Much before Dil Chahta Hai became synonymous with the hip and the cool, there was In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones. Set in the westernised campus of a Delhi architecture college, the movie revolves around Radha, the rebellious student, played by Arundhati Roy, who also wrote the screenplay. It was a role she would remember fondly. Radha was a woman never before seen in Indian films. She lived for herself, was accountable to herself. The Mallika Sherawats and Bipasha Basus pale completely before her carefree sexuality.
Quite a few women of substance have stood out in the midst of the Durgas, the Shaktis, the weepy doormats or cheesy commodities created for the male gaze in Indian cinema. No, we aren’t even talking of Mother India and Pakeezah here. Simply because two of the most memorable female roles in Hindi cinema have also emerged as populist image traps that generations of heroines have found difficult to break out of. Instead, consider the confused but reckless Deepa Sahi in Maya Memsaab. Or Nutan, the rebellious delinquent in a reform home in Seema. The coquettish sorority of prostitutes in Mandi and the integrity and commitment of the murderer Bandini.
Popular Hindi cinema, as far as gender sensitivities go, has been the playing out of a rather telling dialectic of radicalism borne forward on the bandwagon of conservatism.
Here are some of our favourites. They, of course, don’t include Charulata, Phaniyamma, Aparupa, or Paroma. Regional radicals make for another story.
As Waheeda Rehman broke the pitcher and danced with abandon—Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai—a new song of flight and freedom was born. Marriage for Rosie has been a loss of identity and a barren love life. Escaping from the clutches of her indifferent, philandering husband, Rosie finds liberation in her relationship with Raju Guide who becomes not only her lover but her agent, encouraging her to get ahead in her career as a dancer. Guide is a dignified portrayal of a woman exercising her choice
Three women take on patriarchy in Bihar. Madhuri Dixit finds her husband become drunk and abusive after a bad business deal. Shilpa Shirodkar is forced into prostitution to help her husband pay off his debts and the quiet Shabana Azmi goes into enforced loneliness when her husband hides his impotence in renunciation. While Madhuri utters the classic line—"Pati hain, parmeshwar mat baniye (You are my husband, don’t try to be god)"—Shabana challenges the system by bearing another man’s child. But the revenge-driven finale disappoints.
Mary Evans, aka Fearless Nadia, a former ballet dancer and circus artiste, played the title role of a princess who takes on the villains when her father is imprisoned. The female Robin Hood, whip in hand, protects the poor and punishes the guilty. Her persona later metamorphosed into gross avenging angels like Sridevi in Sherni and Dimple Kapadia in Zakhmee Aurat.
Duniya Na Maane (1937)
Shanta Apte, as Nirmala, has often been described as the first angry young woman of Indian cinema. Conned into marrying an old widower, Nirmala refuses to consummate their wedding and, in the process, becomes a woman with a pronounced sense of self from a heady teenager. The husband, consumed by guilt, kills himself. Duniya... was a provocative, albeit didactic take against orthodoxy.
Usha (Smita Patil)—fictionalised portrait of Marathi actress Hansa Wadekar—born in a courtesan family, has two choices, to become a dutiful wife or a dancer-singer. She flees with her mother’s lover to Bombay, becomes a star and marries him, only to get trapped in an exploitative tangle. The men she meets later fail to measure up. Ultimately, she decides to be on her own.
Finding her lawyer-husband tarnishing the reputation of a rape victim to save his client, Sulabha (Smita Patil) leaves home to work in a remand home. But her attempts to create awareness among the inmates enrages the management. Forced to resign, she returns to find that her husband now has a mistress. The only way for her is to go alone. Subah is a film that examines the centrality of a career in a woman’s life.
Shabana Azmi is the wife forced to be on her own when her filmmaker-husband finds comfort in the arms of an actress. She moves from the insecurities of being a single woman in a conservative society to a proud individuality. When her husband begs to come back, she has just one query—would he have taken her back had she been unfaithful? She shuts the door on him when he says no.
Mirch Masala (1986)
Smita Patil plays the fiery Sonbai who slaps the tyrannical tax collector when he makes a pass at her. When he continues with his advances, she hides in a chilli factory and eventually overcomes him with red chilli powder. The film represents a larger fight against feudalism. As the village women rally around Sonbai, it’s the first stirrings of grassroots democracy.
Damini is significant because its protagonist (Meenakshi Seshadri) is rooted in bahu-biwi values. But when her brother-in-law rapes her maid, she decides to fight it out with the family even if it means sullying its reputation and being dubbed insane. Damini remains within the "Bharatiya nari" myth, but the conflict between her principles and her family gives her character a rare veracity.
It highlights the duplicity of our sexual mores. Housewife Tabu gets into a physical relationship with her music teacher. Years later, all hell breaks loose when she tells her husband. The crowning revelation is that their son is actually the teacher’s. But even he refuses to stand by her. She decides to be on her own with a little help from her son’s fiancee. The message: who needs men anyway?