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Films, feminism and femme fatales

Published : Mar 12, 2016, 8:13 pm IST
Updated : Mar 12, 2016, 8:13 pm IST

When I was four, my parents took me to theatre in town where for the first time in my life, to my delight and amazement, I saw Fearless Nadia on the screen. She was a superstar of Hindi cinema in the 1930s and early 1940s. Nadia was a stunt actor who wore a mask and would not hesitate to crack a whip to subdue the bad guys.

When I was four, my parents took me to theatre in town where for the first time in my life, to my delight and amazement, I saw Fearless Nadia on the screen. She was a superstar of Hindi cinema in the 1930s and early 1940s. Nadia was a stunt actor who wore a mask and would not hesitate to crack a whip to subdue the bad guys. She would swing from chandeliers to escape from her enemies and she would jump from bogey to bogey on running trains in pursuit of shifty-eyed villains. She was always known as Fearless Nadia, never just Nadia, and was the only actor in the history of Indian cinema whose name appeared alone above the title of the film, every time, a feat no actor, before or after her, has been able to accomplish, not even Amitabh Bachchan. Deepa Gahlot is one of our most incisive and respected film critics besides being unabashedly a feminist. I was looking forward to her take on 25 daring women as portrayed in our films. Sadly, I found the book, Sheroes, disappointing. The major flaw is that she limits herself only to films made from 1960 to 2010, not Bollywood’s best years by any means. Those were the years when the muses were in retreat. This self-imposed limit diminishes the book’s value. There is still a better book in Gahlot, on feminism in our films from the silent era to present day. I hope she writes it. On the positive side, I am glad Saraswati, played by Deepti Naval in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, has found a place in this pantheon though, in my view, Sonbai (Smita Patil) who raises the sickle and leads the factory women in blinding the lecherous Subedar with chilli powder deserves equal attention. We also have here Pooja (Shabana Azmi) in Arth. When her unfaithful husband returns to her begging for a second chance, she asks, “If I had done to you what you did to me, would you have taken me back ” The husband replies honestly, no, and she walks out on him. The film was made more than 30 years ago and Mahesh Bhatt hasn’t made a better film since. On the flip side, I see no merit in including Suchitra Sen’s Aarti in Aandhi as a feminist. Aarti abandons a daughter and a loving relationship with her husband to pursue a career in politics. Does that make her feminist, unless one is opposed to the concept of marriage altogether When I saw the film years ago I was rooting for her gentle, caring husband played by that extraordinary actor, Sanjeev Kumar. At the end of the film director/writer Gulzar makes Aarti touch her husband’s feet. How feminist is that! Let’s cut to the chase. Here are the other 17 female characters that meet Gahlot’s approval as feminists: Geeta (Vyjanyanthimala) in Dr. Vidya; Rosie (Waheeda Rehman) in Guide; Saudamini (Hema Malini) in Lal Patthar; Mahjubi (Nutan) in Saudagar; Manju (Rekha) in Khubsoorat; Nilofer (Salma Agha) in Nikaah; Savitri (Smita Patil) in Subah; Malati (Rati Agnihotri) in Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye; Laxmi (Sujata Mehta) in Pratighaat; Shanichari (Dimple Kapadia) in Rudaali; Damini (Meenakshi Seshadri) in Damini; Ketki (Madhuri Dixit) in Mrityudand; Meghna (Manisha Koirala) in Dil Se; Rambhi (Shabana Azmi) in Godmother; Anuradha (Raveena Tandon) in Satta; Sarika (Urmila Matondkar) in Ek Hasina Thi; Tamanna (Shilpa Shetty) in Phir Milenge; Zeenat (Gul Panag) in Dor; Veera Kaur (Rani Mukerji) in Dil Bole Hadippa; Asha (Konkana Sen Sharma) in Wake Up Sid; Krishna (Vidya Balan) in Ishqiya and Shruti (Anushka Sharma) in Band Baaja Baaraat. Hands up, those of you who have seen all or most of these films. Neither have I. It’s a mixed bag, to say the least. There are films here that I have seen to my eternal regret, terrible films that Gahlot should have left lying undisturbed and unmourned in the early grave. There were better feminist films even in the period she has selected. Besides Fearless Nadia I would have liked to see here Radha, played by Nargis, in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. The film was made in 1957 and it still grabs your attention. Radha takes the plough on her shoulders to feed her children when her husband walks out on her. She shoots down her favourite son to save the honour of the woman he kidnaps. Mother India advanced the careers of three major stars, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kumar but only Nargis’ name appeared in the promotions. Perhaps due to Gahlot’s age she is unable to comment on films before 1960. But why did she decide to exclude films made in the last five years Some of them take a very serious look at women’s empowerment, Kahaani, Dum Laga Ke Haisha and, of course, Queen are among them. There is a fine introduction to the book by Farah Khan who notes that while the portrayal of women in our films hasn’t been great, they are nevertheless treated better in our films than in society. It is our saas-bahu television shows that are more regressive and more dangerous. For her part, Gahlot sees some progress in the depiction of women in films. Stars now happily discard the sari for a bikini; they prefer to do “item numbers” rather than sing bhajans in temples. But there is a major problem off-screen — actors like Kangana Ranaut and Deepika Padukone get paid one-tenth of what their male counterparts earn. Inexplicably the book’s cover has a picture of Kamal Haasan in drag (Chachi 420). As for the title of the book, Sheroes, I wonder whose crazy idea was that! It’s silly and inelegant.

Bhaichand Patel is a columnist, an avid traveller and passionate about cinema and food. He is the author of Chasing the Good Life, Happy Hours: The Penguin Book of Cocktails and Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema.