Art is the custodian of culture and the mirror of society. In that context, Indian cinema has always been the purveyor of changing ethos of Indian society. From silent films to contemporary movies, like all arts, cinema too portrays the shifting patterns of morals and beliefs.
Albeit, much like our society, Indian cinema too believes in categorising female types – good women and bad women. If a good woman is the goddess of the house, a bad woman is demonic and fallen. In ‘Devdas’ (2002), Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas made a very emphatic statement - “A woman is a mother, a sister, a wife or a friend, and when she is nothing, she is a tawai’f (courtesan).”
That’s so true of Indian society and Indian cinema at large. Like any good matrimonial advertisement, Bollywood has certain notions of a respectable woman. She should be pure, soft-spoken and loyal to her husband. Now this is the standard archetype of every Indian daughter or prospective daughter-in-law. In case of independent women, who have a mind of their own and call spade a spade, they are the others - pariah. In the light of the above dialogue from ‘Devdas’, one discerns that male becomes the ultimate reference point when it comes to deciding the position of a woman in any given society.
In patriarchal system, a woman can either be mother, wife, daughter or beloved. If she fails to qualify any of these aforesaid grounds, she becomes the other – fallen woman. In the Indian films, the concept of pariah is beautifully etched through the portrayal of courtesans. Much like lunatics, and holy men, Bollywood courtesans exist on the boundaries of civilised life, inhabiting a cosseted existence.
Unlike the goddess of home, who lives under the watchful eyes of patriarchy, Bollywood courtesans are shown as living off in a matrilineal society. Yet, despite all their independence, they are constant subject to male lust, jeer and denigration.
Going back in time, one finds umpteen films where one finds the binaries of good and bad women. A couple of films based on the life of courtesans are enough to shed light on caricatured independent women in traditional cinema.
However, ‘Devdas’ is the classic example, where Chandramukhi and Parvati are splitting images of the perfect woman and Devdas becomes the tragic hero, who vacillates between the two. If Parvati is demure, soft-spoken and unattainable, Chandramukhi is her stark contrast – independent and vocal, yet she is a commodity who bears the brunt of constant denigration.
Going by that logic, Indian society and Indian cinema see an ideal woman somewhere between Chandramukhi and Parvati. Tragically, there is nothing in-between Chandramukhi and Parvati. Such an ideal woman is ethereal; she is done to death by our society and our films. Our society and films are yet to find a proper definition of ideal men…and here I am not referring to metrosexual males with waxen chests, manicured hands and feet and pumped-up bodies.