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Virgin Meri: The Hindi film heroine

Mainstream Hindi film narratives have rarely ever questioned, let alone challenged, Indian society's patriarchal structures. Only a girl who subjugates her inner urges (read sexuality) to the greater well being of her family and community is an acceptable model.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2004 20:26 IST

Mainstream Hindi film narratives have rarely ever questioned, let alone challenged, Indian society's traditional patriarchal structures. The dissonance between established moral and societal norms on the one hand and the quest for personal happiness on the other has, therefore, invariably provided the basis for the portrayal of women on the silver screen. Only a girl who subjugates her inner urges (read sexuality) to the greater well being and honour of her family and community is an acceptable model.

 

Mumbai film scripts place a huge premium on virginity. In a release as recent as

Khwaaish

, in which the heroine (Mallika Sherawat) is allowed the leeway to romp about in the skimpiest of outfits, a kiss or two is the furthest she can go until she actually marries the man she loves.

Khwaaish

, in fact, has a scene in which the young lovers discuss the pros and cons of pre-marital sex. The conclusion that they arrive at is predictable: pure love must always conquer unbridled lust.

Exactly how crucial virginity is for a Hindi film heroine was indicated in no uncretain terms as early as in the mid 1930s in V. Shantaram's Duniya Na Mane, one of the earliest feminist films made in India. The female protagonist finds herself trapped in a marriage to a much older man who has a son and daughter of her age. She refuses to consummate the marriage - that's her protest against injustice. Mercifully, her husband happens to be a liberal lawyer who has a change of heart, exhorts her to wed a more suitable man and commits suicide.

Girls who succumb to physical passion outside the sanctioned parameters of marriage are made to suffer the consequences of the indiscretion. Romantic Hindi films are, more often than not, about honourable men and lily-white women who know exactly where to draw the line. Women who don't play by the rules have to pay a heavy price - the ignominy of unwed motherhood, which has been the crux of many a Hindi film over the years (Dhool Ka Phool, Ek Phool Do Mali, etc).

One of the biggest hits of the late 1960s, Shakti Samanta's Aradhana, underscored the consequences a woman must face when she defies the family. An Air Force pilot secretly marries the woman he loves and fathers a son. He dies in a crash and the woman is left holding the baby and facing from her dead husband's family. She is compelled to allow her son's honour to take precedence over her own maternal feelings: she lets him be adopted a childless couple. In Hindi films, it is not usually enough to merely be married before giving into sexual passion; the sanction of the family is just as important.

No banner has rendered greater service to the cause of the virginal Hindi film heroine than Rajshri Films, the distribution and production house that registered a long string of commercial successes with films about girls who are pure as driven snow. In love, they sang and danced and went into raptures, but they always stopped short of expressing any form of outright physical passion, invoking the Devdasi-like devotion that Meera had for Lord Krishna (as in Geet Gata Chal).

The 1989 hit from the Rajshri stable, Maine Pyar Kiya, a story of young love, had the hero and heroine (Salman Khan and Bhagyashree) swearing allegiance to the izzat of their respective families and the importance of not crossing the line of acceptable behaviour, both in thought and deed.

The film's director, Sooraj Barjatya, pushed that formula even further in the even bigger hit, Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), where the deeply-in-love heroine thinks nothing of suppressing her own emotions and offering to marry her brother-in-law when her elder sister dies in a mishap. Barjatya sought to recast his heroine in a new mould in Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, presenting her as a more with-it, sexually assertive girl. She went against the very grain of a Rajshri heroine and the film, almost inevitably, came unstuck at the box office.

In the Yash Chopra-produced Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which upheld the constructs put in place by time-honoured north Indian patriarchal practices, the heroine dances with gay abandon in the rain and sings about the man of her dreams. But when it comes to the question of her fantasy translating into a real-life sexual encounter, she cringes and returns to the safety of tradition. In one scene, she wakes up in a state of partial undress in a room that she has shared with the hero after mistakenly partaking of an intoxicant. The wine consumed at night gives way to a litany of whines in the morning. It takes persistent reassurances from the prankster hero to bring the girl back to normality.

It is not without sound business logic that the new generation of Mumbai's commercial film directors - Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar, all three scions of well-known industry families - have steadfastly clung to the moral universe in which Hindi film narratives have orbited for decades. Noticed how the female protagonist of Kal Ho Na Ho, produced by Johar, looks, at best, like an updated version of a 1970s Rajshri girl, no-nonsense, commendably restrained in love, ever primed to shed copious tears and, most crucially, never questioning what the men in her life decide for her?

First Published: Mar 07, 2004 01:02 IST