Between the ‘home’ and the ‘world’: The ‘New Woman’ in Bollywood
By Nandita Dutta
In a poster of the popular 2012 film English Vinglish, the protagonist, Shashi, appears against the New York skyline with a resolute look on her face. She has been photographed and frozen amid a stride – a meaningful one, as opposed to loitering – with a Starbucks coffee in her hand, bestowing on her a modern and professional look. She is out on the streets of New York, but that evidently is not without a purpose. She is dressed in an overcoat and a sari, and is wearing a bindi on her forehead. Going by visible markers of identity, she is Indian, and Hindu. She is a new Indian woman.
Rupal Oza, in her book Making of Neoliberal India (2006), described the ‘new liberal Indian woman’ as modern, self-assured, independent, rich, and fashionable. At first glance, this conception of femininity seems identical to the nationalist idea of the ‘new Indian woman’ that came in response to colonialism. As theorized by Partha Chatterjee, this new woman was subject to a new patriarchy: she had to differentiate herself not only from the Western woman by being embedded in Indian tradition, but also from the lower-class Indian woman by being educated, cultured, refined, and sexually upright. Home was the site where this distinction had to be maintained and fortified, reifying the home/world, feminine/masculine dichotomies.
In this essay, I aim to analyze three recent women-oriented Bollywood films – English Vinglish (2012), Tumhari Sulu (2017), and Secret Superstar (2017) – to see how the ‘new Indian woman’ of the globalized capitalist economy finds representation on screen. Do any common attributes emerge that characterize this woman? How does she engage with ‘modernity’? Does this new woman collapse the distinction between the home and the world or does she crystallize it? What continuities and ruptures do these representations offer from the image of the nationalist new Indian woman?
English Vinglish and Tumhari Sulu revolve around protagonists who are middle-class, upper caste, urban, Hindu housewives. The woman in Secret Superstar – who is the protagonist’s mother but a central character in her own right – is also urban and middle-class, but Muslim. It then becomes interesting to see what breakages the Muslim woman offers from the conception of the ‘new Indian woman’: does the category bring her into the fold or does she remain outside of it?
Ghare Baire: The Home and the World
The new woman is no longer confined to the home. She desires to be a part of the global workforce and reap benefits of globalization and economic liberalization. She also embodies consumerist aspirations of the middle class. In English Vinglish, Shashi is a Pune-based housewife who takes as much delight in making and selling laddoos as in caring for her hetero-patriarchal family. But her family continually ridicules her for her poor English and her culinary ‘hobby’. “Why did you marry me? Why did you not marry a modern woman?” she asks her husband early on in the film.
Shashi’s own journey to modernity becomes coterminous with her physical journey to New York for her niece’s wedding. Notably, she embarks on this journey by herself – the ‘world’ in the home/world dichotomy manifests itself literally; the new woman is afforded transnational mobility. On arriving in New York, she must also excel in the language that is the real ticket to the globalized world. So, she joins an English class without telling her family. At her first class, she is told by her teacher that she is an ‘entrepreneur’, implicating her in the neoliberal language, providing her with a sense of self-worth. This aspiration to be a part of the professional world goes hand-in-hand with consumerism: Shashi’s introduction to Manhattan is through a song brimming with references to multinational brands – Gucchi, Prada, Versace, Zara, Louis Vuitton, etc.
In Tumhari Sulu, Sulochana aka Sulu is a 12th fail housewife who conceptualizes new business ideas all the time – she can be called an entrepreneur too – and looks with longing and fascination at her air hostess neighbors who return from work in the morning when she is typically engaged in household chores. She is overjoyed when despite her lack of educational qualification, she is able to stake a claim to the corporate world as a radio jockey for a late-night show. Visually, the transformation from a housewife to a working woman is symbolized by the recurring motif of a working woman’s handbag that she proudly slings over her shoulder and admires herself in the mirror with. Inextricably tied to her ambition is economic aspiration: with her first salary, she buys a kurta and a pair of sunglasses for her husband, gold earrings for herself, and orders a new television for the household.
