Trigger Warning: reference to suicide and sexual violence.
From the 1960s to the 80s, many Hindi films were made on social themes based on women’s issues, such as dowry, widowhood, etc. But these films only took a superficial interest in women’s issues. They showed women suffering, but did not really focus on the woman’s response or her point of view but how the man became the hero in the situation and gave the woman a better life. Raj Kapoor’s directorial – Prem Rog – starring Padmini Kolhapure and Rishi Kapoor is a tale of a young widow who faces the brutality of society and her own family after her husband dies but is unable to change her destiny. The film requires a hero who saves her and brings about a change in society.
The years between 1981 to 1992 are known as the age of violent cinema. The era brought a lot of changes – heroines were reduced to a glamorous component of films, dancing around trees, being kidnapped, being sexually assaulted or killed. The latter half of the decade witnessed the emergence of the kind of the cinema where women were portrayed as unforgiving, vengeful characters, for example, in movies like Sherni, Khoon Bhari Maang, Kali Ganga, Zakhmi Aurat.
What is common in the mentioned movies is the sexualization of the female body. In the movie Sherni, Sridevi represents a powerful, avenging figure wearing a full bodied-leather suit. However, in the end, she exchanges her leather outfit for a courtesan’s costume and the camera lingers on her hips and her breasts, forcefully making everyone aware of her body as one that is ‘female’.
The heroine as the ‘ideal’ Hindu woman – serving her husband and sasural and bearing humiliation at their hands was a sacred obligation.
Film theorist Laura Mulvey says, “in their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact, so that they can be said to connote to be- looked-at ness“. Traditionally, the woman has two functions to display: one, as an erotic object for the characters within the story. Second, as an erotic object for the spectator in the auditorium.
The 80s also witnessed the arrival of a few movies that presented the heroine as the ‘ideal’ Hindu woman – as a suffering pativrata nari for whom serving her husband (also her devta) and sasural and bearing humiliation at their hands is a sacred obligation. Two of such movies were Pati Parmeshwar and Naseeb Apna Apna.
Tatineni Rama Rao’s Naseeb Apna Apna (1986) is a story of Chandu (played by Radhika) who is abandoned by her husband, Kishan (Rishi Kapoor) because of her ‘ugly’ looks. How is she ugly? Well, she is dusky and has a permanent U-shaped braid. He not only deserts her to go to a new city but also gets married to his fair-skinned colleague, Radha (Farah Naaz). Lost in an alien land, Chandu eventually finds her way to her husband’s house as domestic help. When the truth gets unfolded in front of Chandu, she keeps mum, accepts her fate as is and reviles anyone who says anything against her ‘devta’ pati.
The moment the two women friends realise that they love the same man, they become enemies.
Oblivious to the fact that Chandu’s husband is none other than her own husband, Kishan, she grows sympathetic towards Chandu and wants her to forget her past, remarry and move on. Chandu declines and Kishan keeps mum. It is after she gets a makeover (read: complexion gets whiter) with the help of Radha that Kishan starts softening up. Meanwhile, Radha’s brother gets infatuated by Chandu and tries to force himself on her. Chandu rebukes him and Kishan who witnesses this still keeps mum, though this time with guilt. Overwhelmed with guilt and repentance, Kishan decides to leave the city and wife and go back to Chandu. What does Radha do when she gets to know the truth? She kills herself.
It is interesting to note the equation that is shared by both women. Radha sympathises with Chandu and starts treating her as her (poorer) sister, and even tries to help her find a new partner. But the moment she gets to know that Chandu is her husband’s first wife, she starts cursing her. She later commits suicide because she does not want to be a barrier between two people who ‘love’ each other and whose matrimonial alliance is holier than her own – as she is a second wife.
Interestingly, Hindi cinema has always glorified male friendship so much that if a woman comes between them, one friend would make a sacrifice for another friend. Or there will be a glorified bro-code moment. Who the woman in question loves does not really count, for example, in films like Sangam, Chandni, Na Tum Jaano Na Hum, etc. In Naseeb Apna Apna, the moment the two women friends realise that they love the same man, they become enemies. This has been the case with many Hindi films. The female characters’ ambitions and aspirations are lessened when it comes to men.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Source: Cinestaan