Women's Day Special: Touch the mind

How liberating is the freedom of women in Bollywood?

Aakshi Magazine Delhi

In The Dirty Picture, a film journalist tells Silk, "Jo tum aaj kar rahi ho woh bagawat hai, saalon baad log use azaadi kahenge" (What you are doing today is rebellion, after some years, people will call it freedom). The "saalon baad" refers to today's Bollywood. Is azaadi (freedom) an apt description?

In the history of Hindi cinema, the origins of today's 'sexual heroine' can be traced back to the time when the figure of the vamp gradually disappeared and merged into the heroine. What began with Madhuri Dixit's liberating Choli ke peeche, has today become Katrina Kaif's Zara Zara touch me, Zara Zara kiss me. What could have been a freeing expression of female sexuality is still only about the woman being desired, not necessarily desiring. And this desire is never spoken of independently of the woman's idealized body.Taken to its extreme, when Katrina gyrates and sings, I'm too sexy for you, main tere haath na aani, in Sheila ki Jawani, she sees her own self as an objectified image.

But it will be clear to anyone who watches Bollywood regularly that some things have slightly changed. This is most apparent in the small budget films, while bigger budget ones have responded with tamer versions. For Annie Zaidi, who recently co-authored The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl, "In a small fraction of Hindi films, we finally have women characters who seem less anxious about sex and virginity." This is perhaps most radically shown in Dev D's interpretation of Paro and Chandramukhi, which topples everything by explicitly talking of female desire. It's also evident in the ease with which Band Baja Baraat's Shruti(Anushka Sharma) sleeps with Bittoo(Ranveer Singh). Or, in how it never becomes an issue in Luck By Chance, even though the protagonist Sona(Konkona Sen Sharma) is sleeping with the producer to get a role in his next film.

"Earlier, when we were shown strong women characters, it was always extraordinary circumstances that forced them to be so. Today, even in ordinary situations, one is shown women making unconventional choices on their own, being who they are out of choice," observes a film buff. The pressure to be sacrificial and bear the burden of upholding moral values, epitomized by Mother India, is a theme that has gradually disappeared.

Where are the different kinds of people women are? Not just sexy, or sex objects for the voyeuristic male gaze, but also unsexy. What about ambiguity towards modernity, towards sex? What about the woman who makes mistakes?

Today, in a big banner Yash Raj film like Bunty aur Babli, Babli says, "Agar maine ek aur martbaan aam ka achaar dala toh main mar jaongi" (I will die if I have to make mango pickles once more). She mocks at the notion of domestic bliss, longing for a non-conformist life, even outside legality, or the notions of good and bad.

Among the more interesting women characters that we have seen recently are Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) and Paro (Mahie Gill) in Luck By Chance, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Dev D.

All three women were their own people. Sona had an ordinary, everydayness about her. After facing a setback, she picks herself up, finding happiness in doing what she likes, refusing to be an 'anchor' to her now successful ex-boyfriend.

Geeta was in love for the most part of what we knew of her, and did what she felt like doing, not caring for convention or morality. Even when it meant taking the difficult decision of leaving the man she had been in love with because he no longer seemed like the same person. "She was real – emotionally, sexually and politically – which was refreshing," says Tanushree Bhasin, student of history at JNU.

Paro was liberating in her ability to act on her desire, and also to move on from Dev when he was disrespectful and insensitive. "She is self-protective enough not to turn into a sucker for emotional punishment," feels Annie Zaidi.

Other characters who carve their special, independent identities are Zeenat (Gul Panag) and Meera (Ayesha Takia) in Dor, the women in LSD, and Mahie Gill's moody, intense, slightly schizophrenic 'Biwi' character in Sahib Biwi aur Gangster. Sometimes, an entire film is told from a woman's perspective, like Saat Khoon Maaf or The Girl in Yellow Boots. Or, the understated Mod.