In contrast to both Shashi and Sulochana, Najma of Secret Superstar is uneducated and does not even nurture any aspirations of stepping out into the professional world, given her patriarchal tyrant of a husband. Despite her daughter’s pleas to leave him, she refuses to do so because she cannot provide for them. Not surprisingly, her license to liberatory and material aspirations is her daughter who wants to be a singer. And the conduit for the mother-daughter duo to achieve their shared dream is a laptop – Najma sells her gold necklace to buy a laptop for her daughter. Since they are restricted to the home by the patriarch, the world comes to them via a laptop with an internet connection that becomes an enabler of dreams – the daughter wears a burqa, films herself singing, and uploads those videos on Youtube becoming an overnight sensation.
Ironically, the signboard leading to Najma’s house announces ‘Modern Colony, Vadodara’, Vadodara being a Tier 2 city in Gujarat, akin to Pune in Maharashtra where Shashi resides. While Shashi’s westward travel opens up a world of possibilities, the only kind of transnational mobility Najma can access is accompanying her husband to Saudi Arabia where the implication is that she would have to live a more restrictive life, while her daughter would be married off against her will. Hence, this is the kind of mobility that she must reject, as she eventually does – albeit at the eleventh hour, when they are already at the airport.
The Dangers of the World
Despite the seemingly easy access Shashi and Sulochana have to the public sphere, it is not bereft of anxiety and threats to the patriarchal order. Despite the respectable cause behind Shashi’s transnational journey – she is going to New York to help her sister organize her daughter’s wedding – it exposes her to men other than her husband. There is one man in particular who expresses romantic interest in her, who has the potential to disrupt her conjugality. The seemingly safe and sanitized streets and public transport system in New York also afford her the freedom to confidently navigate public spaces – take a stroll, go for a coffee, watch a movie in a theatre – without her husband accompanying her. But these, at the end of the day, are guilty pleasures. Shashi is not one to stray; she constantly asserts (thereby assuring the viewers) that her primary role is as a wife and a mother to her two kids, and that she isn’t swayed by romantic attention from an attractive male despite her husband’s condescending and callous attitude.
Sulu, on the other hand, is questioned on how a respectable woman can take up a job that entails “talking to loafers at night”. The radio show she hosts doles out love advice to working class men such as auto rickshaw drivers and security guards who spend the night at work. Her sisters, who have ‘respectable jobs’ as bankers, relentlessly persuade her to quit, comparing her radio show to a dance bar – which is a stretch of imagination since Sulu’s job has none of the dangers associated with working in a dance bar. Her radio station is a workplace dominated by women. She commutes to her workplace in a cab that is driven by a woman equipped with a pepper spray. The atmosphere is so comfortable that it nearly feels like an extension of the domestic sphere – Sulu is shown peeling peas while hosting her show. The only threat to her respectability – which presumably comes from interacting with working class men – is virtual. But it is perceived as a threat nonetheless, which Sulu not only actively resists but also puts up a fight against.
The threat that the ‘world’ poses in Secret Superstar is virtual as well. When the patriarchal husband in the film comes to know that his wife sold her jewelry to buy the laptop, he is rattled by the challenge posed to his authority in the household. He thrashes his wife mercilessly for not taking his permission. He commands his daughter to destroy the laptop as a lesson for them for the future. Angry and frustrated, she throws the laptop down from her balcony, ending their temporary access to the world and its potential for desire and freedom.
When the new woman makes her foray into the ‘world’, she is faced with challenges, both internal and external. Though it is expected of her to be modern, confident, and independent, the passage from home to the world is far from smooth. How do the women in question, then, respond to these challenges?
Among all the three films, English Vinglish provides the most conventional and retrograde resolution. Shashi feels so guilty of her momentary engagement with the world and its pleasures that she conflates it with ignoring her primary duties as a mother. Invoking an internal crisis, she decides to reject the ‘world’ in favour of her family. Towards the end of the film, while raising a toast to her newly-wed niece, she not only underlines the importance of a hetero-normative family but also raises a toast to the neoliberal mantra of self-improvement by saying that when a marriage is on the rocks, it is time for the neglected party to “help themselves” so that they can return to the marriage feeling equal. Thus, patriarchal power dynamic in the family is reduced to a matter of individual realization and improvement – by learning English, she manages to win back the love and respect of her husband.
