From 'Sati Savitri' to Seductress

Negotiating Space for Women in Indian Cinema

In the Indian subcontinent the issue of women representation has been a conflicted one. While Indian ancient temples, sculpture art and tapestry are known globally for their accentuated depiction and the celebration of feminine figures, yet purdaah traditions in varied forms also highlight the nervousness associated with sight of the woman's body within the Indian perspective.

The perspective which was celebrative of woman body in Indian art-forms like painting and sculpture, feels the tension that epitomizes purdaah customs when it is about performative art-forms like theatre.

As a result, in the past many centuries, Indian performative art-forms were dominated by male performers. Many times male performers were also doing the female roles.

Women performances were largely restricted to the religious ceremonies. Tawaif women performers, who were carrying the lineage of the court dances, were largely seen as a social aberration as their claim of being artists wasn't obvious for many.

Uljhan, Vijayashree Pictures, From the collection of: Ultra Media & Entertainment
Bheegi raat, Kalidas, From the collection of: Ultra Media & Entertainment
Mahabali Hanuman Poster, From the collection of: Ultra Media & Entertainment
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But particularly with cinema, the medium being a photographic scanning of actuality and everything on screen appearing like the actual object, it was felt necessary that women characters are also played by women, instead of having male actors disguising as female characters.

Thus Indians films have constantly made an attempt to validate the necessity of incorporation of the actual woman body onto the screen.

Maha Sati SavitriUltra Media & Entertainment


Maha Sati SavitriUltra Media & Entertainment

The films made on mythical themes, legitimately featured female actresses, as it was like performing a religious ceremony. 

The female actor in concern, is embodying and in a way getting consecrated to the divine character that she is playing on screen.

Maha Sati SavitriUltra Media & Entertainment

Maha Sati Savitri

The film Maha Sati Savitri is an obvious illustration of this. 

In the film, the female actor is playing the role of Savitri, who in mythic narrations could stop Yamaraj (Hindu God of death) from taking the soul of her husband. 

She could do that due to her chastity and unwavering dedication for her loved husband. Playing such a character the female actress can't be accused of being a tempter.    

Shree Krishna leela by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

Shree Krishna Leela

Speaking of the mythological justification of employing female characters, a film on the majestic figure of divine Krishna, would demand an emphatic depiction of Radha. Krishna's divine status is intrinsically linked to his childhood love with Radha.    

Shree Krishna leela by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

 The love is considered so holy, that in Mathura, that is taken as Krishna's native land, the usual form of greeting is "Radhe-Radhe" not "Krishna-Krishna".    

Radha's grace and beauty is a vital element to recognize Krishna's divinity. And to see Radha realized on screen, would duly require a female actress enlivening it.

Swayamvar Jhale SitecheUltra Media & Entertainment

The mythologicals, also depict dramatic scenes, such as court-scenes of Swayamvar. The term swayam: self and var: husband, refers to a court ceremony, where the princess would choose a deserving husband for herself.

Swayamvar Jhale SitecheUltra Media & Entertainment

These choices would often be based on competitions or challenges that would single out the adept worthy of being the suitor to the princess. 

Swayamvar Jhale SitecheUltra Media & Entertainment

These narrations would make for an engaging narrative; and the entire interest to film such narratives would centre on invoking the beauty of the princess which would make the challenge worthy enough for the aspirants.

TilottamaUltra Media & Entertainment

Hence there are many such films based on mythological themes...

Maya BazaarUltra Media & Entertainment

... that legitimately incorporated female performers to visualize in flesh and bones...

Maya Bazaar by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

...the imagined mythological female forms on-screen.  

AliBaba aur 40 chor Sanjeev Kumar by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment


AliBaba aur 40 chor Sanjeev Kumar by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

Apart from mythologicals, Indian subcontinent also has a plethora of enigmatic fables which bring the decorated, adorned and sometimes even the spurious images of the women.      

Baghdad ka jadu by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

The interest to film such narratives, would be due to the keen interest to bring to the spectacle the charm of such imagined figures...  

Allauddin ka Jadui ChiragUltra Media & Entertainment

...and thus carving a justified way for female actresses to be incorporated to play enigmatic feminine characters from these prevalent fables.    

Saat Sawaal by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

Having established a rightful need for women performers to take part in cinema's realism to vividly depict: the divine and enigmatic female characters...  

Naukar by Ismail FilmsUltra Media & Entertainment

...the viewers and the moral ambience was also ready to see women performers on screen...  

Gehri Chot by Friends FilmsUltra Media & Entertainment narratives which depict the everyday social realities.   

Toofan aur bijli by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

With the emerging space for the women actors to do roles of divine female icons from mythology, enigmatic feminine figures from fables and of women from immediate social surroundings...    

...the possibility to venture further to see women in their seductive and tempting eros on screen wasn't inconceivable any more.   

Toofan aur bijli by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

Arguably, it is possible to think that the hesitation of showing female body on screen  is not to protect the woman from a distorted, objectified perspective, but the hesitation stems from the fear that the covered-up lecherous desire towards the woman body would be revealed.    

Toofan aur bijli by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

And that is what happened. As women performers became accepted norm, by playing figures of reverence, eventually the character of female seductress also found its way in the Indian cinema.    

Toofan aur bijli by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

Many such narratives may shy away from an unapologetic depiction of female sexuality; as these films would wrap them under the themes portraying the prevalent common wisdom of being cautious of the female seductresses.    

Toofan aur bijli by Homi WadiaUltra Media & Entertainment

Yet, the commercial cinema can always be questioned if it employs such moral narratives about female seductress characters to caution the audience, or if it uses such moral narratives as an alibi to give the craving eyes a guilty pleasure.    

At the end of the day, the female body remains at the center of contest between a celebrated, divine form of fertility, prosperity, erogeneity, chastity etc and a corrupting, deviating, distracting form of temptation.

Film-makers in India have constantly negotiated with the prevalent moral fabric in its time, while dealing to represent women on screen.

Credits: Story

Write-ups and Curation: Abhishek Kukreja

Images: Ultra

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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