Border: Don’t call me ‘ba­by’

Published May 18, 2014
Bindu scandalises Asha Parekh in a song from the film Kati Patang (1970)
Bindu scandalises Asha Parekh in a song from the film Kati Patang (1970)

A typ­i­cal Bollywood film fea­tures an al­pha male who is most­ly do­ing the right thing, can sing, dance, fight the bad­dies (some­times si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly) and usu­al­ly gets the girl in the end. It is the last part of this def­i­ni­tion that has changed re­cent­ly in Bollywood films where get­ting the man (or not) where the her­oine is con­cerned, doesn’t ham­per the chan­ces of the film’s suc­cess. With gut­sy mov­ies like Highway and Queen, Bollywood has com­ple­ted 100 years of film­mak­ing as well as 100 years of wom­an-in-films. A trip down the mem­o­ry lane re­veals how wom­en evolved in Bollywood, and at times, out­shone the men in the proc­ess.

In the be­gin­ning, there were none

When Dada Saheb Phalke pro­duced the first ev­er Bollywood film Raja Harischandra (1913), his big­gest ob­sta­cle was the un­avail­a­bil­i­ty of fe­male ac­tress­es. Not on­ly did he have to make male ac­tor Anna Salunke dress up as a wom­an, it was such roles that got Salunke his rec­og­ni­tion. Four years lat­er, he be­came the first ac­tor to play a dou­ble role in Bollywood — both the hero and the her­oine in Lanka Dahan. All in all, he played the fe­male lead in five films.

The sassy Helen in the film Caravan (1971) song, Piya tu ab to aaja
The sassy Helen in the film Caravan (1971) song, Piya tu ab to aaja

Then en­tered the 14-year old thes­pi­an Kamlabai Gokhale, who was fea­tured in Dada Saheb Phalke’s Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), in which her moth­er Durgabai Kamat played the char­ac­ter of Parvati. These two wom­en were the pio­neer fe­male ac­tress­es in Bollywood and al­though they were a stop-gap at first (their the­a­tre com­pa­ny was clos­ing for six months) they sow­ed in a seed that is still bear­ing fruit. Kamlabai be­came a ce­leb­ri­ty even be­fore she turned 16, and con­tin­ued to work in films till 1980.

Goray rang ka za­ma­na

In the 1920s, cin­e­ma in the sub­con­ti­nent was in its de­vel­op­ing stage, so no lo­cal fam­i­ly was al­low­ing their daugh­ters to act in films. The pro­duc­ers’ prob­lems were solved by trav­el­ling for­eign­ers or the many Baghdadi-Jewish and Anglo-Indian fe­males who had no qualms about be­ing fea­tured in a film.

Since those were the days of si­lent films, pro­duc­ers pre­fer­red looks over ev­ery­thing else and searched for gori miss (white lady) and/or hou­ris (fair­ies) from para­dise — a prac­tice that was re­pea­ted in Dhoom 3!

Some changed their names and some, like Patience Cooper, didn’t. Ruby Meyers be­came Sulochana, Renee Smith changed her name to Seeta Devi, Susan Solomon be­came Firoza Begum, Iris Gasper was (re)named Sabita Devi, Effie Hippolet changed her name to Indira Devi, Bonnie Bird be­came Lalita Devi, Winnie Stewart was re­chris­tened Manorama and Beryl Claessen be­came Madhuri (yes, this one was the orig­i­nal one!). Even Italian ac­tress Signora Minelli ac­ted in one of the films op­po­site Esther Abrahams aka Pamilla in Madan Theatres’ Pati Bakhti (1922).

The ad­vent of Bharti nari

Durga Khote may be re­mem­bered as Jodhabai in Mughal-i-Azam but her big­gest ach­ieve­ment was be­ing the first high­ly edu­ca­ted, English-speak­ing Brahmin girl to break the ta­boo and en­ter films.

She, along with her con­tem­po­rary Devika Rani (daugh­ter of no­ted Indian Surgeon General M.N. Chaudhry) came, saw and con­quered. They weren’t as beau­ti­ful as the gori maims but they fit­ted the char­ac­ters that were writ­ten with a Bharti nari in mind. They used their voi­ces to their ad­vant­age as they could speak dia­logues in Urdu/Hindu, which their pred­e­ces­sors couldn’t.

Durga made her de­but through Ayodheycha Raja (1932) and Devika through Karma (1933) and from then on­wards, lo­cal wom­en were giv­en pref­er­ence as the love in­ter­est, the dam­sel in dis­tress or the wom­an be­hind the suc­cess­ful man!

