Nancy Reagan once said, “A woman is like a tea bag, you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
In Hindi films too, the manner in which a leading lady reacts to adversity is a good barometer of her substance. Over the decades, we have watched all too many damsels in distress, clinging to the nearest piece of vegetation and singing a sad song but, happily, we have also witnessed female protagonists who are lace threaded with steel.
On Women’s Day it’s fitting to remember one of our earliest onscreen protagonists who had the courage to rebel against a patriarchal society — Shanta Apte in V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937). When this fiery adolescent is married off to a doddering widower, she refuses to meekly accept her sorry fate and makes him miserable.
I am fascinated by Fearless Nadia of the 1940s. This emancipated actress ran atop a speeding train and duelled with men in her hits. Her 24-carat line from Diamond Queen (1940): “Hind ko azaad hona hai toh Hindi aurat ko bhi azaadi deni padegi. (If you want to free India you have to emancipate Indian women too.)”
Radha (Nargis) in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) is a living totem of love and willpower. Abandoned by her maimed husband, she tills the land and battles famine and flood to fend for her children. But when Birju, her rebellious son, kidnaps the avaricious Lala’s daughter, Radha replicates Mother Earth's response to those who violate her laws. She shoots down her beloved son. Nargis was only 28 when Mother India was made, but she emanated moral strength.
An under-appreciated woman of substance is the delightful Dhanno (Vyjayanthimala) from Ganga Jumna (1961). She willfully chooses to give up her conventional life and stands by her man through thick and (lots of) thin. When he becomes a dacoit, she lives with him in the ravines; even before marriage. In the climax, when he is emotionally blackmailed into surrendering, Dhanno rounds up his gang and storms a prison to rescue him.
There is strength too in expiating for a transgression committed in a moment of passion. Nutan in Bandini (1963) reveals a quiet force of will. She has the nerve to commit a crime of the heart; but stoically atones by accepting the prison sentence and helping the disadvantaged.
Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) is a film I like watching with my daughter with one caveat — we fast-forward the suffering Seeta portions. Hema Malini as Geeta is unlike her passive twin sister Seeta; she actively steers the direction of her life. She doesn’t wait for a knight in shining armour to rescue her from difficult situations but lets the fisticuffs fly. When she isn’t whipping the villain, she is lashing the fat aunt with her tongue. She looks like a butterfly but stings like a bee.
Pooja (Shabana Azmi) of Arth (1982) is no Biwi No 1 who sees her triumph in winning her straying husband back from the other woman. She instead accepts the futility of revenge, anger and animosity and has the strength to move on — without the crutch either of her repentant husband or of a supportive suitor.
Smita Patil played many characters that furthered women’s causes (Subah 1982 for instance) but she remains etched in my memory as Usha in Bhumika (1977). When her husband (Amol Palekar) tries to arm-twist her into taking an oath, she does… but swears: “Main jo chahti hoon wohi karungi. (I will do as I please).” Later, when her feudal paramour (Amrish Puri) authoritatively declares that women of his family are traditionally not permitted to step out of the house, Usha mocks him: “I am not your family.” She stumbles, but never lets circumstances perpetuate her victimhood.
An individual who fights for her rights is admirable; but when a woman fights for another’s rights, she is worthy of applause. Meenakshi Sheshadri as Damini (1993) battles her own family (including husband Rishi Kapoor) while spearheading the cause of the house-help who is molested by her brother-in-law and his bawdy friends. If only director Santoshi had not allowed Sunny Deol to dominate the proceedings in the courtroom.
The kahaani (story) of strong women characters in films has recently received a further impetus from actors like Vidya Balan. In English Vinglish (2012), a hausfrau Shashi (Sridevi) is mocked by her husband and chided by her daughter for being unable to speak fluent English despite her many other talents. She uses a happenstance trip to the USA to learn English. But she displays her strength of character by retaining her essence and making the change for her growth. At the end of the film, she pointedly asks an airhostess for a Hindi newspaper. She makes her point, and with grace.
— The writer is the editor of Bollywood News Service