June 3, 2008

Bhartiya Naari

Yves got me thinking on the term "Bhartiya Naari," and I thought about it until it expanded itself into a whole post.

While the term literally means "Indian Woman," its implications can be many. Generically, she is the ever loving, ever sacrificing; almost drowning in tradition, inner strength and spirituality. Add in idealism, high principals and moral strength, and we could come fairly close to the traditional "Bhartiya Naari." She is typified by her gender and nationality, and may potentially be constrained by these. That said, in the current Indian scenario this creature is coming close to extinction, since she is deemed regressive by the educated young woman of today. I dont beieve that this is an essentially completely correct point of view, since being conversant with history and tradition are necessary towards the development of any person- man or woman, Indian or otherwise.

We see many examples of the traditional Bhartiya Naari in Bollywood, and you have met her in very many movies through the years. She is the Nirupa Roy from every movie in the 70s- the mother who gives up all for her family. She is every playful, happy heroine who changes from shorts to saris as soon as she gets engaged to the hero, or meets his family. Generalized to the extreme, we have Saira Banu as the ultimate caricature of an Indian woman in Purab Aur Paschhim (1970), where she must switch from groovy minis to a floor length sari in order to qualify as a BN. Or she could be the ever sacrificing Nargis in Mother India (1957)- whereas I don't dislike the movie, I couldn't handle the portrayal of a woman spending all her life caring for her men folk- which would definitely be very typically Bhartiya Naari. She has a back bone, and she does take out her own son in the name of justice, and yes I do understand all the woman=India comparison, but it still seems woefully unfair that being an Indian woman should have such a high price.

What I find more true to life, is Shabana in Arth (1982), where she is the true Bhartiya Naari- she tries to save her marriage (we really only catch the last legs of it), but when that doesn't work, she gains an inner strength and leans to walk on her own. I love that I scene where she signs her divorce docs, and through her tears, gets serenaded to Raj Kiran's "Tum itna kyun." Fine, she has another guy around and waiting- but this is on her own terms, and without extra baggage being carried by the potentially new guy.

Another real woman steeped in tradition is Smita in Mirch Masala (1985). A simple village woman, she works in the local spice factory when her husband is out of a job; is quiet, sexy, yet demure- as are maybe 99% of women that we meet in this movie. However, once confronted with Naseer's potential evil rapist, all the women in the village join forces to fight against the men (who have essentially given up and are supporting Naseer!) A smaller part is played by Dipti Naval, who is the first woman in the village to send her child to school- I really loved the way she made this so real.

Then we have Shabana in Mandi (1983). A prostitute and manager of a house of prostitutes, she is intensely religious, cuttingly practical as regards her profession, and fiercely protective of her adopted "family." She is unapologetic about her profession, strong and kicks some serious ass. This is my favorite Shabana movie, and to me she is the ultimate Bhartiya Naari.

And in the recent past, it is Tabu who epitomizes the modern Bhartiya Naari- she is traditional in The Namesake (2007), a little less so in Cheeni Kum (2007)- but strong through and through. She cares for her family, but develops her own interests outside of home and hearth. She may be a fantasy, but I feel thousands of women in India today are struggling with the same issues she portrays, and she sucessfully represents their idelas and aspirations- though in neither film she has any real career, and today's Bhartiya Naari is very career concious, while still being deeply rooted in tradition.

Which brings me to the forthcoming Sarkar Raj (2008)- juxtaposed against Aishwariya's corporate exec is Tanisha as the traditional housewife. I hope they wont show the career woman as losing out in the end- if they dont, I will be applausing hard.

Note: Rereading this; I have obviously skipped over some spectacular women-oriented movies and characters- but getting it all in would mean a book :) Additionally, I do not mean to exclude non-Bhartiya Naaris (non Indian women)- women and men are essentially the same worldwide (while accounting for exceptions) but I have tried to contain the discussion to Bollywood.

17 comments:

payal said...

Great Picks.. I still remember vividly the scene in Mirch Masala where they throw up all the masalas!

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Agreed- there are some great montages in that movie, and that one is def seared in my brain as well.

memsaab said...

lovely, thoughtful post Shweta...I'm always so happy to get an Indian woman's POV on Bollywood and women's roles in it. I sometimes get annoyed by the Bhartiya Naari types, but I also almost always feel admiration for her strength at the same time.

ajnabi said...

Great post, and interesting points on the portrayal of women... I think overall Hollywood and Bollywood do a rather poor job of doing so because both are still rather masculine enclaves (although women have made some noteable advances). Still, as you said, there's still Shabana and Tabu to console us. And, like you, I'm looking forward to seeing how Aish's character in Sarkar Raj fares.

bollyviewer said...

Love your selection of great Indian women in Bollywood. Its time the term Bhartiya Naari achieved a more respectable image than the one conjured up by the self-sacrificing, doormatty stereotype in most popular cinema. Shabana in Mandi and Smita in Mirch Masala are great examples of traditional women who go beyond these stereotypes. Would like to add Madhuri in Mrityudanda to this list. That was another instance of gutsy traditional bhartiya naari who refuses to be cowed by adversity and sees her way to freedom.

theBollywoodFan said...

