Apr 30, 2013

Celebrating 100 years of Indian Heroines

Indian Cinema is the most 'larger than life' aspect of our relatively small world. It is that reflection which never fails to depict society in its truest and even its fakest form. 100 years ago, when our cinematic journey began, so began an influence so impactful that none can ignore it. The social structure is influenced by cinema and so is cinema influenced by the social structure. It was imperative for the portrayal of women in our films to be in accordance with societal norms and vision.

The first steps of cinema in India were plagued by social dictum. When the legendary Dadasaheb Phalke set out to make Indian Cinema's first ever film Raja Harishchanda (1913), he had a tough time to find a female lead for the wife's role 'Taramati'. Cinema was taboo and women above all, could not be touched by such an immoral business. Dadsaheb even approached prostitutes, who are considered less moral than the immaculate ladies of our homes. But he faced refusal by these so called 'demeaning' women too. Finally, Phalke convinced a waiter named Salunki to don the role of 'Taramati'. The first Indian film had a man playing the female lead! After all, women, who are fit to be daughters, wives and mothers, dare not enter the big bad world of the glamour industry, lest they lose their 'virtue'.

When renowned theater artist Durga Khote took up the role of an 'unabashed' and talkative girl in a film called 'Trapped' (1931), she was ostracized by her beloved Maharashtrian community (her role was a cameo, but that was hardly a deterrent). Within a year, she had to denounce her role and take up a demure role in a mythological movie Ayodhya Ka Raja (1932). Such was the societal pressure. Such were the restrictions on women.

There came a wave of change in the projection of women, or more appropriately the projection of this 'fearless' woman. "Sust bana dene wali film koi aur hogi, meri nahi," proclaims a poster of 1940's adventure-comedy Diamond Queen, quoting its heroine Fearless Nadia.

But let us not forget, that Fearless Nadia, with all the entertaining stunts and the 'hunterwali' image, did nothing to change the collective image of Indian women. She was a fantasy, an exotic woman, not a reality. I won't be stretching it too far if I say that the masses looked up to her more as a bad girl and not the ideal heroine. Thus, the stereotype was alive and was fueled by more and more mannequin like, delicate-darling and damsel-in-distress roles.

Of course, the forever sacrificing and tolerant persona of the ideal Bhartiya Nari, was well reflected in our movies ever since. The quintessential Bollywood 'Maa', who captured the screens in innumerable films emphasize this disturbing truth.

Misogyny in the Indian film industry was always prevalent and continues to be in varying forms and disguise. With very few exceptions, 'Mother India' being the giant amongst them, most other 'woman centric' films never got to see the appreciation that they deserved. But this does not imply that there was a dearth of strong female characters in 50s and 60s. In fact, heroines of this time were still a lot better off than the stereotypical heroines of the 80s or the chiffon saree clad decorative pieces of the 90s.

Mughal-e-azam, the epic love story had one such strong lead - Anarkali, epitomized by Madhubala. This courtesan is so headstrong that the mighty emperor Akbar also bows down at the end. Hindi cinema got one of its most landmark moments when she fearlessly sings "Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kya", a clear warning to the Emperor himself while being a declaration of her love for the Prince Salim.

Jaya Bachchan, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi stripped glamour off the female lead's character and played roles that were as important as that of the hero. They were not always commercially successful but did very good roles in whichever commercial films they acted in such as Kora Kagaz, Jawani Diwani, Guddi, Rampur Ka Laxman, Sholay (Jaya Bachchan), or Namak Halal, Arth and Shakti (Smita Patil), Karm, Arth, (Shabana Azmi).

But these films were few indelible impressions on the Indian Cinematic history. In a patriarchal society like India, a strong female lead could never be embraced. We have grown up watching our heroines cry, our villains' rape and our heroes fight.

Has this trend changed? Watch this space to know what happened next in the mesmerizing and intriguing journey of the Indian film heroine.