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