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6 Bollywood Characters You Didn’t Know Were Feminist | FeminismInIndia

My first post for Feminism in India is up here and it’s about two of my favorite topics – badass women and Bollywood! Read the full story here: ‘6 Bollywood Characters You Didn’t Know Were Feminist

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Update: 29 Jun 2018 – Here’s the full post now.

If Friday begins with the box office clanging in anticipation, Saturday full of tweet-opinions, by Sunday, the analyses have begun on a film’s politics – whether it’s a spy in Karachi or wedding shenanigans in Delhi. Is this feminist or not, we ask as we analyse how much screen time each actress had, what she spoke about and what she did. Can on-screen feminism go beyond the samajh-sudharak, the abla naari turned Kali maa and the speech spouting devi? Let’s meet some of the subtler on-screen feminists.

1. Saare Niyam Tod Do! – The Subversive Feminist

Manju (Rekha) in Khoobsurat (1980)

When a 1980 film titled Khoobsurat graced the big screen, a fresh-faced Rekha frowned from the poster. As Manju, she staked out a place in her sister’s marital home, breaking rules and making jokes (also a broken rule). She played bridge, started a kavi samelan, danced kathak, organised a musical production and snapped into action during a health crisis. In a time when a playback singer wouldn’t sing ‘bold’ songs, Manju made subversive both sexy and sanskari as she entreated us all to ‘Saare niyam tod do’ (Break all the rules).

2. Hawa Hawai – The Fearless Feminist

Seema (Sridevi) in Mr. India (1987)

She was a crime journalist, running sting operations on a national terror threat. She didn’t like children and was vocal about it. And she ruled the screen in a children’s movie. Sridevi as Seema in Mr. India may have been its real hero, since she didn’t need either a backstory, hero worship from the oppressed masses or an invisibility gadget to battle the forces of terrorism. That’s feminism sitting right under our noses, just next to the Calendar, khaana lao jokes.

3. The Tangewali Rides First – The Independent Feminist

Hema Malini as Basanti in Sholay (1975)

One of Bollywood’s biggest blockbusters had the testosterone-ridden plotline of prisoners, gunmen, mutilated cops and murder. Sholay also had a taangewali. We laughed at her talkativeness and marveled at her beauty, but did you notice that Basanti single-handedly managed the only public transport through the dacoit-infested roads to Ramgadh and Belapur? Some heroes use their fists, some wield the reins of a horse. As Basanti, Hema Malini’s opening spiel even referenced the matter of consent: “Yeh Basanti ka tanga hain, kissi zameendar ki bekaari thodi hain ki marzi na marzi, karna hi pade!” (This is Basanti’s tanga, not bonded labour. You get to choose whether you want to or not.)

4. Life Is My Favourite Game – The Responsible Feminist

Geet (Kareena Kapoor) in Jab We Met (2007)

In a country that kills in the name of honour and associates rape with victim-shaming, the pursuit of love is a distant dream for many women. Kareena Kapoor’s Geet in ‘Jab We Met’ tided over sanctioned harassment (“Akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hain”), the family patriarch and even geography in her quest for Mr. Right.

She managed to have adventures, befriend a heartbroken Shahid Kapoor and ride through the mountains. When she was jilted, she took a job to work through her grief rather than run back to her family or to another man. She said, “Kal ko main kissi ko blame nahin karna chahti hoon, ki ji tumhari wajah se meri life kharab ho gayi. Meri life jo bhi hogi, mujhe pata hoga ki meri wajah se hain.” (I don’t want to have to blame somebody else for any of my problems in the future. Whatever my life brings, will be because I chose it.) Feminism was always about taking back the control of our lives and Geet’s refusal to be a victim is just that.

5. The Show woman Must Go On – The Ambitious Feminist

Geeta (Hema Malini) in Seeta aur Geeta (1972) and Manju (Sridevi) in Chaalbaaz (1989)

‘Twins with opposite personalities’ was a popular Bollywood trope. With female twins, it was a way to show two different ways that a woman could be appealing – the demure lass but also the firebrand. Hema Malini’s Geeta climbed the tightrope and the social ladder to nicer clothes, a richer boyfriend and a better life in the 1972 Seeta aur Geeta. Geeta was a hero to the oppressed, while breaking the formula of man-rescues-woman. The 1989 update, Chaalbaaz, had Sridevi depict an even more unapologetic Manju climbing her way to ‘Superstar Manju Micheal Jacksoni’ while taking on thugs, abusive relatives, a gaslighting buddy and a besotted rich boy in her stride. Geeta or Manju – nothing says feminist like a dreamer working her way up.

