Women in Bollywood

Published: 2021-09-10 15:45:08
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Category: Marriage, India, Bollywood, Nationalism

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Film is somehow a depiction of real life. The movies produced reflect a nation’s culture and the interplay of its citizens within the society. Such interplay is the role of a man and a woman in India. Cinema in India is the largest productive movie industry in the world. Known as Bollywood, Indians are able to make films which portray the Indian’s way of life, promote their sense of identity, and their nationalism. By looking at Indian films, one can have the general idea of the Indian society. Women, in particular, are clearly portrayed in Bollywood.

There are notions of what a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ woman is. The actions of women depicted in the films also create norms on how women are placed in the society. Just like films from other countries, Bollywood have mostly projected women in a standardize character (Mishra, 2002, p. xix). Though the Indian culture evolves in accordance with modern times, women representation in films somehow has been typified within the norms. Two of the best-selling Hindi movies that made its mark on Bollywood Cinema have women as the main character.

Mother India (1957) and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994), both are notable works in the Indian film industry. The former being a dramatic movie and the latter, a romantic comedy combined with musical. These two films presented women who are bounded by the traditions of the society and how they reacted to it. Both of the films pertained to the concept of India’s ideal woman. As heroines from the two movies revolved around different environment and time frame, they were depicted as the women molded into the traditions of Indian society. These traditions lead to the films’ depiction of India’s nationalism.
As what Thomas mentioned in her essay (1989) about India’s struggle for freedom in the form of films: Since it first emerged in the context of colonial India’s fight for independence, Indian cinema, for a number of reasons, has been concerned with constructing a notion of Indian cultural and national identity. This has involved drawing on concepts such as “traditions”. (p. 11) Mother India is a film that has a heavier plot than that of the Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Radha, the female protagonist faced a lot of moral and social struggles as the story progress.
Her personal role as a mother conflicted with her public responsibility as a woman. As a young woman who married the man she loves, she was encapsulated in the dutiful role of a wife. Radha fulfilled the traditional wife duties as her husband’s companion and helper at work. Radha is one of the most dynamic characters in Bollywood. Her change in attitudes in the course of the film was necessary as dramatic situations occurred in her story. The changes that happened in Radha’s character are two opposite personalities of a woman.
From the shy, newly married young woman she transformed into a self-dependent single mother who worked hard to uphold the dignity of her children and their standard of living. Her marriage with Shamu made her a committed and devoted wife to him. She is always at his side especially when working. However, as tragedy followed Shamu getting handicapped resulted into his decision to leave his family, Radha’s role as a mother has to be emphasized. Her timidity turned into a strong, courageous woman who built her family within dignified moral grounds.
With this kind of dynamism, Radha was depicted as a powerful woman. The character of an empowered and independent woman was very rare in Indian cinema at the time Mother India was released. This kind of portrayal brought Radha with goddess-like features because of enduring so much struggles and overcoming tribulations. Radha was one of the few fictional female characters depicted in a heroic manner. The flow of Radha’s story is quite similar with the goddess Sita. Radha who endured the hard work together with her husband just like what Sita did when she gave up richness to join her husband in exile.
Both of them endured the hardships of raising their children alone. Though both of them may have been portrayed as frail and timid, they exude strength especially in the most challenging aspect of their lives. The loyalty and chastity of the goddess can be seen on the scene where Radha refused Sukhilal’s offer of marriage. Upholding her chastity meant maintaining the dignity of their family despite their situation of poverty. Radha always reminded her sons to live a life within moral principles and to serve as good citizens of their village.
The chastity was not only for her but for her family’s name. Her sons became the extension of maintaining that purity despite their strife in life. Another goddess associated with Radha is the goddess Kali. The goddess is described as the “fierce, passionate goddess of both life and destruction” (Thorner, Raj & Trust, 2000, p. 97). The fierceness of the goddess can be witnessed when Radha aggressively declined Sukhilal’s seduction and almost caused havoc inside his house. The characteristic of Kali’s destruction can be identified in the event when Radha shot her favorite son.
There was a struggle within Radha to be a good mother or to be a law abiding citizen. Birju failed to uphold what his mother have instilled to them and because of this, Radha decided to end his life to maintain the honor of the family. The association of Radha with Kali has been further justified by Rosie Thomas. Focusing on the experiences of men closer to Radha, Thomas indicated Radha’s goddess feature of punishment. Her depiction on the film holding heavy axe and shovel that she uses for farm work portrayed her as a strong woman that is capable of punishing if things does not go right (Thomas, 1989, p.
17). The mere association of men with Radha caused the men on the film to be somewhat destroyed. Thomas described this destruction as an attribute to Radha being compared to Kali: She kills her favorite son; her husband loses both arms (and implicitly his manliness)…the villainous Sukhilal end up covered in cotton fluff, cowering like a naughty infant as she beats him with a big stick…Thus, she is both venerator of men and venerated by them as devi (goddess) and maa (mother), and she is, in turn, in need of men’s protection and a protector and destroyer of men. (p.
