Women have been portrayed in a variety of ways in Hindi cinema over the years. While some actors rejoiced in author-backed sensitive roles, others were confined to a fleeting appearance in a male-dominated film. A look at how women are asserting themselves again in Bollywood: both as actors and filmmakers.

When Waheeda Rehman relinquished her dupatta to the winds and cast aside her inhibitions and marital obligations as well, little did she know that her signature tune would become an anthem for generations of women. Decades after the film was made, kaanton se kheech ke ye aanchal......aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai from “Guide” continue to epitomise the blithe, free spirit of women.

One of the first films to have an adulterous heroine, “Guide” remains a path-breaking film in terms of maturity and a deep understanding of a woman's emotional needs. As a young dancer who leaves her abusive and elderly husband for the sympathetic young guide Raju, the character of Rosy was well ahead of the social period it was made in (1965). Women-centric movies continued to be made in later years (bold, timid and in-between) but were destined to follow a rather erratic graph.

That which goes round comes right back and never has it been so true as of Hindi cinema. The repeated box office disasters of big-budget movies in the recent past and the continuous emergence of unlikely winners herald a paradigm shift happening in contemporary cinema. Decades of male dominated stories also seem to be making way for women to play pivotal roles once again.

Sensitive portrayals

There was a time when entire stories were woven around the female protagonist. The male lead, either single or multiple, was perfectly content to be a foil for the lady at the epicentre. Filmmakers like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Shakti Samant and Yash Chopa will be remembered for the sensitivity with which they handled their screen women.

Their muses (Waheeda Rehman, Nutan, Sharmila Tagore, Madhubala, Sadhna, Nargis and others) continue to be the stuff legends are made of. Satyajit Ray's “Charulata”, a film that explored the innermost labyrinths of the female psyche, remains the eternal yardstick for judging woman-sensitive cinema.

With author-backed roles for the heroines, the filmmakers of that era were masters at portraying women with all their complexities using obtuse techniques involving light, shadows, music and muted dialogue.

“The 1960s and the 1970s were a period of the best in women-centric movies. Actors lived and breathed their roles, so much so that their screen images often spilled into their personal lives. Meena Kumari will always be synonymous with the neglected zamindar's wife of ‘Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam' (who ultimately descends into alcoholism), ditto Waheeda Rehman with the tempestuous dancer Rosy of ‘Guide', Nutan with ‘Sujata', Beena Rai with ‘Anarkali'and Nargis with ‘Mother India'. There was no dichotomy between the actor and the role she played,” says Rekha Banerjee, wife of the late film director and screenplay-writer, Shanu Banerjee.

She recalls Meena Kumari sobbing inconsolably long after the director had called ‘cut', so deeply did she immerse herself in the role; while years later, on the sets of “Khubsoorat” (a movie for which her husband had written the screenplay), she remembers her namesake, actor Rekha, laughing and frolicking much like her movie role of a tomboy.

The next generation of heroines left an equally deep impact as the impressionable viewer came to associate Jaya Bhaduri with Guddi, Hema Malini with the angelic Seeta as well as her naughty twin Geeta and Sridevi with Chandni. “There was an aura of mystery and allure surrounding them and their personal lives were almost as fascinating as their screen lives. Now heroines double up as cricket team owners, fitness gurus, restaurateurs, reality show participants/judges and columnists. Their much-hyped public images often get in the way of their screen roles detracting from the credibility of their performance,” says Banerjee.

Era of revenge

The departure of Rajesh Khanna from the silver screen marked the end of romance, while the arrival of the angry young man Amitabh Bachan heralded a cinematic era of rage and revenge. The majority of films made around this time revolved around violence and bloodshed with revenge as the leitmotif. The heroine found herself relegated to a scattered peripheral presence either as the love interest of the hero or a decorative piece in a movie filled with muscles and testosterone. Consequently, a breed of actors emerged who looked like sculpted goddesses and who were quick to perfect the art of running around trees. The thinking actor was a threatened species and the likes of Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval will always be remembered for holding their own during this masculine and masochistic Bollywood chapter.

