Finally, the woman in Hindi cinema is not ‘just a woman’. She is an individual in her own right, a person unto herself, a Human Being. There was a time, not so long ago, when values and virtues were defined purposefully and solely through the woman and, conversely, values and virtues (or the lack thereof) defined the woman on screen. That was a time when every woman was either the mother, the maiden or the mistress, each of whom derived her identity from the men in her life. So on the one hand you had the heroine, who was pure, often docile, pious, righteous, self-sacrificing, the moral compass of the hero, and, on the other hand, there was the vamp, a temptress and seductress waiting to lure the man into a moral transgression.
What lay between this glorification and vilification was the unrelenting gulf of judgment, for which sexuality becomes the most convenient measure in a patriarchal society. So the changing roles of women in Hindi cinema can be understood through the expression or repression of sexuality in each period.
In the post-Independence era, the 1950s, the woman was selfless not just in the role of ideal wife and self-sacrificing mother, ready to give up all to keep her family together. Even as a lover, she rarely betrayed any hint of sexual desire.
In Mughal-e-Azam, when Dilip Kumar caresses Madhubala’s face with a feather, she shuts her eyes. That was as far as a woman could go to express pleasure.
In the 1960s, with the advent of Technicolor, women on screen got the licence to be more colourful too. So even though Sharmila Tagore in Roop Tera Mastana (Aradhana, 1969) seemed like a passive recipient of Rajesh Khanna’s persuasive charms, she didn’t shy away from locking eyes with him and, indeed, ended up having a child out of wedlock.
In the 1970s, with the rise of the Angry Young Man who voiced the angst of the unemployed, disenchanted youth, the heroine became incidental in the larger scheme of things, reduced almost entirely to a diversionary prop and called upon largely as a means of fulfilling the romantic, sexual or procreational needs of the hero (think Parveen Babi’s character in Deewar, 1975).
Then came the video-cassette revolution of the 1980s, allowing men the pleasure of watching films alone, in the comfort of their homes. It was at this point that the objectification of women began in right earnest. Picture Jaya Prada’s sari flying off in the song Oi Amma (Mawaali, 1983) and returning magically at the end of the song, offering multiple flights of fantasy in between.
It was also around this time that parallel cinema began gaining ground, with the release of films such as Arth (1982) and Mirch Masala (1985), which challenged the stereotypical power equation between the sexes.
With the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, the world began to open up for everyone, including the Hindi film heroine. She slowly began to be allowed to nurse her own ambitions — without, of course, questioning the status quo.
The prerogative of breaking her shackles still belonged to the man, usually her lover or her father. So she could take a holiday with her friends, but she couldn’t decide to marry a man not chosen by her parents (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, 1995).
Today’s Hindi cinema is the cinema of the new millennium. It boasts women who know their minds and are unapologetic about their choices. They choose to be neither sinner nor saint. Cases in point, at the cost of being self-referential, include Ishqiya (2010) and Paa (2009).
For today’s Hindi film heroine, grey is the new pink as she chooses to balance, manipulate, celebrate and enjoy being sweetheart, mother, vamp, villain and, yes, even hero, all at once.
Vidya Balan is a National Award-winning Hindi film actor known, most notably, for her starring roles in the films, Kahaani and The Dirty Picture.