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Mapping the ‘New Woman’ through the eyes of Cinema and Society

By Amarinder Gill

The transformation of Indian women began with the Partition of India. If people were asked during the pre-partition period, ‘Where are all the women?’, the answer was they are home, bearing and rearing the children. Women led cloistered and secluded lives as wives and daughters. Then followed the year 1947 and the Partition of India which happened to register the greatest exodus in history. It witnessed massive transfers of population either sides of the border. The rapes, pillage, and dislocation saw women thrust from the private to the public domain. This large scale displacement forced women, who were earlier considered dull creatures, to be thrust into the outward arena of their existence.

As Nehru’s India tottered on the path towards development, there was stress on education. Girls were sent to school to acquire the 3 Rs and study subjects like home science, music, and fine arts which would make them accomplished housewives. Women of most sections of society remained illiterate. The education came to an end when a suitable match was found. Women were mere puppets who danced first to the tunes of their parental home and then the conjugal home. Options for work were limited as motherhood and being a good wife were the most sought after careers. Jobs for women were limited to the pink collar ones like teaching, receptionists, and telephone operators. If a woman followed medicine, she had to be a ‘lady doctor’. But the best career option was, of course, marriage.

Even the movies of the post-independence era depict women as insecure creatures given to a lot of weeping and histrionics. The slow rise of the new woman seems to be initiated by Mother India (1957), where Nargis is the poor mother raising two sons, while her husband is a helpless weakling who does a quick disappearing act. She is the sacrificing mother who ultimately kills her own son as he tries to abduct the daughter of the moneylender Sukhilala. Nargis goes all out to protect the izzat and virginity of the Lala’s daughter. Nirupa Roy best represented Indian womanhood as the ever-crying and sacrificing mother, while Lalita Pawar  reinforced stereotypes as a mother-in-law dreaded by every bride. Even the movies showed mainstream heroines as the ‘adarsh bhartiya naari’. Ghagra and sari-clad actresses like Nanda, Mala Sinha, and Babita, whose careers were limited to dancing and singing around trees, were the ideal women. In Shree 420 (1955), the virtuous Vidya draws a sharp contrast with the ‘mur mur  ke na dekh mur mur ke’ swaying Maya. The sari-clad Nargis was the epitome of Indian womanhood, while Nadira with her pencil thin eyebrows was the westernised vamp of low morals. Helen too with her firangi looks was often shown on screen as an adulteress or cabaret dancer. Good Indian girls had to retain their virginity and dancing as a career was not encouraged. Manoj Kumar was the Mr. Bharat, the ‘adarsh bhartiya purush’ who tames a smoking, westernised Saira Bano with his ‘bhartiya samajik’ songs like ‘dulhan chali’ in the movie Poorav aur Paschim (1970).

From 1960s onwards, education was provided to women because the changing times demanded so. A middle class, young working man always wanted an educated wife who could hold a decent conversation and serve his guests high tea in a tea-set with the most sumptuous of Indian savouries. Women were not educated to question patriarchy. They were raised to be obedient and chaste and could be easily browbeaten into mute acceptance. It was the women of the upper castes and classes who had access to education. In the movie Guide (1965), Waheeda Rehman essayed the role of Rosie, the daughter of a devadasi who is married to an ageing archaeologist, Marco. Her marriage gains her respect in society and acts as a cover for her background. With Dev Anand’s help she transforms from Rosie to the established dancer Nalini. Why does a woman need to work? Was there dearth of money in her husband’s home? These probing questions always received the same answer. Her husband’s home was a woman’s own home but she had to seek permission to step out. A woman was happy with her lot. She lived a narrow but not an unhappy existence. An educated woman read magazines like Femina and Woman’s Era. She got her salwar kameez and saree blouses styled by the local masterji. Lakme, Soft tone, Lux, and Halo shampoo catered to her beauty needs. The women who shone out of the glossies represented the new woman to every Indian female.

The image of the new woman changed with every decade. The late seventies saw Indira Gandhi emerge as a prominent leader and the masses saw her as a woman who wore iron pants and made everyone dance to her tunes. This decade also saw middle class girls like Kiran Bedi break glass ceilings. The ‘adarsh beti-bahu-biwi’ image underwent a change as Bollywood too moved away from the pativrata images. Indian cinema moved beyond the image of Mother India when convent-educated, svelte beauties like Parveen Babi and Zeenat  Aman replaced buxom ladies like Reena Roy and Jaya Prada. As body types changed, these westernised actresses brought with them the oomph factor and glamorised the entertainment industry. Deepti Naval best depicted the middle class woman and was a character that people could relate to. Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi straddled the world of parallel cinema, along with commercial movies, and their roles highlighted the different aspects of a woman’s life. The movies of the 1980s started showing females as working women often using local transport as they went about their daily lives.

Films like Mirch Masala (1987) highlighted the pathos as women were exploited by males. The subedar in Mirch Masala is after Smita Patil, while the entire village stands as a mute spectator. Patil is saved by the women working in the masala factory. Domestic violence and rape are not new to society. The Zeenat Aman-starrer Insaaf ka Tarazu (1980) showed a rape victim and her struggle to seek justice. Nikaah (1982), the eighties block buster, brought to light the status of Muslim women and the issues of triple talaq and nikaah halala. It took a movie like Yeh Aag Kab Bujhegi (1991) by Sunil Dutt to address the issue of dowry and bride burning. The mid-80s saw more women join the work force and the joint family disintegrate faster. Children started going to crèches and play schools. In pretty middle class neighbourhoods it was a common sight to see play schools being run from homes. States like Uttarakhand saw the feminisation of labour and the van panchayat being managed mostly by women. Even in the canning industry in Kerala, unmarried women still form bulk of the work force. They live in cramped quarters and save enough money to get married. Though women have entered the public space, patriarchy still rules and the wish for a son is perpetual. The Pooja Bhatt-starrer Tammana (1998) dealt with the issue of a girl child abandoned near a garbage bin. Victimisation, rapes, stalking, and molestations are being reported every day. Women now has the guts to call the women helpline to report violations and domestic violence. Being the so called weaker sex, the new woman still has to fight for her place and dignity in society.

