India: At last some strong screen women

BY shahla raza| IN Media Practice | 22/12/2003
After a long gap, viewers are feasting on films that have handled women characters sensitively and boldly.

By Shahla Raza                                                         
Women`s Feature Service

At last, there is something to cheer about at the end of the year. While for the most part of 2003, Bollywood threw up films which were virtual skin shows -`Jism`, `Khwaish`, `Qayamat`, `Andaz` and `Boom` - in the last quarter of the year, a few films with strong women characters and a relatively better understanding on female sexuality arrived.

It was a refreshing change to see strong and articulate women come alive on
the screen in `Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon`, `Samay`, `Pinjar` and
`Tehzeeb`. Equally fetching have been the women-oriented themes of two
regional films with Bollywood actors - `Anahat` and `Chokher Bali`.

Both Chandraprakash Dwivedi`s `Pinjar` and Khalid Mohammed`s `Tehzeeb` have
won Urmila Matondkar rave reviews. "Pooro is not the obvious heroine but an
Indian woman who has risen from circumstances to become one," says
Matondkar of her character in `Pinjar`, in a recent interview. Pooro is a
Hindu girl abducted by a Muslim man a few days before her wedding during
the year of the Partition. When she runs away from her abductor, her father
refuses to take her in because of the shame it would bring to the family.
Left without much choice, Pooro returns to her abductor, converts to Islam
and marries him. While the pain of separation from her family lives within
her, she meets other women suffering similarly. She takes it upon herself
to help reunite them with their families, especially the woman who would
have been her sister-in-law, had Pooro not been abducted.

The film is based on Amrita Pritam`s novel and deals with women whose lives
were torn apart by the Partition. "`Pinjar` is about anger, aggression and
violence against women," said the director in an interview to The Week.

Mohammed`s `Tehzeeb` deals with the complex mother-daughter relationship.
Here Matondkar plays ‘Tehzeeb’, an angry young woman who resents her mother
neglecting her family for her career. Interestingly, this film portrays a
young woman (Matondkar) who opts for domesticity as a form of rebellion
against her career-oriented mother. Equally strong in portrayal is Shabana
Azmi as the mother-singer Rukhsana Jamal, who struggles hard to keep the
finances going after her husband quits working. Jamal immerses herself in
her career, leaving her children (including a mentally challenged girl) to
fend for themselves. The film touches upon the problems of career-oriented
women and the resentment they face.

 Chandan Arora’s small-budget film,
`Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti
has also left its mark on the audience. The film tells the story of a
young girl Chutki, who is a Madhuri Dixit fan and dreams of making it as
big as her idol. The movie traces Chutki`s journey from a small village to
the big bad world of the Mumbai film industry.

What is unusual about the film is that it celebrates the aspirations of a
young woman with remarkable frankness. The small town Chutki (played by
Antara Mali) is portrayed as a confident girl, having full faith in her
abilities. The film disregards normal patriarchal rules of mainstream
cinema and has the male lead, Rajpal Yadav, in a supporting role. He
doesn`t mind being the "man behind the successful woman".

After a long gap, viewers are feasting on films that have handled women
characters sensitively and boldly. In their regional productions, both
Rituparno Ghosh and Amol Palekar have attempted to portray women as sexual
beings. Not as sex symbols (as several Bollywood filmmakers apparently
think of them) but as women who articulate their sexual aspirations

Ghosh`s Bengali film `Chokher Bali`(Dust in the Eye), has Aishwariya Rai in
a stunning portrayal of a young widow, Binodini, who is consumed with
desire for a married man during the independence struggle. Binodini is not
shown as a naïve woman, but someone who is astute and cunning. She
alienates her friend Ashalata`s husband (whom she is in love with) from
her. Yet, Binodini manages to evoke sympathy rather than hostility. Ghosh
said in a recent interview to the Indo-Asian News Service that the film is
about the character`s "intrinsic desire for personal liberty while the
drone for national sovereignty grows around them".

Palekar`s Marathi film with English sub-titles, `Anahat`, explores and
projects the issue of women`s sexuality. `Anahat` is adapted from Surendra
Verma`s play `Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak` and stars
Sonali Bendre in the central role. Set in 10th century India, the film
explores a woman`s right to sexual fulfilment. "I play a strong, powerful
woman. But I won`t call her a feminist. You don`t have to be brash or loud
to be heard or to make things clear," says Bendre about her role, in a
newspaper interview.

In `Anahat` she plays the queen, who in order to provide an heir to the
kingdom, is forced to follow the ritual of niyog (by which the queen
chooses a man with whom she would make love for one night, with the aim of
being able to produce an heir). In the film, the impotent king persuades
the queen to agree to the ritual. The queen is initially traumatised, but
when she returns to the palace after her one night sexual experience, she
feels sexually fulfilled. "Although `Anahat` is set in the 10th century, it
deals with contemporary issues like gender equality and the right to
choose," said Palekar in a recent interview.

Interestingly, not only have the recent films attempted to show strong
heroines, they proactively break away from the stereotype of having a man
as the central figure on whom the film rests. Take Robby Grewal`s
which has Sushmita Sen play a tough crime-investigating cop who is also a
single mom. "It was originally written keeping a man in mind and that made
it tough. But I believe any job a man can do, a woman can do better!" said
Sen recently.

While none of these women-centric films may turn out to be hits, they have
been successful to a large extent in changing the inferior screen-image
heroines had acquired - that of the ever-sacrificing, helpless female who
has no aspirations, and who finds fulfilment only in serving her man and
his children.

As Sen said during a recent interview for a website: "It used to be an
industry where actresses were considered props - may be a vase on the
sideboard. Now at last, the vase has reached the centre table..."

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