Women have come into their own. Even in cinema, which is often said to be the true reflection of societal changes. In this memoryscape through Bollywood, I trace the changing portrayal of women over the years.
I have grown up on Bo
llywood. I grew up intoxicated by the histrionics of Dilip Kumar, the manliness of Garam Dharam, the inimitable style of Shammi Kapoor, and the romanticism of Rajendra Kumar. Hovering behind these mighty shadows, was the dainty presence of Mala Sinha, Nanda, Babita and the likes of Sadhana. Honestly, they did not warrant the title Heroine. Why, even Nazir Hussain, wrapped in his trademark silk house-coat, got more mind space than the so-called leading lady.
If anything, the leading ladies were great influencers. For hair-stylists and tailors – the Sadhana fringe cut, the figure-hugging kurtas of…well, all the leading ladies.
In fact, the only woman who enjoyed a powerful presence almost at par with the hero was the vamp. Bindu, Shashikala, Nadira and others of their ilk carved a niche for themselves. The plot moved forward only because of their cunning, stereotypical womanly motives. The lesser known vamps were reduced to molls that hung on the arm of the big bad guy.
I can almost visualise the script-writer of yesteryears at his desk. He writes the story revolving around the macho man, the dancer man, the romantic starry-eyed man, the truthful man, and the soulful tramp. The challenge is huge. You see, the hero has already been signed on. So, the script has to be written for him. For months, the script-writer, buried under heaps of creativity, burns the midnight oil. At the end of it, he emerges a satisfied man. There are a few minor blanks in the script. But they do not hassle him. He knows they will all be filled up in a matter of minutes. On a dramatically rainy night, at the stroke of twilight, in a dimly lit room, the director, the actor and he sit down with Bagpiper. They review the script. Everyone is mighty happy.
“Let’s now fill in the blanks,” the actor initiates gleefully.
“Take Nirupa Roy for the mother with TB,” the director instructs swirling his pipe in the air. “She coughs well.”
“Done! What about the other blank?” the script-writer gently prods.
“Mala Sinha,” the director promptly says. “She has lots of energy, she runs around trees really fast. Will be good for that peppy number in the storm.”
“Or even Tanuja,” the actor quips. “She looks good in sleeveless.”
“And take Bindu for the rest of the movie,” the director concludes with a flourish of his pipe.
Then the Bagpiper becomes the centre of attraction for the rest of the night.
So much for the heroine. Ouch!
In the midst of this, rising like a phoenix, came a movie I distinctly remember. Guddi. The petite Jaya Bhadhuri carried off the delightful movie entirely on her slender shoulders. The script was tailor-made for her.
Even in the male-dominated super action blockbuster Sholay, Basanti held her own.
Khoobsurat is another flick I remember for the well-carved role that Rekha essayed with great panache. And this despite the presence of Ashok Kumar, a stalwart, and Rakesh Roshan, who never did quite succeed at creating a presence on-screen as much as he could from behind it.
But such movies were few and far apart. The industry continued to churn out mainstream formula flicks shot at exotic locales where women were mere eye candy. And then, like a breath of fresh air came Astitva and Tabu evolved as an actress to reckon with.
Scripts are now being written for the leading lady. The nomenclature has also changed. The women are referred to as ‘actors’ and not actresses.
Now, people walk out of multiplexes over-awed by the strength of the character. Who can forget the fiery Punjabi kudi from Bhatinda in Jab We Met? Lately, Vidya Balan overshadowed the very formidable Naseeruddin Shah in The Dirty Picture and then she did an encore as a very pregnant wife frantically searching for her husband in Kahaani.
Madhur Bhandarkar arrived on the scene with his women-oriented movies. Chandni Bar, Page 3, Fashion and now the most recent Heroine. What’s more, all of them are mainstream commercial successes.
Topping it all is Sridevi’s comeback offering. English Vinglish is a poignant story of a woman seeking to build her self-esteem. A powerful movie with a powerful message subtly delivered through an impeccable performance. No item number, no love triangle, no skin-show.
For me English Vinglish worked just as well as my all-time favourite Mama Mia. Sridevi did a Meryl Streep, and how! Thank you Gauri Shinde and R Balki for stimulating our taste buds and making the movie-goer recognise the fact that women too have stories to tell.
My appetite has been whetted. I am hungry for more. A Julia & Julia kind maybe!