HUM HINDUSTANI: Return of the ‘bahu’
J Sri Raman
Unlike the Bollywood films, the TV soaps are something the middle class lives with. Week after week, they follow the life of the “bahu”. Week after week they hear sermons on Indian “womanhood”. This character has become a symbol of the status quo that prevails socially
“Portrayal of women in Indian cinema” was the theme of a star-studded seminar held in New Delhi on March 9. As usual, the media reports focussed more on the stars and peripheral issues rather than the core ones.
Some of these run of the mill issues are by now well known: the “vulgar” manner in which women are presented in the cinema, allied with the issue of the “one-dimensional” women characters. This frequently made point led to familiar debates: the sex-object syndrome and censorship (Director Mahesh Bhatt defiantly opposed the official scissors and yesteryear’s cine siren Vyjayanthimala pleaded for self-censorship). The discussion also digressed to the issue of the role of women in the film industry itself. Director Suhasini Maniratnam recalled that once she was advised to give a higher priority to her duties as housewife.
No one highlighted the most remarkable development in Indian cinema over the past few years: the return to the screen — indeed, return with a vengeance — of the “Indian Woman”, the sacred stereotype, the resurrection of a period piece. Remarkably, this Indian Woman is even more noticeable on the small screen, a relatively newer medium.
The trend has emerged in a specific socio-political context and therefore is politically significant. The appearance of “Traditional Woman” has accompanied the resurgence of a nationalism imbued with and underscored by religious communalism.
There is no gainsaying that women have, by and large, continued to be little more than decorative pieces in Bollywood productions. The average Indian film heroine is, all too often, almost as irrelevant to the product she helps sell as the attractive model advertising, say, an automobile. She is seldom more than a foil or second fiddle to the male lead (who commands higher fees and is a far bigger cult figure).
To be fair, films have been made in recent years that cannot be described as mainstream or commercial potboilers. These films have women playing leading, sometimes central and complex roles. Examples range from Rudali, about a professional mourner from Rajasthan played by Dimple Kapadia, to Fiza and Zubeida. The former is about a Muslim girl whose brother joins a militant group after the 1991 riots in Bombay and the latter about the consort of a prince-turned-politician. Both these roles were played by Karisma Kapoor. But they did not attract either sufficient audiences or political attention.
On the other hand, a couple of films featuring activists-actors Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das got a lot of attention or should one say notoriety. Fire, which revolved around the relationship between two women, was greeted with fierce protests from the society and political forces as the Shiv Sena. The film was made by Deepa Mehta. Mehta became even more controversial with her next film, Water, which depicted the sufferings of a widow in Varanasi in the distant past. The film drew ferocious protests during its shooting. In places like Uttar Pradesh these protests were officially sanctioned. Such was the furore that the project had to be abandoned.
But these are exceptions. The current formula for a successful film includes a “family”—friendly woman. This is an important ingredient. The “bahu” is a box-office hit. The daughter-in-law that holds the household together like the bunch of keys tied to the hem of her sari is the darling of an entire political class and constituency.
Ironically the “bahu” is an even bigger hit on the idiot box. This is of considerable socio-political significance. The target market for the ever-successful and apparently never-ending television serial soaps — like “Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki” (The story of every home) or the “Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” (Because the mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law) and several others with equally apt titles like “Bhabi” and “Kumkum” — is the middle class. The cultural transformation of this class in recent times has made a crucial difference to Indian politics.
Unlike the Bollywood films, TV soaps are programmes the middle class lives with. Week after week, they follow the life of the “bahu”. Week after week they hear sermons on Indian “womanhood”. This character has become a symbol of the status quo that prevails socially.
Last but not least, quite a few of these serials present characters that combine material success with their conservatism. Some of the most moving scenes are those where these women sacrifice their working life for the sake of the family and, sometimes, to assuage the bruised egos of their lord and masters. Again they are addressing an audience that seeks material advance but resists social progress. This audience is the natural and primary constituency of the “parivar” of cultural nationalism”.
The writer is a journalist and peace activist based in Chennai, India