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The typical Bollywood heroine image is changing

Ranjita Biswas, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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The typical Bollywood heroine image is changing subtly responding to the times.

In a recent film VIA DARJEELING with its open-ended Run, Lola Run kind format, Noyonika (Sandhya Mridul) is shown openly drinking with her mixed-group cronies while Rimli (Sonali Kulkarni) is portrayed, though in a script-writer's imagination as two-timing her husband Kay Kay Menon.

Nina Verma, 34, is a confident, professional woman into software development; she goes to London for a holiday, stays with her (girl) friend, falls in love with a man 30 years older to her, defies conventions and father to marry him in the hit film CHEENI KUM, with Tabu and Amitabh Bachchan as the May-December pair.

Then there's Shruti (Konkona Sen Sharma) a radio programme producer (LIFE IN A …METRO) in Anurag Basu's film who is 'still' unmarried on the wrong side of 30. She is desperate to settle down, yet she is not ready to go by her mother's choice. Instead, she surfs the matrimonial websites to find her dream partner and rejects those she doesn't approve of. Debu (Irfaan Khan) is another of those candidates (he himself is on his 30th interview with her for a bride) whom she rejects because she feels he was staring at her décolletage during the 'interview.' Meanwhile, she daydreams about the radio jockey in her show, jumps at the chance of dating him and waits expectantly for him to pop the question, that is, till she discovers he is a gay trying to hide his sexual orientation. She blasts him off in front of the office staff, not because of his sexual orientation, after all that's his own choice, but because he was dishonest with her and led her on.

What's happening to the so-called role-model Bollywood actresses? Where are the 'good' girls who do everything the way society and family expect them to? The fact is, silently, the image of the woman is changing in popular media though you would not think so going by the endless saas-bahu intrigues that dominate the small screen. It might be for a niche audience, but it exists side by side with item-number churning heroines.

Women like Nina Verma or Shruti are all very believable characters to today's urban women. They are familiar to women working in BPOs, MNCs, media etc. spanning a wide range. They display their independent streak in their decision making, they don't mind if people find them slightly off-putting because they are not docile-doll cut-outs. Look at Konkona's Shruti; when her sister reminds that mom was insisting on her coming home, she shoots back: To get her settled with some family-chosen 'good' guy? No, thanks! She faces the same dilemmas that many working women encounter today. She is a girl we know, not some dream girl smiling from the big screen.

Or, take for instance, Raima Sen's Mili in HONEYMOON TRAVELS PVT. LTD. She is a much more interesting character than her conservative, possessive husband (Kay Kay Menon). On her honeymoon in Goa, though he dictates to be a coy bahu and not make a beeline to the dance floor, she listens first but does her own thing and makes him (a little bit of manipulation doesn't harm) change his attitude, though grudgingly. The scene where she decides to go paragliding on an impulse and her saree gets unstuck from her petticoat to the horror of her husband is hilarious; but it also gives Mili an excuse to revert to her usual and more comfortable clothes. She surprises her husband even more as she rescues him from some goondas with her martial art chop and blow tactics. Well, she reveals, when she was sent for Rabindrasangeet lessons as Bengali girls are expected to be, she also used to drop in a martial art class on the way!

It is to the credit of the script writers too that they are projecting women as real and contemporary instead of being clones of calendar-art images of the ‘bharatiya nari’. For years, the audience of Hindi films was used to seeing the heroine, despite her tight-fitting clothes and running around the trees with the hero in song and dance routines, falling in line as soon as she was 'domesticated' by marriage. Look at films of the 60s and 70s and you would see her abandoning the trousers and salwar suits for the good old saree as soon as marriage vows hovered in the background. Tons of tears, devotional songs etc. were thrown in for good measure as if to establish that she was the traditional (whatever that means) family-girl after all. Rebels were not tolerated, she had to be taught a lesson if she threw up tantrums. Of course, there were directors who were more realistic in their treatment of women characters and actresses like Nutan, Waheeda Rehman portrayed those roles but they were in a minority compared to the great mainstream films churned out for popular taste.

There was also a clear distinction between the heroine and the vamp, the good girl and bad girl. The vamp always smoked, bared flesh and was punished for her aberrations. As Saira Banu a 'foreign'-returned lass- a smoker, a spoilt-brat, was shown in Manoj Kumar's PURAB-PACCHIM and then taught a lesson by the hero. The good one was the mealy –mouthed nice girl. The image of an ideal daughter/ wife/ daughter-in-law was recycled in different avatars with only a change of name and location. In the book Gender Relations and Cultural Ideology in Indian Cinema, Indubala Singh shows how the popular cinema has drawn heavily upon Indian mythology for popular appeal. It mainly shares the interests and values of male chauvinism, dramatizing male fantasies of the female. Hence a woman is shown either as an angel or as a monster.

Sometime afterwards, in the 90s especially, the borderline between the heroine and vamp disappeared. The heroine dressed as boldly, gyrated as provocatively as the bad girl of yore.

Some critics opined that it is an effect of globalization and consumerism where mass production is the order of the day that heroines have became more ornamental than real woman. She might be dancing away in snow-covered Switzerland or Austria but basically have clung to the ideal woman Indian males fantasize about -the gharelu homemaker.

But in recent times, though a majority of Bollywood films churns out the same image in the name of 'family entertainment', there has been a welcome relief with the presence of heroines who are more acceptable to modern sensibilities.

Characters like Nina, Shruti or Mili stay on in mind even after the movie is over because they are not one-dimensional and herein lays their appeal.

Even Bipasha Basu's Nishigandha Dasgupta in Madhur Bhandarkar's CORPORATE with shades of negativity rings a bell. She is a go-getter, she wants to be successful at any cost to wipe off her past bad experience and in her supreme confidence doesn't mind indulging in a bit of industrial snooping on a rival company. She gets caught, of course. But the audience is not left unsympathetic to her predicament.

The change of images has not been a sudden one. It has been happening slowly. The debate whether films reflect life or life imitates films can also be examined in this context. Despite a large number of women working both in urban and rural areas the films most often ignored this reality. Looking at her portrayal in popular cinema, at least for very many years, it would seem that time had stood still for her. Today, the characterization is more nuanced.

Not that it has changed radically. The roles assigned to heroines still carry the burden of the stereotype. Even in public life one notices how a woman's way of dressing, demeanour, etc. are constantly under the scanner. But even then here has been a welcome change. Even Jiah Khan, the Lolita-like figure in Ram Gopal Varma's NISHABD is a fresh change because instead of castigating her as a 'bad girl' the director focuses on the teenager's growing consciousness of her sexuality; she accepts it as she confidently reaches out to a man more than twice her age.

It is perhaps also due to the entry of the small cinema encouraged by the multiplex culture that new directors more savvy with the times can spell out their dreams in their scripts. Fortunately, many of them have become hits showing that the public wants a change from the stale story-lines. All the better for heroines who want to walk a different path.

For the educated, modern woman the change, even if in small measure, could not have come sooner. She can relate to Nina, not to ever-conspiring bahu in designer sarees; she can recognize Shruti even as she herself looks for a partner sans help from her elders, and not to the ever-sacrificing homemaker. A small relief perhaps from plastic heroines in mindless song and dance routines, but a big one in terms of change.

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