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Women in Indian Cinema

Amitabha Bagchi

Hindi cinema has been a major point of reference for Indian culture in this century. It has shaped and expressed the changing scenarios of modern India to an extent that no preceding art form could ever achieve. Hindi cinema has influenced the way in which people perceive various aspects of their own lives. The three movies that we discuss here have three different points of view towards women. To some extent they identify areas where ``modern feminism'' comes into contact with ``traditional values.'' The analysis which follows tries to decipher and articulate these points of view. It also attempts to determine the ways in which these films affect the discourse generated by the Women's Movement. But before the analysis we summarize the plots of these films.

The first film analyzed is the 1994 blockbuster Mohra. It is standard Bombay fare featuring stars like Akshay Kumar (as Amar Saxena), Raveena Tandon (as Roma Singh), Sunil Shetty (as Vishal Agnihotri) and Naseeruddin Shah (as Mr Jindal). Vishal is imprisoned in the jail where Roma's father is the superintendent. Roma goes to visit her father's jail in order to write an article about it. There some prisoners try to rape her. Vishal rescues her from them. Roma finds out that Vishal is imprisoned for murder. On probing she finds that Vishal had been married and his wife's sister had been raped and killed by some boys in her college who were under the influence of drugs. Due to a corrupt prosecutor the boys went scotfree. They then tried to rape Vishal's wife. She stabbed herself before they could get to her. In response, Vishal killed all four of them and got imprisoned for it. Roma, with the help of Mr Jindal, the blind owner of the paper she works for, arranges a second ``trial'' for Vishal in which his case is reviewed and he is released. Mr Jindal convinces Vishal that he should become a vigilante and kill the real culprits behind his wife and sister-in-law's deaths i.e. the drug dealers. Amar Saxena is a police officer who is also involved in busting the two main drug dealers of their city, the evocatively named Tyson and Gibran. Vishal starts killing off their henchmen but Amar gets on his trail. Despite that, Vishal finishes almost all of them off. Jindal now tells him to kill the Commissioner of Police who he says is corrupt. But Vishal realizes that this is a setup and confronts Jindal. It turns out that Jindal is not blind and he is actually an evil mastermind who wanted Tyson and Gibran to be destroyed so that he could become the undisputed king of crime. He kidnaps Roma, who is now engaged to Amar, and is about to escape with her when Amar and Vishal, together now, foil his plans in the expected way.

The next film we consider is Mother India, made in 1957 by Mehboob. This is the story of Radha (Nargis Dutt) who marries Shamoo (Raj Kumar) and comes to his village. There she discovers that Shamoo's mother, Sundar Chachi, has pawned their family land to pay for the wedding. The village usurer, Sukhilala, takes three-fourths of their produce as interest on the loan of 500 rupees (about $15) that he gave her. Every year they give most of their produce to Sukhilala but they are unable to pay off the loan because all they give to him is counted as interest. Sukhilala is able to get this deal through because Sundar Chachi is illiterate and has put her thumb imprint on a contract she cannot read. In an effort to clear an arid piece of land which they own, Radha and Shamoo try to move some big boulders. In this process one of the boulders rolls on to Shamoo's arms and he has to have them amputated. He is unable to come to terms with his helpless condition and runs away leaving Radha alone. Soon after this Sundar Chachi dies. This is followed by a flood in which two of Radha's four sons die. Sukhilala offers her food in return for her sexual favours. She resists for a long time but is unable to bear the fact that her children are starving. So she goes to his place. Just as she is about to submit to him she gets a divine signal that her husband is still alive. She leaves Sukhilala's house and confronts her problems with new hope. Next we see her as an old woman and her two sons Birjoo (Sunil Dutt) and Ramoo (Rajendra Kumar) as grown men. Ramoo is a responsible type but Birjoo is a ne'er-do-well who resents the fact that Sukhilala continues to take three-fourths of their produce. Birjoo's inability to control his aggression makes him a nuisance to the villagers and finally, despite Radha's pleas, he is thrown out of the village and becomes a dacoit. When Sukhilala's daughter is getting married he threatens to come and abduct her. Radha assures Sukhilala that she will protect his daughter's honour and, when Birjoo comes and tries to abduct her, Radha shoots him dead.

