It’s been a year to the day that our book Mother Maiden Mistress was released and nearly two years since we wrapped up our study on women characters in Hindi cinema by detailing a few films that held for us a promise for better times for women in cinema. Even if our optimism was tempered by the fact – and as we wrote – that one swallow does not a summer make.
The year 2012 gave us a glimpse of the contemporary Indian woman – from the locales of the NRI to the semi-urban small towns – she is shown as a person caught in the conflict of identity – tradition versus ‘modern’. Be it Veronica in Cocktail or Zoya in Ishqzaade or Shashi in English Vinglish, the characters attempt to make a space for themselves, trying not to get entrapped within the stereotypical straitjackets of their predecessors. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.
For Veronica, tradition is the pull of nostalgia, of being a part of a family, of acceptance despite the fact that it comes from a tradition-bound society and has hidebound strings of compromise and compliance. For Zoya, tradition is the patriarchal society that makes her a pawn in the political game, an object to be acquired from the enemy and ‘dishonoured’, a vulnerability to be rid of by her own family. For Shashi, tradition is the dismissal of her identity as a person, being submerged into the family while the other members, including her ‘modern’ generation daughter judge her for the lack of apparent ‘modernity’
Then there are the women who stand apart from the conflict – Riana Briganza in Ek Main Aur EkK Tu – she is squarely in the modern – an independent single woman, whose rules are her own. (The fact that two women characters, who hint, wink, have pre-marital sex, are named Riana and Veronica is dealt with in film reviews). Akira from Jab Tak Hai Jaan is a daredevil, go-getter, who hangs out (literally) as the hero defuses a bomb, is a ‘modern’ girl too. (Her name interestingly too gives us no idea of her religion which could be either refreshing or a cop-out. We give it the benefit of the doubt and dub it refreshing). Meenaskhi in Aiyyaa is today’s woman who wants to get married but to the man she chooses. She wants the fairy tale romance of Bollywood and does not spare a thought about her family when she turns up late for her own engagement after being proposed to by the man she loves.
The fact remains that most of these women feature in love stories – except for Shashi whose English Vinglish is about finally finding the ‘self’, resolving the conflict within. One other film that surprised was Kahaani – whose character merged the Mother and the Maiden ending with that of the warrior.
Of course there were other women characters; the ones talked about here are just the ones in the leading roles. There were good supporting roles in Vicky Donor, Shanghai, Talaash, Barfi! and Gangs of Wasseypur. The rest were the predictable one-dimensional love interests in the 80’s inspired muscle-bound dramas – Rowdy Rathore, Dabangg 2, Son of Sardaar, Agneepath and so on.
As for 2013, nearly six months into the hundredth year of cinema and there isn’t a single woman character that we can talk about. Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee) in Karan Johar’s Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh segment of Bombay Talkies – the middle-aged professional woman who finally revels in her sexuality is but a flash in the pan.
When we began the book, we searched for characters from the 1950s, and for every year we sifted through the dirt and sand to find minute nuggets of gold – and every year the search got more and more frustrating. It’s been a hundred years and cinema has changed dramatically in both form and content – what about the women? In 1913, the first women on the screen were men in sarees because society didn’t grant respectability to women actors. Audiences didn’t mind men in sarees cavorting in a pond though. A hundred years later, audiences definitely want women actors – they look much better in sarees. And despite some aberrations here and there, this seems to be pretty much their purpose even now.