From Margin to Centre: Tracing The Discourse on Women in Indian Cinema

The process of globalization has somewhat isolated filmmaking from a historical or social context as it threatens to erase alternate images and representations. But the effort to continually find space is ongoing and the recent surge of feminist voices in mainstream cinema plots the progress as those at the margin occupy the center.

Source : Press


We live in times where the concept of cultural identity is particularly validated by the pervasive media. Apart from print and TV, digital media in 21st century has emerged as a powerhouse platform of concentrating attention. The film industry has a significant presence in all media but it is the social media sphere where it is exceptionally dominant in consecrating everything that it embodies. The manner in which gender is represented in film industry is a reflection of ideas entrenched in annals of its origin and media reinforces the same notions through its falsely assumed role as a disseminator of the culture-identity construct.


Himanshu Rai, a filmmaker from the silent era of Indian cinema employed European actresses in his films in the absence of Indian women in the industry. Seeta Devi (born Renee Smith) was one such actress, branded as an "educated Hindu woman" who became one of the stars of the silent film era.

Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema active in the 30s and 40s got promoted from a costume designer to a heroine. In ‘Achyut Kanya', Devika was presented in look which had a mix of western elegance and tradition Indian-the Village Belle. This image stayed with the directors for a very long time as a stereotype of Indian rural woman.


The valorization of the ‘mother figure' is a long-standing trend in Indian cinema which has its roots in the color remake of Mehboob Khan's previous film ‘Aurat'-Mother India that released in 1956 envisioned the identification of the ‘mother' and nation as an icon in the popular consciousness of a new nation. The early glorification (and objectification) of the female body as a sanctum of worship and the association of privilege and honor over its access and ownership serve as a reminder of the position and status of women and the outlook towards them.


The ‘female gaze' was brought on to the screen by the efforts of filmmakers like Aparna Sen, Sai Paranjpye, Vijaya Mehta, Aruna Raje and Kalpana Lajmi who were careful in their portrayal of women locating them in a setting where it is urgent for them to exercise their own agency in society as well as in their personal lives.


However, the newfound perspective did not find a voice in mainstream cinema (until recently) which continued (and still does) to render a patriarchal and parochial version of female sexuality. Masculinity and femininity were still defined from a gender-binary lens. What took precedence was the spectacle-the dance numbers captured in dreamy foreign locations and the convenient negotiation between modernity and tradition that happened through the idea of ‘woman'-western and ‘Sanskaari' who is unconscious of the restrictions imposed by her acceptance of duty and tradition in her journey towards emancipation.


The revenge narratives are equally problematic. Women's agency is derived from the incident of rape. The portrayal apparently serves the voyeuristic pleasures of men more than it attempts to understand the pathos of the victim. Rather than upheaval of the institutions, the women characters in such narratives in-fact help in sustaining the old stereotype and social imaginary.


The actress is glamorized and turned into a sensation. Who cares about her thoughts when there is an abundance of gossip material? Their agency and voices are muted by the glitz and gaga and by the curated content like frank interviews and snippets to show the ‘unseen' side and reach closer to the consumer.


Sai Paranjpye's Saaz explores the mother-daughter relationship as well as sibling rivalry. Govind Nihalini's Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa explores the identity of a mother and state's control on this issue. Shyam Benegal's Mammo and Sardari Begum are concerned with marginalized women's narratives. Amol Palekar's Daayera and Kalpana Lajmi's Darmiyaan questions the socializing and categorization of gender. Aparna Sen's Yuganta explored a woman's dilemma between her profession and her home. Santana Bordoloi portrays the experience of widowhood through three generations of women in Adyaja.


Mira Nair's film Kama Sutra which is based on the classical Indian text on love and sex exoticizes female sexuality in India where one wonders whether it is catering to the neo-colonial demands of the market.


The process of globalization has somewhat isolated filmmaking from a historical or social context as it threatens to erase alternate images and representations. But the effort to continually find space is ongoing and the recent surge of feminist voices in mainstream cinema plots the progress as those at the margin finally begin to occupy the center.


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