The third film is Mirch Masala, made in 1989 by Ketan Mehta. It is the story of Sonbai (Smita Patil) who works in a chili factory somewhere in the western part of preindependance India.gif Her husband gets a job in the railways and leaves for the city. In the meantime the Subedar (or tax collector, played by Naseeruddin Shah) arrives to collect taxes and he sees Sonbai. He is attracted to her and asks the village headman, the Mukhi, to send her to him. He sends the wrong woman. The next day she is passing by the place where the Subedar has his camp. He stops her and grabs hold of her. She frees herself and slaps him. He asks his soldiers to catch her. She runs into the chili factory where she works. The old muslim watchman Abu Miyan (Om Puri) takes her in and closes the gates. A parallel thread is that of the Mukhi's wife, the Mukhiain, who is not treated well by her husband. She tries to drum up support for Sonbai when she gets to know that her husband and all the men of the village have capitulated to the Subedar and have agreed to hand Sonbai over to him. But her protest is rudely crushed by the men, and the Subedar, accompanied by all the men of the village, reaches the factory. Abu Miyan refuses to open the doors and the Subedar's men break it down and kill him. In the final scene of the film the Subedar approaches Sonbai when suddenly the other women in the factory take bags of chili powder and throw them in his face.

Let us now consider each of these films separately.

The main female character in Mohra is Roma Singh. She is a journalist working for a newspaper called Samadhan (literally meaning solution). The name of the newspaper implies that it is an activist publication typically expected to do battle with corruption and government neglect. Roma's position as the assistant editor of this paper is supposed to establish her as an activist journalist.

Her activism and the moral rectitude that it suggests along with her enterprising nature (she lands up at her father's place without even telling him, she is not daunted by the idea of roaming around in a jail) are the initial attempts to establish her as a ``modern" woman. However, the undercutting of this begins even as it is being established. She explains to her father how she has managed to wangle a trip to meet him, he is a jail superintendent, by coming up with the idea of doing a story about the jail he works in. Her professional life, the source of her ``progressiveness," is trivialized by the implication that she is just using it as a means to further her family life. The operating assumption is that a professional woman's work is not to be taken seriously and nor is she.

Throughout the film Roma's professional achievements are due to the intervention of her powerful boss Mr Jindal. She is able to stand up to the editor by aligning herself with Jindal who is the owner of the paper. She is able to get important meetings with police top shots because of the influence that Jindal wields. We may initially assume that this is a gender-neutral manifestation of the powermongering that is common in any such setup. Even from this generous point of view we find that Roma's own competency is never allowed to be established. In fact she is shown to be incompetent and even naive. Although her intentions are noble she is unable to convince the ``jury" of Vishal's innocence. It is Jindal's intervention that makes the difference and secures Vishal's release.

Jindal's eventual confession of his lust for Roma undercuts any notion that we could have had of her being a journalistic force. When she gets Inspector Amar Saxena to give her the files she requires by coming on to him we have already been invited to suspect that whatever she gets done is due to the fact that men, the real wielders of power, get led on by her sexual charms and do her favours. This suspicion is confirmed by Jindal's professed attraction for her. He wanted to have sex with her, and that is why he favoured her. He didn't back her professionally for any other reason; she was no promising young protege deserving of protection and help. She was simply a body which he had to possess.

Roma's body language is the other thing which is supposed to depict her as a ``liberated" woman. In all her encounters with Amar she is shown to be sexually aggressive. This doesn't bring her down off her moral pedestal since the audience knows that they are going to fall in love and, inevitably, get married. This knowledge is conveyed indirectly through a system of codes within and outside the film's narrative and we will discuss these a bit later in this essay. The construction of this sexual aggression follows concepts of male sexual aggression.gif Roma is shown chewing gum and checking out Amar in the same way in which the boys in Vishal's sister-in-law, Rita's, college check her (Rita) out. Roma even sets up a rendezvous with Amar where she wriggles and dances her way into his heart. This song sequence `` Tip Tip barsa pani" (literally ``the rain is falling") is probably one of the most explicit of such performances to bypass the Indian Central Board for Film Certification. It is the apogee of the trend of sexually explicit song sequences which started in the early '90s. It is these song sequences which have relentlessly undermined the female characters in contemporary commercial Hindi cinema. In Mohra this process of undermining is seen in all its glory.

