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Have we really come a long way, baby?

Has B'wood skidded back to depictions of vulnerable bechari-type women? So much for gender empowerment, writes K Mohammad.

india Updated: Jun 10, 2008 13:47 IST
Khalid Mohammad

They’re all there: bikinis, botox, Bambaiya Boho. The scent of New York Saks cosmetics, the bang of LA Rodeo Drive’s bling, the cool of London Harrods’ hi-end clutches — they’re all there in our ’plexes, shot in low-light and Dom Perignon bubbly camera angles.

But beneath the cosmetic veneer, our girls-in-the-next-duplex are in retro mode. Even those pioneering protestors have hung up their boots. No point, perhaps, in whining about the cinematic representation of women as either suffering sati savitris or zowie zakhmi aurats. That debate is so 70-ish. Now, TV is into those heckle-worthy Hamam soaps, thank you very much Ekta Kapoor.

Very sporadically, mahila mandals articulate their displeasure at Bollywood’s ditzy dolls, gobbling inside-pages space in the Sunday sections of newspapers. But where-o-where art thou, Madhu Kishwar? Teesta Setalvad? Shabana Azmi?

Seminars and multi-platformed critiques on the role of women in our cinema have given way to discourses on the germ warfare between actors and ‘crits’ and miscellaneous dissenters. Today, the internet is a fertile space for abuses, cusses and publicity agent-ghost-scribbled harangues. So what else can one do but just about squeak about the portrayal of the movie woman?

Because in its desperation, cinema will stop at nothing — to quote critic John Simon— not even at turning back the clock. Thematically. Like it or not, the clock could be back to a time when the device hadn’t even been invented.

As a nostrum against feminism, for example, we have now an inadvertent spate of films about invalided young women. They are rendered weak enough to be in need of old-fashioned male protection and superior Himbo intelligence. And there are all-around tearjerkers whose suffering people live in times that have not the slightest lived-in look.

Consider, alas, the gender-clueless Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar Raj, which seeks to set up an NRI reincarnation of Rebecca Mark the ‘Shark’. We are to believe that Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in un-voguish stiff striped shirt collars, aims to set up a ‘power project’ — in a clearly alluded-to Dabhol kind of ‘boon’ to the villagers of Maharashtra.

The ‘shark lady’ is softened via worshipful close-ups; photo-friendly tears trickling down one chic cheek and even accepts her father’s murder ever so casually because he, well, was quite an avaricious business maniac. Who is kidding whom out here?

Scripts, when they pick on real women (among other responsibilities), have to avoid indulgence of the marshmallow kind. Don’t make goody-two shoes of personalities who have known to kick butt. Businesswomen are rare birds in Bombay movies. Bipasha Basu in Corporate is remembered more for her pin-striped suits than for her strategies.

A heroine who thinks is either a vamp or must pay for having her own brain compartment. Like Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met — spry, cute, talkative, but once jilted by a duh Big Moose — she turns comatose. Gratifyingly, the movie’s first-half stays with us and that’s because of the heroine’s sheer energy and daffy antics. After the intermission, she’s the passive one so that the hero can exhibits his quota of high jinks.

To a degree that’s acceptable. But what about the femme fatale played by Kareena Kapoor again in

Tashan

? It’s a primer in how not to treat a young woman. Jumping out of freezing water, the con woman-on-the-run asks for a cigarette. The hero looks at her shocked, to which she says, “I need one because I’m cold.” Unimpressed, the macho man doesn’t light her fire. Yet, the film’s most appealing element turns out to be the girl, exhibited in a smoking hot bikini. When a frontline actress goes the two-piece way, that’s enough to ignite the box office. (Not always, because

Tashan

was thumbed down commercially, never mind the water baby interlude that’s older than Ursula Andress in Dr No.)

The surprise hit of the year so far, Jannat, displays a believable enough call centre employee played by Sonal Chauhan. She is wooed by a chronic gambler, hanging out with the vilest underworld bosses. Even if she is bubble-headed enough not to detect this before moving in with the gambler at one of those exotic South Africa villas, she merely trips out to shopping malls, looks more helpless than a wingless parrot, and at long last registers her protest by becoming a strip-bar dancer. Now is this fantastic or is it a male chauvinist’s fantasy come true? Life imitates cinema creepily enough when Chauhan is slapped, shortly after the film’s premiere, in public by an estranged boyfriend.

Clearly, there isn’t much point in criticising the relentlessly distorted — if not in many cases offensive — representation of women. Yet at some point, the dream merchants must understand that women-centric films aren’t necessarily commercially inferior. It’s the story that counts.

Without any logic or market research, it is believed that heroes sell, women don’t. Fees of frontline male actors go through the roof. By comparison, frontline heroines do not get one-tenth the amount given to the Khans and the Kumars. In the event, you can just ask, ‘Why?’ And wonder where all the Kishwars, Setalvads and Azmis have gone.