The “abala nari” proclaming to the hero “lekin main majboor hoon”. The Hindi film heroines of the 50's and 60's. The helpless woman who goes through life shedding tears at the drop of a hat. The virtuous, wronged, helpless woman who has no business being happy. The subservient, obedient wife. The unhappy widow whose only glory in life is the “honhar” beta she has produced. Her life revolves around serving him.
The heroine of the 70's with her birds nest hair style in bell bottoms and tight tops or a saree running around trees being romanced by the hero and at the receiving end of the unwelcome attentions of the villain. Only the outer packaging has changed. Old wine in a new bottle. She is there to complement the macho hero. Should she dare to be a rebel, she will be firmly brought back to line and she will turn into the saree clad, demure, simpering woman who knows her place and has been shown who is the boss. Or an one off like Seeta aur Geeta – one the quiet, obedient woman, the other the wild, self-willed one. A decent, family woman is not supposed to be flippant, light hearted. She is not supposed to laugh openly and enjoy life. She has to be responsible. She is either the typical "ghar ki bahu" or the dignified widowed mother or a stern dowager.
Come the 1980's with their art films and a new crop of actresses like Shabana Azmi, Deepti Naval and the like. One sees sporadic efforts at portraying a thinking woman. Other run of the mill “commercial films” where the heroine shows a bit of spunk as a young, college going girl is metamorphosed into the demure saree clad wife after marriage. “Khubsoorat” starring Rekha and Ashok Kumar typifies this kind of heroine.
The 90's and the 21st century see a return to the retrograde portrayal of women – scantily dressed is supposed to be “modern”, but not much else changes. “Item” numbers litter films. Women referred to as “items”. Women are hot, sexy, richly endowed in the physical sense, but hardly have much up in their crania. Very few films are made where a woman is shown in a powerful position or in a role which portray her as an intelligent, thinking person, as a woman of substance. The number of films addressing the real issues faced by women in real life are few and far between. When I say this, I am talking mainly about the Bollywood movies. I am not referring to the Satyajit Ray brand of films which are a class apart.
Take a look at the popular ads on TV. Women are generally shown as housewives, whose job in life is to look as if they have just stepped out of the beauty salon, no matter what time of day. They could have just finished washing a pile of clothes, but they look daisy fresh, with a smile on their lips. They do the cooking, washing, attend to the children, take care of their nutritive needs, tend their little illnesses with love and care, look after the in-laws and husband with a lot of love and care. This has been the prototype so far.
Things have changed to a certain extent. Women have now gone “modern” even in ads.
A lady is teaching a class full of adults English. Suddenly a man walks in and the dignified teacher is transformed into an idiotic woman in a split second – a woman who goes Bum-chika-bum. The ad claims that this is what Axe does to women. This is the most depraved, degenerate, retrograde ad I have ever seen.
Another ad shows a girl praying to God to give her “Zero marks” and goes on to explain that the marks are the ones on her face. One ad shows a woman losing loads of weight in 2 weeks after eating a popular brand of cereal and being the centre of attraction at a wedding. Most show them as sleek, elegant creatures with not a spare pound of flesh anywhere increasing the pressure to look like Barbie dolls. A woman must look beautiful, gorgeous, she should be a visual treat.
A daughter-in-law spars verbally with her mother-in-law about which chakki she gets her atta from.
Or she dances a jig in front of the washing machine while the clothes get washed. She is delighted when Hussain, a popular TV artist arrives at her home and shows her how to get her toilet to sparkle with Harpic. Yet another is amazed when Sakshi Tanwar shows her how to get her vessels to glisten in no time with mininum effort using Vim.
There is one ad where a daughter wants to grow her hair long like her mom had when she was young. Mom replies that grandma was a housewife and had the time to look after mom's hair but mom has to go to work and cannot do that for the daughter, as she is hard pressed for time. So she prefers daughter has short hair for convenience. She is made to feel extremely guilty by the daughter who asks her to stay at home like grandma. As it is working women have a hard time balancing work and home and playing superwoman. Such ads only add to their guilt and problems.
NOTE: No matter how modern, she does not step out of the kitchen or the home. That is her domain. The Lakshman Rekha is drawn.
Women on TV soaps are a class apart. They would give all the Christmas trees of the world put togethaer a major complex. They are always rich, have loads of money and time at their disposal, are decked up from top to toe with heavy jewellery and brocaded sarees and travel only in fancy cars. They wear heavy make up at all times of day and night – yes, even when they sleep. Their elaborate hair dos remain undisturbed even when they wake up in the morning. Their only occupation seems to be plotting against each other – especially if they are the negative characters – or taking care of the interests of all the members of the family. The bahu of the house has a God given right to monitor the lives of her younger brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. She either helps in the family business or stays at home and keeps fending off efforts by the vamps and villains to discredit her. She is either the Goddess incarnate, worshipped by the family, always at their service, never too tired to do anything, OR she is a discredited, branded a “kulta” (slut) thrown out of the house and declared to be the persona non grata by the entire family for the slightest “mistake”...... till such time as she proves she is purer than Sita Maiyya and then taken back amidst scenes of tears and self-recriminations (for ever having doubted such a Devi).
Hold on dear friends. All is, however, not lost. Amidst this gloom there is still a ray of hope. One is seeing more soaps these days which try to portray women as personalities in their own right, individuals who are achievers. There have been serials in the past which made an effort to portray women struggling to stand on their own feet – an old serial featuring Priya Tendulkar “Swayamsiddha” about a single, working woman ('80s) comes to mind. Serials such as “Balika Vadhu”, “Bahut Acche Lagte Hain” and “Kucch Toh Log Kahenge” are being made today. Efforts are made at decrying child marriage and showing the protagonist as a woman who rises above her situation to achieve something not only for herself but also to educate those around her. Bahut Acche Lagte Hain shows a woman of substance and the struggles she faces in life while Kucch Toh Log Kahenge shows a young doctor with a mind of her own.
Yes, these efforts are just a drop in the ocean, but one can only hope that more such efforts for a positive and more realistic portrayal of women is made. We need to see women as individuals in their own right – women in powerful, decision making positions, women with a mind of their own. Mass media such as television, with the kind of reach and influence they have, have a massive responsibility to drive home the need for social change.
This blog has been submitted for the 4th Annual International Women's Day Contest hosted by Indusladies.com