Commercial Hindi cinema has had musical content from its very inception. Often enough extremely popular songs have caused otherwise mediocre movies to achieve superhit status. Mohra packed the theatres because of one of its songs: `` Tu cheez badi hai mast mast" (roughly translated this means you are a very intoxicating thing.) Months before the actual release of the film this song was at the top of the various top ten or top twenty countdowns which have become an integral part of TV and radio programming in India in the '90s. Millions of Indian's saw fragments of this song every week. A regular exposure to these fragments before they saw the film established Raveena Tandon (the actress, as distinct from Roma Singh the character) as the point of reference for this film. She was seen cavorting on TV screens months before the relevance of this cavorting in the narrative scheme of the film was established for the people who saw it. This was a process existing outside the framework of the film but it went a long way in making two associations for the viewing audience. The first was that the character that Raveena Tandon is playing in Mohra (later they will discover that she is called Roma) is an intoxicating thing ( Mast cheez). The second is that she, Raveena Tandon, is a mohra (literally pawn, or piece on the chessboard).

It is the security of this knowledge, gained before entering the theatre, which allows the audience (or at least the male component of the audience) to accept Roma's sexuality and even revel in it. Divested of all politically unsettling possibilities Roma can relax into ``.. [the] traditional exhibitionist role [in which] women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearances coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness." ([LM71], original emphasis.) This fragment of Laura Mulvey's analysis (from her essay ``Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema") is not the only relevant one in the context of the two song sequences that we are discussing ( ``Tip Tip ..." and ``Tu Cheez ..."). In both these sequences the woman serves as an erotic object for Amar Saxena on screen and the male audience in the theatre which is expected to identify with him. In ``Tip Tip .." we see Raveena Tandon in the distance as he approaches her. Her features are indistinct as she wriggles and squirms. As soon as we come within proper sight of her the camera preserves the two dimensional nature of her image by rushing in and showing us parts of her body.

``One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen." [LM71]

At this point it is worth mentioning the scene in which Rita gets raped. She is chased by her rapists into a bathroom. On the wall behind her we see a number of pin-ups of semi-nude women. She falls to her knees in front of the jacuzzi thereby providing another pin-up image and then slips into the water providing the ultimate wet-clothing schoolboy fantasy. The iconising of the female body in the song sequences is almost subtle by contrast. The songs demand more careful analysis because they have wider acceptance and more involved agendas.

The song sequence does not serve only to present the female body as spectacle. This is an essential function too thereby bearing out another of Laura Mulvey's claims. But spectacle is only one of the layers of meaning that the song sequence is made to bear.

At the most obvious level the song has a nominal diegetic purpose. For example, ``Tip Tip ..." is supposed to be the seduction of the hero implying the point after which he and the heroine are a couple. ``Tu Cheez .." is the age-old Hindi film device of penetrating the villain's stronghold by means of song and dance. In recent years this flimsy narrative function has been dispensed with and the concept of the ``inserted" song has come into vogue. This is a song which bears marginal relation to the plot and is inserted into the movie a few weeks after its initial release to induce repeat viewing. Mohra has an insert which is called ``Mein cheez badi hoon mast mast ie. I am a very intoxicating thing, which is picturised on Raveena Tandon.

The second level is that of spectacle which is accomplished in various ways, some of which we have discussed. The third level of meaning is the explicit reassertion of dominant values. The subtlest way of doing this is via body language. Both the song sequences we have talked about are choreographed with movements which simulate sexual intercourse. In ``Tu Cheez ...", Akshay Kumar and the accompanying male dancers dance steps which are organized around pelvic thrusts forward whereas Raveena Tandon and the female dancers tend to wriggle around. The sexual position being implied is the male dominant one with the man doing the work and the woman as the receptacle who has to be seen to be enjoying what is being done to her. In another song "Subah Se Lekar Sham Tak (literally, from morning to evening) the heroine pleads with the hero to make love to her from morning to evening. She is soft and submissive and wants him to assume the active role by making love to her. At one point the hero mouths the same phrase ( mujhe pyar karo ie. make love to me) but the accompanying visual of him bending over her negates the possibility of it being interpreted as a handoff of his dominance.

