Is the Bollywood woman on screen a 'Sita', or is she an 'Apsara'? This is one ticklish question that dogs the film critic and the lay viewer equally today. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, the director placed more emphasis on the close-up of the heroine's face - Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nimmi, Nutan, Vyjayantimala, etc. They were beautiful faces, with or without brains to match. Sex appeal remained confined to the eyes, the lips, and a lock of hair falling over the face.
The emphasis seems to have shifted to the 'body' of the woman - but then, to be fair to the director, she also has a mind of her own. The stars today do not seem to mind the shift and the audience is happy.
Actresses who occasionally moved away from the cliché 'Sita' image towards a more gutsy and spirited image within the screen apparatus are - Shanta Apte (Kunku), Meena Kumari (Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam), Nargis (Mother India, Miss India, Ardhangini), Waheeda Rehman (Guide, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Namkeen), Nutan (Seema, Sujata, Bandini), Rehana Sultan (Chetna, Dastak), Smita Patil (Subah, Bazaar, Arth), Shabana Azmi (Arth, Ankur, Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Godmother, Paar, Fire, Sati), Dimple Kapadia (Rudali), Raakhee (Tapasya), Tabu (Maachis, Chandni Bar, Astitva), Rekha, Jaya Bachchan, Karisma Kapoor, Preity Zinta, Kajol, and Kareena Kapoor.
But these names are mere drops in the vast ocean of star-actresses who have graced the Indian screen for the past century playing the simpering, syrupy, sacrificing and sobbing 'Sita' in so many films that they just had to repeat their roles in every successive film. Their talent has been wiped out, disguised or hidden under a false aura of repressed sexuality by an industry that remains strongly patriarchal.
Whether the screen heroine will replicate a modernised, up market 'Sita', or whether she will be a sultry and seductive 'Apsara' with a lot of cleavage to show, is decided not by the stars, or by the director, but by other people. The financiers, distributors and exhibitors are the real people behind the making of a film. They can dictate to the producer how many close-ups of the female body will be there, which female body they wish to put on display, and how many rape or intimate love scenes the film will have. It is business, pure and simple. The audience gets a 'kick' in seeing women being raped, beaten up, humiliated on screen as much as it enjoys a strip-tease act cinematographed in deliberate and imaginatively shot slow motion.
Vikram Bhatt through Jism tried to marry sex to a lot of bare skin-show by both the male and the female leads. Bipasha Basu with generous doses of peak-a-boo, John Abraham baring his torso and some extra-heavy doses of kinky love-making made the trick work. In Samay, Sushmita Sen portrayed an IPS officer who does not have to reveal her cleavage to make a point. The terror created by the serial killer was a tussle between two intelligent brains. The film flopped.
Oops, dealing with male strippers, portrayed a married woman (Mita Vashisht) who tries to do away with her loneliness by bedding different men, one of them her son's close friend. The film did okay considering its shoestring budget.
Astitva, directed by Mahesh Manjrekar, is a turn-of-the-century celluloid statement on a married woman's right to her sexuality. Aditi (Tabu) blasts not only her husband who disowns her for an extra-marital sexual encounter, juxtaposed against his several 'affairs', but also the man who felt grandiose in donating his entire property to her just because he thought she had mothered his child. The son castigates the mother because she is 'immoral' and Aditi is left with her memories of a 27-year-old marriage that turned out to be as empty as the suitcase she carries out with her.
To be continued...