Are film women real? Do I dance in the rain in a miniskirt and tank top on my way home from work? If I did, you'd have read about it by now.
Of course, the female characters on screen seem like aliens compared to the average Indian woman, but then, so do the heroes. That's true gender non-discrimination, Bollywood style. Thank God for that - imagine living in a society where people resemble characters played by Karisma Kapoor and Salman Khan! But yes, a man trying to mimic his favourite hero in real hero terms would have a better chance of getting away with it, than a woman trying to do the same thing. After all, it takes less effort to sing an Aati Kya Khandala than changing clothes a dozen times in 5 minutes. Not to mention, the number of times of tmes you could catch the flu after being drenched under assorted showers, rain or waterfalls.

Indian heroines generally tend to swing between two outlandish extremes - from the sexy siren while single, to the obedient sari-clad spouse. And why is that? Not only because "that's what the market demands", but also because Bollywood is largely controlled by men, and that's what THEY want.

I wonder if even adolescents fantasise about making fools of themselves running around trees and rolling around with a half-naked woman of their dreams? Surely even fantasies can be a little more intelligent?

Would things be any different in films made by women? Take a look at Sangharsh, the desi version of Silence of the Lambs, directed by Tanuja Chandra. A substandard film, but even in her clumsy attempt to Indianise Clarice Starling, Chandra has given Preity Zinta's role more dignity than Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra did to their heroines.

You wouldn't find any bimbos in Sai Paranjpe's or Deepa Mehta's movies either. Or himbos, for that matter. But then, who would want to fantasise about the sorry likes of Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Sunjay Dutt? Perhaps things will look up for us Indian women now that Hrithik Roshan is on the scene!

Indira Kannan is a TV professional

Kajol, a college student, a basketball player, and later on a teacher is nothing more than a 'friend' for Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. But the sari clad Kajol becomes a 'woman' for him the moment she drops her pallu, unintentionally though, to give a glimpse of her 'womanhood'. The kind of camaraderie expressed in songs like Aati kya khandala is only short lived. A heroine is allowed all jhatkas until she finds a worthy man. In comes the hero and out go all the jhatkas. The heroine in Hindi Cinema can be any thing but a 'woman' if she is not forgiving, caring, a sex object, strictly monogamous, and an all loving mother.

That mega hit is not an exception but represents the very trend of Hindi Cinema. Bollywood has always been very consistent with regard to its portrayal of women; the kind of consistency which can put even the inimitable Sachin Tendulkar to shame. Heroine meets her hero. Falls in love; tries everything under the sun to marry her chosen one. Finally the success accrues, but only with a set of preconditions: her 'pati parmeshwar' is infallible, omniscient, and omnipotent. She is projected to have genuine liking for all these marital gifts. Any deviation from the rule is only at the risk of inviting her own peril.

Women in Hindi Cinema have been projected to be grappling with two selves: one expresses the aspiration to become truly modern and western and the other representing true womanhood - only Sita and Sati Savitri represent true Indian womanhood in Bollywood's scheme of things. Like other concurrent themes where the good guy always triumphs over the bad guy, Hindi Cinema has always given precedence to Indian Womanhood in its portrayal of female characters. For every Mother India we have had thousands of Sujatas, for every Arth those has been a spate of films like Naseeb Apna Apna (remember that deadly song Bhala hai bura hai jaisa bhi hai, mera pati mera devta hai) and every Godmother got lost among Kuch Kuch Hota Hais.

Things have, however, changed at the periphery. No longer does Hindi Cinema need the Helens and Bindus to titillate the audience. The likes of Madhuri dhak dhak Dixit or Karishma sexy sexy sexy Kapoor can do much the same and remain the embodiment of true Indian womanhood a la Bollywood. Go figure. But then Bollywood is not expected to set standards for reality, is it?

Mayank Mishra is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
[ First published: April 15, 2000   Last updated: May 18, 2012 ]

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Bihari on the train

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