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The Forever Women

The Women on the Hindi silverscreen have carried shades of black, white and grey, have suffered and fought back, and have also embodied love, devotion and surrender. They are faces of light, laughter, sadness and strength. Indian actresses like Meena Kumari, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Jaya Bahaduri and Rekha have charmed cinegoers with their sensuous beauty, charm and dignity. Balpreet writes about these Forever Women.

A FILM begins.

And then she enters the screen.

And the story begins. 

A film’s hero gets applause when he appears. And when a heroine steps in, a luminosity enters. You hear the breeze, leaves rustle, anklets tinkle, you smell flowers, the weather changes. The temperature amps up a little – from comfortingly warm to sensuously scorching and mostly, endearingly love-kissed. A leading lady - she brings a whiff of things to come. Exciting things. Beauty, warmth, love, passion, dreams, a surprise, an excitement... A reason for the hero to descend to earth. Look more real. Loving. And human. And for that, she holds the candle, melting him, making him easier to relate with. Making a man out of him. 

That’s our women in films.  At least some. Today, we celebrate Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, Kiara Advani, Kangana Ranaut, Sara Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Bhumi Pednekar and more, when they line up crackers like Highway, Raazi, Gully Boy, Piku, Tamaasha, Kabir Singh, Queen, Thalaivi, Tanu Weds Manu, Kedarnath, Barfi, The Sky Is Pink, Dam Laga Ke Haisha... and more. We talk of women finding their voice these days. We talk of women who can tell a man from a moron and walk into the direction that leads her to authenticity, her essence and individuality. We talk of women who play the grey with the white. And go beyond. We celebrate these days, the exciting characters women play in our cinema.

But then, the women in our cinema were always many colours. Ever since India birthed its 70 mm, we have met all kinds – the divine, the good, the bad, the ugly. And for the benefit of those not in the know, many of them cut across the clichéd common. In fact, if I may say, these women went beyond the edges of social mores, even as they stayed beautifully wrapped in femininity, grace and a mysterious restrain. It’s THIS blend of softness and strength without ever touching the aggressive that makes them so interesting.

So it’s like these films have risen like waves, lapping against our anticipations and fantasies before settling back into boxes staved off to archives. And their women have stepped out of the tides, entered our blood streams, cells, eyes, hearts and memories forever.

So let’s meet some of these women, from the Hindi cinema of the 1950s till 2000, that have yet not left our systems. No reboot here. No upgrades here. These women stay. Never to be taken over. That’s how special they are.

Among the earliest films in my memory is Mehboob Khan’s Andaz. Now, Nargis Dutt was a curious fusion. Of impish arrogance and a certain kindness; of passion and sincerity gleaming all over her face; and openness so organic and new, she inspired filmmakers to make films like Andaz and Mother India. Neena of Andaz is this modern woman with a mind of her own who loves one man and is a friend to another. In her careless innocence, she believes she can honour both relationships. But then, she doesn’t know she has friend-zoned a man secretly in love with her. And eventually bears the brunt.

The character was complex which she projected effortlessly. And this wasn’t the only time she played a woman fluttering under extraordinary chaos. There was Mother India too. Here, as a rural Radha, she transforms from a loving wife who’s her husband’s equal in sharing the financial burden, into a toiling widow whose life force is her two sons. And then she evolves into a mother who’d allow her son to do no wrong, especially to women. So she pulls the trigger, killing him, the child she most loves. For a mother to have such ferocious grit isn’t ordinary and absolutely unforgettable.

Then we meet Anuradha - played flawlessly by the lovely Leela Naidi. She doesn’t face a situation as complex as Radha’s. But Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha faces her own demon nevertheless. She begins as an educated city girl exploring music and dance. Then she falls in love and marries a doctor who’s clear about serving the sick in a village. As the film travels, you see a woman flitting between love, devotion, duty and neglect because the husband is too sincere a doctor that he often forgets to be a good husband. Towards the climax, Anuradha faces two paths – one leading to an old suitor’s love who values her and her talents; and the other leading right back into her household of tough chores, endless waiting, and a routine bereft of any creative excitement. Anuradha stays. But in that we sense no sadness. It’s a choice of love, sacrifice and commitment, liberated of the previous resentment or heaviness. 