The preeminence of Amar in this song is also a function of the fact that Roma and he have gotten engaged. So now he is no longer just the lover, he is the husband. Roma's sexual energy is extremely subdued here in comparison to the explosiveness of ``Tu Cheez .." and ``Tip Tip .." She is now the wife and she has to reshape herself to fit this role. And her role as seen in this song is similar to the role played by Vishal's wife in the movie's first song ``Tum Kitni Sundar Ho" (literally, you are so beautiful). The lyrics of the song, sung mainly by Vishal, proclaim that she (his wife) is beautiful despite not having beautified herself. This contradicts what is seen on screen (the beautification thing, she is actually quite good-looking). The point being made is that for a husband the wife is always beautiful. Noble thought that, except that all through we are being treated to closeups of various aspects of that beauty. Her coy and submissive behaviour is in tune with the expectations generated by the way in which she holds out her mangalsutra.gif By displaying her mangalsutra within a few seconds of her first appearance she indicates to the audience who she is in relation to him.

Establishing relationships through such shorthands is a practice which runs through this film. These codes are derived from a Hindi film based view of Indian (read Hindu) culture. One of the first examples we get of this is when Roma is going around the jail and is attacked by some of the inmates. As they are about to rape her Vishal appears. She runs over to him. As the attackers come towards them Vishal uses some milk to draw a line on the floor between the two of them and the attackers. This is a reference to the line drawn by Rama's brother Lakshman in the epic poem Ramayana to protect his sister-in-law Sita from the demons. By putting the line on the floor Vishal indicates to the audience that he and Roma are related in the way that Lakshman and Sita were. After this there can be no sexual possibilities between them. But by doing this he also indicates and reaffirms the contemporary popular reading of the epic which reaffirms the notion that a woman can be safe only under the protection of a man who is either her husband or bears a chaste relationship towards her.

By projecting acceptable norms Mohra establishes itself firmly in the mainstream of commercial Hindi cinema. Its toeing of the line is not a forced act, it is something that comes naturally. I would submit that the ``line" is not something which exists outside the film and has to be ``toed." It is a common contention that many of the attitudes towards women in movies like Mohra are a legacy of the past. Writing in G, an Indian film magazine, Monica Motwani states ``The heroine may have metamorphised (sic) over the years, but she still cannot break away from the shackles of certain norms set by Hindi cinema years ago."[MM96] On the other hand there are some who posit a major progressiveness in attitudes towards women. In an article in the Hindu Bhawna Somaya writes ``In the process of performing her roles as a mother, sister, wife, daughter or girlfriend, [the woman of today] most often, no longer forgets the importance of her most vital role... as herself."[BS96] While this may be an extremely optimistic point of view as the analysis of certain aspects of Mohra here shows, the doomsaying that Motwani articulates may not be warranted either.

``Dominant values" are a constantly evolving entity and films like Mohra contribute to this evolution. The general structure of the discourse remains the same but even a film like Mohra adds its own bit to it. For example, Roma's being a journalist is an attempt by this film to bring the stereotype of modern woman as journalist into the discourse. The unfortunate aspect of this is that the addition may not be the most progressive one imaginable. For this the makers of Mohra have no one to blame but themselves. Almost forty years before Mohra, a film was made which, if viewed in hindsight, may not seem to be that revolutionary, but which engaged with the culture which produced it in a non-confrontational way and yet produced a woman the likes of which Bombay cinema was rarely to see in the coming years. This film was Mother India.

Mother India was made exactly ten years after India became independent of British rule. The socialist experiment initiated by Nehru was in its early years. In this film the director, Mehboob, attempts a marriage between socialistic ideals and ``traditional values.'' But this film is not a card-carrying communist film. Nor is it a mushy mythological movie with gods and goddesses spouting medieval conservatism.gif Mehboob's vision is subtler than both.

