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Framing the Feminine – depictions of women in Indian film

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Visions of woman are contaminated by male-defined notions of the truth of femininity. This is true not only of the negative cultural images of women (prostitute, demon, medusa, bluestocking, vagina dentate) but also of positive ones (woman as nature, woman as nurturing mother, or innocent virgin, or heroic amazon . . . ). Woman is always a metaphor, dense with sedimented meanings. Traditionally the entire world is male. ‘Man’ means the whole human race, and ‘woman’ is just a part of it. But think ‘in female’ for a moment.

Imagine that everything you have ever read uses only female pronouns, she, her, etc for both men and women. Recall that most of the voices on radio and faces on TV are female, especially when important events are shown in the news. Imagine that women are the leaders, the power centres and if you are tempted to laugh and say that it would lead to catastrophe; ask yourself where we are now? Men are shown in films only in their natural roles as husband and father, or else as whores and very nasty persons. Men are shown only in their natural functions of trying to attract women and making the world a comfortable place for women.

Imagine that countless films show men as simple-minded little sex objects, and you despair of finding a strong role-model for your little boy (for whom you see other futures than slut, bitch or house-husband). Imagine that the women in charge of the film industry use their power to ridicule the men’s liberation movement, presenting them in films as a bunch of frustrated studs, deluded into thinking they can be women, burning their jockstraps and waving signs but always ending up in the boudoir of a condescending woman, always giving up the struggle and being happily subservient to her.

Then imagine that if you complain you are given the biological explanation: a female’s genitals are compact and internal, protected by her body. A man’s genitals are exposed and must be protected from attack. His vulnerability requires sheltering thus, in films, men must not be shown in ungentle-manlike professions. I hope by now it is obvious that women must be shown in a much wider variety of roles. Their characterization must have heroism and human dignity expressed in fields besides homemaking, loving a man, and bearing children.

Women must be shown as active, not passive; strong women shouldn’t constantly face ridicule and unhappy endings. Women should be shown in adventures which don’t revolve around sexual attraction for a man; or working with other women without cattiness. Men will become more sensual in sex role shows many of the films that I have seen, where the hero somehow makes love without unzipping his fly! This does not mean that men and women’s roles in films must be completely and irrevocably reversed.

Women just want a chance to be heroes; a chance to be shown as humanly (not just femininely) frail; and a chance to see men in some of the ungainly situations in which women have so commonly been shown. When you think ‘in female’ you will know that traditional themes, characterizations, and even, perhaps, standard approaches to tragedy and comedy, need to be translated ‘into female. ‘ If we take a glance at media, we come to the interpretation that the role of a woman in a film almost always revolves around her physical attraction and the mating games she plays with the male characters.

Women, in any fully human form, have almost completely been left out of film. We can thus say that each female actress has represented some or the other trait for instance, Meena Kumari as the tragedienne, Vyjayantimala as largely decorative but a very good dancer, Madhubala for her beauty, and so on. Waheeda Rehman was a powerful actress who blended her dancing beautifully with roles where she could rise above the decorative quality of the characters. Sharmila Tagore, Asha Parekh and Sadhana defined a change in fashion and style more than change in characterization.

They played stereotypical roles in cinema wearing big bouffant hairdos, short, skin-tight salwar kameezes and did little more than flutter their false eyelashes at the hero and dance around trees with him. Women were generally 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. ” For instance Roma in tip tip barsa paani and Raveena tendon in me cheez badi hoon mast mast. In both these sequences the woman served as an erotic object on the screen for the audience.

They were supposed to be the seducing or the intoxicating substance for the male counterparts. Women in cinemas hold the position of ‘subaltern’, as Gayatri Spivak calls them. Their exploitation is a frequently- treated subject in cinema, especially in the parallel or serious films. We have heard that retrospectives on Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil who represented mostly the ‘exploited Indian subaltern women’ type characters (as Sati, Mirch Masala, Paar, Chakra, Akrosh etc. ). They have made subaltern woman’s speaking very much penetrating. However, another subaltern voice also stirred us.

It was Shima Biswas acted as Phulan Devi in the Bandit Queen (1996). In a review of Bandit Queen, Linda Lopez McAlister 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. Hurling various controversies the film voiced a strong utterance by a subaltern woman who being raped severely by many and being harassed wretchedly became a notorious dacoit and afterwards became a member of the Parliament coming back in a normal life.

Indeed her voice represents the voices of the repressed subaltern Third World women including India. This film surely shapes itself with the ‘speaking’ aspects of the post-colonial feminist theory. We find such specimen of Gayatri Spivak’s Subaltern in Aparna Sen’s movie Sati also. It questions the feminist utterances, ‘Can the subaltern speak? In the film Sati (The Virgin), we find a virgin mute girl is married to a tree following the religio-social regulations. As she is married she cannot marry anyone else. So being in her full blossomed youth she spent a strange married life with a tree in the remote village.

The rigorous social rules make the subaltern teenage girl figuratively mute. She never tasted her life. The rural society in the British colonial period doesn’t allow her to get the flavour of her youth or in other words the normal life which men can enjoy freely by the allowances of the same colonial society. This subaltern girl cannot speak herself both figuratively and in reality. She is exactly the typical girl made for the thesis of postcolonial feminist theory who cannot really speak because of the heavy pressure of male domination.

Her strange husband, the big tree in the middle of the village also cannot speak. She embraces the tree disseminating their mute language. Media tries to uphold some sort of unrealistic and artificial “ideal” which unfortunately can be used as a stick to beat women with in real life. It often implies that girls in western clothes neglect the home and do not work hard. They are shown to be ‘spoilt’. They drive rashly, are arrogant and require a ‘decent’ Indian man to come along and teach them a ‘lesson’. We often don’t realise that the struggle for women’s’ rights is not a western concept.

If we want our women to be treated like human beings, it’s nothing to do with being western. Its humanity. In any case we have had social reformer like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who fought for women’s rights. He played an important role in abolishing Sati. He also advocated the study of English, Science, Western Medicine and Technology and this was as far back as in the nineteenth century. There are many other social reformers in India who fought for women’s rights. I am not a feminist. In the sense that I am proud of being a woman and proud of women’s work.

It really bugs me when the media calls a woman who is working outside the home as a ‘woman of substance’, because I think a housewife can be a woman of substance too and not all women who work outside the home are. I think a woman who looks after the home and brings into the world normal, healthy adults is a woman to be admired. She is a woman of real substance because there is nothing more important than bringing up children. Therefore in the course of my paper I have tried to signal the deconstruction or the destructuring, if not destruction, of the very thing to be represented i. . , the deaestheticization of the female body, the desexualization of violence, the deoedipalization of narrative, and so forth.

If we rethink women’s cinema in this way, I may provisionally say that there is a certain configuration of issues and formal problems that have been consistently articulated in what we call women’s cinema. The way in which they have been expressed and developed, both artistically and critically, seems pointless to a “feminine aesthetic” than to a feminist deaesthetic. And if the word sounds awkward or inelegant to you…

Read also:

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