Women in Salim-Javed movies: the un-taming of the shrew

Written by  //  June 14, 2017  //  Economic & Social Policy, Media & Popular Culture, Uncategorized  //  Comments Off

Guest post by Suharsh Sinha

The Bollywood of 50s and 60s was a genteel place. Leading men were chivalrous, women were pious and beautiful and the songs were written by stalwarts like Sahir, Shailendra and Shakeel. The language still retained a semblance of the pre-partition Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb and even the villains were classy. Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Hrishikesh Mukherjee made socially relevant and sensitive stories of rural oppression, class conflict and gender inequality. The protagonists (with the glaring exception of the raging bull Birju from Mother India) were Gandhian in their approach – negotiations, protest, non-violence, and reasoning were the weapons of choice.

But Salim-Javed with one dialogue shattered this decorous world – ‘…ye police station hai, tumhare baap ka ghar nahi..’. Amitabh Bachchan with his untamed anti-establishment ferocity was unleashed on the public which was gradually getting disillusioned with political ineptitude and economic stagnation after independence.  The enraged Amitabh Bachchan ditched the spiritual path of Gandhi and embraced the violent atheist Bhagat Singh in his fight against black marketers, smugglers and corrupt government officials.

Enough has been said about the emergence of the ‘angry young man’ and how the brilliance of Salim-Javed disrupted the cocooned gentility of scripts back then. But as I was watching Trishul (yet!) again, it struck me that Salim-Javed not only defined the modern Indian man, but also broke many stereotypes when it came to portraying women.  I don’t think enough credit has been given to Salim-Javed scripts for bestowing economic, social and sexual autonomy to its leading ladies.  Cases in point are some of Bollywood’s most iconic scripts – Zanjeer, Deewar, Don, Sholay, Kala Patthar and Trishul.  Observing women in these movies shows how iconoclastic their roles were.

To start with, lets look at the character of Parveen Babi in Deewar. She is a high-class escort who hangs around smoke filled bars of Bombay’s five star hotels. She drinks and smokes freely, approaches men without misgivings and is making a happy living for herself.  Though an unfair comparison, but the tawaif of the other movies of the era were melancholy souls – they had a deep sorrow and regret which pervaded their poems and relationships. But Parveen Babi is unabashed, independent and content.  More importantly, Amitabh Bachchan knowing her background fully well falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. Her past does not burden her and the movie makes no moral judgments on her choices.

Waheeda Rehman in Trishul is another great example.  She has pre-marital sex and ends up being an unwed mother who is deserted by Sanjeev Kumar who chooses to marry his rich boss’s daughter. But Waheeda Rehman decides to raise her son as a single mother through terrible hardships. But most importantly, she doesn’t self-stigmatize herself or her child. She doesn’t sanitize the story of his birth through falsehoods or apologies. Her child may have been born out of wedlock but not out of sin. Contrast this with Yash Chopra’s directorial debut – Dhool Ka Phool where Mala Sinha has a child out of wedlock with Ranjendra Kumar. But when Rajendra Kumar turns his back on a shotgun wedding, Mala Sinha abandons her newborn in a forest rather than bear the ignominy of raising a fatherless son. Waheeda Rehman, on the other hand tells her son the entire truth and displays there is more honour in carrying a fatherless child than in renouncing it. Though a staple cuss word in Bollywood, not once is Amitabh Bachchan called a bastard or harami in the movie – even in the fight sequences.

Later on in Trishul me meet two more women who against the grain of the leading ladies of the time, are working professionals.  Rakhi plays a secretary to Sanjeev Kumar. She is professional, ethically unimpeachable and proud of her work. She is surrounded by men at work but her gender does not play any role in her office dynamics. The beauty is that Salim-Javed don’t make much of her gender – it is shown as a natural state of affairs that a woman goes to work and is an equal and integral part of office politics and machinations. Hema Malini, the other leading lady is a director of a real estate company. She is aware of her good looks and confident of her sexuality. Unlike the sanctimonious leading ladies of the time, she enjoys male attention and indulges in witty repartee with Shashi Kapoor. Further, she is betrothed to Shashi Kapoor but goes on dates with Amitabh Bachhnan and even accepts expensive gifts from him. At the same time, she is not deceitful or disloyal and nor is her character laced with any notion of guilt or shame.