The film opens with Radha as an old woman being asked to inaugurate a new canal which has been constructed through her village. The men who preside over the function are dressed in homespun and are all wearing Gandhi caps. They keep referring to her as the mother of the village and refuse to let anyone but her inaugurate the canal. This initial sequence with its plethora of contemporary (to that time) images is an important device for establishing the context within which the rest of the film is to be viewed. Even before we get to know her story we are informed of one certain incontrovertible facts: Radha is a survivor, she is the woman who will usher in the new period of prosperity and development that stretches ahead.

That a woman should be identified with India is not surprising. The term ``Bharat Mata'' (literally meaning Mother India) is a part of the Indian psyche. Mother India starting the way it does may make it seem like another feelgood melodrama about invincible motherhood with its inevitably reductive reading of women. As the film proceeds with scenes of Radha and Shamoo's marriage we are put in the familiar position of identifying the rhetoric of patriarchy. There is a song accompanying the bridal procession which proclaims that the woman's fate is to leave home. There is the scene in the bridal chamber where Radha coyly awaits her groom. As he approaches her the voice singing in the background tells us how Radha is not special in any way and her fulfillment lies in gaining the acceptance of her husband. She falls to his feet and he picks her up and admires her.

These scenes and her subsequent submissive behaviour towards her husband and her mother-in-law serve an important function in Mehboob's scheme of things. Radha is portrayed as everywoman. She is a normal ideal wife and daughter-in-law. Her love for her husband is equated to divine love.gif She is responsible and full of common sense. Essentially the women in the audience are expected to identify fully with her and the men are invited to look at her in a non-sexual light and identify her as their own wives or mothers or neighbours. This initial process of forming a bond with the audience by making a direct connection with perceived notions of the woman in the street is an important strategy. At various points in the movie this connection is reemphasised. An example is the scene in which Radha decides to give herself to Sukhilala in exchange for food for her starving children. She tears her mangalsutra and throws it to the floor. In a scene which never becomes voyeuristic, Sukhilala chases her around the room showering her with things. Finally, just as he is about to be grab her she falls to the floor and discovers her mangalsutra lying right there. She immediately attributes this to the goddess whose statue Sukhilala keeps in his room. She picks up her mangalsutra and leaves. The goddess has protected her chastity. In another direct evocation of ``Indian values'' she is shown covered in mud when she goes to Sukhilala's home. This evokes the Sanskrit shloka ``Paradareshu matrivat, pardravyeshu losthvat .... yah pashyati sah panditah''gif (Meaning: He alone is a truly wise man who sees another man's woman as his mother and another man's wealth as dirt). The dirt covered woman Sukhilala lusts after is the point of coincidence of motherhood and wealth.

This is not the only aspect of the portrayal that may be seen as politically incorrect by '90s feminists. Radha has three sons while Shamoo ridicules Sukhilala for having a daughter. Her sons are shown leading her by the hand even when they are very small. But even in the beginning when Radha is a submissive bride the counterpoint is playing along. Shamoo's only parent, Sundar Chachi, is a woman who has raised her only son alone and got him married off in style. She is a strong woman who is good to her daughter-in-law and handles household matters and agriculture with equal competence. When she gets duped out of her land by Sukhilala this does not reflect on the fact that she is a woman. Her illiteracy is shared by all the men in the village as well. In fact she puts up a spirited show at the village council meeting where her case comes up for hearing. Sundar Chachi's independence continually offsets any negative impact that Radha's initial submissiveness causes. It is significant that Radha comes into her own only after the old woman finally passes away.

With three-fourths of the produce going to Sukhilala, Shamoo and Radha have to work hard just to make ends meet. There are numerous images of Radha and Shamoo, sickle in hand, harvesting the grain. In fact we ae even shown silhouettes of the two of them, sickle in hand, with their heads tilted up looking into distance; a typically socialist image. She is alongside him always, the perfect comrade, unhindered by her gender. There is no contradiction between this role and the traditional wife's role. The effective interleaving of the shoulder-to-shoulder images with the silent housewife images makes their coexistence credible.