But five years later, in 1965, came another woman passionate about dance, who does walk out of a loveless marriage. And she also takes a lover and lives with him. For a leading lady of those days to play such a woman could’ve pushed her into a dangerous pit of social judgement. Waheeda Rahman managed not only to deliver such a role impeccably in Guide but also walked away with ‘Best Actress’ while the film itself lapped up awards for best actor, director, dialogue, story, cinematography and was entered for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 38th Academy Awards. In fact, Waheeda always took on layered roles. Khamoshi saw her play a nurse in a mental asylum who invests so emotionally and deeply in her patients’ healing, she herself loses her mind. Then much later, Sunny saw her portray the bitterness and manipulation of a woman whose husband has fallen in love with another woman.

Sharmila Tagore too played outside of clichés. She was this two-piece bikini flaunting actress who began her career with Satyajit Ray in Apur Sansar and Devi before her Hindi debut with Kashmir Ki Kali. But among her really extraordinary Hindi outings was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama. Now as Anupama, Sharmila is so stirring, so attractive in the way she carries her silence. Slender, beautiful in a natural, untouched way, Anupama grows on you with each frame... without speaking much, using her eyes and mostly nodding her way through the film. And when this girl, suppressed and silenced by a father who loves her and hates her at the same time, actually defies him and walks out of the house to be with the man who offers love and understanding... you are overwhelmed as if it’s your own triumph.

The same actress surprises with range across Basu Bhattacharya’s Aavishkaar and Greh Parvesh. In one she plays a wife who questions her husband’s dominance and meets him equally. And in the other, as a wife, she goes from shock to denial to acceptance of her husband’s extra-marital affair and his decision to leave her. And gracefully, extremely maturely, she readies to let go of him with an unconditional love and compassion – almost that of a mother. And in that, she actually wins him back. Such women! Mausam and Chupke Chupke too were roles that Sharmila lifted to levels of fine profundity.

To be profound and yet carry a lightness of being, and a child-like vulnerability is the stuff Madhubala and Nutan were made of.  First let’s take Madhubala. She was beauteous, quite like no else. Period. But then, in this crowning of her angelic charm, her talent often got sidelined. From Howrah Bridge to Kala Pani to Barsaat Ki Raat to Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi to Mughal-E-Azam, Madhubala gave us women who could croon in a night club, stub cigarettes with a look to die for and yet, be carried in the arms of love like a freshly plucked flower. She could giggle like nobody’s business and look splendidly sensuous when rain-soaked and amused. She could tease a Dev Anand in ‘Achha Ji Main Haari’ - blending the teasing, the fondness and the maturity of a woman who knows how to handle her lover. In that one song, Madhubala becomes so many women. Then, in Barsaat Ki Raat, she could play a woman helplessly, hopelessly in love and driven by its ferocity and faith. The Anarkali that she brought alive in K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam goes degrees beyond what Deepika Padukone could do to as Mastani. The pride of a danseuse in a king’s court, the easy surrender to the beloved, the fearless defiance in the face of opposition and then her helpless collapse into death, broken-hearted and disillusioned – Madhubala managed so many layers in this masterpiece for posterity to glimpse again and again.

Nutan too came blessed with a face of love, kindness, goodness, sincerity and a soulful purity. But when Kalayani of Bimal Roy’s Bandini is wronged in love, she crosses over into a dark space where she commits a murder. The changing shades of the mind flit over Kalayani’s face and it all makes for a woman so easy to relate with and yet someone no one would like to imitate in a hurry. Her Sujata, again thanks to Bimal Roy, is so endearing, so vulnerable and fragile and yet has so much character that you come away inspired to lift to the loftiest aspects of you. Her Saudagar with Amitabh Bachchan is yet another woman who won’t leave my heart space for the sheer goodness and forgiveness of a woman abandoned by her husband.

