Portrayal of women in Bollywood then, now and in the past.
Bollywood in the seventies and eighties
Mulling over the portayal of women in Bollywood, one very significant aspect that I thought about was how Bollywood shows the character of women by the way they dress.
When I was growing up in the late seventies and eighties most of the Bollywood movies I saw showed girls in sarees as virtuous and the girls in jeans as naughty, or spoilt. I found this odd because I didn’t see this replicated in society. In fact the most “notorious” girl in our lane always wore a saree and never talked to boys freely in public. She walked with her head down. But her “night exploits” were well known to one and all. On the other hand, my friend and me always walked to college in jeans and a T-shirt and were pretty much heckled on the way, and had to put up with a lot of cheap comments. We talked openly with boys in our college, had coffee with them, but neither of us were sleeping around. In fact we often wondered why society thought girls in sarees were “good.” Why was virtue being confused with dress? Luckily both of us belonged to broadminded educated families and had no problems on that score.
In fact, because of false stereotypes (perpetuated by Bollywood) about dress, people often use attire to deliberately mislead people. For example a rapist could wear an orange robe and pretend to be holy, a woman or a man who lead bohemian lives may deliberately dress mutely to avoid attracting attention, a terrorist might deliberately wear western clothes to dupe the police, a traditional girl might choose to wear jeans to show the world how modern she is. What I am basically saying is, your clothes may be you, or they may not. In any case, everything western is not bad and everything eastern is not good.
Ofcourse we know that. Otherwise why should we love cricket with so much passion, why is our IT industry moving forward at such a fast pace and why do Indian men wear pants and shirts and shorts with so much ease? Unfortunately, women in our society are not appreciated if they are ‘western’. A sight I will never forget is one I saw on my honeymoon in Goa – a bride decked up from head to toe in a saree and jewellery sitting on the beach looking enviously on as her husband romped around in the sands and the sea half naked.
Bollywood underlines what is already prevalent in our tradition bound society – that women need to uphold the cultural traditions…like wear the Indian type of dress, visit temples, conduct poojas, maintain relationships with family (both own and in-laws), but men can generally do whatever they want. And this “morality’ is reflected time and again in Bollywood movies. Bollywood tries to uphold some sort of unrealistic and artificial “ideal” which unfortunately can be used as a stick to beat women with in real life.
Bollywood movies often imply that girls in western clothes neglect the home and do not work hard. There was this movie called Maine Pyar Kiya (released 1989). In this film Salman Khan is shown as a rich boy who falls in love with a simple hardworking girl and she is shown in Indian clothes always – and fluttering her eyelashes at every opportunity. The ‘bad’ girl, a girl who is mean, calculating, lazy and a gold-digger (the daughter of the villain), is dressed by the director in smart western clothes. I find these ridiculous stereotypes to be false in real life. Maybe it is because of the work ethic of the western world but I found that girls around me who were more tuned in to the western culture were more hardworking, while girls from a more traditional background were dependent on servants, and helpless without them. If there were no servants, they would shirk the work. I am ofcourse talking only of middle and the upper classes. I have no personal experience of rural girls, except from hearsay. But my guess is that rural women work very hard indeed.
True, the “traditional girl” is more of a homebody and often not interested in a career, but this does not necessarily mean that she worked harder or paid more attention to the children or was sweeter to her mother in law. That was very individual. Again, this is my observation only and certainly not any sort of survey.
Girls who dress “western” in Bollywood are often shown to be “spoilt”. They drive cars rashly, are arrogant and it requires a “decent” Indian man to come along and teach them a “lesson”. Soon this spoilt brat is “tamed” by the hero and she becomes obedient. Out goes the western attire and in comes the Indian. Very odd indeed, considering that most girls who drive, drive carefully. It’s the rich boys who tend to drive rashly.
However, it is true that girls who are more westernized tend to “speak up.” That is not considered a good thing in our society. A woman is supposed to take insults meted out to her – as if she is some sort of sub human! The man, if slighted by any his in-laws can bring the house down and it is unlikely that he will go out of his way to be nice to that person again. If a woman behaves like this she will be accused of breaking up homes. The ideal Bollywood heroine is long suffering.
