Hindi cinema and its intricacies will never cease to amaze. Ask authors Bhawana Somaaya, Supriya Madangarli and Jigna Kothari who worked on the six-decade chronicle that salutes the woman actor in all her avatars. “Everybody has a take on Hindi cinema, backed by a terrific memory,” believes Somaaya, veteran journalist, film critic and author of books on Hindi cinema.
It takes three...
The trio came together for this project in 2007: “In hindsight, taking the canvas into consideration, I am glad we split the work. Despite being of different temperaments, it was a happy marriage of ideas. It helped that we were connected with different generations: Bhavana (1970s), Supriya (1980s) and me (1990s). We were able to bring our perspectives, which helped,” infers Kothari.
Women characters from the 1950s and ’60s surprised the trio during their research. “Even if the women broke away, it was within a restricted area of ‘womanhood’,” Madangarli adds. She cites examples like Nutan’s character in Hum Log (1951) where the character possessed a unique ideology or
V Shantaram’s films where the heroines were realistic.
The Wonder Years
It wasn’t easy to pin down a favourite decade. Kothari plumbed for the 1960s and the 2000s: “The ’60s were great because colour was introduced; Hindi cinema portrayed several protagonists. From 2000, filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya and Farhan Akhtar introspected and looked at personal relationships through their scripts.” Madangarli’s favourite decades were the 1950s and ’70s: “The ’50s was about nation building.
The ’70s gets my vote because it was an interesting time. India had been through the Emergency and the women’s movement was gaining ground.” The ’70s struck a chord with Somaaya too. As a cub reporter she would do six interviews on the same set, “It was the era of multi-starrers like Amar, Akbar Anthony. The language of cinema was changing.” She adds, “We tend to glorify the past. Every decade has its pitfalls. We believe that the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were the best because we recall its montages and song sequences; it saw great music directors. Post Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Hindi cinema witnessed a change.”
The forgettable Eighties
The trio unanimously chose the 1980s as the worst for the woman actor in Hindi cinema. “It was a struggle to find strong characters in mainstream cinema. Offbeat, parallel cinema came to the rescue. The South influenced Hindi cinema. Family socials, the bane of Hindi cinema portrayed a fake sense of feel-good and destroyed any chance of reflecting realistic cinema,” explains Madangarli. Co-author Kothari adds that opting for safe routes, happy songs and dream sequences didn’t help.
“What cinema experienced in the Eighties is being dished on television now. The decade also witnessed a brain drain; entrepreneurs and their ideas left India. The mafia was getting stronger, illegal funding was rampant, and corporate houses stayed away from cinema,” Kothari elaborates.
Their research also revealed how scriptwriters had lost the formula; “Sometimes, scripts were written overnight, or on the set!” she says. This trend rolled into the ‘90s too. Daughters were returning home, and educated characters from commercial blockbusters like Simran (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, 1995) and Nisha (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, 1994) were submitting to family norms and societal pressures.
Somaaya adds that despite a horrible phase, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil’s best work emerged in that decade: “Madhuri and Sridevi hit the screen, yet these were bad times for solid roles. Mainstream cinema had closed its doors on the woman actor. In hindsight, Shabana and Smita paved the way for Tabu’s character in Cheeni Kum (2007) or Priyanka’s in Fashion (2008) and Saat Khoon Maaf (2011).”