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    Posted on 20 July 2012

    Women in Hindi cinema: Rising from the periphery

    A new book on the leading ladies of Hindi cinema could be a useful primer of Indian popular culture, says Geetanjali Singh Chanda

    Mother Maiden Mistress: Women in Hindi Cinema, 1950 – 2010
    By Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kothari and Supriya Madangarli (2012)

    It is hard to imagine that Bombay’s fertile and youthful cinema will be a 100 years old next year. The authors of this valuable compendium do not use the popular but contentious term “Bollywood.” Mother Maiden Mistress: Women in Hindi Cinema, 1950– 2010 is a comprehensive and well-researched survey of six decades of the cinema and its women. The opening chapter “The Predecessors” sets the scene from the first film in1913. The issues of class (and skin colour) of the actresses, the financing and reach of the cinema, the studio system and the problem of language—after the advent of sound—of those early years persist even now.

    This fast-paced and enjoyable read will appeal to both a lay and specialist readership. The book, studded with little gems of information, weaves together historical and political contexts with clothing styles, ornamentation, music and themes to create a tapestry of a moral universe constructed as typically ‘Indian’. The idea of India and the moral codes, however, change over time and the book maps the adjustment of ‘everywoman’— heroines, vamps and courtesans to the shifting norms.

    Bhawana Somaaya, Jigna Kothari and Supriya Madangarli’s tightly structured book could be a useful primer of Indian popular culture. It succeeds in making a vast amount of research accessible. A light touch—a bit of gossip, anecdotes and authorial observations, however, mask the ‘work’ that went into writing it. Although the minutiae of film titles and plots can be overwhelming they are invaluable documentation. Each of the six decades—from the 50’s to the beginning of the 21st century has sub-headings that highlight the main themes of the period. For example, the mood of 1970’s films is characterized as “Look Back in Anger” and the key actress of the period, Hema Malini, is its spokeswoman. Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Shabana Azmi, Madhuri Dixit and Rani Mukerji also provide first person accounts—insider perspectives that add a rich layer to our understanding of the period.

    It would have been useful to know where, when and how these particular actors were interviewed or what the sources of these long commentaries might be—but that’s a minor quibble. Each chapter has a unique section entitled “The Dressing Room” that details the costumes of the period and explains how the dress, jewellery and make-up helped to establish and enhance the personas and class backgrounds of the heroines. We have clearly come a long way from the early years, when western clothes (as in ‘Purab Aur Paschim’) signaled a lack of patriotism and moral decadence. Nowadays, western clothing is an unremarkable norm, if not a celebration, of an emergent consumerist youth culture.

    The authors begin with the premise that the stories and characters of Hindi cinema can largely be traced back to epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In this scenario, the Sita figure reigns providing a measure of virtuous Indian womanhood. The ‘good’ women characters in Hindi cinema are self-sacrificing women like Sita.

    The mold is continuously challenged but never quite broken. The authors note that interestingly, it is in the so-called ‘parallel cinema’ that women are given greater opportunities to break the stereotypes. Female desire is still seldom articulated and women-centred stories are not major crowd-pullers. The focus on the male actor and male-driven plots continue to dominate the film industry.

    Although a lot has changed in the past 100 years: from a man playing the lead female role in India’s first feature film to movie multiplexes and an increasingly youth-dominated viewership. However, the authors note, a change in patriarchal attitudes or a rebalancing of the gender focus remains illusory.

    Geetanjali Singh Chanda is a senior lecturer in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University and a co-founder of The Attic (www.theatticdelhi.org) in Delhi.

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    Posted on 20 July 2012



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