Is ‘Queen’ the new feminist on the scene? Is she the face of the ‘new woman’? No, not the woman that gyrates, drops her pants, and sleeps with the hero in the wink of an eye, thus proclaiming ‘modernity’, but a new kind of ‘new woman’ who gyrates while keeping her clothes on, and makes friends with male roommates without jumping into bed with them, thus striking, quite literally, a balance between the so-called ‘traditional’ and the so-called ‘modern’ woman.
Women, apart from being projected as an object of visual pleasure, have performed several vital roles in popular Hindi cinema. For one, their characters have served as the object of romance of the male protagonists in the films, and for another, their presence in the films have provided the possibilities for the lavish song and dance numbers with which Bollywood, and indeed Indian cinema, the latter mistakenly, is identified far and wide. But women in Bollywood cinema have played another very defining role for the popular imagination over the years. Their characters have symbolised ideals and values of the Indian nation.
Popular Hindi cinema in the 1960s and 1970s rode high on the wings of box-office success with some of the major male stars like Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor who gave some of their all-time hits around this time, and Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan who had descended onto the commercial scene and had successfully taken the mantle over from the earlier stars also around the same time. But what about the leading ladies of the time?
They were many, and they were beautiful. But if you ask me to name one who truly deserved the epithet of a major star, then I cannot name any, for more often than not, these ladies played non-descript roles. Sure there was a Vyjanyanthimala who could dance and a Hema Malini who could do the same (apart from looking like a ‘dreamgirl’), an Asha Parekh who gazed wide-eyed at her heroes and a Sharmila Tagore who is popularly believed to have set the trend of bikini-clad heroines in Hindi cinema although Nargis had donned a bathing suit for the silver screen as early as in 1951. But the reason why none of these ladies are remembered today the way their male counterparts are is that none of them ever really essayed a role that dominated the script in the way the characters of male actors did.
Sure enough, there were exceptions. Rekha’s Umrao Jaan and Meena Kumari’s career milestone Pakeezah were both predominantly women-centric films, with the male lead, if at all, playing second-fiddle in both, although both Umrao and Pakeezah were more victims and less assertive women. There was Nutan, whose fine portrayal of strong, level-headed women garnered much critical appreciation, and Sadhana whose ‘Woh Kaun Thi?’ (1964) and Mera Saaya (1966) centred around women. But exceptions prove the rule and by and large, women at this time remained decorative objects within the films so much so that film critic Derek Bose has compared their passivity within the narrative of the film to that of a flower pot, or a doormat (Derek Bose, Everybody Wants a Hit: 10 Mantras of Success in Bollywood, 2006).
The leading lady at this time looked pretty, shed buckets of tears and provided oodles of melodrama, a very ‘Indian’ filmi characteristic, to the audiences, but she was by no means the centre of attraction. That prerogative lay with the man, the ‘hero’ who would either save the distressed damsel from the clutches of a scheming villain, or solve his own personal issues, also with villains, while his girl would weep hysterically from the sidelines. At all costs the male protagonist would have to earn his ‘heroism’, if not by beating up goons then by living life to the fullest and teaching others to do the same before breathing his last. But the ‘heroine’, well she was the heroine by virtue of being in love with the hero, and not because of her own ‘heroine-ism’.
But wait! Is there something more to their passivity than pure chauvinism on the part of a chauvinist society and film industry? Could there be a reason why these women were ‘eye-candies’ without being erotic? What if their meek fragility was designed with the idea of underlining, for the popular imagination, certain notions of femininity and ‘Indianness’?
Film critics and scholars over the decades have agreed that the ‘un-erotic’ appearance of the heroine in Hindi mainstream cinema of the 1960s and 1970s was rooted in an urge to present the leading lady of the film as a typically ‘Indian’ ‘good woman’.
The film Shri 420 (1955) was one of the first to introduce what was to become a much-used cliché for the major part of the following two decades—‘the traditional Indian good woman versus the Westernised vamp’ binary (Bhattacharya Mehta and Pandharipande, Bollywood and Globalisation: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation and Diaspora, 2010). Filmmakers of the 1960s-70s devised the concept of the ‘vamp’ — the cunning seductress, often clad in scanty and provocative clothing, flaunting her sexuality, indulging in alcohol and a life of excesses, singing and dancing in a way that the ‘pure’ and ‘modest’ heroine would not dare to imagine, and if that is not blasphemous enough then very often serving as the villain’s partner in crime. The heroine symbolised ‘Indian’ chastity and the vamp ‘Western’ immorality. The hero would inevitably reject the advances of the vamp and claim the heroine to be his ladylove, thus very clearly, and beyond all possible doubt, advocating ‘Indian’ femininity over ‘Western’ banality.
