Saturday, September 27, 2014

A deliberation on song, sexiness, and the filmy mahila

It could be that I'm blinded and deafened by the deliberate sexiness of the new Bollywood. But I often feel like feminine desire as depicted in film songs these days has all the charm of the high headlights on a speeding truck. Which makes me wonder how far we come in our representation of women. 

I keep watching old Hindi film songs and what I come away with is a gentler view of women's desire. Take the lovely innocence of 'mausam mausam, lovely mausam'. This song, perfect for rainy afternoons, stars a very young Padmini Kolhapure. The way the song has been directed and choreographed leaves me feeling content – as if this is how a song of adolescent love ought to be. There is a sense of gentleness and safety, an implicit trust. (It also strikes me that I cannot tell whether the director was a man or a woman, and this is a wonderful thing.)

Or, take a song like 'O phirki-wali'. It has royalty (he is dressed like a prince) chasing after a girl who sells phirkis. Obviously, the power balance is tilted against the girl, and yet, in the video, it is the girl who has power. This power does not come from physical strength, or class or caste. It is rooted in her ability to say 'yes' or 'no', and more significantly, in the man's ability to take 'no', or to negotiate towards a playful 'maybe'.

The man is pursuing the woman, but not stalking her. She is fully aware of his presence. She is smiling. As a viewer, you get the impression that if the on-screen woman expressed fear, the man would leave. Even though he is a prince, he will not assume that she is flattered by his attention. That is what makes him a 'hero'.

Another reason I love the video is that it features a working class girl, who has all but vanished from popular culture. A few decades ago, we saw songs attached to women who did all kinds of work: 
the phirki-wali (
the flower-seller who can row her own boat (
the maalin (
the chaku-churi-sharpening girl (
the nariyal-paani vendor (
the farm hand (
the chai-wali (
and even the thief (

In these songs, the women's profession – an aspect of their lives which does not involve a man – is in the forefront. That they work, and that work means stepping out into public spaces, partaking of the social economy, engaging with strangers –  all this was reinforced.

This applies to working class male protagonists too. The factory worker, farmer, even the army jawaan are no longer at the heart of Hindi cinema. Now we have the industrialist, the pilot, the gangster, the middle class student, and sometimes the unemployed (or unemployable) youth. But for now, let us keep our sights trained on women and songs.

It is also true that more women professionals are part of Hindi film stories now: wedding planners, scholars, academics, bank executives. But in songs, they're usually depicted in a romantic or familial context. If film songs are intended as an expression of the inner life of a character, then what does the new Bollywood song tell us?

From the lyrics, we get the impression that characters are looking to be loved, or are upset at not being loved. The video often focuses on the woman's clothes, vibrant colours, interesting landscapes. But the visual contours of love, or lust, are cautiously defined. The woman is often depicted running (in front of the man or away from him), holding up substantial skirts. Or she stands about, waiting coyly, while the man approaches and makes a romantic or sensual overture. This is particularly true of lip-synced songs.

Watching them, I realize what I miss most is the 'forward' woman, and I am not alone. I went to a women's only college and I remember that the songs we girls enjoyed most were the ones where a female protagonist is flirting, seducing, wooing, complaining.

They allow the character to be a person, and not just a pretty object of desire. And the male protagonists were also allowed to sulk, or have a coy personality that required women to woo them. Look at Tanuja propositioning Dev Anand directly in 'Raat akeli hai'; or trying to get closer to a somewhat scared, Jitendra. 

Jaya Bhaduri is demanding some physical loving from a hands-off Sanjeev Kumar in 'Baahon mein chale aao'; Asha Parekh is teasing Shammi Kapoor under the guiseof seeking forgiveness; Asha Parekh is teasing Rajesh Khanna under no guise whatsoever, and is suitably punished for her pranks; Madhubala is manaao-ing a sullen Dev Anand; Jaya Bhaduri is manaao-ing a sulky husband; Mumtaz is asserting her intentions; a child-like Saira Banu is teasing the crochety Shammi Kapoor

The women have a greater degree of control in these songs, and the men seem to be decent human beings with minds of their own – they can be tempted, or not; they are sulky, upset, nervous, laidback. They were not eternally lustful, nor scornful of women who pursue them. The woman here is not a tease; she's doing the teasing. 

