1949 - 1984

Faces that Launched a Thousand Films

Museum of Art & Photography

Women in Indian Cinema, 1949 - 1984 

One’s appearance before the camera suggests an act of performance per se, yet some demand a more deliberate execution, a more layered intention, than others. Spaces within the realm of cinema and theatre require that the actors perform for an audience in character specific formats, and the presence of a photographer causes a dual viewership of the same act. The photograph of a performance allows for the tangible circulation of a moment in the narrative, and women have historically been admired as the centerpieces of such moments. In this selection of photographic film portraits used as vehicles to market films and stars, we see women in a range of performative roles. 

The space of the film set such as seen here, stretches the capacity of the photographic frame to include context, giving actresses room to play out the characters of a story, generating multiple angles to the narrative.

Actresses are seen to interact with filmic spaces that accentuate the meaning, beauty and impact of their character while photographic stills document the same. Individual portraits on the other hand, as seen on the right, whittle away these elements and tighten the frame around a body or a face, opening up its details for scrutiny, admiration and memorialisation. As such, the cameras of movies and photographic studios created their own spaces, which in being generous or concentrated in their scope, were nevertheless enclosures of fantasy.

Although, one may point to exceptions such as Mother India, female roles in early popular Hindi cinema were largely linked to wider socio-political concerns of framing the archetypal Indian woman, and as such provided women with little to no agency. Most female roles relegated women to the sidelines — playing supporting roles at best, and merely decorative ones at worst. Even films that revolved around a central female character usually portrayed women as passive victims or martyrs, only rescued by male action — inciting change not through proactive behaviour, but through self-sacrifice. As the repository of honour — of family, society and nation — the woman also often served as the moral compass of the film and the hero, most obviously through dichotomous representations of the good and bad woman; the virgin and the vamp. The ideal Indian woman with her glorified 'traditional' values was challenged by the 'modern', Westernised and highly sexualised vamp who often displayed financial independence, romantic initiative and a propensity for vices such as drinking and smoking.

For instance, in the film 'Shree 420', Raj Kapoor falls in love with the virtuous 'good' Nargis, but is led astray by the alluring 'bad' Nadira, before finally realising and fighting this corruption to find his way back to Nargis and the right side. This dichotomy was to gradually disappear from Hindi cinema, with female characters attempting to tread a fine line between the modern and the traditional. The representation of the archetypal Indian woman as ideally demure, self-sacrificing and submissive in the face of patriarchal norms, expectations and authority, however, continued to be reinforced in many ways both on and off screen.

Women were also often depicted primarily in relation to men, or the family unit — circumscribing them within patriarchal definitions of the ideal Indian woman. This ideal woman even, or perhaps especially, in the context of growing modernity and the changes it wrought in post-independent India, was characterised by her continued respect for certain cultural traditions and the upholding of family (and family values) — ennobled as mother, daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law and so on. In early films, such representations also presented a secondary dichotomy between the domestic sphere and the public sphere — clearly relegating women to the first (at least the virtuous ones). More significantly however, such representations inscribed women as the cornerstone of the family (and by correlation the nation) through their acceptance and upholding of patriarchal values and norms. The most obvious examples of such representations, are perhaps films titled on the basis of such relationships themselves, such as Rakhi, Mausi or Majhli Didi.    

The figure of the mother in Indian cinema has always received particular importance; the most obvious instance of which might be Mother India. In every decade of Hindi cinema however, certain actresses achieved a particular stardom as on-screen mothers, entering popular imagination and culture as the epitome of what that entailed. Nirupa Roy, for instance, came to be best known as the long suffering mother in films of the 1970s and 1980s, earning her the moniker, 'Queen of Misery'. Whether helpless, or righteous, or bloodthirsty (think Rakhee in the nineties as the bereaved mother demanding revenge!), Bollywood has long embraced the sentiment behind its most famous dialogue about mothers from Deewar, a film that incidentally, if perhaps unsurprisingly, stars Nirupa Roy: Mere paas maa hain!

On the other hand, tropes of the tyrannical mother-in-law and the wicked stepmother also flourished and were often portrayed by actresses who were known for playing vamps when younger: Nadira, Bindu or Sasikala, for instance. The most famous among the evil matriarchs though was Lalita Pawar, seen here. An unfortunate incident on the sets of Jung-E-Azadi in 1942 left Pawar with an defective eye, forcing her to abandon lead roles. Although she essayed several character roles, over the course of a long career spanning seven decades and about 700 Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi films, including kind maternal roles, she is often best recalled as the evil mother-figure.

