I am fascinated by Fearless Nadia, a popular Hindi film actress in pre-Independence India. This emancipated actress ran atop a speeding train and duelled with men in her action hits. What I find particularly memorable is Fearless Nadia’s 24-carat line from Diamond Queen (1940): ‘Hind ko azaad hona hai toh Hindi aurat ko bhi azaadi deni padegi’ (If you want to free India you have to emancipate Indian women too.)
While watching the legendary 50s heroines, I found them suffering silently all too often; so it was invigorating when a leading lady had a strong voice. In Mother India (1957), Nargis played the determined peasant wife and devoted mother, who nevertheless shoots her dacoit son (Sunil Dutt) in a bid to prevent him from abducting a village girl on horseback. Before firing the gun, she grimly warns him: ‘Birju, main beta de sakti hoon, laaj nahin de sakti’ (Birju, I can sacrifice a son, not my prestige.)
The colourful 60s saw the advent of more glamorous heroines (Asha Parekh, Saira Banu, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore et al) but they too invariably expected the man to take the initiative. Dimple Kapadia in Bobby (1973) changed the age-old cinematic rules. She simply asked the teenaged Raj (Rishi Kapoor) that immortal line, ‘I am Bobby. Mujhse dosti karoge?’
(I am Bobby. Will you be friends with me?) Smita Patil played many characters that furthered women’s causes, but she remains etched in my memory as the strong-willed Usha in Bhumika (1977). When her husband (Amol Palekar) tries to arm-twist her into taking an oath, she does… but swears: ‘Main jo chahti hoon wohi karungi’ (I will do as I please). Later, when her feudal, already married paramour (Amrish Puri) authoritatively declares that the women of his family are traditionally not permitted to step out of the house, Usha mocks him: ‘I am not your family.’ She stumbles, but never wallows in victimhood.Shabana Azmi posits a pertinent poser to her repentant-after-straying husband in Arth (1982): ‘Jo kuch tumne mere saath kiya, agar wohi main tumhare saath karti … aur issi tarah laut ke aati, toh kya tum mujhe wapas le lete?’ (If I had been unfaithful like you, would you have accepted me back?)
A casual throwaway line uttered by Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met: ‘Main apni favourite hoon’ (I am my own favourite) has inadvertently become the mantra for many a contemporary woman, especially for those women who feel that they were not obliged to meet anybody’s exacting standards; and are content with themselves the way they are.‘English Vinglish’ (2012) was an excellent choice for Sridevi’s comeback film after 15 years. It validated a woman’s choices — both in her career and the language she chooses to express herself in. When a caterer (Sridevi) is chided by her husband for home-delivering laddoos, she poses a relevant question to her classmate Laurent: ‘Mard khaana banaye toh Kala hai, aurat banaye toh usska farz hai?’ (If a man cooks, it is an art; if a woman cooks, it is her duty?) The climax of the film has a beautifully subtle touch: Shashi asks for a Hindi newspaper on the flight from New York to Mumbai though she has mastered English on the trip.
The line penned by Prasoon Joshi ‘Beti jab khadi hoti hai, tabhi vijay badi hoti hai’ for Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019) assumes weightage in the context that it was written for a historical character set in the mid-1800s!
The story of women’s empowerment in Hindi films has been vocally supported by some progressive male characters too. In the black-and-white gem Anupama (1966) when Annie (Shashikala) implores Ashok (Dharmendra) to goad Uma (Sharmila Tagore) into eloping with him, he sagaciously says, ‘Main nahin chahta uske baap ki tarah apne khayalat, apne asool, uspe thop doon. Ek insaan ki aazadi utni hi keemti hai jitni ek desh ki’ (I don’t want to thrust my opinions on her like her father has done. A person’s freedom is as important as that of a country).
In ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (1999) when Ajay Devgan’s father chides him: ‘Ek aurat ko kaboo mein nahin kar sakta?’ (Can’t you assume control over your wife?) Ajay retorts: ‘Kya mardangi sachhai se mooh modne mein hai? Uss aurat ke saath rehne mein hai jiske jism toh aapka ho par dil aur dimaag kisi aur ka ho?’ (Is manliness turning your face away from the truth? Is it in living with a woman whose body belongs to you but her soul belongs to another?)The recent film ‘Pink’ was replete with dialogue that underlined the double standards employed by society for the genders. A line from Amitabh Bachchan brought to mind the English film Accused (Jodie Foster), and it still reverberates in my head. Bachchan thunders: ‘These boys must realise that No ka Matlab No Hota Hai. Usse bolne wali ladki koi parichit ho, friend ho, girlfriend ho, koi sex worker ho, ya aapki Apni biwi hi Kyun na ho. No means no; and when someone says no, you stop.’
A quote attributed to Smita Patil in the 80s: ‘Shwas gheu naka, log kaye vichar karteel’ (Don’t breathe, what will people think!) has become less relevant today as women characters onscreen grow increasingly vocal and self-confident, but it’s not completely redundant; there is still some distance to travel.