Growing up in the early eighties, in a film nut family, my heroes were a spunky race car with a mind of its own, a mercernary hotshot spaceship pilot and his wookie partner and later a tall, lanky man, whose eyes dripped angst . Be it Herbie, Hans Solo and Chewbacca, or Vijay – it was an all male panel of heroes, no women as I can recall, heck, I don’t even have any striking memory of women characters in this films if there were any. Yeah, sure, you can yell out ‘What about Princess Leia?’ But I ask you, is she remembered for anything other than her minuscule outfit with those ridiculous slave costume – fantasy material (you know you can buy those outfits in the US?).
Women characters stepped into the frame in the mid-eighties when two things happened. My uncle got a VCR and Doordarshan began to telecast regional movies – these two introduced me to the black and white films of the 50s and the parallel cinema of the 70s and 80s.
At my uncle’s house, the moment I entered, my eyes would blink longingly towards the showcase that that ensconced the TV above and the VCR below. We would rush out to a tiny ramshackle stall near Nair Hospital (Bombay Central) for video cassettes – my uncle had a rule, there had to be a black and white oldie in our choices. Thanks (and all my love) to him, I was introduced to Renu in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi – mischievous, strong, forward, sensual Renu and her alter ego Madhubala, (the other fabulous characters in the b&w classics came later) was my first love. A contemporary woman, someone who I could grow up to be, in a film that was so old, that it didn’t even have colour!
At home, Sunday afternoons were a family outing into regional films and ‘films’ with no songs. When I sift my memory there are three images that I recall as being fascinated with, that stand out.
First, Saritha in K Balachandar’s Thaneer Thaneer (1981) – the image of her with a pot on her head, another on her hip with a smaller one piled on and the baby in kangaroo sling on her front, and bunch of twigs and leaves in one hand, as she runs from the river to her village through the baking, dried up earth. This was a woman I had not seen before – is she the heroine of the film, I wondered. Why is she dressed like this? My first memory of a different kind of a film, I sat riveted as she carried the film through.
I refreshed the memory here (apparently and unfortunately the only place where you can watch this film, there are no prints available). In a scene where she and her fellow women sit on the road blocking the police jeep, she lashes out at her policeman husband, when he pulls her up – “What right do you have to touch me, is it because I am your wife. I am not your wife here, I am a woman of this village.”
Second, Smita Patil as Bindu in Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976)- her wary, questioning eyes that follow Dr Rao (Girish Karnad), her cautious but unerring faith in the movement, and as a teenager, noticing for the first time, the attraction that develops between these two characters.
And, Hansa Wadkar in Prabhat’s Sant Sakku (1941). Sant Sakku was one of a rare breed – a woman saint poet. Meerabai came much later for me, Sakku was the first example of a woman who forgoes the world for the love of her god. Though I largely remember it for the scenes where the divinity assumes Sakku’s form and torments her evil mother in law and sister in law, the image of her giving up the ghost at the deity’s feet was something that intrigued the atheist in me.
These women did not immediately replace the male-heroes but they kickstarted the journey in search of women who would I could identify with, whom I could recognise, who I wanted to put on my hall of heroes.