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The following is an excerpt from a piece written by Krishna Chaudhari, entitled, ‘The Image of Women in Indian Cinema’, included in the Feb-March 1982 issue of Cine Woman, the official journal of India’s first International Forum of Women’s Cinema. The ‘image’ in the title is significant, for the article establishes a chronology of mythical and visible presences of women characters in Indian film. It is crucial too, for already, three decades ago, it had become obvious to writers in critical film publications that the onus was upon our national cinema to construct complex, nuanced female characters who were neither providers, preservers or destroyers - which is to say, deities - but individuals. This article is a part of our seventh issue, "Others". To read the complete issue, subscribe to Umbra.

The urban woman and the basic feminity which she retains even in the work situation has been powerfully brought out in a Marathi film - Satayadev Dubey’s
Shantata, Court Chalu Ahe. It is about a young schoolmistress who is single. She falls in love with a senior master, a family man. As a result of the affair, she conceives a child. In a mock trial, she is accused of immoral behaviour by her other colleagues. They, as representatives of traditional orthodoxy, try to arouse guilt feelings in her. The punishment pronounced by the mock jury is that she will have to kill the child. She is adamant, yet breaks down in a wail of tears, reflecting the helplessness of the ‘independent woman’ in the face of traditional moral codes.

This is a film which breaks new ground and takes us into a deeply sociological field. Here we are faced with the institution of patriarchal monogamous family, which initially developed in order to fulfil the social need of providing security and shelter for the woman who, in turn, would mother the offspring who in turn would inherit premise on which patriarchal monogamous family grew was that the woman would not work outside the home and she would not be economically independent. Shantata, Court Chalu Ahe brings to the forefront the combination of a patriarchal monogamous family and an independent woman. This encounter between an unrelated man and woman in the work situation and the resulting conflict is a dialectical social situation which needs to be studied and understood.

M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, although set against a much wider milieu of the country’s partition, communal tension, and the ultimate common economic goal of every man, expresses itself mainly through the two main characters – the patriarch and his daughter. Garam Hawa shows constriction of social circumstances and depicts the young woman as resigned and fatalistic to the extent of committing suicide. But the young woman’s image of helplessness and fatalistic defeatism raises questions of relevance in the context of present-day realities, especially in view of the fact that the resigned woman of the film is the beloved daughter of the house and not the unfortunate daughter-in-law of Indian society.

B.V. Karanth and Girish Karnad’s Vamsha Vriksha (Family Tree) shows three types of women at three different stages of social development, yet existing together within the span of fifty years. This is a typical example of the seemingly incongruous diversity of the Indian society where remnants of feudal values and products of modern education exist side by side. Vamsha Vriksha shows an orthodox, dominated woman who is commanded by her impotent husband to sleep with another man in order to carry on the family tree. This woman gives birth to a child who grows up to be a believer in the family name and family traditions. The film shows him as an elderly man who dominates his young daughter in- law, a child widow with a small son. The family decides to send this girl to college, where she falls in love with her professor. She wants to marry him. Her father-in-law concedes after great deliberation but forbids her from taking her son with her, as he is the only one to carry on the family tree. The girl gets married, but is unable to bear the separation from her son for very long, and dies in great agony. Then, in a dramatic sequence, the pedantic patriarch learns that he himself is not a true member of that much-glorified family tree. The third woman in Vamsha Vriksha is a highly educated research scholar, who marries her research guide only to find that he is too engrossed in his work to be able to give her sexual satisfaction. The last few decades have seen a consistent change in the social status of women. This is primarily due to wider education and professionalism among women in recent years. This, however, has been mostly concentrated in the cities, and that too among the upper and middle classes, because these were the classes who could afford to go in for higher education. In the field of cinema, this partially-changed social situation has been reflected in the New Cinema’s small-budget films: Shantata Court Chalu AhePratidwandi, Parinay, Faslah and Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71Padatik, Interview and Ekdin Pratidin. 

Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane is a document of the loneliness of the Anglo-Indian spinster and the opportunistic attitude of the young male who, in contrast to this girl friend is singularly free of any guilt for having taken advantage of the old woman, and his rejection, when the need is over.

Finally, Utpal Dutt’s Jhod, against the practice of Sati, and his more recent Baisakhi Megh, showing the revolutionary image of a woman, can be thematic trendsetters. With a little less dramatisation, which no doubt is an offshoot of his years of involvement in the theatre, the images and characters are likely to have a deeper and more lasting impact on the audience.

Apart from the direct struggle against injustice and oppression, New Cinema in India has to fight the dangerously pervasive influence of the modern mythological of the commercial circuit which idolize woman as the mother goddess and griha lakshmi on the one hand, and project her as a sexual commodity, incapable of independent thought and action, on the other.