There were some ex­cep­tions as well. In the mid-30s, the Wadia Brothers gave India its first khi­la­di and trust me; she wasn’t a bhayya-like Akshay Kumar.

She went by the name Fearless Nadia (re­al name Mary Ann Evans) and was the orig­i­nal ac­tion wom­an of Bollywood. She per­formed in a cir­cus be­fore join­ing films and was one of the first ar­tists in India to per­form their own stunts. Her mov­ie Hunterwali re­mains one of the best films pro­duced by Bollywood dur­ing that era.

Evolution of wom­en in Bollywood

From the 1940s to the ear­ly 1970s, wom­en were trea­ted in Bollywood with ex­treme care.

They didn’t kiss open­ly (ex­cept for few like Devika Rani who kissed her hus­band Himanshu Rai in her de­but flick), didn’t wear bi­ki­nis (that was be­fore Sharmila Tagore did so in An Evening in Paris in 1967 or Dimple Kapadia in Bobby in 1973) or do any­thing sin­is­ter since it was the job of the vamp to do that.

As good ba­hus, the her­oines were well-versed in bha­jans, looked beau­ti­ful 24x7 and re­solved the prob­lems of the house (or the en­tire vil­lage) de­pend­ing on the sce­nar­io.

Premarital sex was a no-no (un­til Sharmila Tagore had a con­sen­su­al li­ai­son in Aradhana) and all those wom­en who did bad things were ei­ther vamps, pros­ti­tutes or ta­waif i.e. cour­te­sans.

Mothers were used as sup­port­ing char­ac­ters and they al­most in­var­i­a­bly loved sew­ing clothes so that her son could study and ac­quire a re­spect­a­ble job, where­as the bha­bi kept the house­hold in check and was termed as maa sa­maan in pla­ces where the moth­er was dead.

Mere Paas Maa Hai!

The moth­er did have im­por­tant roles in Bollywood — be it in Mother India (1959) or K. Asif’s mag­num opus Mughal-i-Azam where Shahenshah Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) roared ‘Aap maa hain, sirf maa!’

However, dur­ing the ’70s, it was Nirupa Roy’s moth­er roles that hel­ped maa be­come the cen­tre of the fil­mi uni­verse — be it Deewar, Trishul, Suhaag, Amar Akbar Anthony to name a few, what­ev­er maa said, hap­pened. In Karz, Durga Khote played the maa who asked the ‘high­er maa’ to send back her dead son (Raj Kiran), and he was re­in­car­na­ted as Rishi Kapoor — no­body says no to a griev­ing moth­er!

Who can for­get Shashi Kapoor’s icon­ic re­ply in Deewar when asked by broth­er Amitabh Bachchan “Tumhare paas kya hai?” to which he re­plies “Mere paas maa hai!”

Then there was the ‘oth­er’ wom­an!

Shashi Kala, Helen, Bindu — what comes to mind when you hear their names? Plotting the down­fall of the pro­tag­o­nist, the good ba­hu or some evil deed that will change the course of the film, of course!

Shabana Azmi in Arth
Shabana Azmi in Arth
They even had songs filmed on them, al­though they usu­al­ly met their fate by the end of the mov­ie. They were dressed in sexy out­fits as per their era (sleeve­less sa­ris in the ’60s, west­ern out­fits in the ’70s and any of the two since the ’80s and be­yond).

After Kajol’s suc­cess­ful at­tempt at do­ing the neg­a­tive role in Gupt, lead­ing la­dies in­clud­ing Priyanka Chopra in Aiteraaz, Kareena Kapoor in Fida and Urmila Matondkar in the re­make of Karz, ex­cel­led in roles of a vamp – some even went on­to bag the Filmfare Award for their per­form­an­ces. Had there been a Best Villain Award in the ’50s, the leg­en­dary Waheeda Rehman would sure­ly have bag­ged one for her neg­a­tive role in Raj Khosla’s CID, her de­but film.

Older the in­dus­try, bold­er the roles

Big, bold and beau­ti­ful

People say that Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) changed it all for Bollywood, but it was in fact its ear­li­er ver­sion —Aurat (1940) by the same di­rec­tor that did the trick.

