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Critiquing Sexuality: Tracing the Changing Sensuality of the Popular Hindi Film Heroine (1950s-2000s)

July 5, 2012 | By

The late 1960s in turn saw a gradual lapse in vigilance, as Hindi film heroine became bolder, stirring up controversies, as well as the ‘male gaze’.

Hindi cinema has been on a roller coaster journey for 100 years now and many have come and gone whose imprints on our minds are indelible. Women in Hindi cinema have always been a source of captivation, not so much for their personalities as for their beauty, their projection as the hero’s object of romance and the possibilities that their presence provides for the lavish song and dance sequences with which Bollywood is identified far and wide.

Who can forget Madhubala’s naughty flouncing of skirts to the sensuous yet charming tunes of ‘Aaiyye Meharbaan’ (Howrah Bridge; 1958) or Nargis’ incandescent elegance in a bathing suit in Awaara (1951), the first on Indian screens to have donned one?

Madhubala in Aaiye Meharbaan (Howrah Bridge, 1958)

However, the point to be noted here is that whereas back in the 1950s these women displayed the courage to take on critics by their bold attire (bold at the time and even today), the 1960s was largely a decade that saw a relegation of the heroine’s ‘boldness’ to the so-called ‘vamp’ who was deliberately portrayed as a provocative seductress making herself desirable to men, thereby highlighting all the negative shades that were markedly absent in the doll-like heroine. The latter was everything that the vamp wasn’t and nothing that she was.

Within mainly hero-oriented films the heroine(s) was commonly found immaculately and heavily draped in an array of chiffon sarees, with hairstyles ranging from a bun, a bouffant or a braid, unlike the cropped hair that Nargis had sported in Andaz (1949).

In fact Ashok Row Kavi considers Shammi Kapoor’s heroines to be “mere appendages to this high drama of the eroticization of the male”, not nearly suitable enough to engage the hero in an acceptable heterosexual relationship (Kavi 2009: 309) [1].

However, filmmakers of this time could not completely dispense with sexuality and their attempt to keep it separate from the heroine culminated in the successful career of the cabaret queen Helen, predecessor of modern day item girls. The hero’s rejection of the advances of the vamp inevitably upheld the power of traditional Indian moralities, —“the traditional Indian good woman versus the Westernised vamp” (Bhattacharya Mehta, Pandharipande 2010: 8) [2] being a binary that took the audiences by storm throughout the 1960s and a major portion of the ‘70s.

The irony to be noted here is that while conscious efforts were made to set up the vamp as a temptress paralyzing the goodness of the society, it was this very object of potential sexual connotations that left the audience paralyzed with excitement, thereby serving profitably in the commercial context of the film.

As an answer to the hypocrisy surrounding the vamp’s presence in the films, the late 1960s in turn saw a gradual lapse in vigilance, as heroines became bolder, stirring up controversies, as well as the ‘male gaze’.

The period saw the emergence of sex sirens like Zeenat Aman, Dimple Kapadia, Rekha (who managed to take the glamour quotient several notches up in fully covered nautch girl costumes), Parveen Babi and Sharmila Tagore, the last mentioned having sizzled the Indian screens in An Evening in Paris (1967) with a two-piece bikini, thereby setting the trend for others to follow into her footsteps.

Sharmila Tagore in Aasman Se Aaya Farishta  (An Evening In Paris, 1967)

Following on the heels of the ‘60s and ‘70s heroines were actresses who took it upon themselves to transform the image of the heroine from saree-clad Indianised virtuosity to a more sensational, sensual, vivacious and thoroughly commodified yet potentially more vibrant and intelligent object within the film, that replaced the need for a separate sexualized ‘vamp’.

Thus the vamp who “anticipated the coming freedom” is now conveniently experiencing it, under a different garb. In fact the blurring of the vamp and the virgin has indeed been noted in by Govindan and Dutta (2008:191) [3] and Geetanjali Gangoli ( 2005:153) [4].

Now, one may deign to wonder why is it that the 1960s saw a sharp decline in the heroine’s sensual personality. It is possible to analyse the virtual disappearance of the question of the leading lady’s sexuality from Hindi cinema in the 1960s as a slightly late reaction to the nationalistic fervour that gripped the makers and producers of Hindi films, alongside the rest of Indian society in post-independent India, the period of time having coincided with Nehruvian socialism.

Zeenat Aman in Hum tumhe chahte hain aise (Qurbani, 1980)

Whereas in the 1950s commercial actor-directors like Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt proceeded to make films that provided them the scope of an enthusiastic admixture of populist tactics as well as social commentary; the 1960s was an era that saw filmmakers take up the responsibility of driving home sharply into the audience’s minds what was and what should be ‘Indian’, as opposed to what was and what should be ‘Western’.