But,"compared to the percentage of films that are made, this change is nothing," feels film director Onir, who tackled issues of gender and sexuality with sensitivity in films like My Brother Nikhil and I Am. He feels disturbed by the dangerous stereotypes about gender that most 'successful' Bollywood films reinforce.

Among the more interesting women characters that we have seen recently are Sona(Konkona Sen Sharma), Geeta( Chitrangada Singh) and Paro(Mahie Gill) in Luck BY chance, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Dev D

Zaidi too is sceptical. She is "deeply disappointed that the growth in middle class women's education and income levels has not translated into a louder clamour for better women-driven films". Having scanned the lists of the most successful films of the last decade, she finds few films which have women as strong central protagonists. "They often exist as
caricatures, ghostly shadows, or objects of desire... The result is that female actors end up not exploring their full range. Their principal job is looking slender and wearing not very much, and getting fake boobs as soon as they can afford them."

(Check any one of the mainstream 'heroines' and they look like they are trying to be clones of each other: Katrina Kaif, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Bipasha Basu etc.)

Where are the different kinds of people women are? Not just sexy, or sex objects objectified for the voyeuristic male gaze, but also unsexy. Not just aggressive, but also perhaps mellow. What about confusion and ambiguity towards modernity, towards sex? What about the woman who makes mistakes?

Even in the smaller, new films, the women we see are mostly boxed in clichés and stereotypes. For years, we have been subjected to different versions of what Bollywood called 'bubbly". Now it's doing the same with 'sexy'. A few years back, filmmaker Sudhir Mishra had written, "There seems to be some fear (among new filmmakers) that there is a new Frankenstein in our midst – the phantom called the 'multiplex audience'. The bold new characters that adorn... films... represent the need to sugarcoat the 'original' boy-meets-girl story to cater to the supposedly evolved taste of this new demon and to con him into believing that he is watching a new kind of film."

Mishra's analysis seems to aptly contextualize the different versions of the 'new' Bollywood 'heroine' we see week after week. Very rarely is there an honest attempt at understanding the changing relationships between the sexes, or the ways in which feudal tendencies are hidden within the façade or complexities of 'modernity'.

Two decades ago, Gulzar made Ijaazat, where he introduced two different women – one gets married, the other doesn't want to be tied down. Gulzar seems anxious about the modern woman in many of his films, but he also deals with this anxiety head-on, driven by what feels like the need to understand the changing times. So, Maya, the free-spirited woman in Ijaazat, is in many ways a stereotype, but there is also an attempt to empathize with and understand her.

In comparison, contemporary filmmakers are still caught up in that anxiety. They only slightly acknowledge the different kinds of possibilities that could exist for women, but it's almost always a status quoist engagement, anxious of what could happen if things changed too much. So Tanu in Tanu Weds Manu begins as a rebel (stereotypically imagined though), but ends up a different person.

'Female actors end up not exploring their full range. Their principal job is looking slender and wearing not very much, and getting fake boobs as soon as they can afford them'

In Luck By Chance's remarkable scene where Sona rejects her boyfriend Vikram when he comes back to her, there is no judgement and no easy answers. When she tells Vikram that he has only been talking about himself, it is a moment of discovery both for her and us, because his language is not any more spectacularly selfish than how we have always heard love being professed. All he is saying is that he wants her to be his anchor. Maybe she understands that what she wants doesn't yet have a language because she tells him, "Isme tumhari bhi koi galti nahi hai, kuch log hi aise hote hain." (This is not your fault, some people are like this only).

Sona is a working woman who lives by herself in the city. She feels lonely at times, but is mostly happy and content that she is standing on her own feet, doing what she wants to do, even though she hasn't made it big in Bollywood like she had initially aspired. What lies ahead for her, and what kind of life and love she builds, is a question mark which does not as yet have an answer. Or, it has different answers on different days and in different contexts.

Bollywood would really mark a creative rupture the day it shows us this question mark in all its confusion, abandon, anxieties, freedom and loneliness. As of now, it has only shown us glimpses, and that too almost never.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012