In Zanjeer and Kala Pathhar too, we find that the leading ladies can fend for themselves. Jaya Bhaduri in Zanjeer is a poor girl of the streets – but she has a fiery core – she sharpens knives for a living, negotiates deals with local goons and cops and scrapes through her tough life.  Rakhee in Kala Pathhar plays the cathartic foil to the brooding and scarred Amitabh Bachchan battling his demons from the past. But her persona goes beyond that of a hinge to propel the narrative forward. She is a successful doctor treating coal miners in hostile working conditions. And again, that she is a professional is not the focal point of her character: an under-emphasis which actually underscores that a female character can play any role in a movie plot but at the same time her being an employed professional does not detract from the story.

Sholay – immortalized for Thakur, Gabbar and the Jai-Veeru bromance had one of the most sensitive love stories as a sub plot. The widowed Jaya Bhaduri is draped in a white sari and tends to her physically challenged father in law.  But she does not wear her widowhood as a shroud.  As Amitabh Bachchan plays one of Bollywood’s most haunting tunes on his mouth organ in the twilight, and Jaya Bhaduri walks around the haveli’s corridors dimming the lanterns for the night they exchange furtive glances of muted love. There is self-restraint but there is no self-reproach in the feelings brewing between them. Most notably, the patriarch of the house – Thakur is supportive of this relationship. He remarks that society and its norms are formed to alleviate peoples’ loneliness not to aggravate it. This was a significant show of solidarity – especially given how even today hypocritical religious practices prevent widows from participating in several religious rituals.

In Don we find Helen and Zeenat Aman use their sensuality to charm the enemy. As Helen grooves to the tunes of RD Burman’s classic ‘Ye mera dil’ she entices Amitabh Bachchan to keep him busy till the cops arrive. Later in the movie Zeenat Aman to settle an old score similarly seduces the Don to be able to have her vengeance. Leading women were never seductresses – that was the dubious reserve of the amoral vamps – promiscuous and scheming molls of gangsters who made their drinks and lit their cigarettes. But Zeenat Aman and Helen’s use of their sexuality does not diminish or delegitimize the righteousness of their cause. In fact, no judgment is made at all. The narrative flows seamlessly and the viewer is more concerned about the outcome of the seduction rather than the correctness of it. It was a huge leap for Bollywood where till date a woman’s moral worth is tied to her chastity.

The Salim-Javed scripted renaissance of the female lead is also significant because of what followed immediately afterwards. In mid 80s and 90s we witnessed the nadir of Bollywood for which I have a hypothesis. Economics 101 tells you that a monopoly destroys consumer surplus – this is exactly what Amitabh Bachchan’s unquestionable star power had done to Bollywood. His scripts became increasingly hero centric and mediocre. No one cared about the female lead or her need for self-worth in his movies. His later hits like Mard, Sharabi, Coolie, Kaalia, and Nastik had weak female characters who were there just to make up the numbers. When Amitabh Bachchan took a political hiatus from movies to join Rajiiv Gandhi’s government, it created a sudden vacuum. Films with ageing stars like Rajesh Khanna and Jitendra and upstarts like Govinda resorted to low brow family dramas focusing on domestic strife, much like the abysmal TV sops of today. These movies had second rate scripts and often portrayed the woman who worked, wore western clothes, was ambitious or enjoyed a drink as self-centered home breakers. Abstinence, self-sacrifice, mute suffering and religiosity were extolled as virtues for decent women.

Whether this ‘Kaikeyi shaming syndrome’ was a response to the growing back to the roots Hindu revivalism in the late 80s with the emergence of the pernicious Ram Janm Bhoomi movement along with the telecast of the highly sentimental and pedestrian version of Ramayan (by Ramanand Sagar) on Doordarshan – is an interesting hypothesis and needs to be explored further. Coupled with this was the onslaught of liberalization and influence of cable TV. Mediocre film makers used the cultural insecurity against the rapidly invading social mores to stress the superiority of an imagined homogenous value system. And as with any social upheaval, the site for cultural revivalism became the quintessential Indian woman at the center stage of the traditional family unit.

Whatever the causes for the disempowering the female lead in 80s and 90s may have been, their fall also reinforces the enormity of the silent revolution brewing in the Salim-Javed scripts of the 70s.  I think we should credit them with more than creating the angry young man.  They also created the modern Indian woman on screen.


Picture Credits - http://www.bollywoodirect.com/salim-javed-the-dichotomy-of-camaraderie/

About the Author

Aradhya is a IV Year student at National Law School, Bangalore.

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