Features & Opinion

O Womaniya!

By Archana Iyer • Published on December 18, 2012

A walk down memory lane with on-screen women who portrayed off-screen social truths


“Aurat ma hoti hai, behen hoti hai, biwi hoti hai, aur jab who kuch nahin hoti to tawaif hoti hai”

–           Sharukh Khan, in Devdas

[N]ot being a proponent of the above statement, Bollywood has never been silent about its views on women nor has it shied away from portraying her in all her stereotypes; the ideal wife, mother, daughter, vamp, item girl and courtesan roles being aplenty. Since time immemorial, Indian cinema has showcased the many faces of a woman. More importantly it has depicted society’s expectations and reactions to her many faces.

But every once in a decade comes a movie which establishes a turning point for the position and role of women in society. With each decade a new color gets added to the spectrum of a woman’s face; and sometimes a color subtracted. Here is a brief journey down memory lane with a cinemascope that zooms into the ‘o’ in womaniya marking those bold, intelligent characters that understood subtle insights into the moral and social fabric of this nation and exemplified women’s attempt to break through the same.

Mother India

The 50s:  Nargis in Mother India

The struggles of a village woman drowning in debt forced by circumstance to single handedly raise her two sons; the story of Mother India was an epitome of righteousness. Mother India murdered her own evil son and refused to ‘sell herself’ to the wicked landlord; perhaps because in the fifties values were loftier than the plight of poverty in peasant class India. Nargis stood for the family oriented selfless collectivist mindset that was once worshipped by society in the pre-liberalization Nehruvian socialist era of India.

Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

The 60s: Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam

Perhaps one of the first depictions of a woman as an individual with desires and needs; this film laid bare Meena Kumari’s deepest insecurities, harshest realities  and quietest urges as the woman who yearned for her adulterous husband’s attention. The self destructive image of a woman who drinks, was a little too hard even for the Oscars to digest; (the academy supposedly wrote a letter to Guru Dutt saying a woman who drinks was not a permissible taboo in their culture); but Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam boldly exposed a woman’s plight in a male dominated society where infidelity was permissible but only for men. Gender equality was still a far cry, but the servant class empathized with the bourgeoisie’s dilemma.

Jaya Badhuri in Guddi

The 70s: Jaya Badhuri in Guddi

The 70s was a time of harsh realities – Indo-Pak war, the Emergency and the Hindu rate of growth. Cinema became a form of escape. Tragedy queens made room for starry eyed chirpy teenagers. The black and white overcoat of sorrow was replaced by colors of happiness, dance, music and R.D Burman. India said hello to Guddi; a teenage girl who lived in a dream world adorned by romance and Dharmendara. Since Guddi wouldn’t give in to her family’s attempt to arrange a marriage for her; her uncle plots a sneak peek inside filmistan which opens her eyes to reality. Guddi was a cheerful dose of innocence and a subtle lesson that in the end, a woman will always have to settle for an arranged marriage giving up her foamy palanquin of dreams.

Shabana Azmi in Arth

The 80s: Shabana Azmi in Arth

Reminding us again of male adultery, this film takes a step forward where bold yet feminine Shabani Azmi resurrects herself after a failed marriage holding on to the pillars of single-motherhood and to a platonic friendship with a man who loves her. For once, a woman is not a mother, wife or daughter because Mahesh Bhatt wanted to sculpt a woman’s search for identity through Arth.

Kajol in DDLJ

The 90s: Kajol in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

The post liberalization era saw a dramatic rate of progression and a smoother exchange of western and Indian ideologies. A woman could travel alone to Europe, wearing hope on her sleeves and romance in her heart. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenga gave rise to the ‘arranged-love marriage’ giving many women the courage to face their families stating their choice of a life partner. Kajol symbolized the new definition of an ideal woman – the educated girl with traditional values; a kind of oxymoron in itself.

the women’s hockey team in Chak De India

The 00s: the women’s hockey team in Chak De India

Chak De India explores multiple facets of a woman; be it the nameless existence of the players from Jharkhand, the outsider treatment to North-east Indian girls, the girl who needs to prove to her boyfriend that she has an identity of her own, or the multitasking mother and home-maker played by the captain. Yash Chopra flagged gender equality at last and SRK and the world watched in silence while a bunch of women contributed to national pride.  One of the rare films which did not have a love story in its plot, nor a sari clad heroine screaming help; Chak De India took pride in the women of India who were capable of any accomplishment.

Vidhya Balan in Kahaani

The 10s: Vidhya Balan in Kahaani

The coming of age of women has been signified by a pregnant woman beating a man in a man’s game through the sari clad and gun gripping Vidhya Balan. The final shot in the movie gleaming with ma durga pandals; portrays durga ma as the destroyer of all evils. The film culminates with the song ‘ekla chalo re’; empowering woman all across the nation to walk alone, fearlessly. A turning point for single mothers, single travelers, single commuters, single woman all across the nation who now brace themselves to live without worrying about judgment or fear; be it the simple step of commuting to work in the wee hours in north India or single-handedly raising a child, or a mother from Manipur winning the bronze for Boxing at the Olympics; Kahaani is a story of many stories bubbling to explode in young India.

Here is hoping the spectrum of a woman’s many faces keeps looking more colorful and powerful year after year and decade after decade.

The writer dedicates this essay to her mother who turns 50 this year.

Photo Gallery (click on the image to enlarge)

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