Year-End Issue | The Heroine: 1970-2014

Year of the heroine Women led many film casts in 2014. They led by being unusual, sovereign beings. In Revolver Rani, an unsuccessful but ambitious film, the protagonist Alka, played by Kangana Ranaut, rescues the hero—tied up, as he is, by the villain and his men in a dusty, rocky nowhereland.

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The virginity conundrum (Shefalee Vasudev, LiveMint, 27 December 2014)

In the 1979 film Noorie, the strikingly lovely, passionate yet shy heroine played by Poonam Dhillon commits suicide before her wedding because she is raped. It was a brutal assault on her sense of self and safety. But cinematically it was mounted to show the heroine’s inability to face shame and her would-be husband’s social ridicule because she was no longer “chaste”. The only way left to protect the husband’s honour was by killing herself. Rape may be an uneasy instance to offset an argument on virginity, a much-valued attribute in Hindi cinema for many decades, but that extremity helps make the point.
Though it is a scientific fact that a woman’s hymen can be ruptured even by a rough horse ride, virginity continued to be sanctified in Hindi cinema. Associated with sacrifice, purity, chastity, idealism, perfection, and an aspect of “Indian values” in a woman, it set a certain bar for the heroine. Authority was asserted through a veneer of romantic respectability, an absurd way to wield power. The virginal mystique of a woman who saves her sexual innocence for her husband was given a haloed status. Never mind if the man didn’t even remember where he had lost his. In other words, in films, a woman’s body was used for narrating stories of love, war, revenge and power, and certainly those of restraint, dignity and conventional Indian femininity. No lust or wantonness. Or as social scientistShiv Viswanathan says, “The history of the woman in Hindi cinema was only told through her body, never through her desires.”

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Smita Patil | The working woman (Nandini Ramnath, LiveMint, December 27, 2014)

Smita Patil was one of the most convincing working women in Indian cinema. In movie after movie, she picks up a bag, a basket or a pot and heads out to work, whether it’s running a prison, milking cows, or grinding chilli powder.
One of the most enduring images of Patil is of her character stepping out of the safety of her home and into the Mumbai melee, dressed in a plain cotton sari and clutching a bag by her side.
When Shyam Benegal first spotted her, and figured her as a future talent, she was already working, as a Marathi newsreader on Doordarshan. From there, she went on to star in his Charandas Chor, in which she plays a princess (it involves more than just lounging about on a throne), Bhumika, in which she acts for a living, and Mandi, where she appears as a prostitute. Even in the bank account-lining roles of wife, mother and sister, she is hardly a silent presence, her innate intensity, intelligence and rebellion barely contained by the narrative, forever bursting through and demanding answers and a resolution.

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Shabana Azmi | The grande dame (Sidharth Bhatia, LiveMint, 27 December 2014)

Think of Shabana Azmi and images of her roles in off-beat Hindi cinema come to mind. What are today called indie films were those days known as parallel cinema or, in the spirit of the French La Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave. Low budgets, realistic stories and treatment, directors from outside the mainstream roster and relatively new actors, more often than not from among the alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune—these were the foundational pillars of the Indian New Wave. Azmi, a freshly minted FTII graduate, was a leading light of such films and indeed, made her debut in one—Ankur (1974)—immediately capturing the attention of both critics and discerning audiences alike.
What is less acknowledged is the fact that along with the Shyam Benegalfilms, Azmi dived into commercial cinema right off the top. The same year as Ankur released, Azmi showed up as one of the many sisters in Dev Anand’s monumental flop Ishk Ishk Ishk and followed it with Fakira (1976) and then Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) in quick succession. Another film she acted in during that period was Shaque (1976), a middle-of-the-road venture by Aruna-Vikas. She played the wife of a middle-class man (Vinod Khanna), whom she begins to suspect as a murderer.
This switching between art cinema and the big world of masala films, or potboilers, was not as easy as it sounds. The New Wave directors wanted to break out of the stultifying conventions of the formula and choosing unknown faces was definitely part of that strategy. At the same time, the makers of big blockbusters were clear that the indie world, which made only “rona-dhona” (sentimental) films, was beyond the pale. Those actors were not glamorous and would not click with the masses, who wanted curvaceous beauties rather than intense-looking, independent-minded women. Azmi not only broke through this barrier, but she was clear she wanted to do so….

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From Rosy to Manju (Meena T. Pillai, LiveMint, December 27, 2014)

Sixty-year-old “super stars” choosing to cast only 17- or 18-year-old girls as their heroines; young talented female actors nudged into sideshow roles of sisters, sisters-in-law, and mothers even in the prime of their youth—male stars refuse to have mature women cast alongside them—this is the state of Malayalam cinema, once known for its off-beat, avant-garde and artistic impulses.
There are only male “super” and “mega” stars in Malayalam cinema. Women actors come and go, fast withered by age and wilted by gender constraints. It is into such a world that this year a woman actor returned to screen after 15 years, breaking barriers and destabilizing myths around the life cycle of Malayali heroines. Manju Warrier, who stole the hearts of Malayalis in the 1990s and left acting after marriage, as most women actors in Malayalam cinema do, made a dazzling comeback with How Old Are You, directed by Rosshan Andrrews….

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Heroine economics (Udita Jhunjhunwala, LiveMint, December 27, 2014)

Detective, police officer, cable operator, boxer, politician, physiotherapist and ghost—these were some characters added to the Hindi film pantheon this year. Many of these films were commercially successful, some of them positively critiqued, and almost none of them were stereotypical. All of them were played by women.
What seemed like the start of a changing climate in a male-dominated, star-led world of Hindi movies began with No One Killed Jessica and The Dirty Picture in 2011. This year, with more than a dozen films written with female protagonists, the woman hanging helplessly off the muscular arm of a superstar appeared to have faded.
Queen, Mary Kom, Mardaani, Highway, Ragini MMS 2 and Dedh Ishqiya, to name a few, proved that nothing works better than the right combination of a solid story, credible actors and the right marketing pitch. But the final verdict remains in the hands of an audience that no longer blindly follows a superstar vehicle.

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