Bol­ly­wood pow­ers up roles of women

Mes­sages con­front vi­o­lence

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JA­SON OVERDORF

NEW DELHI | At the cli­max of “Anaarkali of Ar­rah,” the new Bol­ly­wood film about a folk artist who spe­cial­izes in sug­ges­tive dances and bawdy songs, the brash hero­ine calls out a pow­er­ful col­lege chan­cel­lor for grop­ing her dur­ing a per­for­mance.

“She tells him, ‘Whether she is your wife or a whore or less than a whore, don’t touch a woman with­out ask­ing,’” says 29-year-old Swara Bhaskar, an es­tab­lished star in the In­dian film fir­ma­ment whose por­trayal of the un­apolo­get­i­cally sex­ual Anaarkali has drawn praise from film crit­ics and fem­i­nist com­men­ta­tors through­out the coun­try.

Fea­tur­ing a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist and de­liv­er­ing a clear mes­sage of fe­male em­pow­er­ment, “Anaarkali of Ar­rah” “is among a wave of women-cen­tric films sweep­ing Bol­ly­wood, by some

mea­sures the largest film in­dus­try in the world.

The films are help­ing fuel an un­prece­dented de­bate in In­dia about vi­o­lence against women as Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s Hindu na­tion­al­ist Bharatiya Janata Party has called for — and some­times vi­o­lently pro­moted — a re­turn to tra­di­tional val­ues in In­dian so­ci­ety.

“The plot turns on a pow­er­ful man de­mand­ing that [the hero­ine] come to his bed, and she says ‘No,’” said Shubhra Gupta, au­thor of “Fifty Films that Changed Bol­ly­wood,” a his­tory of the In­dian film in­dus­try from 1995 to 2015. “She may or may not be ped­dling her body, but when she says ‘No,’ she means ‘No.’ That is a huge state­ment.”

It’s also a huge change from Bol­ly­wood’s treat­ment of women as self­sac­ri­fic­ing moth­ers, vir­ginal hero­ines or doomed vamps, said ac­tress Richa Chadha, who played the foul-mouthed moll of a rus­tic crim­i­nal in the 2012 film “Gangs of Wassey­pur.”

“Ear­lier, women of­ten ap­peared just for a song or a mo­lesta­tion scene that was sort of strangely grat­i­fy­ing,” the 30-year-old ac­tress said. “The as­pi­ra­tion of the hero­ine was purely to get mar­ried — of­ten our films ended with the mar­riage.”

In con­trast, more re­cent films such as “Queen” in 2014 have fo­cused on pow­er­ful women who don’t nec­es­sar­ily need men. In “Queen,” the fe­male lead takes a Euro­pean “hon­ey­moon” by her­self af­ter her fi­ance jilts her.

“With ev­ery al­ter­nate movie re­volv­ing around a woman char­ac­ter, fem­i­nism is be­ing re­de­fined in the hith­erto male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try th­ese days,” critic Giridha Jha wrote in the mag­a­zine Out­look In­dia this month.

“No longer does one see any fe­male pro­tag­o­nist fit­ting into the stereo­types of Mother In­dia with no gray shades what­so­ever in her char­ac­ter, nor do we en­counter any damsel in dis­tress wait­ing for her prince charm­ing to res­cue them,” Mr. Jha wrote. “What the au­di­ence, in­stead, has to­day is a sur­feit of pow­er­ful roles played by young ac­tresses from the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion who have no qualms in wear­ing their at­ti­tude or sex­u­al­ity on their sleeves with aplomb.”

The trend spans sev­eral tra­di­tional Bol­ly­wood gen­res. Last year, a bevy of crime dra­mas cen­tered on strong, in­de­pen­dent fe­male leads.