“The turn of the millenium was a dark phase for Bollywood films: rehashed themes, tinny music, lyrics sans poetry and women often projected in a derogatory manner,” says Naheed Merchant, a keen observer of Bollywood changes. However, this period was responsible for heralding some startling changes in social and gender stereotypes. Yesteryear heroines had been virginal, docile, bathed in virtue, the professions they hailed from being slightly vague; they were either nurses, dutiful daughters, students or beautiful women just content to be. The heroine and the vamp were two distinct identities.

“The sensational,promiscuous cheroot-smoking Zeenat Aman swaying to dum maaro dumin “Hare Ram Hare Krishna” was a defining moment in Hindi cinema, one that was destined to change the image of the leading lady forever. Parveen Babi followed suit by doing a smouldering cabaret in ‘Shaan' and the watertight compartments reserved for the leading lady and the vamp respectively dissolved forever,” says Mumbai based photographer and movie aficionado Deepankar B.

Shades of grey

The heroine was suddenly not a demi-goddess any more but a woman of flesh and blood, often with interesting shades of grey to her personality. Previously attired in traditional attire, the heroine was now ready to experiment with both Western clothes and a liberal international state of mind. “Heroines are no longer hesitant about flaunting their sexuality or making the first move in a relationship,” observes Deepankar. He cites Mahi Gill's character in “Dev D” and Deepika Padukone as Sonali Mukherjee in “Karthik calling Karthik”, to illustrate his point.

The recent spate of movies shows women at the top once again, rubbing shoulders with the leading man in terms of popularity and demand. Vidya Balan as the scheming seductress in “Ishqiya”, who has her male leads running loops around her (and each other), neatly sums up the GenNext heroine. Interestingly, while the actors boasting of hot bods, immaculate looks and carefully constructed public images seem to be falling back in the race for survival, the power house performers with unconventional looks and indifferent fashion sense are proving to be the marathon runners. Kajol, Konkona Sen Sharma, Vidya Balan, Tabu and Nandita Das, are the contemporary faces of intelligent cinema, agree most movie buffs. Of these, Nandita Das, besides acting, doubles up as director and screenplay writer. "From acting in filmsto directing them seemed a natural progression for me. I had the strong desire to tell my own story in my own way,” says Nandita, who is on cloud nine after her debut film “Firaaq” bagged the Filmfare Critics'' choice for the best film. She admits that being a woman director comes with its own share of gender-related hassles, “but which profession doesn't?” is her argument.

The new age heroine not only has a mind of her own but also seems to have a well chalked out career. The lady no longer floats around in a nebulous pink bubble buffeted around by the winds of fate but chooses to have solid moorings besides carving her own identity and space. She could be a doctor, lawyer, journalist, interior decorator, editor, fashion designer, hair stylist or even a cab driver (Deepika Padukone in “Bachna Ae Haseeno”)!

Astonishing transformation

Probably the character who has undergone the most astonishing transformation in recent years is the screen mother. From a sniffling, weary woman weighed down by the cares of the world and perennially slaving over a sewing machine (immortalised by Nirupa Roy), the mother is now smart, savvy, even sassy at times. Reading hi-brow literature late into the night in her pyjamas, crusading for social causes in the day and at all times finely tuned in to the love life of her adolescent son, Ratna Pathak in “Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na” is the undisputed new-age ‘cool mom'. “I'm frequently told that I'm the face of the new screen mother and it feels very good!” says Ratna. She is happy that women-friendly movies are being made once more. “Cinema has always reflected changes in society. However, one swallow does not a summer make. Movies generally have manufactured images seen from a male viewpoint. But a definite shift is happening to give a fresh perspective to women,” she says. Ratna is also very happy that the script writer, that overworked, underpaid and perennially invisible figure, is finally getting his dues and his place in the limelight.

An impromptu survey of regular cine-goers reveals that a definite story line, strong characters, and a dose of wacky comedy are what appeals to viewers of all ages. As do films with clean wholesome comedy. “This is the age of mall culture. It is customary for the entire gang of extended family to go out for a meal-and-movie outing over the week-ends. When you're chomping on popcorn, sitting sandwiched between your grandparents, the last thing you want is squirm-inducing sleaze showing on the screen! The recent crop of soufflé-light films like ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na', ‘Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahani', ‘Rab ne Bana di Jodi' and ‘3 Idiots' are best suited for such occasions,” says 17 year old collegian, Aditi Sammuddar.