Unlike Hollywood musicals, where male stars such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were held to be the epitome of film dance performance, in popular Indian cinema, dance was considered the proper domain of the female performer. Therefore, even while male actors may have featured in song sequences and narrative numbers that demanded a minimal amount of dancing in a 'rudimentary' style, dance was much more crucial to the construction of the female star text. In alignment with a larger movement towards making careers in the performing arts (including singing, dancing and cinema) suitable pursuits for respectable middle class women, different kinds of movement vocabularies engendered specific types of cinematic bodies and spaces. For instance, as Usha Iyer writes, "Vyjayanthimala’s training in and continued performance of the classical dance form, Bharatanatyam, produced a certain kind of performing body that was employed in a number of costume dramas... and led to the creation of performance spaces such as royal courts or the professional stage in order to accommodate her movement vocabulary." 

Iyer adds, "Vyjayanthimala’s movement vocabulary produced an image markedly imbricated in popular Hindu iconography and extra-diegetically, her classical dance training helped to create a 'clean' star text, more or less insured against scandal and gossip, and served to prop her up as an icon of national cultural heritage." One of the first South Indian stars to make it in Bollywood and become a national star, Vyjayanthimala's stardom was particularly bolstered by her dancing capabilities and the introduction of semi-classical pieces in films. Along with the Travancore sisters, Padmini and Ragini (also South Indian), she is credited with ushering a new age of dance in Hindi cinema. Proof of the popularity of these stars and its correlation to their dancing prowess, are the number of dance-duets found between Padmini and Ragini (seen on the right) in films of this period; and the extremely famous dance-off between Padmini and Vyjayanthimala in the Tamil film Vanjikkottai Valiban (1958), remade in Hindi as Raj Tilak (1958).

Such pieces that played a pivotal role in emphasising dance as central to the construction of the stardom of these actresses may be understood as what Usha Iyer terms production numbers. She defines them "as the most lavishly produced attraction in a film, [bringing] to fore the economics of the production of song-and-dance sequences, and the considerable financial investment in these often standalone segments that call for the creation of separate spaces, costumes, and indeed performing bodies." She notes further that "the term production foregrounds the entirely constructed nature of this sequence, which, unlike the narrative number makes no attempt to be imbricated in the story, but marks an overt production of a different space, time, and order of performance. Finally... the production number foregrounds the production of gender through the construction of these different spaces and movement vocabularies that have historically been dominated by female performers."

A prime example of a production number would be "Piya Tose Naina Lage Re" from the film Guide (1965), which showcases Waheeda Rehman's character, Rosie's rise as a performer. The song is picturised on Rehman, also known for her classical dance training background, and moves from a solo performance on an outdoor erected stage to lavish sets, with several background dancers, changes in costumes, backdrops, stage props and atmosphere. Interestingly the debate on women dancing in public — reiterating cultural anxieties of economic independence, female sexuality and questions of "visual availability” that were morally defined in opposition to the domestic sphere of the wife — may be considered as one of the themes of the film.

These anxieties however, were centred upon the figure of the heroine, while the dancing bodies of vamps and courtesans occupied different spaces — both physically (such as the nightclub or mehfil) and ideologically — reiterating a gendered binary between virtue and vice.

While the figure of the vamp was transcribed in the public sphere in spaces such as nightclubs, bars and gangster dens — Film Noir-influenced spaces populated by gangsters, gamblers and smugglers and characterised by smoky dark corners and deep shadows, the figure of the courtesan was engendered in the space of the bazaar, and in specific that of the Islamicate kotha. The "space of the kotha hosts the event of the mehfil where an audience (composed of men) is seated on three sides of a room, the musicians on the fourth, and the female tawaif dances in the middle. The dancing body of the tawaif, her gestures, and movement vocabulary (limited to the space between the members of the audience, and borrowing from the erotic rather than the devotional aspects of the Kathak vocabulary) belong to and are indeed defined by the characteristics of this architectural environment (Islamicate arches, pillars, intricately woven carpets etc.) and the arrangement of bodies within this space" (Allen & Bhaskar). Although exceptions may be found, such as Amprapali (1966) in which Vijayanthimala plays a Hindu courtesan, the idea of a courtesan in popular and cinematic imagination is inextricably linked to an Islamicate setting: referring "not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims" (Kesavan). 

While the courtesan continued to operate in opposition to the wife, or respectable women, as in the central love triangle of Devdas (1955), the tragic figure of the courtesan with a golden heart began to gain more currency than a similar portrayal of the vamp (such as Waheeda Rehman in CID, 1956). Films such as Pakeezah (1972) and Umrao Jaan (1981) that centered around courtesan protagonists then attempted to work around the implicitly constructed split between innocence and corruption in a variety of ways — from the use of Lata Mangeshkar's non-husky, non-sensual, 'pure' vocals to the renaming of Sahibjan as Pakeezah (the pure one) by the hero, Salim, for instance.

