Panel discusses if films reflect women the way they are. Well, the opinions are plenty and varied…

Where are the real women in our films? The women as we know them. Panelists at a discussion on “Does Indian cinema reflect the reality of Indian women?” at Kalakshetra's Svanubhava 2011 shared that concern recently. Actor Khushbu started off by tracing the journey of women characters in our cinema and the clear demarcation of roles — the devi, the seductress and the vamp, the dancing woman. “Over the years, all these roles were rolled into one,” she said.

Actor and writer Rohini observed that that only women characters who have been real have been accepted by the audience in recent films. “Women are much more bold these days,” she said.

Moderator Sadanand Menon recalled Shantaram's “Duniya Na Maane”, where a young woman married to an old man fights to free herself from an unbecoming marriage. But somewhere down the line, our cinema had regressed.

Mangai, theatre personality, activist and academician, said that her distance from cinema gave her a slightly different perspective on the discourse. “The item number is the only assertion of woman's sexuality in our films today,” she said, in the context of moral policing enforced by a mob in our society.

She made her point by illustrating what Silk Smitha did through her portrayals as the original item girl. “The gumption with which she looked at the camera than how the camera looked at her. It is the media that creates confusion about sexuality. Even the new kind of films that are supposed to bring in changes conform to stereotypes such as the patient, sacrificing heroine.”

Sadanand wondered why women had to carry the cross of virtuosity over the decades and were expected to sacrifice to save the home, the society and the entire nation? He found “Mother India” problematic in that context.

Khushbu argued that “Mother India” was the beginning of a revolution in Indian cinema because it showed a woman who kills her own son to protect another woman. She brought up Dimple Kapadia's portrayal in “Aurat” and insisted that our cinema has always shown mothers as strong. Rohini agreed that the mother figure still retained the same quality in our cinema. “It is a burden they have to carry.”

Sadanand explained how over the years the woman who stepped out of boundaries defined by society had her fate built into the script. “It's the Sita paradigm. Without virtuosity, the moral order collapses and ultimately leads to a tragic end for the woman in the film,” he said.

Art imitating life

Rohini lamented that our cinema was fighting shy of showing divorced women. Khushbu said it was also a case of art imitating life and holding the mirror to a chauvinistic society. She also dwelled on the hard work women put behind the scenes to deliver the characters she had signed on to play.

“Every actor, the woman, knows what she is getting into. You have a choice as an actor to take on the role or not,” said Rohini.

T.M. Krishna, vocalist, asked Mangai if she was intellectualising the item number. “It is playing to the sexual fantasies of the man. Isn't it disturbing that it is made sure that this fantasy is titillating,” he wondered during the question and answer session. Mangai clarified that she just found it less damaging than other portrayals of women in the context of moral policing where universities prescribed dress codes. “Also, the dance sequence narrative style makes it more tolerable since it has nothing to do with story. It is disjointed and fragmented, and the girl is not seducing the hero, she is seducing the audiences. She is conquering.”

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