Beyond the ‘bad woman’

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 15, 2020

Reigning queen: Even six decades on since actor Helen entered the industry, she is synonymous with the figure of the dancing girl   -  THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

A new collection of essays examines the many ways Bollywood portrays its ‘bad’ female characters — from the cigarette-wielding moll to the tawaif

The memory game was picking up tempo. The characters — in Satyajit Ray’s 1970 film Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) — were reeling off names of people, while repeating the ones that had already been recalled. Rabindranath Tagore. Karl Marx. Cleopatra. The game carried on. And then someone said, “Helen”.

‘Bad’ Women of Bombay Films: Studies in Desire And Anxiety; Saswati Sengupta, Shampa Roy and Sharmila Purkayastha (ed.); Palgrave Macmillan; Non-fiction; €99.99


Of Troy or Bombay, a player immediately asked.

I am pretty certain the character who thought of Helen had Bollywood’s jelly-limbed dancer in mind. For, as a new book tells us: “There has not been a single performer after her prolific reign, who has managed to capture the fancy of an entire generation of cinegoers quite like she did. It is Helen who, almost six decades since she entered the industry, is still synonymous with the figure of the dancing girl.”

The actor, I am happy to see, figures prominently in ‘Bad’ Women of Bombay Films: Studies in Desire and Anxiety, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Saswati Sengupta, Shampa Roy and Sharmila Purkayastha, all professors of English. I heard about the book some months before Palgrave Macmillan released it (full disclosure: I know the editors). It’s out now, a comprehensive work that looks at various ways the so-called bad women — the cigarette-smoking moll, the vamp, the stony-eyed mother-in-law, the nautch girl and so on — are portrayed in cinema.

The introduction — aptly titled Breaking Bad — stresses that the book is a “feminist mapping” of the “articulation and suppression” of female desires in Hindi films. “It explores the lineament of evil and the corresponding closure of chastisement or domesticity that appear as necessary conditions for the representation of subversive female desires. The book also foregrounds articulations that challenge and dismantle such imprisonments.”

What’s particularly striking is the depth of the work. The book deals with almost every possible issue that the phrase “bad women” evokes. Readers can choose what interests them the most — Kalyani’s guilt, desire and transgression in the 1963 film Bandini, the sex workers, the angry young woman or the dancing girl of the ’60s. The contributors — most are old students and/or teachers of Miranda House, Delhi University — include academic Ira Bhaskar, actor Swara Bhaskar, rights activist Rakesh Shukla and journalists Mrinal Pande and Neha Dixit.

What stood out for me, in particular, was Disorderly bibi: Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, a study of Chhoti Bahu in the 1962 film. If you belong to the generation that grew up listening to the rather whiny Na jaon saiyyan (Don’t go, beloved), you would be interested in this essay by Roy and Sengupta. Chhoti Bahu is the youngest daughter-in-law in the wealthy Chaudhury family in a story set at the end of the 19th century in colonial Bengal.

The essay alludes to the opening shot of a dancing girl, where the narrator refers to the “witch” who has lured the zamindar — Chhoti Bahu’s errant husband — away from his faithful wife. “And, it is this essentialized binary opposition of purity and pollution — the wife and the whore — that shapes the tragic stature of Chhoti Bahu’s transgression that lies at the heart of the film,” the writers say.

Chhoti Bahu, played by Meena Kumari, wants to keep her husband by her side, and starts to drink with him in a bid to make him stay home at night. “Meena Kumari’s characterisation in it is a queer mixture of the traditional and the unconventional because (before this)... there was never a question of a wife expressing her sexuality to her husband and making her sexual demand. That was for the vamp,” it quotes actor Shabana Azmi as saying.

There is a lot to learn from the book. Some myths come crashing down. Think tawaif (courtesan), and you imagine a woman named Shakeela or Rehana. As a matter of fact, most tawaif characters are Hindus, points out editor-writer Ruth Vanita. In 147 films — from 1939 to 2015 — she counted 142 Hindu, 59 Muslim and 56 “indeterminate” courtesan characters.

This is not just trivia. “Because they live in non-patrilineal households and generally do not have surnames, courtesans cannot be contained in the same categories as women of conventional households,” writes Vanita in Goddess, Saint and Journeying Soul: Courtesans and Religion in Bombay Cinema (1939–2015). “Most Indians’ names indicate their religion, but about 22 percent of all named courtesan characters in 147 films cannot be identified by religion. This indeterminacy is highly significant. No other important group of characters in Bombay films is indeterminate in this way.”

In another essay, a footnote reminds us that Aa janey ja, picturised on Helen, is perhaps the only cabaret song sung by Lata Mangeshkar. I would have enjoyed an essay on the significance of the pure timbre of Mangeshkar’s voice, the seduction in Asha Bhosle’s and the deep tones in Shamshad Begum’s, often voicing women in drag or as a street singer. But perhaps that’s another project.

My one complaint about the book is that while it is indeed deeply researched (the footnotes and references alone can be compiled into a booklet), the language is sometimes so academic that you feel the need to take a break.

This, indeed, is not a book that you skim through. It demands that you read one essay at a time, think of what you’ve learnt, and then look for the film on YouTube.

Published on April 15, 2020

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