Tumhari Sulu too resorts to a familial crisis – it seems to be a common trope in Bollywood films to pit the private/domestic against the professional/public to create a moment of tension that eventually determines the rules of engagement for a woman with the ‘world’. While Sulochana is busy building a successful career, her pre-pubescent son gets into bad company at school. However, Sulu resolutely denies any connection between her ‘late-night career’ and her son’s waywardness. Though it appears that she will succumb to pressure from the extended family to quit her job, she does not. However, the nuclear, heteronormative family unit isn’t undermined – Sulu, her husband, and their son get a ‘happily ever-after’ wherein Sulu not only gets to keep her job but also starts a joint enterprise with her husband.
Secret Superstar provides the most radical break: despite having stuck with her tyrannical husband through thick and thin, Najma decides to break out of the hetero-patriarchal family in the end. While collecting their boarding passes at the airport, she makes up her mind to not accompany her husband to Saudi Arabia. She doesn’t want to divorce him, but she doesn’t want to live with him either. While he begs her to stay, she walks out of the airport with her two children. Notably, this act of resistance takes place in the public sphere, where the fear of public humiliation keeps the husband from resorting to violence, and emboldens Najma. But the difficult question of how she will provide for her family isn’t resolved. “Let’s go to your awards show now, then we will think about it,” she says to her daughter who is due to receive an award for playback singing in Mumbai, leading to a dreamy climax typical of Bollywood films. The suggestion is that Najma’s daughter has risen to fame and will be able to provide for the family.
Going by how the ‘new liberal Indian woman’ is represented on screen, she is not very different from the ‘new nationalist Indian woman’. Much like her predecessor, she should be modern but not too modern. Though she is encouraged to participate in the workforce, her primary role of keeping house remains unchallenged. Be it Sashi, Sulochana, or Najma, she is the one shown waking up early to cook and clean, with little to no participation from her husband. Home continues to be the site where her social position is located.
The only difference is that while nationalist modernity urged a woman to use her newfound education and cultural refinement to advance her family, neoliberal modernity encourages her to step out of the house and partake in the globalized knowledge economy, as long as there is no threat to her femininity or her Indian essence. Her aspiration, ambition, and participation in the workforce are circumscribed by the question of respectability. She must maintain her reputation and virtuosity at all costs by staying away from ‘other’ men – men who belong to different class/religion/nationality, and can erode the foundations of her respectable conjugality. The new woman’s engagement with the ‘world’ should be such that it does not undermine the importance and status of the hetero-patriarchal family.
Acting upon this edifice of the family are neoliberal forces such as individualism – mainly demonstrated through self-improvement – and rampant consumerism. The liberality of this ‘new Indian woman’ also extends to acceptance of the queer community: in English Vinglish, Shashi is shown to be comfortable with and sympathetic towards her gay teacher and gay classmate in English class, while in a scene in Tumhari Sulu, Sulochana offers the seat next to her in a bus – reserved for women – to a transgender woman, in an illustration of how neoliberal cultural and economic forces have been co-opting queer movements.
But what about the Muslim woman? She is still framed as a backward, uneducated, oppressed figure, who is fighting for her rights, but is not yet at par with the Hindu woman. She isn’t modern, independent, and mobile, and consequently, ineligible for the rewards of globalization and liberalization. Historically, this can be traced to two kinds of exclusion: one, the economic exclusion of Muslims from the formation of the middle-class, the class demographic to which the ‘new liberal Indian woman’ belongs; and two, the cultural exclusion of Muslims from the construction of the hegemonic Indian tradition that such a woman must preserve. Thus, the ‘new liberal Indian woman’ is inevitably also a Hindu woman.
Chatterjee, P. (1989). Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonialized Women: The Contest in India. American Ethnologist, 16(4), 622-633. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/645113
Oza, R. (2006). The Making of Neoliberal India: Nationalism, Gender, and the Paradoxes of Globalization. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
English Vinglish. (2012). Dir. Gauri Shinde. Eros International, Hope Productions. DVD.
Secret Superstar. (2017). Dir. Advait Chandan. Aamir Khan Productions. Amazon Prime Video.
Tumhari Sulu. (2017). Dir. Suresh Triveni. T-Series, Ellipsis Entertainment. Amazon Prime Video.
Nandita Dutta works at the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.