6. Taal Se Taal Na Milaye – The Intersectional Feminist

Mansi (Aishwarya Rai) in Taal (1999)

1970s and 80s Bollywood was full of gaon ki goris to whom terrible things happened. They were kidnapped by criminals and rescued by heroes. They were duped by smooth charmers who redeemed themselves before God or a moralizing hero. Occasionally, as the hero’s sister, they’d be raped by the villain and commit suicide or be killed so as to give the hero a quest of vengeance.

We met Aishwarya Rai’s Mansi in the traditional introduction of this very girl – through the hero’s eyes as he spied on her dancing in the rain and undressing. Bailed out by a rich papa, love and familial friendships developed. Eventually, as the story goes, the khandani daulat (family wealth) got in the way. Manasi’s family of folk singers was humiliated by the hero’s industrialist family, adding class prejudices to their ladkewale supremacy complex. But unlike the lachaar aurat (helpless woman) of yore, Mansi dared to voice what doesn’t get said even in 2018 – “Tumhare papa ki izzat, izzat hain aur mere baba ki koi izzat hi nahin?(You talk about disrespect to your father but you disrespect mine?)

Mansi would go on to push back on her producer’s bullying, while steadily climbing in her career. She’d eventually accept two different proposals but always while prioritizing herself, her family and her career first. Taal was a story of one woman transcending gender repression as well as class barriers, proving Manasi was Bollywood’s intersectional feminist.

Did you notice any other instances of feminists in Bollywood that I missed?

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Manguide 5: Bollywood Pin-Ups

And now that we know them by the cities they live in, the professions they pursue, the interests they devote their time to and the languages they speak, what’s left? The women they love of course! Here’s a look at what you can tell about a man by his favorite Bollywood pin-up.


Sushmita Sen: Isn’t it really obvious that is this a man who likes strong personality in his woman? I’m inclined to think that he’ll also be a shy sort, the still-waters-run-deep kind but also a tad laid back. He has no qualms in letting the woman run the show and what a good job she does of it, too!

 

Rani Mukherjee: She played a prostitute in a number of movies and yet she retains the image of a ‘good girl’. She was also the glam-ma’am who settled down to matrimony, motherhood and err..mortis. I’m hardly surprised that she’s one of India’s top actresses since she personifies the most common Indian male fantasy – the Barbie/Behenji. If the Munch girl is on his walls, you can be sure that Mr.Munchkin ain’t going to like your mini-skirts post marriage, even if he chases you only when you wear them!

Aishwarya Rai: I’m no fan of this green-eyed diva. But she sure is popular with the boys. This one appeals to the kind of man who wants a trophy partner, the kind that will be delighted to turn cartwheels for his marble princess but freezes when he realizes that she breathes, feels, talks and – horror of horrors – thinks too! Freeze in place and don’t even adjust your mascara till he’s out of the room, ladies. This man doesn’t believe that a real woman should perspire, shed hair or do anything that a marble statue wouldn’t.

Mallika Sherawat: Now I bet you won’t find too many men who admit to liking her. For that matter how many men actually admit to watching porn? You know I think the lady does have quite a nice face but well, who ever looks at her face? Watch for the dude whose eyes are permanently fixed a few inches beneath your chin. That’s not shyness, that’s a Sherawat fan. Quite likely he’s comparing you with her…down to the last millimeter. On the other hand, if he openly admits to liking her, he might be the ‘I do it differently’ sort. Fun boyfriend to have if you run with rebels. For all that though, a man’s basic instincts don’t change.

Kareena Kapoor: Now I don’t actually know a single man who professes an admiration for the Kapoor babe (except Saif and he doesn’t count since he doesn’t know me). And yet as reigning queen in Bollywood, she must have her share of hearts. I imagine she’s the kind that a lot of men fantasize about but won’t talk about it since they don’t think that she’ll ever ‘ghass-dalofy‘ them and what man would admit to that? The average Joe (or Janardhan, Jaani etc) who sniggers at the mention that he could have an eye on the firebrand is probably mixing some nervous laughter into that as well.

Bipasha Basu: This is one surprising one. A dusky woman who rules the roost in a country obsessed with fair skin. Raw sex appeal meets ubercool. But ooh, I’m nearly drooling. Hmm, what can I say about the man that likes her? They all do! If he doesn’t, assume he’s gay!

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