16) The character of Radha can be quite the contrary for the depiction of Nisha in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. This is a romantic comedy family-oriented film. If Mother India mostly portrayed the role of the woman in a society, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun showed women’s place within the structure of the family. Indian traditions are clearly emphasized on the film especially in the engagement and wedding ceremonies (Hirji, 2005). Though the plot in the movie consists of light drama, the underlying role of the women in a typical Indian family connotes how women are in real life.
The women in this film are bounded by family traditions which meant that every decision in the family should come from the male member of the family. The arrangement that was made between Mr. Kailashnath and Mr. Siddharth for Pooja and Rajesh’s wedding made it very clear. This scene proved that family decisions should rule and the rule comes mostly from the male members. Women in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun are portrayed as dutiful and obedient. Nisha, the younger sister of Pooja, is the woman who is given focus on the film. She is portrayed in the film as a playful prankster and cheerful woman.
As every woman in India, she is deeply attached with her family and it is seen in her relationship with her sister whom she’s closest with. Eventually, Nisha’s relationship with Prem will be greatly affected by her relationship with her family. Like Radha, Nisha experienced a transition within her character. Though Radha is a bit more complex, Nisha’s transition can be seen from being a happy-go-lucky girl to a woman that has to fulfill her family’s traditions. This is more evident when Prem and Nisha sacrificed their love so that she could marry Prem’s brother after Pooja’s death.
The woman is seen to give up her own wishes and desires to abide her duties in her family. This aspect of women in Indian culture provided similarities with the goddess that was compared with Mother India. Aside from being loyal and upholding her chastity, the goddess Sita is a devoted and dutiful woman to her sons and to her husband. This feature is apparent on the easy acceptance of Pooja with the arrangement of marriage with Rajesh. The marriage was arranged by two of the highest male authorities of both families and the film portrayed that the decision to marry was a final thing to do.
Shedding off whatever attraction that may have happened when they were introduced, an objection for the marriage from either Pooja or Rajesh did not exist for the sake of their fathers. On the other hand, Nisha - despite her feelings for Prem - decided to marry Rajesh for the sake of her nephew and her dead sister. Though it was against her will, she decided to take the route of being married to her brother-in-law. This event, as part of her change, showed Nisha becoming an ideal woman who sacrificed and obeyed her family.
Like the goddess Sita who allowed Rama to exile her, Nisha complied with her family’s request even if it entailed to give up her love for Prem. This film showed the Indian traditions viewing Nisha as a heroine who “would never put her own dreams ahead of the aspirations and desires of her family or men” (Ghose, 2006, p. 5). The conservative woman who considers her self as a second priority is what appeal as an ideal woman. Nisha is a good woman with a generous heart that can be compared to the dutiful goddess Sita who is the epitome of how Indian women are raised.
On the contrary, the opposite of the good or ideal woman is revealed in the character of Mamiji. Nisha is portrayed as the simple conservative girl while Mamiji is depicted as “selfish, mercenary, and vain” (Ghosh, 2000, p. 86). Her being vain is symbolized as being self-centered which opposed Nisha’s character of selflessness. The fact that Mamiji does not have a child of her own makes her what she is. The lack of motherhood in her personality diverted her attention solely on herself. The concept of a ‘bad woman’ in the film can be compared to the struggle that India has been experiencing after the colonial period.
Somehow, the qualities of a ‘bad woman’ in the image of Mamiji such as going to the beauty parlor can be seen as a modern type of woman. As Rosie Thomas mentioned, Indian films are mostly in the context of struggling for independence by showcasing nationalism through tradition (Thomas, 1989, p. 11). The depiction of the scheming Mamiji as a modern woman in oppose to Nisha or Pooja as the traditional women of India; say much about India’s effort to promote its culture rather than the practices that are left by their invaders.
Taking all of these into account, somehow it can be determined that an ideal woman within the Indian society is someone who is submissive and selfless. Both films are able to portray those traits. Mother India and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun are perfect depictions of women who are bounded by Indian traditions whether in society or in the family. Though both women differ in strength and with the way they are portrayed, Radha and Nisha are both subjected to the responsibilities that they have as women leaving no room for their own will and personal desires.
The portrayal of women in films having goddess-like characteristics, symbolizes the nationalism of India. India regarded many female gods in their religion and they attributed these deities as an example of how a female should behave in the society. Emphasizing traditions in Bollywood is their way of promoting Indian nationalism. One effective way of showing these traditions would be in the form of a female as both of these films have been considered as icons in the Indian film industry.
These female characters that were associated with Hindu goddesses transcend into society to be emulated and to uphold the culture. For Indians compare their country to a female that nurture its people and unselfishly gave her land for them to nourish and to raise a dignified India.

Of Names of Women in Hindi Cinema. Retrieved October 30, 2008, from Esocialsciences Ghosh, S. (2000).
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun: Pluralizing Pleasures of Viewership. Social Scientist, Vol. 28, p. 83-90. Hirji, F. (2005).
When Local Meets Lucre: Commerce, Culture and Imperialism in Bollywood Cinema. Carleton University. Retrieved October 30, 2008, from Mishra, V. (2002).
Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire. New York: Routledge. Raj, Maithreyi. K. , Thorner, A. & Trust, S. (2000). Ideals, Images, and Real Lives. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan. Thomas, R. (1989).
Sanctity and Scandal: The Mythologization of Mother India. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 11, 11-30.

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