Woman of substance still a no no for Bollywood
What do you do with a woman who prioritises career over all else? You turn her into a vamp who needs to be set right by a woman who sacrificed her career for marriage.
That for you is how the Hindi film industry continues to portray women go-getters on celluloid. The latest to join the bandwagon is this week's big-budget release "Aitraaz".
Expecting the grand old man of Bollywood romances to give his female characters more to do than just dance and cry would be stretching it too far.
In Yash Chopra's long-awaited mangum opus "Veer Zaara", based on a star crossed love affair between an Indian serviceman and a Pakistani belle, Zaara (played by Preity Zinta) may well share the title role but her "honour" has to be guarded by Veer (Shah Rukh Khan) who prefers to go to jail rather than take his love to its rightful conclusion. The lady has little say in the matter.
Again stereotypically, when it comes to the point of reuniting Veer and Zaara, the job is left to a female Pakistani lawyer (Rani Mukherjee). An emotional and sentimental man in the role would have been unconceivable.
On the other hand, even if a maverick filmmaker like Ram Gopal Varma dares to give his female protagonist the meatiest role in his latest release - "Naach" - he cannot resist from dressing her down to bare minimums.
The female lead of "Naach" may well be a non-compromising strong-headed woman, but she must objectify her body, wear grotesque costumes and hold her legs high in the air to make it to the top in this man's world.
It is of little relevance to the filmmaker that the top two choreographers in the film industry -- Saroj Khan and Farah Khan -- are far removed from his celluloid vision.
All talk about this year's Diwali bonanzas bringing woman power to the fore has turned out to be just that - talk. It was left to the 1960s epic period drama "Mughal-E-Azam", re-released with coloured prints and audio enhancements, to portray its female lead as the one who wears the pants - dying instead of watching her love being degraded.
"When our filmmakers make films with female protagonists, they do not want to disturb the status quo, they do not want to suggest that a real social change is possible, so that women's individuality and rights are automatically respected," says trade observer Deepa Gehlot.
"Sure, they are just films and not meant to be taken seriously, but indirectly, films do help shape perceptions - and many of our films project women in a damaging light."
In "Aitraaz," filmmakers Abbas-Mastan glorify the character played by Kareena Kapoor who gave up her job for marriage while Priyanka Chopra is a bad woman who is trying to steal her husband Akshay Kumar.
While Priyanka and Kareena fight it out, Akshay plays out every man's fantasy even as no body questions him why he could not marry a more career-focused Priyanka in the first place.
These supposedly 'powerful' heroines are no better than the weepy, suffering masochists so admired by our filmmakers. The saris may have given way to trousers, but the soul remains in the 19th century.
Even in the blockbuster "Main Hoon Na," made by a female director, the heroine has to alter her looks drastically to get "him" to fall for her even as she wonders aloud that her sari-clad avatar is not the real her.
In "Kal Ho Naa Ho," Preity Zinta shoves her glasses when Shah Rukh compliments her eyes.
The only so-called woman-oriented films that are doing well on the marquees are the ones in which a female actor makes stripping in front of the camera out to be an achievement, an act of boldness and a sign of liberation.
The filmmakers claim the films are about a modern, intelligent woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants and these words describe her aversion to clothes.
"If they are meant to be the role model for the 21st century woman, there is something wrong somewhere. Bollywood's filmmaker has not been able to do justice to the modern, intelligent, urban woman," says Gehlot.
"Thanks to the less inhibited actresses of today, the only thing that has happened is that the line between the mainstream heroine and vamp has blurred.
"It may just be possible for filmmakers to create powerful female characters who are not just men in saris (or doormats in trousers), if actresses bravely play 'unpopular', non-sati savitri (ideal woman) parts, and audiences start accepting that the definition of the 'ladies' picture' has changed," Gehlot adds.