heroine’s western garb with a “traditional” one. All traces of sexuality are exorcised in her preparation for the roles of Wife and Mother-to-be. The Heroine of the nineties is the site on which the popular cinema effects a facile reconciliation between the problematic paradigms of Modernity and Tradition by drawing them into a smooth continuity - a “transitory” Modernity giving way to “enduring” tradition.
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan6 cautions that any feminist analysis would finally be incomplete if it did not also locate the liberatory spaces where gender control is contested. It is interesting that in her own attempts to identify feminist cinematic texts, she lists films which are almost exclusively from the parallel cinema. Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala is perhaps the only film on her list that qualifies, at least partially, as “popular” in that it knew a commercial release. The political correctness of the film cannot be faulted, dealing as it does with women’s collective resistance. But the intentions of the film maker are continually being destabilised, especially by his presentation of Smita Patil, by “packaging” her in tastefully ethnic sensuousness. Mehta’s concessions to the codes of advertising and the popular cinema are, finally, fatal to the film.
Meanwhile one waits, perhaps foolishly, for the truly subversive popular film a liberatory work of gendered resistance which will erupt through some imperceptible fissure in the seemingly inviolable patriarchal estate of the mainstream cinema.
- Tejaswini Niranjan, P Sudhir, Vivek Dhareshwar, eds., Interrogating Modernity introduction (Calcutta, 1993).
- Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, eds. Women Writing in India, Vol. II, Introduction (Delhi, 1993).
- Tharu and Lalita, Vol. II, page 49.
- Haimanti Bannerji, “Portrayal of Women in Popular Hindi Cinema,” in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds. Women and Culture, (Bombay, 1985).
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London, l972),p. 154.
- Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcoloniality, (London), pp. 129-140.
Shobha V Ghosh teaches in a Bombay college.