Then there is another woman who carries resentment as well as love for a man she was married to as a child and who has apparently forgotten all about her. Gulzar’s Khushboo is a masterpiece for how Hema Malini’s Kusum carries the complex role so effortlessly. She is deeply hurt, hopeless and resentful about Brindaban never coming back for her, and when she meets him as an adult, she is way too self-respecting to tell him to accept her or even that she has always waited for him. But, she also looks after and cares for his child from his brief marriage in-between. So she is a bundle of contradictions and yet, real and convincing. 

In fact Hema Malini has given us beautiful, compelling women in Gulzar’s Kinara and Meera, Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan, Yash Chopra’s Trishul. And a never-to-be-forgotten Basanti in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, who chatters and lights up the frames all through and along with Dharmendra, makes for the most beautiful couple of all times.

Sholay also brings to mind Jaya Bhaduri who hardly speaks in the film and yet her presence throbs. She earlier immortalised Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili, who won’t let her terminal disease make a victim out of her. And when she does become a victim of her husband’s ego in Mukherjee’s Abhimaan, she makes no noise about it even if it means suffering so deeply she almost loses her will to live. Her Uphaar by Sudhendu Roy brings Meenu who is so unaware and innocent, she hurts her loving husband for a long time till awareness enters. Baawarchi, Chupke Chupke, Zanjeer, Parichay, Anamika, Kora Kaagaz, Silsila – Jaya Bhaduri’s women are always next-door simple, humble and yet quietly headstrong.

Somebody in that category is also Vidya Sinha, who makes Deepa of Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha so relatable even as she zig-zags with her emotions, pendulating between a boyfriend of her past and one of her present. Her full Indian face, her kaajal streaked eyes and her breezy, flowery sarees... Vidya Sinha is so enchanting it’s hard to find such charm in today’s gym-toned bodies and flawless bone-structures.

Then there are women whose sensuousness-meets-passion-meets-intensity is yet to find an equal... Go check Kidar Sharma’s 1964 films Chitralekha. The way Meena Kumari moves, speaks, looks, gets dressed, oozes love, surrender, confidence, pride and vulnerability – is a performance budding actors need to look into. It goes even beyond another of her highest – Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. Chitralekha is a maligned danseuse, bad news for other women and yet her search for the divine is so real, she renounces her man’s love and comfort to chase peace a twisted sense of spirituality puts into her.

Another character who exudes grace, sensuality and eventual sacrifice is Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali played impeccably by Vyjanthimala. Her Sangam too throws an important question about how men forget to ask a woman what she wants. Her Radha carries the complex layers of a woman caught between two men, one her beloved and the other a friend of the two and the tragedy of being married to the latter and learning to love him. And yet being questioned for loyalty. She also created Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s Devdas which is yet to find its equal.

Devdas also saw Suchitra Sen become Paro no actress could come close to. Both these women, embody love and pain so palpably that sometimes it gets tough to watch the film. But the same Sen has also created Aarti of Gulzar’s Aandhi which many say was modelled after Indira Gandhi. To play a woman of teasing wit, facing her father’s ambition and her own personal loss, isn’t a concoction easy to deliver.

And well, the list is really extensive of women who make us curious, inspire and surprise. Rekha does it in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khoobsurat and Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan; Smita Patil in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika, Mircha Masala, Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar; Shabana Azmi in Basu Chatterjee’s Swami, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, Nishant; Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom, and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh. Tanuja in Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav, Rameshwari in Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye, Sridevi in Sadma, Lamhe, Chandni, Chaalbaaz, English Vinglish, Deepti Naval in Ek Baar Phir, Panchvati, Chashm-e-Badoor, Angoor, Moushami Chatterjee in Angoor, Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab, Saajan, Pukar, Dil To Paagal Hai; Bhagyashree in Maine Pyaar Kiya; Pooja Bhatt in Daddy, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Tabu in Virasat, Maqbool, Cheeni Kum, Haider and Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.  

These women have carried shades of black, white and grey, have suffered and fought back, and have also embodied love, devotion and surrender. They are faces of light, laughter, sadness and strength. And they aren’t of today.

They are forever.

The Forever Women: Welcome

Balpreet is a senior print and TV journalist, who also makes films. Her film, 'Mera kuch samaan' received the PTC Digital Film Award 2022 for the Most Romantic Film. She also received the Critics Award for Best Director for her film, 'Lockdown.'

The Forever Women: Text
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