While the female lead took over from the vamp whose character in the films gradually waned out, she now became the object of a violent backlash. The ‘heroine’ who earlier could not say boo to a goose, now did not think twice before shedding her clothes and shaking her body to fast-paced music, although she was still prudish where her modesty was concerned (she was still ‘Indian’ after all!). The trend of using her as an embodiment of ‘Indianness’ came back vehemently in the 1990s when Hindi films began to be produced with the purpose of wooing wealthy NRI audiences. Heroines in films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Pardes (1997) became the epitome of the docile ‘Indian’ heroine whose virginity could only be broken by the wedded husband who would respect both her and the Indian value system.
Gradually ‘Indian’ femininity gave way to a ‘modern’ femininity in an urge to go global. What is ‘Indianness’ after all in an age of postmodern indefiniteness, and, more to the point, in an age when foreign currencies flow in with gusto, and diasporic audiences wish to see more of people like themselves and less of coy and ‘traditional’ Simrans and Gangas on screen?!
Heroines therefore now suddenly started indulging in free mixing and unfettered sexual freedom, emerging as a so-called ‘new woman’ who could lose her clothing in the blink of an eyelid. C’mon! Don’t you see she had progressed with time and represented ‘modern’ womanhood?
Films like Cocktail (2005) though, still continue to make feeble attempts at constructing a shy and docile ‘Indian’ woman whose shyness and docility finally wins over the Casanova-ish (notice the hypocrisy) hero!
Movies like The Dirty Picture (2011), Kahaani (2012) and Aiyya (2012) have been released from time to time which have had scripts solely driven by female stars. Some have met with tremendous box-office success and some have fallen flat on their backs from the first week itself. But those which have worked, while extremely mainstream in their presentations, have belonged to particular genres such as fictional bio-pic or thriller, which are not the most mainstream of genres, perhaps implying that women-oriented films still did not find enough space within the more mainstream of the mainstream.
Directors like Madhur Bhandarkar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Abhishek Chaubey have made films with a single female protagonist or at least with strong female leads but these too have hovered somewhere between popular and the not-so-popular. And what is most important is that nearly all of these films, with the exception of Kahaani which was a thriller and hence had an appeal of its own, exploited the heroine’s sexuality as a major basis of their films.
One can of course demand to know ‘what is meant by ‘popular’ and what ‘not-so-popular’? I shall not enter into a lengthy philosophical discussion on this which requires a lengthy philosophical discussion, and for which there is no scope here. At a most rudimentary level ‘popular’ is that which the masses like, the more number of people a film is watched by the more ‘popular’ it becomes. By that definition, the directors mentioned in the last paragraph make mostly ‘not’ popular films for few of such films get vast viewership in the rural areas of the country, which finally determines the film’s overall popularity.
But at a less rudimentary level, ‘popular’ is that which is easy to fathom, and which entertains! By that definition, any film ranging from Chennai Express (2013) which mindlessly entertains both the rural and the urban populations, to Queen which presumably entertains an enormous percentage of the women folk in urban India, and hopefully in rural India too, is ‘popular’.
But in Queen, the heroine is on her own, quite literally, for she has neither sexy clothing (she still manages to look sexy) nor ‘hip’ music to add to her glamour. There is no strong male lead, and the director has not conceived of any moment, however irrelevant, for flesh exposure. There is no bedroom slush and not even enough of those tear-jerking moments that Bollywood film-makers are so fond of. Most importantly there are no big names, not even the director is a hot-shot guy, and the protagonist is one of moderate fame. There is only her, and her alone, as she slowly loses her inhibitions, not to the extent of becoming unreal, but enough to make her proud and happy, and us too.
Women in popular cinema have had very little opportunity to truly assert themselves however much their claim to ‘modernity’. Jumping into the sack with a good-looking hero and indulging in live-in, casual relationships and even pre-marital sex are not the only ways to assert individuality. For me, any human being becomes truly modern when he or she knows where to draw the line. That is when a person becomes mature and progressive.
Queen in Queen does that. And that is when she sets herself apart from all those saree-draped and pious ‘traditional’ women in 1960s and 1970s Bollywood, and the glamour queens of the latter period who strut around in scanty clothing proclaiming their ‘modernity’. She is confident without being cocky. She is for me, a new kind of ‘new woman’, the best of both worlds and one worth being.