When Shamoo leaves her and goes away because of his inability to deal with his own inadequacy the stage is set for her to come into her own. The real break with the melodramatic is the fact that Shamoo never comes back although she never loses hope. This hope is shown to be the source of her strength as things go from bad to worse. But the strength is undoubtedly her own. She takes on to herself the reponsibility for raising her children. Since her bullocks have been taken by Sukhilala, she has to pull the plow herself. The close-up of Nargis Dutt as Radha with a plow on her shoulder pulling at it with an expression of pain and concentration is an image which is burned into the mind of every Indian.

The song which accompanies this scene typifies the nullification of the seeming dichotomy between the socialist working woman and the traditional Indian woman. The lyrics are fatalistic in the extreme ( ``Duniya mein aaye hain to jeena hi padega, jivan hai agar zeher to peena hi padege'' ie. If we have come to this world then we have to live. If life is poison then we have to drink this poison.) It goes on further to declare that in this life only laaj is a woman's dharma. Both of these words have a number of meanings but the intended meaning of laaj seems to be honour and that of dharma seems to be somewhere between duty and religion. The point being that a woman can carry these fatalistic beliefs which are part of her conditioning and use them in the service of the positive ethic of struggling against the odds.

Circumstances deteriorate till the scene in Sukhilala's house which has been discussed above. Her womanhood and faith in the continuing wellbeing of her husband is renewed by means of a deus ex machina which could really have been no more than a coincidence. She can now go it alone and is shown doing so. The film now moves forward in time and shifts its emphasis slightly. This second half of the film follows the scheme of the first half. Radha is shown to be a typically doting mother who revels in the love and affection of her grown sons. Again there is a safeguard which prevents us from thinking of her as a stereotypical wet-eyed powerless dependant mother. This safeguard is the knowledge of the sacrifices she has made for them and the fact that they owe their existence to her. But the process of identification is encouraged as she goes through all the motions that would not be out of place in any of the numerous mother-glorifying films that are turned out all the time.

Her son Birjoo turns into a dacoit. She tries to protect him from the villagers who want to kill him.gif She runs after him and pleads with the villagers to forgive him. But when he abducts a woman from her marriage Radha takes a stand and tells him to return the girl or she will shoot him. Birjoo scoffs at this saying that she is his mother and can never do something like that. AT this point she says ``I may be your mother, but I am also a woman'' and she shoots him dead as he gallops away. The lyrics that Radha had sung earlier ``In life laaj is a woman's only dharma'' becomes more significant now with the only becoming emphasised. Radha's act of solidarity with the girl being abducted is not because of any particular attachment with that particular girl (in fact the girl is the daughter of her old enemy, Sukhilala.) It is an act of solidarity with the whole of womanhood. And in putting this above Radha's love for her son, Mehboob makes a really daring and progressive statement.

In a recent piece on Kalpana Lajmi's 1993 film Rudaali, Radha Subramanyam raises a number of questions as she tries to feel her way to describing her own position vis-a-vis that film.

``Despite my intellectual and emotional involvement in the text, prompted by its psychobiographic verisimilitude, its sophistication and complexity, I am led to question its political implications. With the shortage of female-centered, let alone feminist, films in the Indian cinematic context, with the dearth of positive role models in media representations, and with the brute reality of hundreds of millions of women internalizing the roots of their own destruction, would not a film that plays down the contradictions within female conciousness be more useful? A sympathetic representation such as this can lead us to emapthize with rather than question such contradictions. Or would a more simplistic portrayal fail because of its reductive nature, because female audiences could not identify with superwomen free of conflict? In Anglo-American feminist film theory of the past two decades there have been different positions on the issue of what is the most appropriate form of feminist (self) representation .. Rudaali opens up similar questions in the context of Third World feminist film production; it does not, however , give us any easy answers.'' [RS96]

It would be simplistic to assume that Mother India provides the answers to the extremely pertinent questions raised by Subramanyam. However, this film does address the contradiction which Subramnyam points out here. Mother India's Radha is not a superwoman. She is extremely believable. Yet she provides an empowering example. In her analysis of Coma Elizabeth Cowie asks