While the courtesans' costumes and environment reflected a more historical context, the spectacle of the cabaret was a modern product of the cinematic imagination. As a precursor to the ‘item girl’, the vamp in early Hindi cinema functioned as the archetypal performer of the raunchy song-and-dance sequence; engendering a parallel star system, one with significantly less financial power and social acceptance than that of the heroine, with famous vamps such as Helen, Kalpana Iyer, Bindu, Aruna Irani, and Jayshree T, among others.

Jayashree T was first seen in this form in Bollywood in Simla Road (1969), seen above. Her essential purpose in the film is this singular number, with the signature Westernised and sexually explicit dance movements, costume and make-up that characterised the cabaret — constructed in opposition to Sarita, the heroine.

Unwilling to entirely rupture the binaries of stereotyped gender conventions, Hindi cinema in the 1960s began to use strategies of doubling (or splitting) to bridge the gap between heroine and vamp through the figure of the star. In an obvious instance, Sharmila Tagore in An Evening in Paris (1967) is literally twinned — with one sister playing the heroine, and the other, the vamp. This allows the film to both build and access Tagore's stardom, while reiterating the original dichotomy — the compassionate, decent and 'real' woman versus the corrupt bar dancer who is beyond redemption (and in this film, simply left for dead!).

Heralding the new 'liberated' modern woman of the 1970s was Zeenat Aman who is considered “among the first stars to show that good girls could be unashamedly sexual while fulfilling all the requirements to ultimately become wife to the hero" (Gehlawat).

Inaugurating a new form of sexual politics and femininity, that conflated the heroine and the femme fatale-like-vamp figure — as Sheela in Qurbani (1980) for instance — Aman reframed the heroine as a subject of desire, even while her stardom (particularly its associations with sexual appeal) simultaneously framed her as an object of desire. A hugely successful film, Qurbani was made even more popular by its songs, “Aap jaisa koi" and "Laila main Laila", both featuring Aman as Sheela, the nightclub dancer. Significantly, audiences' instant acceptance of her as this 'new cosmopolitan Indian woman', enables a reformulation within the digetic world, with Sheela escaping the punishment usually meted out to transgressive women.

Linked to the complex constellation of female stardom, dichotomous identities, movement vocabularies, and representations of the female body and face, are also the popularity of folk-dance inspired numbers in early Hindi cinema and the spaces of performance that the heroine could access without fear of transgression, or loss of her virtue and values. The influence of folk dances in the Hindi film, as that of classical dances, may be seen as reflecting post-Independent India's desire to establish them as national cultural heritage. Such production numbers therefore, were firmly embedded within larger paradigms of tradition, culture, nation and in later years, a nostalgia or glorification of the rural.   

Although heroines could engage in the spectacle of performing, they were only only allowed to do so in the private sphere (such as performing only for their husband like Madhubala in 'Main kya karoon Ram' in Sangam, 1964); in dream sequences (either a flight of fantasy or a case in which a watching hero imagines the heroine in place of someone else); and in the public sphere in certain specifically permitted spaces such as a private charity show, college concert or in celebration of a wedding or festival.

Asha Parekh, another star known for her dancing talents and classical training, often played roles that attempted to negotiate the performative license accorded to the female performer in such a manner. In the film Chirag (1969), Parekh first features in "Bhor Hote Kaaga Pukaare", though the focus in this number is less on her dancing and more on the 'production' and close ups of her face that showcase the hero's intimate focus, even while he forms part of the audience in the show. In the folk-dance themed "Chhaayi barkha bahaar", however, Parekh's dancing abilities are brought to the forefront — and deemed acceptable as a celebratory, socially sanctioned legitimisation of her sexuality as a newly wed bride.

A dominant factor in the construction of female stardom, was also the glamour quotient of heroines. One of the big stars in the 1960s and early 70s, Sadhana, for instance, was particularly known for dictating the fashion at the time for clinging knee-length kurtas, tight churidars and most famously of all, the iconic 'Sadhana cut' (her fringe hair cut). In fact, Parakh (1960), her second Hindi film release, just following Love in Shimla (also 1960), is one of the only films where she is seen, as in this photograph, without the fringe.

Women as performers occupied a nebulous social space of admiration mixed with moral judgment in the early years of Indian cinema, having made the journey from dancing girls to movie stars over a few decades. Neepa Majumdar notes how the "visual availability, shared by the female star, the stage actress, and the courtesan, make them all occupy an analogous space in the public imagination”. Articulating changing relationships between the traditional and the modern, the social and the individual, the public and the private — the binary representations of women in Indian cinema led to the construction of specific kinds of star bodies and texts. The immanence of this stardom led to photographic portraits, such as seen in this exhibit, becoming treasured fragments to be acquired, collected and admired. These images then traveled to unknown spaces and carried with them the specificities of deliberately portrayed cultural characters. 
Museum of Art & Photography (MAP)
Credits: Story

Google Exhibit | Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan

References: Suryanandini Narain, Usha Iyer, Ajay Gehlwat, Neepa Majumdar & Ranjini Mazumdar

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