“Pink” is a court­room drama about sex­ual ha­rass­ment that brought the de­bate over con­sent to the big screen for the first time to In­dian mass au­di­ences. In “Dear Zindagi,” the un­mar­ried hero­ine lives alone and sleeps with sev­eral men. “Dan­gal” tells the story of the rise of In­dia’s most suc­cess­ful fe­male wrestlers, sis­ters hail­ing from a state where fe­male feti­cide re­mains com­mon.

This year, Taapsee Pannu, the 29-yearold star of “Pink,” plays a se­cret agent in the ti­tle role of “Name: Sha­bana,” who is re­cruited to the job by the prom­ise that the clan­des­tine agency will help her take re­venge against the men who killed her friend in an al­ter­ca­tion over sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

“Now peo­ple are wak­ing up to the fact that hero­ism is not about a gen­der,” Miss Pannu said.

An­other cur­rent film caus­ing a buzz is “Maatr” (Mother), a rape re­venge fan­tasy star­ring Raveena Tan­don, a 42-year-old ac­tress whose hey­day was in the 1990s.

The films mir­ror de­bates oc­cur­ring in In­dian so­ci­ety.

Na­tional de­bate

Since the in­fa­mous gang rape in Delhi in 2012, when the as­sailants lured a 23-year-old woman and her friend onto a pri­vate bus and raped her, In­dia has en­acted strict laws against stalk­ing and other crimes against women.

But law­mak­ers have stopped short of crim­i­nal­iz­ing mar­i­tal rape, and many pun­dits, politi­cians and right-wing ac­tivists con­tinue to frame the dis­cus­sion of vi­o­lence against women in moral or pa­tri­ar­chal terms. A post-2012 slo­gan posted on many taxi­cabs, for in­stance, presents women’s “honor” as some­thing that is a man’s duty to pro­tect.

As a re­sult, In­di­ans are dis­cussing and dis­agree­ing over con­sent and sex­ual ha­rass­ment more widely and pub­licly than ever be­fore.

Across the coun­try, Hindu na­tion­al­ist vig­i­lante groups — of­ten sup­port­ers, though not nec­es­sar­ily mem­bers, of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — have at­tacked young men and women so­cial­iz­ing in bars.

Other groups have launched an or­ga­nized cam­paign against in­ter­re­li­gious ro­mances that they say are the re­sult of an or­ches­trated pro­gram of “love ji­had” — Mus­lims sup­pos­edly con­vert­ing Hindu girls to Is­lam by woo­ing them ro­man­ti­cally.

The fire­brand Hindu cleric Mr. Modi re­cently se­lected as the chief min­is­ter of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lous state, Yogi Adityanath of Ut­tar Pradesh, has cracked down on romance in the guise of a bat­tle against sex­ual ha­rass­ment on the street. Crit­ics say “anti-Romeo squads” — cat­callers are known in the lo­cal slang as “road­side Romeos” — have tar­geted canoodling young cou­ples as of­ten as they stop un­wanted ad­vances.

In­dia’s cen­sor board this year barred a film called “Lip­stick Un­der My Burqa” about four un­ful­filled women who take charge of their sex­u­al­ity, say­ing, “The story is lady-ori­ented, their fan­tasy above life.”

“Where it comes to women, this [group] would like them to be back in the kitchen,” said the film critic Ms. Gupta. “That’s what Bol­ly­wood has been work­ing against in its own way.”

For Miss Bhaskar, “Anaarkali” marked a step for­ward be­cause the film es­chews the weepy, apolo­getic tone of ear­lier movies cen­tered around so­cial is­sues.

The ti­tle char­ac­ter “is un­apolo­getic about the fact that she is sex­u­ally pro­mis­cu­ous and sex­u­ally free,” said Miss Bhaskar. “She’s not a vic­tim, which is the way you usu­ally see fe­male sex­u­al­ity de­picted in In­dia.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

BREAK­ING TRA­DI­TION: “Peo­ple are wak­ing up to the fact that hero­ism is not about a gen­der,” said Taapsee Pannu, who por­trays a se­cret agent seek­ing re­venge in “Name: Sha­bana.”

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