Cinema that combines entertainment with a social message is in prime demand and viewers list “Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!”, “Khosla ka Ghosla”, “Lagaan”, “Black”, “Omkara”, “Dev D”, “Chak De”, “Taare Zameen Par”, “Bheja Fry”, “3 Idiots” and the Munnabhai movies as their most memorable films. “Bollywood is finally emerging out of a period of intellectual bankruptcy. Good-looking faces and exotic locales do not a great movie make. Although there has always been a handful of committed film-makers consistently making good movies, the majority are a lazy lot trying to dumb down the audience's tastes and pass off trash for cinema. But there is only so much of intellectual abuse that the audience can take,” says octogenarian Prathmesh Gaikwad, who never misses the first-day first-show of a movie.

The present day viewer is intelligent, discerning and familiar with the standards of international cinema, he adds. To please him is a tough call for the Indian film-maker and that probably explains the rapid rise in movies of substance. “The viewer calls the shots today and ironically, unlike the past, where actors were put on a pedestal and worshipped, it is the movie star who is tweeting, communicating on social networking sites, writing columns and wooing viewers in an attempt of keep himself/ herself alive in public memory,” expands Prathmesh. “Content is king,” famously announced Farhan Akhtar, on the eve of “Karthik calling Karthik” going on the floors, an echo of Prathmesh's sentiment. Film critic Batul Mukhtiar, however, begs to differ. “Neither content nor viewer is king. Only ticket rates and publicity matter,” she says wryly. Ratna Pathak, likewise, feels it's too early to pop the champagne.

Women-centric films that connect with both the male and the female viewers are gaining in number. “Dor”, “Ishqiya”, “Parineeta”, “Fashion”, “Page 3”, “Wake Up Sid” (with its older woman-younger man theme) continue to be favourites “Even though Shah Rukh Khan played the title role, the heroine fighting to avenge her dead son in a foreign land is what comes to mind repeatedly. I think ‘My Name is Khan' belonged to the mother (Kajol),” says Deepankar.

Nandini Rao, professor of sociology, names Madhur Bhandarkar as another director who does justice to women. “He portrays them as strong individuals straining to break out of the shackles of society and carve their own space in a man's world,” says Nandini.

Behind the camera

No one quite understands a woman like another woman and women directors are going places. Unlike the popular belief that women directors are only capable of handling emotional and relationship-based themes, most of the present lot can be seen exploring virgin territory. While Mira Nair's “Monsoon Wedding” tackled paedophilia lurking within the family, Aparna Sen spun “36 Chowringhee Lane” around the loneliness of old age among the Anglo-Indian community. The petite Tanuja Chandra chose to explore the criminal mind (with chilling success) in “Dushman” while Reema Kagti had the crowds swinging to the off-beat “Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.”.

“Dor”, one of the most sensitive films made in recent times was made by a man, Nagesh Kukunoor. Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Kalpana Lajmi and Meghna Gulzar are other filmmakers who have left a mark on the silver screen.

A slew of movies revolving around women are lined up for release: “Rang Rasiya” centres on Raja Ravi Varma's sensual muse Sugandha (Nandana Sen). A Kashmiri separatist leader (Bipasha Basu in a burqa) is in a pivotal role in “Lamhaa” while a young Japanese girl (actor Chigusa Takaku) and a Bengali widow (Raima Sen) constitute the main characters of “The Japanese Wife” (based on Kunal Basu's short story of the same name). Literature and cinema continue their symbiotic relationship with many a novel being translated into film, the most famous being Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.

With the star factory shutting shop, star power is on the wane. It is the day of the thinker and the performer. But for all those who fear that the old order changing may mean cinema losing its lustre and glamour- appeal, there is good news. The ingredients remain the same, it is the treatment that is changing rapidly. With author-backed roles lined up for actors of substance, a breed of visionary film-makers is waiting to greet a new cinematic dawn.

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