``..is the question of the image of Susan as progressive and positive posed within the film or in relation to cultural values within the Women's Movement which are then brought to bear on the film?'' [EC79]
Cowie goes on to argue that the former question is worth posing. Subramanyam is not sure which way this dilemma should be resolved. If Mother India, or for that matter Rudaali, is interrogated without too much referrence to ``cultural values within the Women's Movement'' it can be seen as a genuine attempt to transform the discourse on women and make it more progressive. The point I have tried to make all through my discussion is that Mother India may seem to condone certain things which would be abhorrent to Western feminist values and would seem to be quite retrograde to the west-influenced Indian feminist movement which is rightly concerned with ``.. the brute reality of hundreds of millions of women internalizing the roots of their own destruction.'' But if we look at the scope and reach of the contribution that a film like Mother India is capable of making then it may be a good idea to free it from having to bear the burden of contemporary feminist ideology.

Mother India is not a film made by a woman but it gives important pointers to the issue of representation raised by Subramanyam. The editor of Manushigif, Madhu Kishwar writes

``I have come to the point where I believe that the conflict is not so much between `western' and `Indian' approaches ... [but] between those seriously engaged with people's lives and ideas and those who use ideology as a substitute for ideas and facts.'' [MK96]
It is incontrovertible that Mehboob is ``engaged with people's lives and ideas'' in the making of this film. Whatever may have been his own ideological bent (it is doubtful that a male Hindi filmmaker in the 1950s would have been a feminist) his film works towards constructing a positive view of women. The film is as selfconcious of its role in shaping the discourse as the most blatantly propagandist film. By taking the middle path between a reductive mother-wife representation and a superwoman representation, it points the direction where the answer to Subramanyam's questions may lie.

In her essay ``Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,'' Laura Mulvey laid down the agenda for feminist film making.

`` ...This is not to reject the [mainstream film] moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and compulsions.'' [LM71], emphasis added.
Ketan Mehta's 1989 film Mirch Masala signals itself clearly to be part of this ``alternative cinema.'' One of the most important indicators of this is the role that the camera plays. Throughout the film we never see any female body fragmented. By always keeping the whole body in the frame and zooming in only on the face the camera always attributes person-hood to the women in this film. This is no mean feat. In her critique of Rudaali, Radha Subramnyam mentions one of the song sequences
``...[the elements of the typical song and dance number in popular Indian movies] occur, in Mulvian terms, through the fragmentation and stylization of the body in closeups and through the occasional playing down of screen depth to create a one-dimensionality that suggests objectification. This subtle objectification of woman in a self-consciously feminist text indicates once again how hard it is to bring down the master's house with the master's tools.'' [RS96], emphasis added.
Mirch Masala, made four years before Rudaali, is also constituted in ``Mulvian terms,'' but in direct opposition to them. The fragmentation which Subramnyam talks about and which I have discussed in detail in the context of Mohra is shown to be absent in Mirch Masala. Its absence is emphasized in the one song sequence which Mirch Masala has. The women dance in a circle and we see the lustful Subedar looking at them but we never get to see them from his point of view. They are always shown either from a distance, dancing in a group or as one woman at a time with the bottom of the frame at knee height and the top of the frame about a foot or two above her head. The camera as voyeur is repeatedly denied. There are a number of scenes where the Subedar is shown sizing up women. In one scene he looks at Sonbai through a telescope. We see him point the telescope and we anticipate the telescopic view of her that almost any other film would provide. But it never comes and, by subverting this expectation makes us aware that such an expectation existed. In a review of Bandit Queen, Linda Lopez McAlistar writes
``.. feminist filmmakers who want to take on the subject of violence against women in their films need to (and do) find cinematic strategies to depict the violence in ways which don't incite the audience members who might be so inclined to identify with the perpetrators.'' [LLM95]
Not only does Mirch Masala bear out McAlistar's claim and prevent this identification, it also implicates the audience by making them aware of the fact that they have undergone this process of identification in the past.

