The more things change, the more they remain the same. Just before the release of their much-awaited movie Agneepath in January 2012, Dharma Productions resorted to an old-new gimmick. After the “first look” promo came the teaser of the now-famous item number, Chikni Chameli.
A red drape carves the silhouette of a woman standing sinuously with hands raised. The legend Chikni Chameli is flashed on the screen and the drape lifts away from her body in a choreographed movement. First, a close-up of her midriff, a long shot of her half-exposed body, and then the cover lifts completely and you have Katrina Kaif and her pelvic thrust—the teaser ends with the film’s name. Katrina, though one of the leading female stars of this decade, isn’t the film’s heroine or even a significant character in the film.
The art of selling the film by advertising its lustier fare is not exactly new. Posters announcing new plays in the 1920s often screamed out the presence of “gori missein”, who promised to enchant with their songs and dances. These added attractions stepped stepped into films in the garb of the vamp and grew popular in the ’30s when the family social genre grew dominant.
A still from A.R. Kardar’s Milap (1937) has the vamp (played by Rampyaari) in an off-shoulder gown, her gloved hands fondling a sleek cigarette holder, her hairline high, with her hair crimped on the forehead, and incredibly fake long eyelashes. The hero who has his cheek on her bare back is Prithviraj Kapoor. Two decades later, his son Raj Kapoor is being seduced by a similarly attired vamp in Shree 420 (1955). The film has the hero Raj (Raj Kapoor) choose between Vidya (Nargis), a poor but virtuous teacher, and Maya (Nadira), the temptress who lures Raj into the big bad world where honesty is a virtue long forgotten. A song in the film, Mud mud ke na dekh, captures the good versus evil story, with Maya slowly seducing Raj into her world and when he does make the switch, the tempo of the song is turned up, indicating the fast life he has chosen.
A Story Of Evolution
Somewhere along the line, vamp/heroine ceased being black/white; grey emerged
- The Seductress
Shree 420 1955
- Wants the hero, dies for him
Phool Aur Patthar 1966
- Villain’s girlfriend
- Villain's moll
- Main lead, Club Dancer
- Urban Women
- Dream Girl
- The Con Girl
Bunty aur Babli 2005
- Sunehri/ Aishwarya Rai
- Pooja Singh/Kareena Kapoor
Right from her birth in silent films through her journey to the talkies, the vamp was the seductress, the Shurpanakha of Hindu mythology trying to seduce the maryada purushottam hero away from his righteous path. With her hair swept to one side of her face, a cigarette in one hand and seductive pose, the vamp was clearly what a good, pious wife or sweetheart would not be. She was the anti-heroine. The audience familiar with western films and the costumes adorned by that era’s Hollywood actresses immediately recognised what the emphatically westernised vamp stood for—the threat of western ‘values’.
The heroine was the doe-eyed, innocent wife/sweetheart and the conscience of the hero; she upheld the “Indian” values of modesty, sacrifice and loyalty while the vamp not only represented what a woman should not do and what a man should not fall for, but also the evils of western culture. The vamp was on the side of ‘evil’; in Shree 420, she represented the capitalist crooks but mostly she was the gangster’s moll, her boudoir—the crook’s den.
An unofficial caste system in Bollywood had differentiated the artistes—the leading ladies who played the heroine, versus the ‘other’, character artistes who played the vamp. The twain met at times, though rarely—Nargis, who played the twin sisters—the vamp and the virgin in Anhonee (1952); Shakila, who played the gangster’s moll in Aar Paar (1954) but was the heroine in CID or, in some cases, the heroine had what was essentially the vamp’s career—a club dancer—but was invariably pure at heart, such as Madhubala as Edna in Howrah Bridge (1958).
However, in most films, the vamp was played by actresses who came to be recognised by and associated with this forte—Nadira, Shashikala and so on. This system continued in the sixties.
The decade of Rock-a-Rolla, the sixties, had the audience vying for both the vamp and the heroine. The smaller dingy den of the vamp gave way to bigger, brighter clubs often set in palatial hotels. Taking a feather out of the Parisian ‘cabaret’, or the entire costume, the vamp’s image became more fantastical and the audiences were lapping it up.
The vamp got more screen space; at times she could even be the hero’s friend. The gangster was now the villain and often a suitor for the heroine. The triangle of the hero, heroine and vamp became a quadrangle with the hero and the villain both fighting to gain the heroine’s attention and the club dancer vamp vying for the hero’s attention.
For most of this decade, Helen reigned supreme as the most coveted vamp. Her fair skin, deft dance moves and her uninhibited sense of styling made her an icon for decades to come.
If fantasy was where the vamp reigned, slowly the heroine too got sexed up as the dream girl. What with colour coming into reel life, the glamour quotient for both the vamp and the heroine had shot up, the star value of the leading lady and her desirability rose quite a few notches. The heroine now was allowed a little latitude; though still ranking high on the morality meter, she didn’t mind flirting with the villain just to make her hero jealous and she didn’t even mind seducing her sulking hero.
Buxom figures now fit into the western attires, the blouses went sleeveless, the midriff was exposed and her mannerisms were bolder than her predecessor. Sharmila Tagore, one of the leading ladies of the sixties, shocked the nation when she appeared in a two-piece bikini for the film An Evening in Paris (1967). However, the heroine’s ultimate fate was that of a wife, so she would retire by the end, looking demure in a sari beside the hero.
