Women in Hindi cinema over the years: Dignified dames or damsels in distress?

Mekhla Singh

“Aaj mere paas bungla hai, gaadi hai, bank balance hai...tumhare paas kya hai?”... “Mere paas maa hai!”

This iconic dialogue from the cult movie ‘Deewar’ in itself is a prime example of the power of woman and how Indian culture correlates the revered concept of motherhood with womanhood in general. On the one hand was Amitabh Bachchan who had all the riches in the world, but Shashi Kapoor’s mere mention of the word “Maa” proved to be way more precious than all the worldly pleasures.

During the early days of Indian cinema – when Indian audience was merely warming up to the idea of the silver screen and people were taking up acting as a full-time profession – women were not allowed to act, thereby compelling men to take up the role of women as well. The first full-length Hindi feature film, ‘Raja Harishchandra’ released in 1913, had an all-male cast and the role of Harishchandra’s wife Taramati was given to a delicate-looking man – Sulanke.

However, in a span of twenty years, women almost took over the baton from men and started making their presence felt in the cinema circuit. At a time when one couldn’t have ever thought of depiction of sensuality on screen, Devika Rani – the best example to corroborate this fact - dared to lock lips with her real life husband Himanshu Rai in ‘Karma’ (1933).

Nonetheless, Devika’s bold move, which was much ahead of its times, did not tempt filmmakers to use sensuality as an essential component in filmmaking. Women were projected as figures who commanded respect and presented with modesty, thereby keeping in tune with the times and culture.

‘Mother India’ starring Nargis is a classic example of the “rising” of women on the silver screen. Nargis as Radha comes across as a woman of substance, who fights all odds to raise her children despite constant pressures put forth by an evil landlord who tries to seek sexual favours from her. Yet, Radha shows stiff resistance and succeeds in bringing him to book.

However, with the emergence of heartthrobs like Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra in the 1960s and 70s, the focus drifted away from the women, thereby causing a major imbalance. The heroes then were the undisputed victors no matter what – they bore the brunt of the tough times their families faced, shouldering responsibilities of getting their sisters married, earning a livelihood to make ends meet, looking after an ailing mother, defeating the antagonist and so on and so forth. Blockbuster movie ‘Sholay’ had an ensemble cast that included Hema Malini and Jaya Bahaduri. But men ruled the roost – Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan stole the show.

Nonetheless, parallel cinema in the late 1970s-80s gave women the much needed limelight. Films like ‘Arth’, ‘Bhumika’, ‘Mirch Masala’, among others, came across as flicks with strong feminine characters - women who had the power to stand for their own right, fulfil their own needs and desires – be it social, sexual or monetary – and not wait for their knight in shining armour to sweep them off their feet and whisk them away from all their troubles.

Alas, the phase of the feminine power was cut short yet again at about the same time, thereby reducing them to being mere eye candies. They were the scapegoats – someone who could trigger enmity between the protagonist and the villain. In most films produced then, women symbolised the “weaker sex” who were solely dependent on men for almost everything.

Coming to the present time - there seems to be a ray of hope as some avant-garde filmmakers have come up with movies like ‘7 Khoon Maaf’, ‘English Vinglish, ‘Kahaani’, ‘The Dirty Picture’, ‘Fashion’, ‘Heroine’ and ‘No One Killed Jessica’ to prove that women too are more than capable of shouldering their film’s fate at the Box Office. A female actor can now give any of her male counterparts a run for his money.

Though there has been a remarkable change in the mindset of filmmakers, many gender-based issues are yet to be addressed by the fraternity. Item numbers that sexually objectify women do rattle a sane mind – for all one gets to see are vulgar pelvic thrusts, skimpily clad women, derogatory lyrics and awkward camera angles.

Sexual objectification of women seems to be the new trend that cinema is now following. A woman is made to look like a mere piece of flesh or an item for the voyeur to ogle at just to double the sex quotient of the film.

It’s high time women are given due respect rather than being shown in bad taste because this will only contribute towards degrading the standard of Indian cinema – which is now a 100-year-old institution!