Arth (1982) best represents the new woman. Shabana Azmi portrays the role of an abandoned wife who learns to live life on her own terms. She is assertive enough to reject her philandering husband played by Kulbushan Kharbanda and the overtures of Raj Kiran. Over the years, Indian cinema has shown women as stronger characters rather than mere showpieces only adept at running around trees. Sexuality is repressed and society is still regressive. Lipstick under my Burqa (2016) explored the topic of sexuality and the sexual abandon enjoyed by Aahana Kumra in the movie raised many hackles. Ratna Pathak and her exploration of her sexuality has been dealt with sensitivity in the movie. The movie also dealt with forced marital sex, while Pink (2016) drove home the message that no means no.

With the opening of the Indian economy and globalisation, many women have joined the work force. The corporate culture has opened up new avenues for women in call centres, banking, hospitality industry, tourism, event management, and image consultancy. The culture of consumption has been adopted by all. Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, and Priyanka Chopra with their middle class backgrounds are household names and role models for small town girls. Mofussil towns hold beauty pageants and girls have learnt to dream big. The Right to Education and Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan led to the opening of more schools. A free midday meal, uniform and books have seen an increase in the enrolment of girls in schools. English which was earlier the language of the elite has now been adopted as Hinglish. Knowledge of the Queen’s language is a sign of upward mobility and women are adopting it to go about their daily lives. Even a smattering of English goes a long way to surmount the challenges of everyday chores. Globalisation and liberalisation have changed the behavioural patterns of women. As more women entered the work force, spending behaviour also changed. The consumer culture and disposable incomes made women adept at consuming goods and products. Health supplements, Hershey chocolate sauce, pasta, etc. have made way into middle class households. Even the advertisements show the women in a different light. While in the 1980s Sangita Bijlani was the face for washing powder Nirma, she portrayed a housewife responsible for snow white washing .The new Nirma advertisement shows women rescuing an ambulance stuck in mud, while the men look on.

Marriage seems to be the centre of every woman’s existence. The role of arranged marriages is not to be undermined and it is a way of perpetuating the already existing feudal structural order. Earlier a maiden aunt took a girl of the family in hand and showed her around to prospective grooms and mothers-in-law. Now marriage professionals and matrimonial sites like do the job. Technology has further reinforced the already existing traditions and women are still expected to marry within socially set parameters. In newspapers, the ‘brides wanted’ columns always ask for fair, slim, decent, working girls. Quite a tall order! Honour killings still make headlines and run-away couples knock the doors of the courts more often than before.

Politically women still have a long way to go. Very few women enter the political arena and those who do happen to from the bahu-biwi-beti brigade of politicians. Political behaviour is limited only to casting of votes. The 73rd and 74th Amendments were enacted to ensure more active participation in democratic politics. Politics is still a male bastion. I encounter the new woman in Neelu who works as a cook in the locality. Originally from Madhya Pradesh, she is from the Munda tribe married in Odisha to an Oraon. A Christian by religion, she is proud of her Adivasi heritage. She has studied till the tenth grade and the couple relocated to Chandigarh, when her husband picked up the job of a security guard. Neelu’s children study in the local missionary schools. She is economically independent and keeps aside her meagre savings in the bank. The couple has LIC policies in the names of both their children, along with post office savings. Neelu is often seen cycling down the lane as she zips past while going to pick up her son from school or to the market for some household errands. She has got Copper T inserted and firmly asserts that two kids mean two. Very fond of wearing sleeveless kurtas, she is well groomed and makes a regular visit to the nearby beautician.

Today’s new woman is difficult to describe. One often wonders if she actually exists. The new woman may be a figment of one’s imagination. The new woman does exist. She is the confident, working girl next door, who is educated, impeccably groomed and takes the metro to work or drives herself to work. She is tech savvy and part of the #MeToo movement. But her gendered socialisation is so ingrained into her very being that she has learnt the art of silence and knows how to negotiate. The new woman is left looking for her identity and a way to assert herself. It is not necessary that the new woman is a super woman or a super mom juggling the home and a job. She is the normal everyday woman, who attends parent-teacher meetings, prepares breakfast and lunch and likes to catch her Ekta Kapoor serials. It is just that she is more visible now. Her insecurities are a part and parcel of her and she is still shy to talk about her bodily desires. She openly talks about good touch, bad touch with her children but silently gives in when the man will not take a no for an answer. She hides erotic literature under her pillow and reads it on the sly. When Vidya Balan can portray the role of Silk Smitha with élan and we have accepted Sunny Leone, a porn star in our cinematic viewing, we can conclude that the new woman has come a long way. Women continue to be objectified as they renegotiate their identities while being caught between modern values, independence, and redundant traditions.

Photo: Priyanka Chatterjee

Amarinder Gill
is an academician employed with the Education Department, Chandigarh. She holds a doctorate from the Department of Sociology, Punjab University. Her areas of interest are Gender Studies and Rural Sociology.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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