In its awe-inspiring journey of nearly hundred years, the Indian film Industry, consisting mainly of the ‘star-struck’ “Bollywood”, and also of myriad regional films, has been witness to a sea-change in the presentation of the female protagonist. Yes, rarely will a person deny that the Bollywood filmdom has been essentially male-centric, leaving little space for the female counterparts to evolve and grow as versatile performers. The roles they played were mostly of the “sati savitri” mould, lacking variety and depth of the ‘female psyche’. However, film-makers like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor in the 50’s and 60’s, marked an exception with their brilliant presentation of women excelling as wife, mother and beloved. Some of their films portray the brilliant craftsmanship of the ‘flesh-and-blood’ women, with all their inner depth and exquisite spirited individuality. Take for instance, “Mother India”, “Pyaasa”, “Kaagaz ka phool” and “Madhumati”. A close look into all these four films will show you how they celebrate the extreme gracefulness and vigor of women in the face of personal adversity. These film-makers gave constant effort to present the constructive world of the female protagonists’ emotions with their supreme artistry and depth of human understanding.
Again, the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s witnessed a severe decadence in the portrayal of the ‘heroine’ in mainstream Indian cinema. It was then that the ‘female’ protagonist was reduced to a ‘heroine’, connoting the image of mere glamour-dolls, dancing around trees with heroes and performing cabaret numbers. This way, she was projected as a show-piece or in other words, as a “feel-good touch” to the film, rather than being a flesh-and-blood human being in her own right. However, even in the midst of such general decadence, a few films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee stood out as prominent variations with their presentation of the essence of the female soul. Nevertheless, these films had their common success quotient of romantic songs, melodies and other “feel-good” factors for which Hindi films are recognized today. However, the handling of the female protagonist was sensitive enough, compared to numerous other formula-films released at the same time. Take for instance, “Abhimaan”, where we see the extremely soulful Jaya Bhaduri giving up her musical career for the whims of her jealous husband and later coming to terms with her personal agony through the magical device of music. Again, in “Mili”, we find another bubbly, spirited Jaya, suddenly struck with Leukemia and striving to live life with the same animated zeal with her beloved. “Chhoti si baat” and “Rajnigandha”, on the other hand, reflects on the lives of the working women of the 70’s and the dilemma they experience with regards to the men in their lives, though in different contexts.
Leaving aside the mainstream films of Bollywood, the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Hritwik Ghatak in Bengal should be mentioned specifically in regard to the psychological exploration of the female protagonist. Ray, in “Charulata” in the 60’s, introduced us to the magnificent “Charu” with all her subtlety and quest for a life of creativity. In her relationship with “Amal”, which begins with Charu exploring her literary and creative pursuits, the much needed intellectual companionship and attention forms the crux of this “extra-marital” liaison that changes her inner being forever. Again, Ray in “Ghare Bairey” and “Mahanagar”, depicts the female ever grappling with uncertainty and extra-terrestrial reality, with exploring the emergence of the modern woman in the upper-class of colonial India. One can not help drawing parallels with Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, as these two films, like this play, marks the female’s quest for her identity, an introspection of her soul, and a gradual self-realization, defying all set patterns of a male-dominated society. On the other hand, Mrinal Sen, in “Ekdin Pratidin”, explores the turbulent life of a working woman and focuses on her inner turmoil questioning the so-called “righteousness” of the external world. The film depicts the trauma induced in a lower-middle class Bengali home when the young daughter fails to return home on time. As the family is engulfed in anxiety, many facades crack and unresolved tensions surface, exposing the hypocrisies and pretensions of so-called “respectability”. Again, in “Durotto”, Sen speaks of ‘distance’ between a married couple and the pain of their alienation. Mamata Shankar here plays the wife ravaged by the bitterness of divorce and later gleaming with the hope of reconciliation.
Hrithwik Ghatak’s “Meghe Dhaka Tara”, “Komolgandhar” and “Subarnarekha” on the other hand, portrays the conflicting worlds of the females struggling for livelihood in the post-partition Bengal. The partition, with its devastating repercussions, forced the women of the middle and lower-middle class families to turn as bread-winners of the house. The films of Ghatak, based on these stark fragments of reality, explore the subtle pains of the women under such engrossing situations.
Today, the depiction of the female protagonist has been ever more challenging in context of her sexual identity. The seed of this quest was first sown by the dynamic Aparna Sen in the 80’s with “Paroma”, where the woman tread the path of so-called “promiscuity” only to gain psychological maturity in the long run. Today, directors like Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair and Meghna Gulzar are upright enough to depict ‘taboo topics’ like lesbianism, polygamy and even surrogate motherhood, where its woman who takes the lead role in proposing, making love and even in deciding to “lease” her womb without the permission of her husband-to-be! While in “Fire” and “Kamasutra”, the women brave the world to explore their sexual desires, in Mahesh Manjrekar’s “Astitva”, the soulful Aditi gives birth to a child out of wedlock and shatters the vain world of male vanity when ultimately the truth is disclosed. The film questions the feminist moral concerns through the detailed examination of sexual and familial relationships. Again, very recently, in “Shunyo-e-buke”, a Bengali film by Koushik Ganguly, the protagonist is a flat-chested woman of the 21st century who questions the very basis of judging the worth of a woman “by her cleavage”. In a vain society where a well-rounded, curvaceous figure is regarded as a supreme embodiment of female beauty, where her bust line holds more value than her brain and her emotions, this hard-hitting film questions the projection of women as sex objects in Indian society.
Thus, from Hritwik Ghatak’s “Subarnarekha” to Rituparno Ghosh’s “Bariwali”, from Raj Kapoor’s “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” to Madhur Bhandarkar’s “Chandni Bar”, we see the changing face of Indian women enmeshed in their private world of inner turmoil and the external world of multiple challenges. Women in India, defined by a set of relationships and models of conduct within the framework of a created society, have over the years, learned to live under the twin whips of heritage and modernity; and it is welcome if more and more directors in the coming years project the awakening feminine consciousness, breaking archetypal patterns with their clarity of perception. On a lighter note, our elder generation, earlier exposed to the “vampire” Helen, is now face-to-face with the more “fatal” Urmila Matondkar. Many are saying that the change is “delicious” for their “filmy” palate!