The past few weeks have heard and seen much comment on the typecasting of women in commercial Indian cinema with discussion centering on the consequences of cinema’s commodification of women as symbols of sexual desire. A closer look at both the medium and its controversies seems to reveal a paradox at play.
There was a period up until the eighties when sexuality and its portrayal was delineated as the vamp’s role. Depending upon the plot, her characterization would swing between the extremes of artistic courtesan and shameless harlot. Irrespective of where her role landed within that range, this character was burdened with representing the sexuality of women and male fantasy and desire found expression in her. Although a classic example of objectification; it was nevertheless socially decentred, separate and distinct from the lead character. The vamp’s alternate reality was exemplified by the women who played these roles, themselves backstage dancers or ‘extras’ nurturing the hope of a rare promotion to sex symbols or icons. On the other hand, the lead actor played the girl in innocent love (of the kind that holds hands and peeks around trees in fervent song) who graduated in the prescribed style to wife and mother. This lead played the nurturing figure stereotype – the sort of woman every man wanted to take home. If ever sexuality was allowed in the lead, it was as that of the coquette in perpetual come-hither mode essayed with a restrained biology that stayed appropriately decorous by defining the limits. You can look but not touch; you can touch but not kiss, you can kiss but not ……. Female sexuality was thus neatly split and compartmentalized. One satisfied the very real need of the mass to be entertained and watch something other than the usual; while the other assuaged and reinforced the status quo.
These divisions merged in the latter half of the eighties. The lead actress gradually absorbed the vamp role into her repertoire and the suddenly improved role-playing prospects of Bollywood’s women have not looked back since. [The vamp remains in a residual avatar in a form called, ‘Item-girl”. But, that distinction is created more around crude lyrics than role playing or picturization]. Artistic achievement was stretched to include the portrayal of a lusty sexuality in virginal innocence. That sounds like the lead female role essayed a lot of nuance. In reality, it was anything but. The nuance was expected to be in our (the audience) head. That we saw a woman on screen gyrating in the vulgar throes of an extraordinary sexual abandon was a reflection of ‘our’ crude and insufficiently liberated selves. This unreal duality of the virgin and the vamp in one embodied self was especially dissonant. The already confounding lines between vulgarity and sexuality, between liberation and commodification, between experience and reality were further blurred and bludgeoned into a congealed mess of subjective interpretation. A chronicler of this cinematic shift is better placed to examine the reasons for the change. Was it commercially prompted or was cinema ‘mirroring the mirror’. Was cinema merely reflecting changing social norms by allowing lead roles to portray sexuality, albeit in a distorted and risque garb? Whatever the reasons, by merging the roles of vamp and lead actor, feminine sexuality was, to a degree, legitimized. No more was a Jaya Bhaduri and an Aruna Irani needed; a Sreedevi could play both just as well and still remain the girl who rode the palanquin in the end.
This should have brought a lot of cheer to feminists; but alas, the joy, if any, was short-lived. The medium is as important as the message; but Bollywood does everything King-size and in a paradoxical twist, instead of applause, vocal protest about the commodification of women is now getting louder. Under the artful direction of our talented lot, female sexuality which should have become part of the normative cinematic discourse has morphed into an aesthetically challenged, hypersexual, libidinous outrage. Yet, it is Bollywood that might still have the last word. While criticism is heaped on cinema for its treatment of women; not enough credit is given it for the silent phasing out of the depiction of violence against women. It was not uncommon, once, to see a Dilip Kumar slap a heroine or two; it would be unthinkable for Sharukh Khan to do the same now. Today, whole films have female-centric scripts that ride safely on the dagger clavicles of a new generation.
However, on the matter of sexuality, Bollywood continues to challenge our hypocrisies in its own peculiar style. Is commodification really in the eyes of the beholder? Is a woman pole dancer symbolising liberated sexuality or is she a commoditized sexual object? Much blame for the confusion lies with the speed of evolution of the format. Cultural and sexual evolution, like everything else, is best achieved in gradual progression. The West has had the benefit of a gradual and visible timeline of this movement. The hems of dresses evolved in a measured succession of inch reductions from whalebone skirts to the mini over centuries. Instead, we have made the meter-leap from the demure sari (the kind our mothers wear) to bikini tops and Daisy Dukes in less than a generation. The dissonance is not just between Kareena Kapoor and us; it is also between us and our mothers. It is with the ladies on the television clothed in a full body armor of Tussar, clamoring for the rights of girls (who use public transport) to wear revealing clothes. It is with a society that accepts the norms of workplace attire but sees conservative retrogression when elders implore the same of their children for the street.
Where we reach as a progressive society will be defined by our response to these conflicts. Much as we might have preferred a more orderly evolution, a backward movement to an extinct time is a regressive move. Attempting to restrict the creative licence of one simply because it jars the aesthetic desires of another is an illogical exercise. Does life imitate art? Can negative portrayals of everyday women in cinema influence young and malleable minds? Probably, yes. But in a sea of variables; that is but one. Until and unless there is hard evidence of the negative impact of crude cinema on kerbside behavior; curtailing creative license based on correlative assumptions is a retrogressive move. It could equally well be argued that a restrictive environment was what prompted the surreptitious and steady advance of a perverse sexuality in mainstream cinema. Bollywood should be allowed to trundle along in its unreal exoticism and it should be given the chance to evolve at its pace. In any case, commercial cinema has its finger on the public pulse and is more responsive to social change than most. We have a censor board that restricts access of certain sorts of cinema to defined groups and that degree of regulation should suffice. A more pressing point, often ignored, is the absence of other available avenues of entertainment in our cultural landscape. This has had the predictable consequence of cinema and its celebrity culture, coming to occupy a preeminent place in public consciousness. Bollywood might always sit at the head of the table but the active presence of parallel movements in theatre and in the literary arts will eventually dissolve its vice like grip. While urbanization is often a precursor to cultural explosion; a simultaneous development of urban public spaces will offer us arenas for diverse but inclusive civic engagement. Paradoxically again, the resolution of our many conflicts lies in the center of, and within, our tangled and dissonant voices.
[This essay is also up on the CRI website. You can follow the discussion there and read other opinions too, in under, ‘Comments’]