Bollywood movies started to improve in the last decade or so, in this sense. They don’t always show girls in western dress as sluts, but the sluts invariably wear western clothes. Funnily, even if a heroine wears mini skirts, she often has to prove her Indianness. One such example is of the movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai . When Rani Mukherjee arrives from London in a micro-mini, its alright, as long as she proves her Indianness. And she does this by singing a devotional Hindi song!
We have moved on since then. Take Dhoom 1 (2004). Abhishek’s wife (played by Rimi Sen) is shown to be sexy, dressed in skimpy western attire but hardworking and loving and thankfully does not have prove her Indianness by conducting poojas and dressing in sarees! That was like a breath of fresh air and broke the stereotype. However a lot of other Bollywood movies show heroines who wear western attire, but change it after marriage. As if that ensures their life long devotion to their husbands!
Bollywood nowadays also has girls speaking up and doing their own thing. Like Kajol in Fanaa (2006) for example. In this movie she goes against society’s norms right from the start, and finally decides to shoot the man she loves because of his terrorist activities. But there are still too few movies which show women in strong roles.
We often don’t realise that the struggle for womens’ rights is not a western concept. If we want our women to be treated like human beings, its nothing to do with being western. Its humanity. In any case we have had social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who fought for women’s rights. He played an important role in abolishing Sati. He also advocated the study of English, Science, Western Medicine and Technology and this was as far back as in the nineteenth century. There are many other social reformers in India who fought for women’s rights.
I am not a feminist. In the sense that I am proud of being a woman and proud of women’s work. It really bugs me when the media calls a woman who is working outside the home as a woman of substance, because I think a housewife can be a woman of substance too and not all women who work outside the home are. I think a woman who looks after the home and brings into the world normal, healthy adults is a woman to be admired. She is a woman of real substance because there is nothing more important than bringing up children. And please note, I have not said “for a woman.” I mean for both men and women, bringing up of children is the most difficult thing and if the couple has any children, the most important thing.
Again, I do not think that women who wear saris and are at home the whole day are necessarily good mothers and nor do I think that women who go out to work are necessarily women of substance. It’s all individual.
Bollywod back then
Oddly when I see the Bollywood movies of the fifties and sixties I see something different. Less misrepresentation of women. True, I haven’t seen too many old movies, but I can never forget that incident in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). When Madhubala falls in love with the Prince (played by Dilip Kumar) she is terrified of the King who is also the the father of her lover. She cows down and compromises. When the Prince hears of this he is furious, and loses respect for her. Can’t she even stand up to his father? And so what if he is the King? Doesn’t she even have that much courage? He tells her that she is not worthy of his love…and that is what prompts Madhubala to sing that now famous song: Pyar kiya to Darna Kya in front of the King. She immediately wins back her Prince’s love. During those times, we valued courage! And even women had to have it.
Today, in many families (and not just in movies), a woman’s courage is a threat to men. If a woman stands up to her father-in-law or her husband, and actually talks back to him, she will be seen as bad.
I have seen some other very old Bollywood films where the “good” women are shown in western clothes, but a few years after Independence this started to change. I think it was a kind of rejection of anything that was western because of the colonial past…but in the process I think we forgot about humanity and about reality. Today thankfully Bollywood is improving.
There are those who feel that Bollywood caters to the masses and well, I guess they are right. That is where tradition rules. Bollywood has to make money. Catering to the masses means that women have to be shown this way, otherwise the films and the women characters will not be accepted. However, cinema should not and cannot be retrograde, it needs to look forward. If our society is changing, cinema should go a step further. Average cinema either reflects society or it harks back to the past, or highlights (sensationalises) a dark aspect of society to titillate audiences. It is only the great film-makers who avoid the beaten path, blaze a new trail, and introduce new ideas.
(Photo credits: Photo from maine pyar kiya from Eros Entertainment.com)
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