In the 1990s, there were a few instances of videos where female protagonists expressed desire towards 'tough' guys who seemed not very interested: Mamta Kulkarni doing a fine matka-jhatka job of wooing Salman Khan in 'Ek munda meri umr da'; and Raveena Tandon, sinuous in yellow, seducing Akshay Kumar in the rain. In recent years, the only song that struck me as allowing a full expression of female desire was 'DreamumWakeupum'; it is not only overtly sexy but the director also takes kitsch and the filmy-panaa of the fantasy to an extreme so that you see it for the fun it is. But since the 1990s, there were very few shy or bewildered 'heroes on screen.

Even when the song is romantic, my impression is that the women (or girls) appear more 'whole' in songs from the 1960s and 70s. 

There is something very significant about the choreography of love songs. We draw our ideas about love scripts from what we watch, or read, and we also feed our own ideas into the pool of popular art. The songs I like best show great 'engagement' between lovers. They look at each other longer – Raj Kapoor and Nargis in'pyaar hua iqraar hua' is the first example that comes to mind. They hold out their arms, hold hands, hug as Sanjeev Kumar and Suchitra Sen in 'tum aa gaye ho'. There is no doubt in the audience's mind that this is mutual desire. It is not one person reaching out, and the other person being reluctant or indifferent.

This business of depicting a woman's reluctance or indifference correctly is crucial, especially when we are struggling with a street culture that romanticizes feminine reluctance and worships male aggression.

In this regard, older film songs are more balanced. There are songs where romance is in the air, but the woman is not yet responsive, like 'Maana janaab ne pukaara nahin', 'Bekaraar karke humein yoon na jaaiye', or even 'O phirki wali'. Note that in the videos, the man follows the woman but his gestures never turn threatening. He does not touch the woman, until she does begin to respond. He might be playful but he is not aggressive. And he does not 'gang up' on the woman, ever.

Since the 1980s, there have been more songs and more where the camera follows the woman's body, focussing on curves and clothes, rather than feelings. One of the most annoying and boring examples of this was a song I stumbled upon. The director forces the poor actress into a white saree, places her in water, making her touch herself for a very long five and a half minutes. Yet, the director is not even brave enough to show her body through a wet white saree.

This poses an interesting contrast to Raj Kapoor, who found the courage to film the wet saree-no blouse song ( and the white-saree-under-waterfall songs (here ; and here That the latter video has millions of views and that viewers have noticed nothing but breasts is another matter. How people respond to a visual sequence cannot be controlled by the filmmaker. But his view of society, and of women, is communicated through the camera. I get the feeling that Raj Kapoor was not afraid of showing off his own liking of women's breasts.

I don't know how women in the 1970s and 80s responded to Raj Kapoor's wet saree songs (I'd be interested to know) but I personally don't mind them. Kapoor did not fail these characters by giving them nothing except breasts. To his credit, he made stories about men's conflicted relationship with women, and sexual desire, and society's exploitation of women's bodies. He even included a brief nude scene as part of the schoolboy's fantasy in Mera Naam Joker. In his time, he must have raised hackles but he have had the courage to deal with how people received his work.

Now just look at this song from the Sanjay Khan directed 'Abdullah'. It is an example of what can go wrong when the director is not careful about how women's sexuality is portrayed. Although the perspective is that of a bunch of villainous-looking Peeping Toms, the actress is depicted singing, frolicking in the water with girl friends. But the frolic is choreographed as if it were a performance, as if it were intended for consumption.

This is bad film direction. It suggests that the filmmaker was not thinking of the female character as a person whose voice the audience would hear. She was a distraction, a beautiful object. Contrast the 'Abdullah' song with the sexiness of Zeenat Aman in this beautiful rain-dance number. There is coyness and joyous sexiness, but there is also fun, and a definite engagement between the protagonists.

Viewers who complain about 'vulgarity' in songs are unable to articulate why they are uncomfortable with the imagery. Some of it may stem from a sexually conservative upbringing. But many of us are also complaining about 'objectification' and one of the things we instinctively sense is a lack of empathy.

The camera and the choreography tell us something that the video's creators will not – the song puts women at the centre of focus so they may serve a certain kind of fantasy. In this fantasy, the woman (or multiple women) have little agency, no special skills, no warmth, no hopes for her own heart. She's there, at best, seeking to draw attention to her beauty, and, at worst, drawn by the scent of a man's money or power.

We usually tolerate the kind of fantasy described above. But when repeated too often, it gets exhausting. And some days, when real world people talk or behave in ways that mirror that warped fantasy world – when I remember that some men would rather kill a woman than see her take charge of her life, her heart, her body – a film song can infuriate me. And on those days, I turn to youtube and begin to google old Hindi film songs for comfort.

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