The her­oine in both ver­sions Radha — Sardar Akhtar in Aurat, Nargis in Mother India — do what is best for the fam­i­ly and come out un­scath­ed as the quin­tes­sen­tial moth­er. Similarly, films such as Khilona, Insaaf ka Tarazu, Arth and Masoom saw ac­tress­es don the role of the hero and give the per­form­an­ces of a life­time.

In Khilona (1970), it was Mumtaz who played a cour­te­san who was tak­en ad­vant­age of (in a fit of mad­ness) by the very man she was nurs­ing; Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980) was about rape vic­tims and their plight, Arth (1982) and Masoom (1983) had Shabana Azmi play­ing a wife who feels cheat­ed in dif­fer­ent as­pects.

Till the 1990s, wom­en used to play tor­men­ted souls in films and Juhi Chawla’s Kiran in Darr (1993) was one such ex­am­ple. While some like Hema Malini (Seeta aur Geeta) showed the world that wom­en can fight, some like Sridevi set the stage on fire with their sen­su­ous dan­ces (Kaatay na­hin kat tay from Mr. India).

There were a few who came and went af­ter play­ing their re­spec­tive in­nings. Be it Tina Munim (now Mrs. Anil Ambani), Jaya Pradha (now a pol­i­ti­cian and oc­ca­sion­al ac­tress), Manisha Koirala (now gone from the scene) or Shilpa Shetty (now co-own­er of an IPL team), they played their cards right when they had the chance, but didn’t go for our of the box roles.

Except for maybe Ashwariya Rai (now Mrs. Abhishek Bachchan) who played a strong wom­an who went back to her lov­er af­ter get­ting mar­ried in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), or a wom­an who de­ceived his for­mer fiancé in Raincoat (2004).

Sridevi in 
Mr. India
Sridevi in Mr. India
It took a brave at­tempt like Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) which hel­ped Bollywood step up and de­liv­er. In the mov­ie, Shabana Azmi (again) and Nandita Das played mar­ried wom­en who be­come in­ti­mate­ly in­volved with each oth­er af­ter be­ing ne­glec­ted by their re­spec­tive spou­ses. The film was criti­cised for its theme but is con­sid­ered icon­ic when it comes to wom­en-ori­en­ted films.

On a light­er note, ac­tor Biswajeet is still re­mem­bered for the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the Kajra Mohabbat Wala song in Kismat (1968) where he dressed as a fe­male, on­ly to be dub­bed as ‘bet­ter-look­ing than his male ver­sion’ by the press!

Highway & Queen push the men away


The ’90s and be­yond saw Madhuri Dixit (Ilzaam, Mrityudand, Gaja Gamini and Lajja), Juhi Chawla (Darrar) and Karishma Kapoor (Fiza) play cen­tral roles in quite a num­ber of films; but they were more pop­u­lar for their non-hero­ic roles. All that changed in 2014 — ex­act­ly 101 years af­ter Bollywood came in­to be­ing. Two di­rec­tors — Imtiaz Ali (Highway) and Vikas Bahl (Queen) as­toun­ded all by do­ing the un­im­a­gin­a­ble. Imtiaz Ali’s film fea­tured one-film old Ali Bhatt who took the view­ers by sur­prise since she gave the per­form­ance of a life­time. Not on­ly was she con­vinc­ing as the dam­sel-in-dis­tress in the first half, she rocked as the girl who trans­formed the bad guy in­to a good one, and al­so faced the man who vio­la­ted her when she was young.

A fort­night lat­er, Queen pro­vi­ded Kangana Ranaut a chance to break away from reg­u­lar roles, and she ex­cel­led as the girl from a con­ser­va­tive fam­i­ly who goes on her Honeymoon alone, and re­turns as a free wom­an. Both the ac­tress­es set the bar high with their in­cred­i­ble per­form­an­ces and it will be tough for oth­ers to fol­low now. There are many ac­tress­es with the ca­pa­bil­i­ty to do out-of-the-box roles but they re­al­ize their po­ten­tial on­ly when young­er ac­tress­es have tak­en their place.

Waheeda Rehman plays the  vamp in CID
Waheeda Rehman plays the vamp in CID
The wom­en in Bollywood are evolv­ing at the mo­ment, and at 100, they have giv­en hun­dreds of per­form­an­ces that have made Bollywood what it is to­day. Yes they ha­ven’t made an ‘ex­clu­sive’ en­try in the 100-crore club but if di­rec­tors like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Imtiaz Ali and oth­ers con­tin­ue to make wom­en-cen­tric films, who knows the 100-crore club might be in their reach.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014


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