In the ’70s, the vamp space started to diminish when heroines like Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi and Tina Munim wore their sex appeal on their sleeves, marrying “western” culture to Indian values. The figures went from hourglass to svelte. Director Raj Kapoor presented his version of beauty in his film Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) where Roopa (Zeenat Aman) is dressed in what could be best described as the apsara costume derived from medieval Indian sculptures. Her blouse barely covering her bosom, half-dhoti to cover her lower body and a dupatta used more to outline her figure than her lajja. She was not a vamp in the movie; her character was that of a virginal village girl. Zeenat Aman went on to star as a leading heroine in many successful movies, thus changing the definitions of what a leading lady was allowed to do.
The vamp was now a mere device for the villain’s evil machinations, the club dances more or less vanished and the vamp now found her place either lounging beside the villain, on the side of his seat or in his bed. She was now openly shown to be promiscuous, someone who would even bed other men for her boss. She had no heart now and her soul was lost. As the hero, his angst, the villain and the heroine (in that order) took over more screen space, the vamp started disappearing.
By the ’80s, the touch of evil that the seductress vamp brought was being provided by evil mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. Most films took the family drama route, with each film being the replica of the other and somewhere in between the plot lost its originality and became a formula. If the vamp had begun to fade out, the heroines were becoming more and more a caricature of their predecessors. It was in this decade that the song sequences acquired a life of their own, serving as pure visual pleasure devices where the heroine could step out of character and play the fantasy role of the vamp and the hero and the audience could fantasise about his simply clothed heroine in dare-bare costumes. The song Oi amma oi amma from Mawaali (1983) has Jeetendra romping about with his heroine Jayaprada who’s clad in a blouse and petticoat as her sari has magically been whisked off. The song exemplifies the point made here.
By the end of ’80s, the glory days of vamp were a distant memory. The early ’90s saw the return of gore and bloodshed with violent revenge dramas and the retreat of families from the theatres. Then, the mid-nineties saw the heavyweight blockbusters—Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)—that paid an ode to the heroines of the ’50s and ’60s. Demure, shy, conservatively costumed, educated but completely subscribing to Indian values, the heroines found a sympathetic recognition from families both in India and abroad facing the threat of a globalised culture.
But what really won the audience over was another heroine, Ram Gopal Varma’s Mili (Urmila Matondkar), where she, a middle-class, city girl works as a junior artiste in the film industry aspiring to be a leading actress some day. The film Rangeela (1995) became the benchmark for what a heroine should look like. With a perfect figure, Mili called for a role reversal in just about all the departments of a heroine’s image—be it dress, hair, make-up or the bold and brazen manner. She was every adolescent’s fantasy who rejects the rich man to settle for her rough-diamond sweetheart from her own class. The heroine was now a fantasy you could bring home to your mother.
The late ’90s and the beginning of the millennium were the changing years of the industry, with the opening of the NRI/overseas market, the advent of satellite TV, the birth of multiplexes; the gaining of industry status saw the industry catapulting to a whole new level in a matter of years. The filmmakers (a blanket term for all those involved in the process, not just the director but the producer, the financier and the distributor) started seeing their films more and more as a product, filmmaking became a business enterprise and it was mostly about the value a product would fetch.
One such value-added service the filmmaker provided was the ‘item number’. While the word ‘item’ in street lingo refers to a woman as a sexual object, an ‘item number’ also meant that the song really does appear as an extra ‘item’ in the film, with the song and the dancer having no real reason for their appearance. The item numbers were now more of a tease for the audience than being performed for the villain or seducing the hero, as in the original format. The costumes were more about exposure, the lyrics more lusty. The icing on the cake was having it performed by the leading ladies of the industry.
As for the heroine, the millennium decade saw her stepping out of her sacrosanct ‘good’ image and experimenting with the grey. Earlier, the vamp mostly filled up the forbidden space of pleasure, of sex, seduction and desire. There was nothing virginal about her, and so it is about the heroine of today. Premarital sex, smooching her hero, being a single mother—she does it all. On screen, she represents both the dream and the fantasy.
The character was becoming peripheral to the form. From having a ‘perfect’ figure, the norm (brought in by Kareena Kapoor in Tashan—2008) is to go ‘size zero’. Today, an actress has to set a trend in costumes and ‘look’ with each film.
The binary of the forbidden and the sacred, the fantasy and the dream, the vamp and the heroine have vanished. The heroine is no longer playing the conscience of the hero; she is now vying to be the muse of the audience.
Though, of late, it seems that the heroine herself is in some danger of becoming extinct. With commercial pot-boilers like Wanted, Ghajini, Bodyguard, Dabangg and Agneepath having very little or no space for their heroines, she is just one of the many other things that fill up its visual space.
In the void that is being created, one finds strong women characters trying to establish an identity of their own, be it as a single mother (Paa), a foul-mouthed journalist (No One Killed Jessica), lady vengeance (Kahaani, Ishqiya), a murderess (Saat Khoon Maaf), a career woman (Fashion, Corporate), a lovesick manipulator (Tanu Weds Manu) or a rebel survivor (That Girl in Yellow Boots). These are the new vamps, the anti-heroines—protagonists whose life does not depend on the presence of a ‘hero’, who is increasingly finding an empathetic audience.
The vamp is dead, long live the vamp.
(Jigna Kothari is the co-author of Mother Maiden Mistress.)