Very interesting post Shweta!

My take on the term 'Bhartiya Naari' has always led me to believe that she is one who is compassionate, ethical, loyal, a capable leader, and most of all, independent (to make choices -- whether to be a housewife, a career woman, or somewhere at the intersection of the two). Never believed education had anything to do with it. In fact, the better educated, the more potential for her to retain her Bhartiya Naari-ness for a longer period, wouldn't you say?

I do agree that she is deemed regressive by several urban and educated Indian woman of today (which probably constitutes about 35% of all women in India), but certainly do not agree with that attitude either.

Recently used the term in my review of Taxi Driver, where one of your favorites, Kalpana Kartik, played the part ;)

Really liked the use of the term in Chak De India. And my favorite non-Bhartiya Bhartiya Naari is Sue from Rang De Basanti. =)

Sarkar Raj should be interesting. Have you seen Corporate, starring Bipasha Basu?

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

memsaab: Thank you for your kind words as always. The implication of the term, and how it has been twisted is intersting. It is perhaps the expectations that people set for themselves and those that they inherit culturally, that mould their image- that is perhaps another aspect of the Bhartiya Naari that I didnt talk about- but that would lead to a non-bolly discussion perhaps :D

Ajnabi: Thank you for your great comments- yes perhaps ultimately they are largely male conclaves- it is surprising how mundane women's roles have become in cinema.

Bollyviewer: Thank you- and also thanks for bringing up Mrityudata- I have heard a lot about it, but never seen- must get a copy of it as soon as I can. It is definitely disturbing that "Bhartiya Naari" conjures imagery of doormat stereotypes- when it is meant to inspire someone strong and with high integrity etc.- one of my old high school friends recently called me that sarcastically, when he thought I was being too self sacrificing :S - I'd slap him if he were here!

Bollyfan: While I agree with you absolutely, I think our opinion is a small % of the generalzation that is out there [see my high school friend (who is a surgeon in India)'s comment in my discussion w/ Bollyviewer above]. I feel that culture and tradition, rather than making anyone regressive, would add to their knowledge base and help propel them forward, be it our Bhartiya Naari or anyone else.

Ahem- Kalpana Kartik- many aaghs and yaghs. But I love that favorite- Sue from RDB totally rocks! Saw Corporate- wasnt a big fan- Bips should have come out on top :D Which is why I tremble for Sarkar Raj....;)

yves said...

Hi Shweta,
They're all right, that's a wonderful post!
I was half aware of this phenomenon, the Indian woman, and in fact I knew there was something of it in the mothers we see so regularly sacrificing themselves, remaining silent and reproachful as their sons leave them, but return to them in due course. Just like the Earth where they come from and which is their final destination. Mothers are like the earth. They give birth and are as permanent as men are fluctuating.

And that Tabu might be tha Bharatiya naari of today, that also interests men a lot. I've always been struck by that half tender, half sad look of hers, as if she was the depositary of an age-old secret which she couldn't get rid of!
You know, I'm sure you could focus on other "figures" of the Bollywood cinema, and you know, we would love to read about them!
cheers
yves

theBollywoodFan said...

Agree about Bips in Corporate, but maybe the film was effective because of the way it ended. Although Kaaweri-maa (Swades) could have taught her a thing or two about economics :)

While we're discussing Tabu (my favorite actress alongside Vidya Balan and others) in this context...look who made it to the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine! :)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Yves: Thank you for instigating me to write it :D Its not just your posts- even your comments are almost lyrical! I completely agree with "that half tender, half sad look of hers, as if she was the depositary of an age-old secret which she couldn't get rid of!"- given the right director, Tabu does project that look, but I've never been able to capture it as well as you have.

Bollyfan: I so love Tabu. From her interviews, she appears to me similar in temprament to Akshay Khanna- doesnt give much of damn about much- and sometimes seems to jsut randomly pick movies- when she is good she shines- when given a bad movie, I overlook it :D Therefore she seems a odd choice for good housekeeping- she seems too cool for it! I'd have understood even a fitness magazine:)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Bollyfan- totally agree w/ u about Kaveri Maa- I guess its easy to overlook her cos her role wasnt that front and center- but she absolutely rocked

Amit said...

Smita in Manthan has a wonderful and complex role - that of a village woman with an alcoholic husband, as she forges a bond with Girish Karnad's urban doctor.

theBollywoodFan said...

She did rock! Swades is one of the very few movies that has managed to bring me to tears. Reasons include: 1) Kaaveri Maa, for she reminds me of my beloved nanny (who played a significant role in my upbringing); and 2) that scene where a little boy is selling cups of water at the train station. It was sad, but inspiring too. I ended up on the board of CRY America in South Florida for three years right after :)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Amit- I love Girish Karnad, and my views of that movie are somewhat colored by the fact that he starred in it- of course Smita is brilliant as always.

Bollyfan: that sounds like a great story- I went and read ur review on it, and I see what are you talking about sir :) good going.

Anonymous said...

awesome post!

La vida Loca said...

very good and insightful

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Thank you for your comment- keep visiting!