‘One man-6 women’ to ‘7 Khoon Maaf’

Given the global penetration of Indian cinema, it is important to see how a woman is depicted in our movies.

I remember watching a Kannada movie by name Gandondu Hennaru (one man and six women), starring Dr Rajkumar and Bharathi. It elaborately explains that a woman should possess six qualities to be an ideal wife. ‘Karyeshu dasi (work like a maid), karuneshu mantri (advise like a minister), bhojeshu mata (feed like a mother), kshamayeshu Dharitri (forgive like Mother Earth), roopeshu Lakshmi (be beautiful like Goddess Lakshmi) and last but not the least, shayaneshu vaishya (be a prostitute in bed) – well, I would like a wife like that for myself!

India is a country that churns out almost 1000 movies per year, watched by almost 100 other countries, with an audience of almost 4 billion people. Given this, it is important to see how a woman is depicted in our movies. Do movies reflect society or does society mould itself to suit the image on screen? A bit of both, I suppose. When I was growing up in a taluk place with all the insecurities of a small-town teenager, movies were our main reference point for this ‘ideal’ woman. All the movies we saw had women who were ‘obeyers’. The ones who questioned were always punished and pulled inside the metaphorical ‘Lakshman Rekha’. An independent woman was either mocked at or ‘taught a lesson’. There was one such storyline where the heroine is a foreign-educated woman with a factory of her own, who is awarded the title of ‘Industrialist of the year’. The hero is a worker in that factory. After many twists and turns, the hero teaches her a ‘lesson’ and the heroine falls at the feet of the hero to be ‘forgiven’! The movie was first made in Kannada as Anuraga Aralitu starring Dr Rajkumar and Madhavi, and later was remade as Mannan in Tamil starring Rajanikanth and Vijayashanthi, as Gharana Mogudu in Telugu starring Chiranjeevi and Nagma, as Laadla in Hindi starring Anil Kapoor and Sridevi and as Jamaibabu Zindabad in Bengali. They were all super hits. Sadly, it was the womenfolk who played a major role in their success.

The first Indian movie was Raja Harishchandra, the story of the king who sells his wife in the market square to preserve his name. Ouch! When we study the history of Hindi movies, the earlier decades were not a total disappointment, though. We had Mother India, Guide, Bandini and many other movies where women were strong and stood tall and firm. The era saw many directors who wrote strong roles for women. It also saw the emergence of many great actresses: Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan, to name a few. The trend took a fall with the advent of the action movies and the ‘angry young man’. Because of this, the story took a back seat resulting in the hero becoming a superhero and the heroine? Well, a glamorous prop. Women in Indian cinema were either the hero’s love interest, the dutiful mother, the sister who in most cases would be raped. Any woman who was modern, smoke, drank or indulged in physical intimacy outside marriage was invariably not ‘ideal’.

South India had Puttanna Kanagal, K Vishwanath, K Balachander who made sensitive movies. Puttanna wrote many memorable female characters, as did K Vishwanath. But one thing to note is their female characters were seen through the male gaze and were still coy or sacrificing women. There was one female character in Shubhamangala who was independent, but she was also mocked. When Puttanna made Edakallu Guddada Mele, the character of Jayanthi who seeks a male companion as her husband is incapable of satisfying her physical needs was condemned. The song, ‘Nillu nille patanga, beda beda benkiya sangha…’ directly showed that women who don’t honour marriage were ‘playing with fire’. When I was writing the story of Nathicharami, a movie dealing with the sexuality of a widow, I was cautious about not making the protagonist either sleazy or guilty. I just wanted to say, yes, it is normal. K Balachander wrote many strong female characters as well. How old are you in Malayalam and Piravi in Tamil in recent times have expanded the horizon for women characters in cinema.

Globalisation resulted in the rise of multiplexes which catered to a section of movie-watchers who appreciate meaningful cinema. Post-2000, some of the movies with strong female roles were Chak De India, English Vinglish, Queen, etc. In many movies, a woman’s liberation is just her sexual liberation. But these movies portrayed women who did not need a man to validate their worth. They were self-made and self-fulfilling. In that sense, it redefined the strong woman on the Indian silver screen.

I remember a movie by Vishal Bharadwaj, starring Priyanka Chopra in the lead. She is involved in the death of seven men in her pursuit of a ‘complete’ partner. There was no guilt trip involved and no ‘taming of the shrew’ angle in the movie. Though I feel Queen and English Vinglish portrayed women in a stronger light, 7 Khoon Maaf stands as an antithesis for the movie I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Samvartha Sahil, a graduate from The Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, says that it is the ‘female gaze’ that is needed and more women behind the camera. He quoted the example of Dangal and wondered how could a movie based on a female wrestler not touch upon how she copes with her menstrual cycle? He also pointed out that, though not a great movie, Lipstick Under My Burkha has this scene where a nude model says: “I had to sit like this even during those days of the month.” This may be a small issue, but the latter movie was made by a woman through the female gaze. Roopa Rao, a young movie-maker from Bengaluru, who wrote and directed India’s first same-sex web series, The Other Love Story, and a feature film, Gantu Moote, feels that some movies where women did tell their story were either labelled as art films or made to attract awards. She says that a strong female need not be an activist but someone who is comfortable in her own skin.

(The author is a poet and has written story and dialogue for the award-winning Kannada movie, ‘Nathicharami’)

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‘One man-6 women’ to ‘7 Khoon Maaf’

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