The leading lady at this time became a tool of nation-building for the cultural imagination, a repository of the ‘East’ symbolizing all that was ‘Indian’, the main indicators of her ‘Indianness’ being her costumes and her sacrificial nature.

Partha Chatterjee states that she was represented not only as the hero’s love-interest, but also as the ‘Mother’ (as synonymous with ‘Nation’), and the Goddess (representing Indian affinity towards the Mother Goddess), and hence had naturally to be ‘de-sexualised’. The heroine now was counterpoised as ‘normal’ against the ‘abnormality’ of those, in this case the Westernised vamp, who could be ‘sex-objects’ ( 1989: 233-53) [5].

While feminism in India had its roots way back in the mid-nineteenth century, the 1970s saw the rapid rise of liberal feminist thoughts in the West, which are believed to have had ample influence on Indian feminism at the time. The return of the heroine’s eroticism in Hindi commercial cinema maybe assigned to the growing popular discourses about ‘liberal’ dressing and lifestyle of the woman.

Moving on, the 1980s Hindi films were dominated by actresses like Sri Devi and Meenakshi Sheshadri. The heroine now was more of an unsuccessful hybrid, attempting to embrace the sensual image on the one hand, unlike most heroines of the 1960s, and on the other hand, unlike Zeenat Aman or Sharmila Tagore, lacking the vibrant sensuality.

Sri Devi in I Love You (Mr. India, 1987)


From the late 1980s and post 1990s, Bollywood underwent a noticeable change in the portrayal of the heroine, with the entrance into the industry of women like Madhuri Dixit, to be followed later by Karisma Kapoor, Urmila Matondkar and in more recent times Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif or Deepika Padukone.

The unfettered sexual freedom expressed by these ladies onscreen maybe seen as a by-product of the post-liberalization era in the Indian context, when Indian markets were for the first time opened its doors to the world market, and India officially entered the bewildering age of Globalization.

Deepika Padukone in Ang laga de (Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, 2013)

With the Indian diaspora approximately estimated at 23 million, spread virtually across the globe and still growing, Hindi film producers now decided to lure this ever-expanding diasporic audience with storylines they assumed would suit their tastes.

Thus liberalization, the perceived possibility of a massive increase in revenue from the diasporic audiences as well as Indian society’s discernible shift from a socialist towards a capitalist ideology set the trend for an entire new gamut of films that focused on a Western style of life (even when protagonists were not NRIs), skillfully combining with it Indian values of love and family, yet affording the heroine the possibility of dressing up in Western attire, asserting herself as a sexual being and still remaining ‘Indian’ at heart. The vamp had by and large made her exit from the narrative by then, and it was the heroine who for all intents and purposes was to be the source of pleasure, both physical and emotional.

The trend of westernizing the heroine and erasing the lines that separated the heroine from that erotic being — the ‘vamp’, has continued with vehemence into the 21st century. But while the Hindi film heroine is no longer dumb as such, she continues to be and in fact appears more than ever as a commodity today, a primary objective of which is selling sex. This, however, would constitute the subject of discussion of a different article altogether.



[1]Kavi, Ashok Row. ‘The Changing Image of the Hero in Hindi Films’, Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade, (ed.) Andrew Grossman. Harrington Press, New York, 2000. Co-published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 39, Issues 3-4. Haworth Press, USA, 2000.

[2]Bhattacharya Mehta, Rini. Pandharipande, Rajeshwari. Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation and Diaspora. Anthem Press, an imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company, 2010.

[3]Govindan, Padma. Dutta, Bisakha. ‘From Villain to Traditional Housewife! The Politics of Globalization and Women’s Sexuality in ‘New’ Indian Media,’ Global Bollywood, (eds.) Kavoori, Punathambekar. New York Press, 2008.

[4]Gangoli, Geetanjali. ‘Sexuality, Sensuality and Belonging: Representations of the ‘Anglo-Indian’ and the ‘Western’ Woman in Hindi Cinema’, Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens, (eds.) Kaur, Sinha. Sage Publications, 2005.

[5]Chatterjee, Partha. ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question,’ Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, (eds.) Sangari, Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.

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Surangama Guha has graduated with Honours in Sociology from Presidency College, Kolkata. She then went on to obtain a Masters degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University. She has been briefly associated as an intern with The Hindustan Times. Her desire is to conduct research work that would help integrate a sociological outlook within the field of Cinema Studies in India.
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