Jaipur: Veteran Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi and lyricist Prasoon Joshi sat down during the late afternoon session on Day 2 of the Jaipur Literature Festival. A large number of ardent Hindi cinema fans and curiosity-struck visitors assembled under one roof to listen to a talk on ‘Sex and Sensibility: Women in Indian Cinema’ moderated by festival producer Sanjoy Roy.
The talk began with an introductory note by Sanjoy who asked Shabana what made her choose the distinctive, character-driven roles in every film she did through her acting career which paid respect to the actress in her.
“I grew up in a family that believed that art should be used an instrument for social change so all my decisions were based on those principles. But I also made mistakes because some of those choices were uninformed choices,” replied Shabana. When quizzed to reveal what those uninformed choices were, Shabana said, “Years ago I did a film called ‘Thodi si Bewafai’ with Rajesh Khanna which did a silver jubilee and I was very happy. But when I went into a seminar, I was questioned for having the guts to walk out of my marriage (in the film). It was after that incident that I realised about my uninformed choice.”
She further added that in the wake of the recent gang rape that shook the nation, every section of society should try to look inwards, reflect, analyse, soul search and see what can be done to change the patriarchal mindset. She appealed to Hindi cinema to be a precursor to the change that we need because what happens in films is mirrored in society too.
The conversation moved on to the topic of what could be regarded as ‘dirty’ item songs that we get to see in Bollywood films today especially item numbers like ‘Fevicol se’ from ‘Dabangg 2’ for its objectionable terms like “tandoori murgi” etc. Prasoon Joshi said that our society has failed to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not.
“We see children dancing to such songs at weddings and their parents take pride in that. If such songs are becoming a rage then the society is to be blamed at large including those perverts or psychopaths who indulge in the crime against women,” answered Prasoon.
Mythology plays a very dominant part in the life of people. So Ram, as an ideal husband, and Sita, as a submissive wife, have moulded our notion of a hero and heroine in our cinema. And mainstream cinema feeds into that notion rather than reflecting reality.
The social activist-cum-actress also agreed that with times the image of a heroine in cinema also changed.
“There is a difference between portrayal of a woman in a sensual way and commodification of her body. And I believe that in the cinema today the norm is to commodify a woman’s body by showing fragmented images of her body parts. She is robbed off her autonomy and made to surrender to the male gaze,”
“Intent is very important since it affects the male as well as female psyche”, said Prasoon and Shabana supported his statement by adding that it depends on the film maker to show a fully clothed person who appears vulgar and a nude person who looks appealing.
“Voyeuristic camera angles and vulgar lyrics don’t celebrate a woman’s body, they simply commodify her. I want to plead to our heroines to make an informed choice. I have seen many actresses say that why should we not do such acts when we have a beautiful body. Just because a man is throwing off his shirt to show his six pack abs does not mean that the heroine too has to follow the same path,” said Shabana.
The actress also suggested some practical, remedial measures to change the system. “There has to be definitely self-regulation but where does this self-regulation lead to? My point is that anyone who says that they are making informed choices is not really making informed choices. I think that instead of mindlessly dancing to the item numbers believing that the beat is good, our society should listen to songs’ lyrics first and then decide whether the song is really worthy of being danced to.
The heroines, on their part, can start asking the film makers to give those props or a wardrobe that would show them as real, working women. This would gradually start changing the image of women by showing them as working, independent women. When a woman is shown as a working woman, then society won’t take its daughters as a liability. It is a long, long haul but let us start the process now,” she appealed to the audience.
Prasoon had his own ideas to share. “We are not only mirroring the society but they are also shaping the society. So it is two-way traffic. If you take from society then society also takes from you. People repeat the dialogues of the films and copy the clothes that they see the actors wearing on screen.”
Shabana further added that in a transient society we are confused about who this new man and woman is. “Aaj ke hero ki morality mein hi gadbad hai. He eve teases the heroine and then she falls in love with him which is imitated by the audiences. We fail to grasp that we are all culpable for these happenings. So we need to check that attitude to bring about a change,” she said.