Bollywood isn't exactly a bountiful hunting ground, when looking for feminist role models. I can't remember the last film in which the heroine actually worked and made a living. And the more upscale and urbane the films are becoming, the more regressive their portrayal of woman is getting.
Let's take for example, Dil Chahta Hai: the archetypical urban film, hailed by many as the first to reflect the life (and perhaps, the lifestyle) of urban India. What did the two heroines -- Preity Zinta and Sonali Kulkarni -- do in the film? Precisely nothing, beyond waiting to get married. In fact, Zinta atempts the ultimate K-serial good Indian woman act: try to sacrifice her love for her family obligations. The only woman to work was Dimple Kapadia, and we know what happened to her: she died of consumption, lonely and sad, too gutless to accept the love of a much younger man.
How about comparing these characters to that of Vidya Sinha's in the quiet, middle-class 1975 film Choti Si Baat? It is a character I find fascinating for its unfussy boldness, seldom seen in Bollywood.
At first glance, she seems like an unlikely feminist role model - Sinha sports ugly saris and hairdos through the film, a far call from the sophisticated and chic Zinta, Kapadia and Kulkarni of DCH. But think about it. Sinha is portrayed as a young, independent woman living and working on her own in Mumbai. (Her family was not referred to even once in the film.) And it is more the vivaciousness of her personality than her beauty that has her two suitors - played by Amol Palekar and Asrani - eating out of her hand.
She confidently accepts lunch date offers, and shows no misgivings about meeting her two suitors one-on-one even though she is well aware that they are trying to woo her. She has a gorgeously wicked sense of humour, and shamelessly gossips and giggles about her escapades with her friend in office. All the same, she is far from a bitch. She prefers Palekar to Asrani for being a kinder, better person.
But what I like most about her, is that it is finally she - tired of the game of one upmanship going on between the two men - who asks Palekar to cut the bullshit out and marry her. In every situation, she seems to be in more control that either of the two heroes.
I particularly think of this contrast between DCH and CSB when I look around at women in Mumbai. An American photojournalist friend, Sam, on his first trip to Mumbai a few years ago, remarked how surprised he was to see women sport jeans and tank tops with such elan in Mumbai. He took it as a sign of their liberation. In response, my thoughts immedietely went back to so many of my rich Marwari classmates in Sydenham College, who would easily fall into this liberated category based on clothes. Yet, they tamely married guys chosen by their families the moment they stepped out of college. So much for their tank tops and low waist jeans! By contrast, many of the sari-clad women jumping out the 9.00am local train and fighting their way to Mantralaya - much like Sinha in CSB - may hide Sam's liberated Mumbai woman.
To what extent, can we judge a woman's independence on the basis of their clothes?