Another important counterpoint to popular Hindi cinema is found in the character of Abu Miyan, the old muslim who tries to protect the women from the Subedar. In Mohra we saw how Vishal, a young muscular man, comes to Roma's rescue when she is about to be raped. That virile and powerful image of the protective patriarchy is attacked by making Abu Miyan an old decrepit soldier who can barely walk straight. The clear message is that the security offered by the patriarchy's rhetoric, as articulated by Abu Miyan when he refuses to open the factory's gate, is not backed up with any real strength. Whenever oppressive forces wish to they can kick it aside contemptuously as the Subedar kicks aside Abu Miyan's gun after he is killed by one of the Subedar's soldiers.

In 1971 Mulvey said that though an alternative cinema was possible `` .. it can still only exist as a counterpoint.''[LM71] However Mirch Masala refutes this. Providing a counterpoint is an important function of the film and, as we have seen above, it carries this function at various levels. But Mirch Masala sees looking, which is one of the major ``psychical obsession'' of popular film, as something bigger than popular film. The larger scheme of the film is to attack the look, not only in cinema, but in the real world.

When Sonbai is being harassed by the women in the factory who are trapped in there with her she is taunted in an age old way. She is told that the fault lies in her beauty, at which she turns around and asks ``Why not in his look?'' The women have no answer to that. Red chilis serve as a powerful image in this film. When the Subedar's men are chasing Sonbai she is shown running into a field where mounds of red chilis are drying. She falls on one of those mounds. Sonbai sitting on that red background evokes the idea of menstruation. But before the end of the movie it will be these same chilis, now in the form of powder, that the women throw into the Subedar's eyes. Menstrual blood with the power to blind is flung in wave after wave into the offending eyes. In small quantities chilis can spice up food, but, in larger quantities they can burn. The final scene is an empowering one and it is only fitting that the tableau invokes an image of Kali.gif Abu Miyan refers to Sonbai as Kali because she is darkgif and as the blood-like haze of chili powder clears and the Subedar falls in agony to the ground, we see Smita Patil, herself an icon of the Women's movement, as Sonbai with a sickle in her hand, the dark lines of kaajalgif emphasizing her Kali-hood.

Where the film is less successful is in its attempts to provide positive messages through the character of the Mukhiain. This is not to say that her attempts to put her daughter in school and her rallying the village women around Sonbai are not progressive images, they certainly are. The only problem I have is that the Mukhiain's is a 1980s Women's Movement agenda. To follow this in a film set in the 1930sgif is difficult without sacrificing verisimilitude to some extent. An example is the scene where the Mukhiain leads the women to the factory beating plates. The act of beating plates was an extremely popular form of protest used by women in the 1980s. By using this the film reaffirms its firm rooting in the Indian feminist movement. But this, in itself, is not really too serious a problem. A small suspension of disbelief is enough to get past it and into the film.

Writing in the ``Economic and Political Weekly,'' Supriya Akerkar argues that

`` ... women's movements can be treated as `discursive practices.'gif ... They do not depend for their existence on prior theories of emancipation, but rather seek a new relation with theory through localised articulation and understandings of emancipation.'' [SA95]

While agreeing with this point of view I would like to add that the discourse which Akerkar refers to is not independent of influences lying outside the Women's movement. It has been my effort in this paper to look at the way in which three radically different films have affected the discourse. It would be reductive to try and thread these three films together and pass judgments on each of them. In a contemporary context each of them has their own importance; the reach and acceptability of Mohra far surpasses that of Mirch Masala which has to bear the cross of being an ``art film.'' Mother India's message of progressiveness and the subtle and effective way it propagates this message is a plus for it which neither of the other films can claim. Mirch Masala's militant feminism and empowering messages are far more acceptable in light of the contemporary feminist debate than Mother India. Its cinematic progressiveness (in the way it wields a sensitive, non-voyeuristic camera) shows up Mohra as a retrograde ultraconservative film which undermines a seemingly progressive female character.

Each of these films, however, has the capability of affecting the discourse and, in fact, each of these films has done so. The issues which these films raise and address are wide and varied. I have made an attempt here to present different points of view on the same set of issues. It is my belief that each of these films has something or the other to learn from the others. In the foreseeable future it is unlikely that the strands that these films represent will merge or even approach each other but a communication will eventually emerge between them which will benefit all of them.





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Amitabha Bagchi
Wed Dec 18 15:44:09 EST 1996